When the Percy de Wolfe Memorial Mail Race comes to Dawson City on March 22, it is a sign of spring.
Already the light is returning and the spring equinox is approaching. Everyone wants the temperatures to warm up as well. Usually, Mother Nature refuses to cooperate with the requests, and the Percy three years ago was no exception.
I like to take photos of the race start at 10 a.m., so I arranged to drop my dog off at my friend Marni’shouse on the way. I knocked on her door and waited for an answer.
I stood there in my “race” attire, consisting of an underwear layer of super wool, a base layer ofScholler fabric pants and a thick polypropylene top, a polypropylene jacket topped off with a puffy synthetic hooded jacket and over pants, super wool socks, insulated boots, a fleece neck warmer, atouque, and thick climbing gloves.
As the first dog team shot forward, I tried to capture their unbound energy PHOTOS: Gordon MacRae
I heard a muffled, “Come in!” so I opened the door.
Marni was rolling up a foam exercise mat. Marni is about 20 years younger than I am, the mother of two, and very good looking from top to bottom.
(You don’t have to take my word for it, you can ask my partner. We were all out on a summer raft trip once, and my partner took a photo ofMarni’s bottom because she said it was so perfect.)
Anyway, Marni had on a t-shirt and short shorts, and I thought she looked particularly fine. I was so unused to seeing anybody so unwrapped, the sight of Marni in short shorts was a bit of a shock.
Maybe it was Marni’s perfect bottom, or perhaps I was struck with the glaring contrast between our dress codes.
Tuktu, my chocolate Labrador retriever, went wild over Marni and did his “Arooooo” sounds and his “I-am-so-happy-to-see-you” dance. I felt I was leaving him in good hands as I said a quick goodbye.
As soon as the cold air hit what was showing of my face, all thoughts of Marni in the short shorts left.
I headed to the recently reopened Riverwest Bistro Restaurant (another sign of spring) and took my thermal mug inside. Dianne, the owner, greeted me with her usual sunny smile and said, with only a small question mark because she knows my routine so well, “Tall latte, mister?”
“Yes please,” I replied.
I needed an extra boost of caffeine and warmth. I knew it would be cold standing there taking photos. I marvel at how the mushers and their dogs can do two days on the trail, racing to Eagle, Alaska and back.
I recalled the temperatures at race day for the last three years being between minus 15 and 20 or so, and even that was cool on the fingers. Today, it was minus 30, so I finished my coffee in the hardware store on Second Avenue, the closest warm hideout to the start line.
Tossing the camera bag over my shoulder I finally headed over. I wandered among the teams, getting shots of dogs getting their booties on their feet, and dogs chained to the trucks patiently waiting to get hitched to the sled.
As I walked among the dogs, I realized something was missing. Something that is in the air at the beginning of every sled dog race I’ve been to.
I don’t know if it was the cold, though I did see several dogs shivering. However, shivering is not that unusual for a race day and I’ve seen dogs shiver when it is a lot warmer. It is kind of that anticipation thing that any athlete gets on race day – part nervousness, part adrenaline, part anticipation.
Suddenly it hit me. The dogs were silent. It was almost eerie. Normally you can barely hear yourself think above the din of howling, yipping, barking, yodelling, yowling and baying.
But today, you could whisper to someone and they would be perfectly able to hear you.
I mentioned this odd silence to one of the handlers and I could see the switch click in his head as he replied, “Yeah, you’re right, it is totally quiet! Maybe it’s the cold?”
I positioned myself on my knees in the snow to take photos of the teams starting. The first team came to the start line and the dogs started yipping and barking, yowling and leaping. Well, it appeared their enthusiasm could only be subdued for so long. They were ready!
Then the first team was off, I shot as fast as my cold fingers would allow. I turned the lens from the receding dogs to the cheering children along the sidelines, holding up encouraging signs for the local teams.
The crowd was as colourful as the winter had been dull, almost like the people were trying to make up for the long grey winter by wearing as much color as possible.
They were like spring flowers blooming on the wooden sidewalks. Purple parkas with turquoise touques, blue parkas and yellowtouques, and “mad trapper” fur hats.
The air turned foggy with the breath of the dogs, and the dog-breath-fog became lit with the sunlight from behind, making the scene soft and pastel. Even though many of the dogs wore bright red or yellow jackets, the entire scene was dreamlike.
In many ways, the Percy is like a dream. The dog sled race happens on a main street with school kids cheering (all the more enthusiastic because they have the morning off school!), and spectators stand on wooden sidewalks in front of ancient looking false fronted buildings.
However, in less than an hour after the race starts, the dog teams are long gone, the spectators dispersed, and the street is pretty well deserted.