Is it true that you can toss a cup of boiling water into the air at –40°C and it evaporates completely and comes down as a frozen vapor before it hits the ground? Do you pee ice-cubes in these temperatures or does at least a yellow icicle form in the snow? Do we have enough fire wood? And when is this climate change finally going to come?
It is the middle of January and a cold spell brings us freezing temperatures of more than 40 below. That gives us both the time and the chance to find answers to these all important questions of mankind.
It is the time of year the true Yukoner thrives on. This is what makes the Canadians of the North so relaxed and calm. They are known and sometimes dreaded for it. Whoever tries to confront the problems of winter with the cockiness of a Southerner is doomed. (The south begins about 3 to 4 hours by car from Whitehorse going towards British Columbia!) Only he who has wisely connected the integrated heater of his car to the electric power will be able to hear the sound of a starting engine in the morning. Motor oil becomes as goopy as thick honey, water in the low-grade fuel freezes in the gas line and the injector, batteries are flat after two attempts at starting, accelerator pedals sometimes freeze to the floor board and the clutch only reacts with a delay of about three seconds. And so you had simply better not use the car in weather like this. Many public services know these problems and simply remain closed. Nobody can get to work anyway. In the private sector there are manning shortages. “I am awfully sorry, madam, that your water main has frozen up and you can no longer use your toilet. But our plumber was not able to start his vehicle without the help of a mechanic. And the mechanic didn’t even start work because we still have a power cut and so his tools can’t work anyway.”
Whereas the Southerner flits around nervously demanding a water-flushed toilet and promises his family the long-envisaged removal to warmer climes the Northerner is in his element. He throws another few logs on the fire in his comfortable log cabin, leans back and enjoys a cup of hot coffee. The snowmobile won’t work anyway because the Asian producer never even thought that the system would be run in winter. The dogs have a few days off from training and instead get an additional ration of fat because of the higher calorie requirements. If you need to use the loo you use the outhouse (no, you don’t freeze to the seat, because it is made of a polystyrene sheet with a hole in and yes, you do hurry up because it freezes the balls off a brass monkey). And apart from that you now find the time to answer the truly important questions.
Hot water evaporates to the larger part if you hurl a cup full into the air at –40°C. The vapor at once becomes freezing fog but a few drops fall to the ground in its liquid state. In order to be able to pee ice cubes you must have lived in the north for at least ten years. You can expect yellow icicles from about the fifth winter on. Until then we will have to make do with the rather dreary yellow stains in the virgin snow around our cabin. The fire wood will simply have to last, as the chain saw won’t work any more. And the climate change hopefully will not turn out as bad as forecast, because otherwise at one time the Yukon will become the South. fs
After the early snow fall in September winter turned out not to be too enthusiastic about the Yukon. The temperatures sat on the fence holding a half-hearted 0° Celsius and turning the laughable amount of snow into a snow crust. Before every run we had to put little booties made of nylon material on our huskies’ paws as a protective measure. But the ice was so abrasive that after every 15 kilometer run about half the booties were completely chafed and had to be discarded.
And then there was real snow! Claudia and I pack the sleds onto the pick-up, the dogs into their boxes and set off for the first 45 kilometer tour of the season. Nobody has used this trail since the latest snowfall and so our dogs have to work their way through deep snow. We progress only slowly but we are in good spirit. Even the dogs seem to be enjoying themselves, glad to be in front of a sled and no longer running before the noisy, smelly ATV.
For this year I have registered my team and me for the Yukon Quest 300. The race is at the beginning of February starting the same day as the “Great” Yukon Quest that takes the mushers over a thousand miles from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. The Yukon Quest 300 only follows this trail for the first 300 miles (about 480 km) to Pelly Crossing. Since the day of registration I have been watching my dogs even more closely at every trainings run and live in constant fear of them getting injured. I suppose I will have to become more relaxed and take things a lot easier. The dogs don’t seem a bit worried and run along without any problem whatsoever and increasingly zealous for mile after mile.
And then there is even more snow! Within two days the average annual amount of the white brightness comes down. Each and every street, road or highway around Whitehorse disappears under the masses of snow and the snow plows are in action round the clock. The driveway to our cabin will be impassable for our small car for a while and we will have to use the 4WD of the pick-up to plow our way through to town. It takes an intensive application of our snow shovel before we can recognize our driveway.
Although on the whole of course the snow is very welcome, it topples the training schedule for the team. Now all the marked and well-packed training trails are hidden under thick snow. As we don’t have a skidoo, we set of again with the dogs to mark the trail and pack the snow firmly. It turns out to be a sunny morning as I start off with the huskies from Mary Lake for Mount Lorne. The snow on the branches glistens in the sun and at a crisp –20°C our breath freezes on our faces and forms a formidable snow crust on my hair, hood and scarf. Every now and then the woods grant me a view of the snow covered coastal mountain range.
Under the clear sky the temperatures drop considerably and in the following nights the thermometer reads a frosty -30° degrees. The stack of fire wood in front of the cabin so enormous in autumn now looks pitiably small. fs
I can hardly believe what I see as my gaze moves to and from our calendar to the thick snow flakes dancing before our window. It is only the end of September but outside it looks as if we could very soon be building our first snow man of the season. A cold northerly wind has put an end to the sunny autumn weather of the last few days and gives us a foretaste of the coming winter. The only ones who are really enjoying themselves already are our huskies who welcome the snow as an unexpected gift.
Luckily the white brightness disappears a few days later. We have not yet finished preparing for the cold season. During the next few days we will have to cut another few cords of fire wood and prepare our vehicles for winter by exchanging the tyres, the lubricant for one of higher viscosity and the windscreen wiper fluid to fit the temperature of – 50 degrees Celsius.
This year we have decided not to leave it to the local supermarket to supply us with meat. Since August the hunt is on in the Yukon Territory for moose. I set off with two friends for a three-day hunt. In our canoes we work our way first along a river and then up a small creek. Again and again we have to get out and pull our boats across shallow water. Finally a valley opens up before us that must be moose’s paradise. The brook meanders peacefully through a swampy lake-land where we set up camp on a small rising. We try to imitate the mating call of a moose cow in order to attract a bull. Again and again we paddle both canoes up and down the creek checking the terrain for tracks of moose.
On the evening of the second day we strike luck: Crispin and I hear a bull roar nearby. When we come round a bend in the river, the moose is standing in hiding amongst the shrubs and trees working two helpless spruce trees with his antlers. When he hears our canoes landing he charges out of the shrubbery. He is in full heat and wants to chase the intruder who seems to be a rival for his mate. But when he comes prancing out of the willow copse there is only a canoe with two strange figures. And then comes the moment I had been afraid of for so long. Adrenalin pumps through my body and everything around me seems to disappear. I aim my rifle and fire a shot. Some sixty metres away from me the huge animal collapses. And into the joy of now having enough meat to last us for the winter ahead the sentiment of sorrow is mingled witnessing the dying animal breathing his last on the river bank.
A few days later Claudia and I go for a less bloody source of nourishment. When the sun has warmed the air to a mild 10 degrees Celsius we set off to gather rose hip and cranberries growing near our cabin. In the evening we make rose hip jam and freeze the cranberries in order to use them later for a sauce with a roast.
Our sled dogs also need to be prepared for the coming winter. Two weeks ago we bought a second hand ATV to train our dogs with while waiting for enough snow to use the sled. A few repairs and some maintenance had to be done and now the temperatures have dropped low enough that we can team the dogs in the morning and late at night. And our first excursions are pomising in deed. Now it is time to get out the sled equipment, check and repair it. We also have to think of winter feed for our huskies and so we order half a ton of kibble and as much in beef and 200 pounds of fish from stock not fit for human consumption.
And while I am sitting by the warm log fire, Claudia is brandishing the axe like a professional outside chopping a small pile of wood to start a fire. Now winter can come! fs