North of 60 – Of Puppies and Living the Dream

Of Puppies and the Living the Dream

June 8-10th

Our tour of the Yukon in the RV could not have been any better – we had good weather, we saw incredible landscapes, we met some interesting people and we found great campsites. We had thoroughly enjoyed our little RV, feeling quite like turtles carrying their homes on their backs. A couple of times I forgot that we always had our home with us. Before starting the hike on the Sheep Creek Trail I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten my water bottle in the fridge. Then I had to laugh. We were still in the RV and I just had to reach into the fridge, put it in my back-pack and problem solved! Camping was absolutely the right decision. We did not feel any time pressures as we did not need to get, for example, to a specific hotel for the night. We were able to decide fairly spontaneously where we wanted to camp.

We would have liked to keep the RV longer, but it was not available, so with mixed emotions on Monday morning we returned the RV. There is a direct flight from Frankfurt to Whitehorse every Sunday and there was a large group of German-speaking people at the office picking up their RVs. We had gone to the airport and were now in possession of a Ford Fusion.

Driving into Whitehorse felt like we were coming back to a place we knew well. We stopped in at Baked Café to have a macchiato sitting at the tables on the sidewalk enjoying the morning sun. There is a laid back feeling in Whitehorse and the place grows on you. When you want to cross the street you simply step out off the sidewalk, the drivers have already seen you and have slowed down, and then they stop completely to let you cross the road. A novel experience for the capogita as in Italy the drivers literally race to get across the intersection before the pedestrians because if they actually stop to let a pedestrian cross the street then most certainly the parking space that they were going to find down the road will have been taken by someone else!

It was a perfect sunny day and so we decided to take the Millenium Trail along the Yukon River to the Salmon Ladder, one of the longest wooden ladders in the world. The fish ladder was put into service in June 1959 at the Whitehorse Dam. It allows salmon to pass the hydro-electric plant to reach their spawning ground. There is a window where the fish biologists count the salmon as they head to the spawning grounds. The progress of the salmon as they head inland from the Bering Sea is actually tracked. This day in early June the salmon have just entered the mouth of the Yukon River and they are expected to arrive in Whitehorse by late July about a two month journey all up river.

In the afternoon we headed out to the Takhini River Lodge about 30 km north of Whitehorse where we would spend the last three days of our stay in the Yukon. We turned off the highway and onto a good gravel road.   As we drove along we saw a few houses but they were well hidden behind the thick stands of trees. Then we hit a patch of permafrost damage. There was a muddy upheaval of the road bed probably about 12 to 18 inches deep that spread across the whole road. It was hard to know where to go to cross the patch. On the other side the road was good for a bit and then again another muddy up heaval of the road bed and the car rocked back and forth as we slowly negotiated the ruts to get to the other side. Finally we saw a small Takhini Lodge sign and a narrow gravel road. The capogita gave me this look and I knew instantly the message he was sending me – what were you thinking when you picked this place to stay?!?!

Then we saw a large reddish building across a big open field. When we pulled up to the house, Christiane the owner was there to greet us. We entered the mud room, took our shoes off and put on the Crocs that Christiane had ready for us.   Then we went through the door into the lodge and the capogita’s jaw literally dropped. The large open main floor space was even nicer than the pictures I had seen on the internet. It was a two-story, airy space with floor to ceiling windows that looked out on the green pasture and the green rolling hills beyond. We were the only guests that night and so had all this marvelous space to ourselves.

The Trappeur room has warm pine furniture and a spa like bathroom complete with slippers and thick white terry robes.   We had a beer on the large deck and just soaked in the peace and quiet.

Dinner was at 7:00.   We thoroughly enjoyed Christina’s cooking – planned to use local ingredients and beautifully presented. Luxury in a wilderness setting does not describe it accurately.

From every window all you see is the big blue sky, the white clouds drifting by, and the layered greenery of the short aspen bushes surrounding the pasture, the darker green of the pines on the surrounding hills and in the distance the snow streaking the higher levels of the hills. The field is used in the summer by a neighbor to pasture horses and is full of gophers. You see them come out of their burrows, stand up on their hind legs, sniff the air, scan the terrain and then madly dash off.

The next morning we spent some time with Jean Marc who provided us with a very knowledge and interesting explanation of the technical aspects of dog sledding. But the best part was to see how passionate he was about his dogs. The mutual trust, respect and attachment between him and his dogs was clear from the very start. The dogs were all out on top of their little houses. The area was perfectly clean and tidy. It is as if the dogs knew there were visitors coming and they were so happy to meet us.

Jean Marc has 26 dogs. Two of the dogs are now retired. He said that the dogs are always eager and excited to get into their harnesses for a run. But one day these two dogs decided not to get into their harnesses and just went back into their houses . So he knew that they no longer wanted to race.

One of the dogs – Blue had six puppies. It was obvious how happy and proud she was to be a mother. She was a good mother, licking the puppies bellies after they ate to help them digest. She had a difficult birthing, 3 of the 6 puppies had to be delivered by Caesarian and so she can no longer have puppies. Jean Marc has already selected one of her daughters who is now three years old to continue breeding.

According to Jean Marc there are five things a dog needs to be happy:

  1. Food
  2. Shelter
  3. Human companionship
  4. Other dogs
  5. Exercise

If even one is missing the dog is miserable and misbehaved. These dogs all seemed perfectly happy.

He also explained how he loads his sled, a remarkably light sled, and how he has different plastic runners that he uses depending on the conditions of the snow, much like how skiers have to assess the temperature, humidity etc of the snow. There are certain things that the race rules say that he must carry on the sled, for example an axe, snowshoes, a fire starting kit. He has to carry the food for the dogs, and a big metal pail which he fills with snow and then heats up the dogs food. He also has a thermometer in the sled because he says that after a certain amount of time out in snow you cannot tell what temperature it is any more. When it gets to -25C for example he puts “slippers” on his dogs to protect them from the ice. What he is not allowed to carry during a race is any form of communications with the outside world. A group of mushers get together in the fall and bring in a truckload of food for all the dogs . It costs about $10,000 year to feed the dogs.

I was surprised at how friendly the dogs were. Blue came right up to me and licked my face. The puppies were of course beyond cute. But at 4 weeks old he was already training them for their racing lives. He put their food out in different spots every day because when they are in a race they need to  eat and in an environment different from what they are used to every day.

The dogs are actually on vacation during the summer and they start training again in the fall slowly and building up to pulling an all wheel terrain vehicle. They are so strong that he has to use the brakes too keep them from running too quickly. Each of the dogs has a role to play on the team and they choose their own role. Some of the dogs are natural leaders. Others stay close to him at the back but he says these are his strongest and smartest dogs because they are in the position where they have to use their strength and initiative to keep the sled from turning upside down on the curves. He also says that a lot of the dogs have far different behaviours during the race than in the kennel. One of the dogs was all play in the kennel and you would not think that he was disciplined enough to race but in fact he was one of the most reliant and serious dogs during a race.

The last night we were there, a couple from New York City arrived. They had been on the road since April and were headed to Alaska – on their motorcycles a Harley Davidson for her and a BMW for him!  We had a really enjoyable chat with them over dinner. A few summers ago they had driven around Italy including through the Dolomites all on the motorcycles. It turns out that her grandparents came from Naples to New York in the early 1900’s and settled in Little Italy!

Christiane and Jean Marc are originally from France. Their hospitality was warm and gracious. The lodge and the setting were beautiful. It all made me think of that movie – If I build it they will come. They had this dream of living in the Yukon and they made that dream come true in the true spirit of pioneers in the Yukon. The stay at Takhini River Lodge was another one of those great surprises of the Yukon trip and what a fabulous ending to our North of 60 Trip!


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