The Fortymile

Friday, February 10, 2017

Leaving Dawson is a foggy, strange feeling. You’ve been sleeping in a bed, ordering food off a menu at restaurants, letting your handlers take care of your dogs, and now it’s time to head over to the campground and pack up for…550 MORE MILES??? Really?

The fog begins to wear off once all the dogs are bootied and that one cheerleader in your team starts the impatient whine. It catches on in the rest of the team and soon everyone is yipping and barking, lunging forward into their harnesses. You start believing you can do this, envisioning the trail before you and then stepping onto the runners and waiting for the race official to count down to your official leave time. You are focused and facing forward, gazing over the backs of your dogs, resettling instantly into the scrutinizing stare of a trail-hardened musher who has just run half a thousand miles straight. Suddenly the trail isn’t so daunting anymore. Instead you’re just returning to that familiar place, that familiar stance on the runners, the handlebars feeling like an outgrowth of your own body. 

The first stretch down the Yukon is beautiful, with big, towering bluffs jutting out from bends in the river. When darkness falls, the Yukon becomes less of a concrete geological feature and more a gut-dropping feeling of cold and distance. Like calling out into an enormous, frozen echo chamber, but never hearing your voice come back. You click your headlamp up to its highest power and turn your head, but the light never lands on anything.

After forty miles the trail makes a western turn into the mouth of the Fortymile River. Immediately the world becomes more finite as the high, narrow walls twist and turn ahead of your team. Towering trees and angulated rocks are caked with snow, and the tracks of wild animals perforate the riverbank. You are overcome with the feeling that civilization is far, far behind you. The river ice tilts down into swirling roils of dark water and you keep one foot on the high-side runner and one foot on the trail to prevent your sled from sliding down into it. You go under a squat bridge not high above the river ice and soon you see a flashing light, signaling you have arrived at Earl and Sandy’s place on Clinton Creek. (In 2015 when I ran the Yukon Quest, the light said “Live Nudes” and had a gyrating, neon dancer. Later, when I asked why Ryne didn’t stop there and instead chose to camp within ten miles of the cabin, she said she thought she was hallucinating when she saw the nude dancer sign and didn’t realize it was a hospitality stop!)

You gee your team up a steep embankment and they come to a rest between a 20 foot-tall log cache and a sprawling trapper-style log cabin. You bed down your dogs in the straw, grab your empty metal cookpot and walk to the front door. You are greeted by Earl and his magnificent beard, or by Sandy and her heartwarming smile. The smell of homemade moose stew, homemade sourdough bread, homemade cheesecake – these things combined with the warmth radiating from the giant woodstove in the center of the house make you swoon while your stomach growls and grumbles about a gnawing hunger. But you turn away from it with hot water in your pot and head back out into the cold for another hour to take care of your dogs. While the frozen meat thaws out, you tend to every dog on the line, massaging shoulders and wrists and paws while the dogs close their eyes, their muscles loosening beneath your hands. Once they are fed and happy, you face the beautiful log cabin again, walk inside, take off your gloves and rip the hat out of your frozen hair to hang above the piping hot stove. A heaping plate of food is shoved into your hands and a futon is offered to you. You almost fall asleep in your dinner. It isn’t until you wake back up from your nap that you realize the beauty of your surroundings. 

Earl and Sandy’s place is a work of art. They brought down the giant trees and peeled them and dried them, stacked them and chiseled out the joints by hand. The logs are a foot thick at least, the ridge beam a real beauty. Northern art and animals adorn the walls. History lives at Earl and Sandy’s place, and not just in the architecture. Their stories; their weathered, beautiful faces; their sense of humor in the face of hardship all embody the spirit of the North that every Quest musher is chasing. 

Back out on the trail, the dogs warm into their gaits and begin sniffing the air. The river is quiet and sunlight filters through the boughs of giant spruce. The dogs begin to run faster and you detect movement on the periphery. You can’t tell if you’re making it up, but the dogs confirm that wolves are in the woods, running alongside you at the top of a high riverbank. They are playful and seem excited to welcome their cousins into this part of their world. You feel a rare sense of privilege, not only to witness the wolves dancing in the sun but also to be allowed a primordial sense of wildness yourself. With exception to the improvements in your gear – the material of your parka, the metal on your sled, the nylon of the dogs’ harnesses – you could be a traveler 100 years ago, driving your dogs down this same trail, enjoying the same hospitality, trailing the ancestors of these wolves. 

Suddenly, a sign in the distance. Trail markers glinting in the middle of the river. The quietest border between nations. Out in the wilderness you pass from Canada into Alaska and not a single person bears witness. It is a seamless transition and a meaningless one in the best sense. In the northern reaches of our two countries, it’s hard to differentiate one from the other. The same magic is in the air. 

Kristin Knight Pace is a veteran of the Yukon Quest and is the owner/operator of Hey Moose! Kennel along with her husband Andy Pace.