The dogs have sensed it’s on. I know this because about 100 huskies are howling, leaping and vying for attention in unison when previously they lay mostly motionless in the winter sun.
We’re standing in a snowy paddock scattered with makeshift kennels while the staff ready our sleds for action. Split into pairs, each of us has been designated as driver or passenger and I’m lying inside the sled, swaddled in blankets, staring at the backsides of eight dogs.
A few sleds pull off ahead of us and then our pack bolts forward.
Helpless to do anything more than cling on for dear life, my stomach flips with involuntary mirth as we bounce over undulating terrain, swerve around bends and finally tear down a steep hill onto the wide open expanses of the frozen Takhini River.
I have come here to follow The Yukon Quest, a 1600-kilometre dog sled race between Whitehorse, Canada and Fairbanks, Alaska. Devised as a backcountry alternative to the more famous Iditarod, it is widely regarded as the world’s toughest race and is an annual institution in the Yukon.
Though I’m sporting a decent beard and once even helped my father chop logs on a winter Sunday, I’m perhaps not quite ready for such a contest, so instead, I’ve opted for a taster with a half-day guided excursion on the outskirts of Whitehorse.
Out on the plains of the Takhini River – part of the route traversed by mushers during the Yukon Quest – I’m able to fully appreciate the majesty of our surrounds.
Brilliant white flats sprawl towards alpine peaks covered inspruce, pine and fir trees. Scampering ahead at a decent clip, the dogs are clearly in their element, but we stop periodically to allow them mouthfuls of snow and a well-earned breather.
At the halfway point, we swap positions and as my cohort wrestles into the cocoon of warm sled blankets, I take my proud position at the helm.
Leading a pack of dogs is a thrilling sensation, the snow a blur beneath your feet, the wind biting your face, the setting sun blazing through the distant treetops. Despite the inevitable hardships they must face, it doesn’t take long to understand why mushers so frequently become hooked on events like the Yukon Quest.
The 2½-hour excursion passes in the blink of a frozen eyelash. Though I’d love to stay longer – and there are many other tours if time is on your side – I have a date with another of the Yukon’s flagship experiences.
Come nightfall, we board a coach for a transfer 25 minutes outside Whitehorse to a cluster of log cabins opposite a pine forest.
Inside, the cabins are well set up with hot drinks, snacks and comfy sofas while outside there ss a small army of tripods vital for capturing the aurora borealis (or northern lights) using long exposure camera settings.
Visible in only a few parts of the world, particularly north-west Canada, the northern lights are caused by collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun entering the Earth’s atmosphere. If the elements align, the result can be a dazzling blaze of vivid colours across the night sky.
But it seems this may not be our night. After setting up our tripods, the lack of action sees most of us return to the log fire outside the cabin.
I’ve barely had time for a surreptitious nip of whisky when there is a shout from the darkness.
Stumbling through the snow, I reach the viewing area just in time to see the first waves of colour forming above the trees. Soon a raging ark of emerald green cuts across the sky against a smoky blue backdrop pricked by a thousand stars.
Between us and the forest, the snow looks almost luminescent.
It must be minus 40 degrees tonight, my feet are frozen, my face numb, but all that seems trivial.
This is what the Yukon is all about; it’s wild territory; step outside your comfort zone a little and you’ll be rewarded in spades.
The Muktuk Half-Day Takhini Express Dog Sled Tour departs daily at 9.30am and 1.30pm from mid-November to mid-March. From $199 a person. Longer excursions also available. See www.muktuk.com
The One Night Aurora viewing departs at 10pm and returns at 2.30am. From $125 a person. Group discounts available. Longer tours also available. See www.northerntales.ca
Air Canada operates frequent flights from Sydney to Vancouver with ongoing connections to Whitehorse, Canada. See www.aircanada.com
The Westmark Hotel offers comfortable rooms in a central location in downtown Whitehorse. Rooms from $199 a night. See www.westmarkhotels.com
Guy Wilkinson was a guest of Tourism Yukon with aurora viewing compliments of Northern Tales Travel Services.