My buddy Rick and I just got back to Virginia after spending a week touring the Yukon by dog team. Friends of ours, Wayne and Scarlett Hall, run a dogsledding business out of Eagle, Alaska, called Bush Alaska Expeditions, and they hooked us up with a great tour. Even getting to Eagle is a bit of an adventure, requiring a ride on the mail plane out of Fairbanks. Once in Eagle, we met up with another friend and guide, expert musher Nate Becker, before heading for the hills.
The country around Eagle has a long and interesting history, including a number of different Athabaskan tribes, fur trading dating back to the 1700s, and the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush that started near Dawson City (150 miles upriver). During the gold rush, people came north with big dreams, and some made (and lost) fortunes. Place names like Last Chance Creek, Bonanza Creek, and Hard Luck Creek tell a part of the story.
Our trip felt like a moving tribute to the hardy souls that lived and thrived up there a hundred or more years ago, almost like time travel. Back in the day, the frozen Yukon River was traveled by legends like Percy DeWolfe, who carried the mail back and forth between Dawson and Eagle from 1910 to 1949….when it costs 3 cents to send a first class letter. Another notable resident was Harry Karstens, nicknamed the Seventymile Kid, who came from Chicago to prospect for gold before becoming a “packer” hauling mining supplies for other prospectors. Karstens went on to lead the first ascent of Mount McKinley (now Denali) in 1912 and later became the superintendent of Mount McKinley National Park.
During the course of our week, the rich history of the Yukon revealed some of itself to us through the cabins along the river. A few of the cabins were historic, a few were relatively new, and a few were somewhere in between–but all were remarkable in their own way. The one constant is that they were generally spaced about a day’s mushing apart–which was good forethought by the folks that built these places. Cabins along the Tatonduk River, the Nation River, and the Seventymile River were a welcome sight after a long day on the trail, just as they would have been in the early 1900s.
I’m sometimes asked why I am so captivated by Alaska, and I answer that it’s because it’s the way the world used to be. During the course of the week, it was easy to wonder what it must have been like back in the day–and each time that I stopped to warm my fingers, I was reminded that I probably wouldn’t have had what it took. I have no idea how people thrived in this land before fancy down jackets, goretex gloves, and bunny boots. That said, it was also inspiring to spend time with some of the people that are thriving there now, like Wayne, Scarlett, Nate, and Nate’s wife Ruby.
Our wonderful hosts obviously made this trip possible–but it’s also important to call out the true stars of the the week: those incredible canine athletes. One thing that I’m pretty sure hasn’t changed in the last 100 years is that Alaskan huskies are phenomenally fit, loyal, and eager to run. They are also incredibly reliable, as a dog team never breaks down on the trail (unlike a snowmachine…or snowmobile, in case you don’t speak Alaskan). Each morning, those huskies were ready to take us anywhere that we had the skills to go, and they also seemed completely impervious to the cold. As I adjusted layers a thousand times on the back of the sled, I remembered that my dog team was wearing exactly the same thing that it had on last summer.
After an amazing week, Rick and I came back from the Yukon with a new appreciation for the way the world used to be, and the way that it still is…at least up there.