"The goal is to become the unique, awesome, never to be repeated human being that we were called to be." -Patricia Deegan

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Yukon Quest by Foot: The Back Story

Jan 14, 2017. In just under a week, I'll set out on a 1,000 mile* (1,600km) solo winter trek across subarctic North America. Though by definition it is an "event," it is my own. It is not a race. It is an event - an occurrence, a happening - in which I will attempt to hike the overland winter route from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, to Fairbanks, AK, USA, pulling a pulk with everything I need to survive.

It's not that green right now!
This route does have a race take place over it: the Yukon Quest (YQ) International Sled Dog Race. It's a race for mushers with their teams of sled dogs, who race every February for 9 to 12 days over the frozen earth, rivers, and lakes. The average temperature is -25C. One must be prepared to camp in -50C. Yes, really. My sleeping bag at last year's MYAU was rated at the extreme end (that means survival) to -40C and I was usually shivering within an hour. My sleeping bag this year, the Carinthia ECC 1200, promises comfort for a woman to -27C, comfort to a man curled up to -38C, and survival for a woman for 6 hours at -65C.

Although the YQ trail is roughly 1,000 miles and follows the same general route each year, it is "put in" each winter based on snow/ice/freeze conditions. Sections are sometimes rerouted for safety, depending on the conditions that year.

The traditional sled dogs

In February 2016, I raced the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra (MYAU). It follows 300 miles of the YQ trail out of Whitehorse (430 mile option in odd numbered years). I prepared vigilantly, researched carefully, and competed hard. I took over 24 hours off the female course record, finishing in under 5 1/2 days. I slept less than 8 hours in total. The sleep dep, hallucinations, -35C temperatures, canker sores, food repulsion, and foot neuropathy were agonising. They were met by beauty, solitude, quiet, serenity, and a deep feeling of connection to wilderness. I wanted to go back, to see more, and to savour more. But the competitor in me wasn't going to enjoy MYAU's 430 mile without going hard. Really hard. For the fastest time possible. I would sacrifice my savouring goal. I wouldn't get any video footage for memories. I'd be left with a few photos wherein I would probably look a lot like I did in MYAU 2016.

The human sled dog, enroute to Pelly Crossing, MYAU 2016. Quite sleep deprived, but still loving where I am.
I knew of an option, but was afraid at first to admit it. To myself or others. It was equal parts exciting and terrifying. And even in my need to savour this incredible extreme winter wilderness experience, I needed to figure out how to fulfil my competitive side. Though competition has always been with me. It's never mattered who has participated in the same race as me. I can't control their strengths. I can't race another person, I can only race to my training, my mental drive, my experience, and my tactical skills and knowledge. I can race the course and the time. I can compete with my strengths, against my weaknesses. My races, as varied as they have been, have always held a personal challenge. I just needed the personal challenge element to take me back to Yukon's winter. I'm literally just not very good with "a walk in the park" ;-)

I knew I wanted to attempt the entire YQ trail. Though the snow and ice route is broken in each winter, only small sections are more regularly used. Historically plied as a postal and goods route and by gold seekers and trappers, its use nowadays is limited mainly to localised trappers and during the two weeks of the YQ sled dog race. This is not a constantly groomed track.

The route always travels through these points, with exact trail set each winter based on conditions.
I went searching online for previous "thru-hikers" - for the fastest known time (FKT) if there was one. That search revealed that a former MYAU competitor, the German Joachim Rintsch, had apparently been first to dream of and complete the YQ on foot in modern times. In 2010, Joachim travelled by foot from Alaska to Whitehorse. I take my hat off to him for being the first modern "pioneer" to take this on - he had no one else to ask for advice and tips. And English is not his native language.

Joachim Rintsch (aka Fisse)
From online tracker data, blog posts and media articles, electronic communication with him, and information from his novel, I pieced together that he took 34 days 23 hours in total (Feb 4 ~11am - Mar 11 ~10am). But Joachim chose to start at least 45 miles east of the Fairbanks YQ start point. Later, he took a road section from Central to Circle, AK, bypassing another 40 miles of YQ trail. So Joachim Rintsch was the first known modern day pedestrian adventurer I could find traversing the YQ route, but he did not complete it as an FKT-type traverse of the entire YQ trail, beginning to end. Removing 80 miles of trail left his accomplishment in a category of its own.

One other person, also a multi-time MYAU racer, dreamed as well to travel YQ by foot. Mark Hines, a British adventurer (check out his books), completed the route over 39 days from YQ headquarters in Fairbanks, starting Feb 1st, 2016.
Mark Hines

Although he aimed for the YQ headquarters in Whitehorse, YT as his official finish line, a mild winter meant the Takhini and Yukon Rivers were unsafe from Takhini Hot Springs ~48km west of town. Though Mark's YQ by foot FKT of 39 days covers the YQ route excluding the easternmost bit, it comprised the official YQ route for 2016. So, it did constitute a complete traverse of the YQ2016. (The first few YQ mushers in 2016 got all the way to Whitehorse, but the rivers were so unsafe that remaining competitors were stopped at the alternate finish in Takhini.) The 2016 trail also contained a reroute along a Yukon River section west of Dawson City due to bad jumble ice, which the mushers were subject to and which Mark therefore followed. The reroute added a bit of distance, an ascent of 800m, and tough windblown side-slopes causing his pulk to do somersaults. I'm very grateful to Mark for generously giving his time and detailed information to help me in my own preparations. I'm going to heed his advice not to slip and crack my ribs at Scroggie Creek and not to try to carry all my food start to finish!

It didn't sound any easier to do the Canadian portion of the route by sleigh in the early 1900s! Brrr!

Though the weather dictates everything up north, it's possible that I might be the first one who gets from traditional headquarters-to-headquarters.... But it's still several days until I leave Whitehorse and though things froze up well here, we've got 4 very mild days of melting weather as I write.

YQ by foot remains a competition of sorts to me, regardless of whether anyone else is present or how fast I travel. It is a competition with one's own weaknesses - of mind and body. It is a competition in which one demonstrates their strengths in pulling a heavy pulk day after day, in organisation, patience, and injury prevention. It is a competition against impulsiveness, inflexibility, and intolerance to accept what is present. It is a competition of sorts with nature, only she is the teammate, rather than an adversary. I will not be victorious against nature, but only with her. If we work together - or more so if I work within the rules she sets out - she will try to see me to the other end of this 1,000 mile journey.

In this era when dystopian ideals seem to reign, when reality TV and social media seem to overwhelm us with disheartening images of the worst of humanity and reinforce a sense of division, perhaps what we need most is to develop a new sense of competition. To compete against our own inflexibility and intolerance and enmity. In extreme environments like the far north, people are generally renowned for their generosity and kindness. Perhaps it's understandable, then, that in my subconscious search to understand and develop these traits, I've come north again. These people and this place can teach me things. In my own "race," I hope to see negative traits fall off the pace and to find kindness and generosity running into the finish line hand in hand with me.

Oh, to hear this fellow's stories around a campfire under the northern lights....
Traversing the Yukon Quest by foot gives me the opportunity to become the first woman to complete the YQ route. I might make it faster than Mark. If I make it. Or I might not. Most importantly, no matter how far I get, I have the chance to compete against my own weaknesses. The prizes up for grabs might be intangible, but are also the most worthy. #yukonquestbyfoot #kindness

Online live tracking will be provided as batteries and charging opportunities permit via my delorme inReach mapshare page. A very short daily post will (battery-permitting) be posted to Facebook.

*My preference to use imperial over metric distance in this instance is a nod to the pioneering adventurers who first travelled these parts. Though, truly, the first peoples of this area, the First Nations/Native American peoples, would have had terminology reflecting distances measured in something other than either. Perhaps by topographical landmarks or sunrises.


  1. Totally awesome Bernadette, you are truly an inspiration to us all of what the human mind, body & sprit is cable of. Good luck & God bless.
    Joe x

  2. Hey Bernadette, hope your adventure is off to a great start. Following your progress on the GPS.
    Remember: What is it , what is it
    but a direction out there.
    And the bare possibility
    of going somewhere! Henry D Thoreau

  3. No movement in last 24 hours? Everything Ok?