Canadians are shaped by a “vast and brooding wilderness … the loon’s lonely call.” – Pierre Berton, Klondike.
Untamed places, says Pierre Berton, convey peacefulness, and … “a shiver of awe and loneliness.”
I’m feeling that as I peer out the window of a 727 approaching Whitehorse, a thumb print in stark contrast to a vast landscape of trees, lakes, and the Yukon River.
Still, I needed a nudge to make this trip.
“It’s on your bucket list,” the wife said, reminding me that old men with unexplored dreams are difficult to have around the house.
The Yukon is a place of contrasts – days drag on, strange lights crackle. The terminal – two rooms – is tiny for a city of 29,000.
Yet, Whistle Bend – street lamps, paved roads, two cars in every driveway – is a new subdivision that could be in Surrey.
Downtown, Starbucks patrons sip lattes on a sunny patio. I’ll have an $18 hamburger at Earl’s, and tour the S.S. Klondike, a wood burning paddle wheeler that, in 1900, was packed with cattle headed for Dawson City restaurants, while – above deck – formally dressed couples dined under electric lights.
In two days, I’d count RVs in a Walmart parking lot, where dog teams finished the annual Yukon Quest – a grueling 1,600 kilometre dog sled race from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse.
I’m greeted by Manuela Larsen, my host at Muktuk Adventure Lodge, the place “that loves dogs.” The word – Inuktituk for whale blubber – denotes the diet of northern huskies, she says, chosen by Muktuk’s founder, Frank Turner, a social worker from Toronto who finished the race 17 times, and won it in 1995.
I wanted to meet him.
Manuela, a carpenter in Germany, was “looking for something different from life. I thought I had a job in Whitehorse, but it wasn’t here. Luckily, Frank needed someone. I love the lifestyle.”
Muktuk’s a half hour to Husky Trail, a dirt road with signs declaring “happiness is a good lead dog.”
Staff include Pascal, 26, from Switzerland, and volunteers Chrissy and Lea, who were feeding and watering dogs – 137 of them – when we arrived.
Everyone is busy here. Manuela books guests, does housekeeping and prepares meals. The smell of fresh cinnamon and honey in baked granola got me out of bed for her German-style breakfast, including yogurt, new bread, sliced meats and cheeses, fruit, and coffee.
How Manuela found time to train for the Quest is beyond me.
“It’s a big commitment,” she says. “You have to complete 500 miles of practice and prove you can look after yourself and your dogs. But two weeks before the race, I frosted my toes and had to drop out.”
Jeff, Manuela’s husband, is a kayak instructor who’s worked on Vancouver Island. He’s busy until late evening, but found time for fishing trips to Scout Lake, where we caught kokanee.
At Little Atlin Lake, a hour south on the Alaska Hwy., we played feisty three-pound whitefish in clear green water. I’d cook the fish on a deck barbecue as I sipped wine and hung out with dogs Curry, David, and Sash.
Adventure, and larger-than-life characters, like fictional Sam McGee – cremated on a barge on Lake Lebarge – have attracted thousands here.
So, too, has the prospect of a new life in untamed spaces, something that will continue even as fewer chinook salmon return to rivers here each year, according to CBC Whitehorse.
At breakfast, Hans, another German, told me it was Karl May’s novels for boys about the American west that captured his imagination.
“When I told my dad I was going to the Yukon he cried,” Hans said, “because it was his dream too.”
Turner was enthralled by the 1950s TV series Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, and his courageous dog, King, who tracked down claim jumpers. Pascal broke out of a dark workroom for computer specialists.
“I want to stay here,” says the young man who knows every dog’s name, and meticulously keeps their medical records for a vet that comes monthly.
“I’m taking the girls – volunteers Chrissy and Lea – to Braeburn, Jack,” Pascal announces, “for a cinnamon bun. Want to come for the ride?”
Braeburn, an hour up the Klondike Hwy, is a truck stop and check point on the Quest.
“We’ll stop at L. Lebarge on the way back,” promises Pascal, “so you can say you’ve seen it.”
The buns and hamburgers are the size of lemon meringue pies, and not consumable by any of us at in one sitting. I’ll store half of mine in Muktuk’s fridge when we get back.
Muktuk accommodates bus tours from Whitehorse. They come for lunch, to visit the dogs, and hear Turner or Jeff talk about preparing for the Quest, and the “mushers” special relationship with his dogs.
On Thursday, a group arrives.
“Where you from?” Frank asks.
He’s invited me to visit and chat tomorrow.
“Donald Trump fan?”
A husky cozies up to Frank. It’s Justin, who Manuela says “loves everyone.”
Frank leads the group to his presentation area, then stops.
“Let’s see if the dogs will give us the Muktuk Welcome first.”
He lets out a slow, long wolf howl. One dog echoes the call, then three, finally 137 together.
“He’s talking to them,” exclaims the New Yorker.
Frank stoops to get cheek to cheek with Justin, who seems to relish the moment.
“I can do without the barking,” says Frank. “It’s the relationship that counts. That’s the magic.”