So I am a bit behind in getting this post up, but our first day at Squirrel Camp we got to assist with a dog sled race that was running right along the Alaska Highway, past camp. What a life! Here are the happenings from that day.
March 2, 2014
Today we drove down to Bear Creek Lodge for the second half of the Silver Sled Dog Race. The first half was happening as we were making our way from Watson Lake and the infamous Dragon’s Den to camp. The Silver Sled is a 100 mile course that starts in Haines Junction, following sections of the pipeline and old back roads (Old Alaska Highway) through the foothills of the Kluane Ranges, until reaching the shores of Kluane Lake in Silver City (and old abandoned mining camp) at the Kluane Lake Research Station for an overnight stay. On the second day the teams run from Silver City back to Haines Junction and finally double back to Bear Creek Lodge.
From the road Bear Creek Lodge is barely noteworthy- chipped blue paint coats the exterior and fits the very rustic, or perhaps more accurately, beat down, style of most small Yukon businesses. Today it had a cheery feel to it and the smells of home-cooked food greeted us from the doorway. But I’ll admit that I have driven by it many times on the way to camp without giving it more than a cursory glance- passing it off as another run-down building along the side of the road.
The four of us, Shannon, Hannes, Lisa, and I, were placed on Bear Creek Hill as volunteers. Our primary job was to make sure the dogs ran the correct direction, a deceivingly simple task, given the fact that you would typically think that the dogs would run the correct direction simply with the guidance of the musher. But this year the snow is scarce enough that the tracks are not always clear for the teams to follow. In fact, the snow is so scarce in some places that volunteers have had to transport snow from elsewhere to cover bare patches in the trail. I always imagined, regardless, that mushers would have more control over their teams, but after witnessing 8-12 dogs get tangled in their lead lines after wanting to go different directions I can see why small changes in direction might be a little difficult from the back of a sled. Fortunately I had only one instance where I had to grab the lead dog’s harness and help direct the team back onto the trail. It is amazingly complicated business trying to figure out where to grab the dogs in a tangled mess of lines while on the run and move them quickly back onto the trail so that the musher doesn’t lose any more time than is necessary. All the while the dogs are just panting and lolling their tongues at you, loving the mini-break. I’m pretty sure they went the wrong direction on purpose.
The hill that we were placed on to help direct traffic also became an ideal “rest stop” for the dogs, who, in a very amusing fashion had to “pee on the run”. The result was a strange squatting, hopping, motion as the dogs tried to tinkle and keep up with the team at the same time. The hill might have been a good location for a pee break because the team was going quite a bit slower than normal, or perhaps the teams were just smelling all the dogs that had peed there before. The pee line did seem to get longer as the day wore on.
The day was beautiful- sunny and bright, and quite warm, thankfully, as the job required a lot of standing around. We met a Yukoner and dog musher named Didier who, I think, was originally from France. He told us that he had a few dogs in the race in different teams and, as he explained it, mushers will often borrow dogs from those who are not racing- at least here in this small Yukon community. Although one of the issues is that when a dog sees its handler it will sometimes stop running for musher whose sled it is currently supposed to be pulling!
After the teams came past Bear Creek Lodge and up the hill they continued on to Haines Junction where they made a loop and came back to Bear Creek Lodge. So part way through the day we quickly had to switch around all the barricades so the teams now ran the correct way down the hill and through the finish line. Luckily the downhill portion was a little more straightforward for the dogs who were at full speed by the time they came cruising down that last hill, the finish line in their sights. The race lasted until about 4 pm and by that time we were all tired and hungry and starting to get a bit cold as the sun dipped lower in the horizon. We were all quite elated to see the last team cross the finish line.
Afterward we went down to Bear Creek Lodge for a pasta dinner with all the mushers and volunteers. Inside, Bear Creek was a wonderful homey lodge with rough-hewn tables and linen table clothes set with pitchers of water. It felt as though we might have stepped back 100 years in time. The Yukoners there were clearly a close-knit and genial community. There is a distinct look to the Yukon folk, tangled and windblown hair among the women and thick furry beards among most men. Of course the fact that we were all bundled in heavy boots, snow-pants, and warm hats and that our cheeks were ruddy with the sun and wind from being outside all day helped the image as well. We probably passed as good Yukoners ourselves. It is so easy to get isolated at Squirrel Camp with just the 8 of us cut off from the rest of civilization, so it was nice to be out in the community and it would be nice for the community to get to know squirrel folk more. They all generally seemed to know what we were (that is, Squirrel Camp folk) just not who we were.
We had spaghetti, garlic bread and Caesar salad with a variety of cookies and carrot cake to follow. After standing outside all day with no lunch I was ravenous and packed my plate to overflowing. By the time we left we were all stuffed. Lisa and Hannes had won prizes in the raffle that followed dinner, including a package of locally made sausage of some unknown game species. Hey, beggars can’t be choosers, and with no meat at camp this was a hot commodity. (We cooked up the sausages just last week and they tasted amazing. Still no idea what type of game it was but I wish I knew!). And, of course, low and behold we arrived in camp just in time for dinner! I felt terrible about not eating anything Sabrina had cooked so I forced down a bowl of soup- but that was all I could manage, even though homemade veggie burgers looked delicious. Tomorrow our first day of trapping and the real “work” begins. Squirrels look out!