You can feel things beginning to stir from their winter stasis here in Dawson City, and hopefully this blog will be no exception. While many of you may think that winter would be when I had the most time on my hands for writing and pontificating, the opposite has proven to be true, and I have been surprisingly busy.
One contributor to my occupied state has been the variety of recreational activities that I endeavoured to sample during the winter months. Many were things I had never done before, so while I spent a great deal of time sliding along the learning curve, I also enjoyed the personal challenges, and had a lot of fun, even if I sometimes had a few scrapes and bruises to show for it.
A sled dog sits atop the Yukon Territory’s crest, so I was quite excited to get a chance to try some dog-propelled sports for the first time this winter. Skijoring was first on the list for me. For those not familiar with the term, it refers to cross-country skiing while harnessed to dogs (although horses and reindeer are also used around the world). I started with one older and smaller, albeit very hard-working dog, J.V., and eventually graduated to assorted pairs of more vigorous pullers who were able to get up quite an impressive pace requiring minimal poling on my part. My antique cross-country skis wore out before the dogs did. I must say, once you’ve been towed around by a pair of huskies, it’s hard to return to self-propelled skiing again.
Experienced skijorers will often have four dogs pulling them, and there is a competitive skijoring element that is part of the annual Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race from Dawson City to Eagle, Alaska, and back. I’m looking to upgrade my skis and boots in the off-season, and attempt some longer distances next winter, although I’m a long, long way from competing in The Percy.
Before the winter trails began to melt, I also had an opportunity to do some dog sledding, starting with my first solo mush ever, which took place on my birthday. I admit that my small kick sled and quartet of dogs are a far cry from the 14-dog teams and racing rigs that compete in the Yukon Quest, but it was still a great rush for me. Lead dog Sunny, along with Snowy, Velocity, and Duke, took off with incredible enthusiasm, and within yards of the start, my sled tipped over. Although I got a frosty face-plant, I’m pleased to say I did not break Rule Number One that had been drilled into me by my coach and the dogs’ owner, Gaby Sgaga: “Whatever you do, don’t let go of the sled.”
After dragging me for a bit, Sunny obviously sensed something was amiss, and brought her team to a halt. There are few things in life more humiliating than the look of disdain a team of sled dogs give you over their shoulders when they decide you don’t know what you’re doing. I soon got the hang of it, and went a couple of miles without tipping over again. With the help of a heavier, more stable sled, I then fared much better in my second outing, and am eager to do more mushing next winter with a larger team, if possible.
During the winter months I also got into curling, and participated in one of the Dawson City tournaments, specifically the annual Commercial Bonspiel — my first ever such event. (It’s fun just saying that word: bonspiel.) Organized curling in Dawson City goes all the way back to the gold rush days of 1898, and to the chagrin of many participants, 115 years later the town’s curling rink still has natural ice. Our team, which represented the aforementioned Percy DeWolfe race, finished with a respectable 1-1-1 record in the tournament, which featured a host of teams from local businesses and organizations.
If nothing else, I now more fully appreciate the intricacies of the sport. Naturally, I knew there was considerable skill involved to reach the world-class level of curling competition you see on TV, but I never fully appreciated just how good those guys and gals really were until I slipped, slid, and stumbled through a bunch of games for myself. Although I’m a reasonably competent sweeper, my technique while shooting rocks, and understanding of the game, need a lot of work. I always thought getting my rocks off was a good thing, but now I know better. Nevertheless, it was great fun, and it turns out all those hours spent playing barroom shuffleboard were not wasted after all.
This winter, I also played for the Gold Diggers in the Dawson City Old Timers Hockey League. While I am no stranger to ice hockey, I did not actually take it up until adulthood, and am, frankly, lousy at it, despite being an above-average athlete in other sports. I quickly discerned that I am arguably the worst player in the Dawson league, but like to think I made up for a lack of skill with enthusiasm and hustle. It was the highest level of hockey competition I had ever faced personally, but playing twice weekly against better players makes for some great schooling. Certainly, by the end of the season, the game had slowed down for me from its blurred initial fast pace to something more mentally manageable — although then the playoffs began, and the speed picked up again.
If nothing else, I must have been a good luck charm for the guys, as our team went on to capture its first-ever Old Timers Championship, surviving a late rally by our opponents (the first-place-finishing Kings) to win 4-3 in the final game. The make-up of our team is quite diverse, representing a cross-section of Dawson citizenry, but hockey seems to be the great Canadian equalizer, and we have some seriously talented players whose enthusiasm for the game is as passionate as I’ve seen anywhere.
I am extremely grateful that the Diggers allowed an unskilled and middle-aged cheechako onto their squad. My only complaint is that the Dawson hockey arena has no ice making equipment, and as a consequence the natural ice makes for a short season — roughly mid-November to mid-March. Seems ironic to me to be living so near to the Arctic Circle, and yet not have it cold enough to play hockey in October and April.