CHESTERVILLE – For most, a winter escape means jetting off to somewhere tropical, free from the falling snow and the build up of ice.
But, for Kent Merkley and his wife, Cindy, getting away meant a nearly 5,500-kilometre trip from their Chesterville area home to Whitehorse, Yukon.
It was all part of what Merkley termed repeatedly as “an amazing experience,” helping out at the start line of the Yukon Quest.
The 1,000-mile international sled dog race, which takes its name from the Yukon River or the “highway of the north,” cuts a course along a historic winter land route used by prospectors, adventurers and mail and supply carriers.
All of it is positioned between the gold fields of the Klondike and those in the Alaska interior.
The story goes that four mushers sat at a table in the Bull’s Eye Saloon in Fairbanks, Alaska in 1983, with a conversation that turned to discussion about a new sled dog and the “what ifs” that could be included.
This led to use of the historical route and its interactions with the Yukon River.
But, these types of talks had been going on for much longer, with Fairbanks to Whitehorse being the connection. All of it gave a nod to the Klondike gold rush of 1898 and the subsequent sprees throughout the interior of Alaska in the early 1900s.
The first-ever Yukon Quest tested both race logistics and the talents of those involved, with 26 teams leaving from Fairbanks in 1984. During the following 16 days, 20 teams arrived in Whitehorse, while six were forced to drop out along the way.
Sonny Lidner was the inaugural winner, completing the race in a little more than 12 days.
It was that sense of adventure that led the Merkleys to the mouth of the race, and to a front-row seat for all that is involved in participating.
The couples story, however, traces back some 20 years when they first brought home a rescue dog, an Alaskan Malamute, they weren’t certain how to interact with.
A little bit of research later and a new hobby was born.
“We ended up getting in contact with a sledding club around here, and once hooked up to a sled in the winter, I was hooked,” Merkley said.
One dog led to four, and today tops out at 12 on the couples County Road 9 property.
Thus the fascination with the Yukon Quest, which for years the Merkleys could only watch on television, dreaming of one day being there.
“We had to put our involvement on hold as our kids were growing up,” Merkley said. “Last year was our 20th wedding anniversary, and we both set it as a goal to be part of the race.”
While participating in the race comes with a fee in the 10s of thousands of dollars, the couple was okay with a sideline view – just being there was the real win for them.
Merkley said he and his wife were tasked with helping at the starting line in Whitehorse, and then shuttled off to Dawson City to help with sign-in at the checkpoints, while at the same time ensuring participants were still appropriately equipped for the journey.
“We would have loved to gone further to see the finish line in Fairbanks, but, you know, you have to come back to reality eventually,” he said with a laugh.
Beyond the race itself, the couple took in the scenery and were blown away by how welcoming those who call the region home were. From friendly waves to helping hands, it was hard to feel so far from home.
It has also spurred a new dream.
“You know, one day we’re going to retire, and I don’t see anything wrong with taking our dogs and moving north,” Merkley said.