It’s not every day you get to check off a bucket list item. In particular, when the item is to go dog sledding in the Yukon Territory with your oldest daughter! A father-daughter duo with crossover interests; mine being the Yukon Territory, and my daughters being all things wolves, huskies, and dog sledding related. And so, time and opportunity presented itself, and we took advantage of the presentation.
A check list on the bucket list. Check.
It’s hard for me to remember a time when I was not passionate about the Yukon Territory, the mountains, the Yukon River, the Klondike Goldrush, the Chilkoot Trail, Lake Lebarge, Whitehorse, Dawson City, the Alaskan Highway, and all things north, goldrush, and snow related. My original copy of The Collected Poems of Robert Service has a handwritten date stating 1965, the year I was born. It was a gift from my mother to my father.
My memorization, and often ill-timed, random, and impromptu recitations of The Cremation of Sam McGee are legendary in my own mind, and perhaps in the minds of a few close friends, although probably for different reasons then my own.
For my oldest daughter Emilee, there has never been a time when she has not been driven and consumed by her passion for puppies, wolves, sled dogs, and dogs in general. Her first word was not Mommy or Daddy, but rather was Annie – our Yellow Labrador – at the time of her birth. Her first formal letter written, when she was around 9 years old, was to admonish the governors of the few north central states that have dabbled with reinstituting the wolf hunt for purposes of managing competing needs and priorities of ranchers, national park officials, and overall ecosystems.
Her favorite books growing up, and still to this day, include Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and White Fang. And how will I ever forget the time I took Emilee to American Girl in Chicago. A proud father, with a generous spirit, I told Emilee to get whatever she wanted from the very well-stocked and strategically laid-out retail doll store. After an hour and a half of looking through the store’s entirety, we left with only a small package, a package that contained a tiny stuffed husky dog with an attachment that resembled an original First Nations’ dog sled. On the way back to the hotel, Emilee continued to check in with me to ensure she had not hurt my feelings by passing on the bitty baby or the look alike doll and matching outfits. I was fine, as was my American Express card.
And so, we were both very excited as we met in Toronto this past month, having travelled from work and school respectively, to travel again, this time together, to Vancouver and then on to Whitehorse, Yukon for our bucket list week. And what a week it was!
Flying into Whitehorse set the stage for the week. The airport is the perfect-sized airport for a convenient hometown feel, and even though Spring is around the corner, the snow banks were of ideal size for an appropriate winter feel, and the blue sky seemed endless other than being interrupted by the bright yellow sun and the mountains in the never-ending background.
Upon checking into the Whitehorse Gold Rush Inn for our first night before heading to the ranch, we were not surprised to be greeted in the log cabin-style lobby by a large stuffed figurine RCMP Mounty in full dress, with the police officer being accompanied by a huge taxidermized moose head. As I was checking in, I looked over at Emilee and we simply smiled a smile that spoke a thousand words. We had arrived! On the way to our room, we poked our head into the hotel restaurant/saloon – Poutine on the menu, hockey, and curling on the televisions.
“I love Canada,” Emilee whispered to me.
The following morning, we were picked up at the hotel and chauffeured to our new home for the next four days – The Sky High Wilderness Ranch. Twenty kilometers outside of Whitehorse, The Sky High Wilderness Ranch sits on a beautiful piece of land that borders the shores of Fish Lake. The ranch is off the grid – no power, no running water, no Wi Fi, no cellular. Perfect! Emilee and I shared a small log cabin with a set of bunkbeds, a sink that drained into a pail, and a woodstove that could keep the cabin at 45 degrees Celsius even though in was negative twenty outside. A pot of water sat fixed on the stove to offer hot water for washing, and act as a permanent humidifier. The pot was replenished daily with water from a five-gallon plastic can. The ranch had a couple of these cabins and a small main lodge that was used for meals and housing other guests. In total, we were a varied crew of maybe fifteen guests from all over the world, five guides who would take us under their wing, and a total of one-hundred and sixty-seven husky and husky-mix sled dogs.
Our four days of dog sledding were spectacular. We each had our own sled, and bonded with the four dogs we were assigned to for our stay. We learned all things dog sledding – lead dogs, wheel dogs, harnessing, sled brakes, hang-on at all costs, and don’t let the dogs get tangled. Each day seemed more spectacular than the last as the spring initiated blue sky and the sun warmed our faces, and the very bulky parkas and snow pants provided insulation to trap our natural heat and keep our bodies warm in the still winter temperatures. Breakfast and dinner were a team sport with each guest helping in the kitchen. For a breakfast treat on the last morning, I recited The Cremation of Sam McGee for the European guests. I’m thinking they enjoyed it. I know I did. Sometimes I just can’t help myself. One of our guides, a great guy named Paul, told me it was memorable. Paul would know too. He is from north of Yellowknife and told me that he comes south to Whitehorse, Yukon during the winter to get out of the cold. So much for needing Florida.
Lunch each day was on the trail, surrounding a small campfire with the dogs using the time to have a well-earned rest. And while the days were amazing, the nights were equally fantastic. Even though we did not get to see a full show of the Northern Lights, we certainly did enjoy looking up to the clear, bright, and star-filled northern sky. The stars danced and twinkled as if they were truly diamonds in the sky.
Let’s face it, cold northern nights are in a league of their own. It’s pretty hard to look down when the nighttime northern canopy is up above.
Emilee and I were both sincerely and infinitely sad when our departure day rolled around and we had to say goodbye to the ranch, our new friends, and most importantly, the dogs. In the end, I had to pull Emilee away from the dogs – in particular, her lead dog, Hurricane. Hurricane, at one point in his career, mushed the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest in the same year. Two one-thousand-mile races back to back. Hurricane is the real deal. Yes, I had to literally tell Emilee the ride back to Whitehorse was waiting for us. “I just love Canada,” Emilee whispered as we watched the ranch fade into the rearview mirror.
Landing back at the Whitehorse Gold Rush Inn, we woke up the next morning with things to do. Explore Whitehorse, a little souvenir shopping, lunch at Tim Hortons, and an interview with Dave White at CBC Radio Whitehorse. Emilee was not surprised when Dave White came out to greet us wearing a Winnipeg Jets hockey jersey. “I just love Canada,” she whispered to me.
I loved the CBC radio interview. The purpose was to talk about Drift and Hum and the upcoming reading that was scheduled for that evening at 7PM at the Whitehorse Library. In addition to talking about Drift and Hum, which is too easy for me to do, I enjoyed the studio and sound booth. Radio is cool, radio is universal, radio will never go away.
Evening rolled around and we walked the main street of Whitehorse and then followed the banks of the Yukon River for a nice, brisk, cold refreshing stroll to the Whitehorse Library. Seven o’clock rolled around and I got to do my first Drift and Hum reading – just me, Emilee, the book, and five very nice people who came to hear about the adventures of the Beaver Brothers. Three of the five audience members were family of a close of friend mine from Timmins, my boyhood northern Ontario town. The meet and visit with my new friends resulted in an invite to their home for dinner the next night. A dinner that could not be beat. Thanks so much to Ken, May Lynn, and their amazing son, Jonathan. As well, a big thanks to Nora at the Whitehorse Library. It was great to read from Drift and Hum and recite the tale of the boys on their Yukon quest and their writing of the poem, A Day Well Spent, a poem written by the Beaver Brothers on the shores of Lake Lebarge.
Speaking of Lake Lebarge, on our last day in Whitehorse, we spent the day in fresh powder surrounded by the mysteries of Sam McGee’s final warm place. A guided day on the sled, Emilee’s first time at the throttle of a Canadian made ski doo, guided by a very personable and interesting German named, Thomas. Unsolicited, while around our lunch campfire overlooking Lake Lebarge, he volunteered his advice to us. “Career and money aren’t everything,” he offered, “and the trick is to figure that out as early as you can.”
Hmm, I thought to myself as I stared out across my lake and imagined a derelict called The Alice May moored down below on the frozen shore.
Well, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end, and so did our time in Whitehorse. An early morning flight on Friday morning, on Air North – Yukon’s airline – took us back to Vancouver where we spent the weekend. We walked Vancouver and enjoyed all the beauty of the city. Friday night, we took in the Vancouver Canucks’ hockey game. “I just love Canada,” Emilee whispered to me as the Canucks got scored on again and a devoted Canucks’ fan behind us complained by exclaiming, “What a shit show!”
Saturday was more spectacular sites, lunch, and a long-time coming visit with a childhood friend from Timmins who has been in Vancouver for over thirty years. A big thanks to Steve for the hospitability.
And, with time stopping for no person, with figurative and literal tears in our eyes, Emilee and I said our goodbyes at the Vancouver airport early Sunday morning. Me taking a flight path through Chicago to Charleston and her heading back to Boston via Toronto. “Thanks, Dad. I love Canada,” are the words I remember her whispering to me as we separated towards different departure terminals of the airport.
It was a bucket list checkmark. A remarkable trip. Every minute of it. Time with Emilee, time in the Yukon, time with the dogs, time looking up at the blue sky and the brilliant sun… sky and sun facilitating a transition from winter to spring.
And time looking up at the pitch-black sky, a sky deep-dark black while also lit by a natural array of twinkling stars, each star playing a role in some cosmic, endless journey of hope, optimism, and wonder.
The sun and blue sky by day, and the dark and brilliant nighttime sky by night, rendering it impossible for any caring person to look down.
Time take time, friends. Take time to enjoy the spring and the life that it brings to us, and take time to look up into the night. Into the stars. Into the wonder of hope and dreams.
Take time, friends. Take time to Drift and Hum.