by Linda Aksomitis
I’m not a mountain person. I’m not even really a hill person. I’m also somebody who knows too much for her own good sometimes. So, when my husband, David, and I planned a snowmobile adventure trail ride for the Yukon last winter, I was sure I knew exactly what to expect. An empty horizon as white and flat as the eye could see–I’d been to Churchill, Manitoba, after all, so knew exactly what the far north looked like.
As to the snow covered highway we’d be trailing over, named the Top of the World Highway, well, everybody knew that the Yukon and Alaska were at the top of the world. Didn’t they?
The far (farther than Churchill) north I soon discovered, as my husband and sons had maintained, wasn’t flat. Not even remotely. So much for being the experienced traveler.
The closer our rental truck came to Tok, bouncing over the rolling Alaska Highway, the more panic grew like a lump of black bitter coal in my throat. I held out a hope–a very small one–that the mountains would suddenly fold back into the tundra where they belonged. They didn’t.
None of this, of course, dampened David’s spirits. By 5 a.m. (8 a.m. I must admit on Saskatchewan time) Thursday morning, we were up, repacking our necessities to take with us on the snowmobile, and heading to the Alaska Trailblazers facility in Tok. I was shaking in my boots. He had a grin that spread from one ear right to the other.
Registration went fine. We drew our numbers for the poker run, although why we bother I’m still not sure–in thirty years of snowmobile runs neither of us has ever even come close to winning a penny. It’s a good thing we go for the snowmobile trail ride!
Breakfast went much too quickly, although we did meet and talk to a few other snowmobilers. Finally it was back to the Trailblazers building to break open the hotshots for my snowmobile boots and mitts, and pull on as many layers of clothing as I thought I could manage and still be able to bend. After all, it was -35 and we’d already been warned it would be -40 or lower when we dropped elevation on the trail.
I was glad to see a few other women dressing. And talking. One grimaced. “How’s it this year? Better?”
The other said, “If it’s not, I’m turning around.”
I quickly withdrew. Whatever it might be, I hoped it was gone altogether!
David and I pulled out with some of the earliest snowmobiles. Our rental was far from his choice of machinery–a wide-track Ski-Doo Skandic. He looked enviously at the REVs and mountain sleds. We did, at least, have enough room in our cargo area for the fuel can and a single bag for the weekend, while others had to tarp strap things on wherever they would fit.
We spent the first five miles getting used to the Skandic. There was no pretending it was meant for anything other than being a pack-mule, and I was the pack straddled over the wide seat, slip-sliding under David and generally getting shook to bits. I already knew from years of experience that I’d have to be able to ride as fast as the machine could reasonably carry us if I wasn’t going to drive myself, so I gritted my teeth and tested different riding styles.
While those first seventy-five miles into Chicken were cold–and I do mean cold–they were also windy and smooth and fast. We soon had a rhythm going and I started to appreciate the sled, even without handwarmers or other such luxuries as normally are found on 2-up sleds.
The stop in Chicken took awhile–we set our helmets on the rack over the woodstove to dry out, ate some hot dogs, and did a few stretches to get the kinks out. So far there hadn’t been anything I couldn’t handle, and I was beginning to relax.
Soon after we left Chicken, I formed my own opinion on where the name came from. Everybody who was too chicken to go any further stayed behind!
Those next sixty or so odd miles to Boundary had mountains that were higher and rougher and steeper than anything we’d covered yet. The temperature, though, was rising, and the sun had finally popped over the mountain peaks. We were making good time and I wasn’t even particularly cold. Things looked good, until I remembered that we were on the Taylor Highway to Boundary (which is at the U.S./Canada border), and the Top of the World Highway was yet to come.
All that bouncing–and a cold one in Boundary, while David helped two non-mechanics fix their snowmobile, meant I had to check out the outdoor facilities. Much to my amazement, I discovered northern toilet seat covers, shaped out of styrofoam pieces, provided a non-icy surface for outdoor plumbing fixtures. Who knew?
We spent about an hour stopped, fixing the sleds, and getting to know the two guys David had helped–Jason and Mike (who helped make the whole trip memorable), so snowmobile after snowmobile stopped, fueled, then continued on past us.
The worst, we soon realized, loomed on the horizon. Jason and Mike assured us they’d wait to make sure we made it past–it now had a time–the terrible terrace.
Warm as toast, but shaking in my boots anyway, we climbed up out of Boundary with the snowmobile and tackled the next part of trail. It climbed and twisted and turned and then … the road disappeared beneath a rock-solid snowdrift that lay at a 45 degree angle from the top of the mountain to the next ridge.
David slowed the snowmobile, threw his weight to the inside, and started across the terrace.
I screamed. “Let me off! I’ll walk!” I yelled.
He ignored me.
The wind caught and the sled drifted a little lower. David feathered the throttle. I threw my rear up over the side, hanging over the steel frame of the cargo box.
We inched along the terrace trying not to look aaaaaallll the way to the bottom–imagine I told myself, that it’s only a sixty foot coulee–I’d jumped those before with my snowmobile and survived to tell the tale (the sled had too, but its condition may be one of the reasons David prefers to have me where he can see what I’m doing).
The first terrace was maybe half a mile, the second one was longer. I didn’t do any more screaming–it took too much energy, which I needed for throwing myself from side to side to help hold the snowmobile from careening down the mountainside.
Before the last sixty miles was done we’d traversed another couple of terraces; driven well above the treeline at the mountain top, in winds so high I thought my helmet would be yanked off my head, or well, maybe with my head; and passed most of the snowmobiles that had gone through while we were stopped. That’s one of the risks of riding double a retired snowmobile racer–he can’t stand to drive behind another sled.
I’ve never been happier to see anywhere in my life than Dawson City when it appeared in the valley below us! I was tired and sore and hungry–and more than a little ready for the good time and relaxation that followed for the next few days.
When it was time for the return journey Sunday morning we felt like pros–hey we’d done the 200 miles once, so the second time I could just relax and enjoy the scenery (right?). We were far from the first to leave for the return half of the Trek retracing our path, but much to everyone’s surprise, we were the first riders in to Chicken–and have our Chicken keychain souvenirs to prove it–and the first ones back in to Tok, Alaska. To those shaking heads and muttered, “Two-up riders on a Skandic; who’d believe it?” we can only say, hey, it was a great ride and we’ll be back to do it again.
Somewhere in those mountains I left my fear of heights (at least while snowmobiling) and we both found a love for the Yukon–David’s even trying to convince me to move. Who knows?
If You Go:
More about Trek Over the Top: http://www.trekoverthetop.com/
Copyright September 2006 by Linda Aksomitis. All rights reserved.