Beginning in Fairbanks we'll fly to the remote bush community of Eagle, inaccessible by road through the long winter months. Steeped in history, this fascinating little outpost will serve as our headquarters, lodging in gold rush era cabins overlooking the Yukon. From here we'll head out downriver to a cozy winter camp by the imposing Calico Bluff, perfecting our dog handling techniques in this age old means of transport.
As the race frontrunners approach Eagle, we'll head back to help out at the official race checkpoint where the mushers try to grab a few hours of rest and warmth for themselves and their dogs. As the teams head out, each according to their own strategy, we'll follow them back downriver as they enter one of the most challenging sections of the course. From here it is back by air to the hard fought destination of all the mushers, Fairbanks, only our means will be a bit more comfortable.
If you've ever longed to feel a part of a truly wild environment, after this intimate exploration we guarantee you'll leave with this indescribable area a large part of you...
Day 1: Our adventure starts upon your arrival in Fairbanks, with most arriving in the late morning or early afternoon hours. Our evening's accommodations where we'll first rendezvous are at the Plane Country Bed & Breakfast located a short taxi ride from the airport. Situated on the banks of the Chena River, the Plane Country is named such, as just in front is a pond for float planes (ski planes in this season) and a gravel airstrip (and of course the proprietors are pilots).
Before the afternoon is over, we'll head over to the University of Alaska to visit their excellent museum with hopeful views of the northern side of the Alaska Range, and then wander downtown to the headquarters and command center of the Yukon Quest. Here we'll get a glimpse of the tumult as the race is already underway, the headquarters staffed mostly by volunteers dedicated to the event and the sport in general. Dinner is on the town before heading back to the bed and breakfast for the night.
Day 2: After a hearty breakfast we'll take stock of our personal gear and make a stop if need be at the local outfitting store, to fill in any gaps in our arctic "armor". Then it's back to the airport, the "local" terminal this time, for the air taxis that service all the outlying areas from Fairbanks as the northern hub. Our flight across the roadless frozen Interior mountains and tundra will take about an hour, ending in the tiny outpost of Eagle on the banks of the Yukon River, just four miles from the Canadian border. With the only road in, 160 miles of twisting gravel, closed for the winter months, the only means of access to Eagle are by air or by surface via dog team or snowmachine over the river.
Eagle has long served as the last supply post for the vast upper Yukon valley, providing the earliest miners and current wilderness dwellers with their link to mail delivery, telephones and the rest of the world. Its frontier nature hasn't changed much and we'll bunk for the evening in historic cabins overlooking the Yukon. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, one of the cabins is where the famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen "wintered", after arriving in December of 1905 from mushing by dog team from his ship locked in the ice 1000 miles to the north.
It was by telegraph from Eagle that he was able to notify the world of his success in finding the long sought Northwest Passage, after three years with no communication. There should still be plenty of time in the afternoon to meet up with our canine colleagues for the next few days, as well as their mentors, long time locals Steve and Patty Nelson, for an introduction.
Day 3: We'd best have a hearty breakfast in the belly this morning, before our first experience organizing our canine means of transport. After channeling the wild enthusiasm (you'd swear they live for this alone) of the dogs into harness and sled, we'll drop over the bluff bank of the Yukon and head downstream past Eagle Bluff, long a landmark to river travelers of all seasons.
As the dogs settle into the pace, we'll switch out and give each of us a turn on the runners. You're now a dog driver. Heading around several of the sweeping bends of the Yukon, we'll steer toward Calico Bluff, a unique site of geologic study and just plain beauty, with the swirling patterns of metamorphic rock. At the base on a bluff overlooking the river we'll find our toasty warm wall tent camp, with nary a neighbor for many many miles.
With a hot snack and beverage the arctic almost feels tame, and the waning hours of daylight are open to snowshoeing, or mushing the dogs about the neighborhood, or trying your hand at skijoring - cross country skiing by dog power (the more dogs the greater the thrill level...) The evening's meal is necessarily a great one as we settle into our wall tents for the evening, stoking the wood stove and sharing stories just as the earliest explorers for gold, fur and excitement.
Stepping outside periodically to experience the indescribable stillness of the arctic night, the northern lights will surely see fit to give an appropriate display before drifting off to sleep, just possibly with the sound of a distant wolf howling . . .
Day 4: The pace of our morning will be determined by that of the Yukon Quest front runners, as we keep tabs on their progress by radio. Trying to time our return trip upriver to Eagle with their arrival will dictate whether our afternoon is as leisurely as the morning. Traveling the great Yukon, now with more experience and assurance, we'll stop frequently to examine stories told by the animal tracks in the snow and some of the other seasonal phenomena that are hard to put into words when someone asks, incredulously, why one would enjoy winter.
Depending on the weather and trail conditions as always, the mushers could be arriving in Eagle at any hour, with usually several of the front-runners traveling within a few minutes of each other, sharing in the trailbreaking as they eye the conditions of each other's team and plot strategy for the final push. The official checkpoint is in the historic one room schoolhouse just up the road from our cabins and is a scene that has to be witnessed to be fully appreciated.
With dog teams staked out in the schoolyard, the mushers soak in the easy warmth after hundreds of miles of brutal trail, accepting many a helping from the ever full vat of chili and fixings prepared by the local townspeople. Those in contention for the top finishes, quickly take care of their dogs before all else, and then after eating, pile themselves on any available surface for a few hours of snooze in attempts to beat back the increasing exhaustion that wears on them all. It's chaos, excitement, pathos and reverence all at the same time. At least we'll be able to enjoy a full night's sleep back in our own cabins.
Day 5: Today's activities depend on those of the top mushers, and when they decide to hit the trail. We'll continue to use Eagle as our base, and follow by dog team a few of those pushing on toward Fairbanks as the race tightens and those with a chance, executing their homestretch strategies. Following the location reports of the arriving mushers, we might head upstream toward Eagle Creek and the Canada border to greet and encourage those not yet to Eagle and their long anticipated rest.
If the conditions and timing are just right, we might possibly head back down to our camp at Calico Bluff, as it is on the race route, though at this point the front-runners will be all business, rested and jockeying for position as the finish line in Fairbanks awaits. Our lodging for the night will depend on our choice for the day, either in the Calico Bluff camp or back in Eagle at the cabins. Either way, the northern lights will surely give us another display or make amends for the previous evenings' no show.
Day 6: Today's the day the "other" mushers arrive, those that know they have no chance of winning but all hanging in there for their own personal reasons. Some are merely trying to survive and make it to the finish, having spent so much time, effort and money in training for the event they can't possibly go home to family and local sponsors without at least finishing. Others, mostly veteran mushers that maybe have done better in previous showings, view it all a bit more philosophically and at this point are out to enjoy themselves.
The atmosphere about the checkpoint is very definitely more relaxed, those there now with the leisure to chat at length and visit with local friends from previous Quests, or us as visitors curious about their lifestyle and motivations. Today is leisurely for us too, with time now for snowshoeing, another jaunt by dog team, and to visit historic old Fort Egbert, initially the army's northernmost presence until World War II, but decommissioned not long after the gold rushes of the early century. The atmosphere of the gold rush and Jack London permeate our whole time here in Eagle, down to the event we're here to experience and the cabins where we'll again spend the night.
Day 7: Today we step from our time capsule and fly back to Fairbanks for another visit to the Yukon Quest command center and lunch downtown, before our return flights to our respective worlds. Back in the 20th century you'll probably want to keep up on the latest progress of each musher, and in doing so your mind might just wander to how that while in so many ways the world has changed, in some ways and places, it hasn't much at all.
Accommodations: Include a remote wall tent camp (designed for winter), a bed & breakfast in Fairbanks, and the historic log cabins in Eagle. The bed & breakfast is set up for double occupancy but the remote sites will necessitate more of a "slumber party" approach, flexibility being the rule in the Bush. Bathroom facilities at the remote locations are "rustic", of the tried and true, non-running water type (part of the experience!).
Notes: All remote accommodations are held exclusively for our group, and these facilities range from deluxe to very "Alaskan" (part of the experience!). With space available for an absolute maximum six persons, early reservation for this unique experience is highly recommended. Weather and conditions can necessitate last minute changes in the above itinerary.
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