Judith Conning – Travel to the Yukon

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Judith’s earlier vist to Canada inspired her to revisit a world that has captured her heart with its beauty and grandeur … she shares her amazing journey into the wintry wonderland of the Yukon

Hi Judith. FOCUS interviewed you some time ago about an expedition you embarked on … but just to refresh our memories, whereabouts in the Manning-Great Lakes do you call home?
Fifty-three acres at Killabakh is home, which we share with a few sheep, some chooks, 3 dogs and a variety of wildlife, and both of us work at Manning Hospital.
You’ve recently returned home from another amazing overseas trip to Whitehorse in Canada. How long were you away?
I left on Australia Day and was there for 2 amazing weeks.

What prompted you to visit Canada this time around?
In February 2012, I travelled to Yellowstone National Park and being in the northern hemisphere thought, “Better travel to Canada to witness the Aurora Borealis”. I was lucky enough to spend 4 days in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada at a great B&B run by Frank and Sylke Baranski. In that brief time, I witnessed an amazing aurora display, beautiful snow covered scenery, went dog sledding and experienced a little bit of the Yukon Quest dog sled race. This year I went back for more – two weeks in fact, and again, my hosts were Frank and Sylke.

You were able to experience the Yukon Quest – a dog sled race. Describe the race …
Dog sledding is extremely popular in this part of the world (and is growing in popularity in Australia), and the dogs have an amazing tolerance for the cold and are incredibly enthusiastic about their task of pulling the sled.
The Yukon Quest is 1600 km of dogsledding through wild country, travelling from Whitehorse in Canada to Fairbanks in Alaska, and this year celebrated its 30th anniversary. In 2014, the trail will commence in Fairbanks, and they alternate each year. The Yukon Quest and the better known Iditarod in Alaska follow the traditional routes of the early days when mail, supplies and medicines were delivered to far flung outposts in the depths of winter by dog teams. This year, the Quest attracted 26 competitors − not a huge number, but the physical and financial commitment is enormous.
The Quest follows frozen rivers, crosses mountain ranges, and there’s no stopping for bad weather. Blizzards are not uncommon, and temperatures can drop to -50◦ C. Ideal sledding weather is about -20, so the dogs don’t become overheated. A warm spell slows things down and as rivers start to melt, life becomes very dangerous.
There’s a team of veterinarians who closely monitor the dogs’ health, before, after and during the race. However, for the mushers the dogs’ care comes first, and the musher must feed, tend and bed the dogs before he or she can see to their own needs. A team can start with a maximum of 16 dogs, can drop some (but not replace) along the way and must finish with no less than 6 dogs.
There are numerous checkpoints, some mandatory, and Dawson City at the halfway point had a 36 hour mandatory layover before some seriously wild country begins and they cross the border into Alaska. Dawson City was a boom town in the days of the Klondike gold rush, and the flavour of the 1890s is preserved in the buildings today. They had a cold snap (-50) a few days before we arrived, and then it ‘warmed up’ to -15 and snowed ever since. The result was a fantasy land of snow-covered cottages and trees coated with frost. This was the turnaround point for us, and we spent a couple of days watching teams arrive and leave and visited their camps.
No doubt many of you have read Jack London’s iconic books such as White Fang and Call of the Wild. As a teenager, I could only dream about visiting this part of the world, so imagine my delight to actually walk the streets of Dawson City and visit the cottage of Jack London.

What insights have you gained into the lives of the dog sled competitors?
Originally the Yukon Quest attracted those from a life of sledding and outdoor life who enter the race year after year; now there are also the ‘adventure seekers’, and competing in such a race is ‘must do’ activity. There’s no doubt that all have a love of dogs and achieving something few in the world will ever do. Some of the participants are legends – Lance Mackey, four times winner of both the Quest and the Iditarod and a survivor of a hard battle with throat cancer, and Aliy Zirkle, only female winner of the Quest and twice second placed in the Iditarod.
As well as the competitors, there are the families, the volunteers, the enthusiastic and hardy fans and the handlers. This last group works with the musher, travelling ahead and setting up camp and looking after the dropped dogs.

Any standout experiences on your trip?
That’s a tough one … our own day of dogsledding, the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, the incredibly beautiful 9-hour drive to Dawson City, the hospitality of my hosts, but it has to be the Yukon Quest. The chaos in the starting yard and dogs howling in delight with their eagerness to start the race and then hurtling through the starting chute and having a media pass got me very close to the action.

What were some of the conditions you had to face while in Canada?
You just adapt, and I love cold places. It was breathtakingingly cold the first couple of days, but that cold brings its own beauty.
I believe you came across an Aussie gentleman competing in the Yukon Quest as well?
John King from Newcastle, who was preparing to run his very first race – the Quest 300. It covers the first 300 miles of the Quest trail and is both a qualifying race for the Yukon Quest and a warm-up for the more experienced planning on entering the Iditarod in March. John did very well in his race and returned in March to compete in the Percy de Wolfe 200, another qualifying race. Whilst not having his own dogs, John was able to train with and race a team of dogs from the Hans Gatt kennels, Hans also being a four time winner of the Quest.

What’s next on your agenda?
I would love to see polar bears and their cubs emerging from their dens, but need to save up a bit for that one. My other favourite is wolves, and it is an incredible experience to observe these wildest of creatures and witness some of the trials and tribulations of life in the wolf packs. I saw the wolves in February 2012 and was blessed to see the legendary alpha female of the Lamar Canyon Pack known as 06. Tragically, she was shot by hunters on the edge of Yellowstone in November 2012, and her pack has been trying re-establish its equilibrium. I’m hoping another trip to Yellowstone is possible in 2014.

Where can people view your photography, or read about your travel experiences?
I have a website www.judeconningphotography.com; a blog: www.judeconningphotography.wordpress.com; and a Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/NorthernLightsPhotoTour
Thanks Judith.

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