Written by Stephen Evans
A bit of background:
This is my fourth ultra since February 2005, having successfully completed the MDS 2005 and the 2006 Yukon Arctic Ultra and failed miserably on the 2006 Ridgeway race. I’d met Cookie and Steve Reeves on the MDS when we shared a tent and met Martin Like on the 2006 YAU, between the three of them they managed to convince my wife that it would be a good idea to let me try and travel 352 miles on foot in the Canadian arctic. I must admit I took slightly less convincing than my wife and so there I was sitting in the High Country Inn in Whitehorse waiting for a compulsory kit inspection.
This race report is a personal account and is how I saw it at the time, I apologise in advance for any inaccuracies, but it was written from notes kept in a diary during the race, which may or may not be reliable as I was cold, dehydrated, tired and hallucinating for most of the time. If you want an official version with results, drop outs etc then look at the official website for martin’s report.
Thursday 15th March 2007
Cookie, Steve Reeves and I had travelled over a few days before and after the compulsory last minute visits to the Whitehorse branches of Canadian Tyre, Wallmart and Coast and Mountain Sports for “essential”last minute bits of kit we had spread them all over the room. This chaos was gradually turned into some semblance of order as we tried to pack them into our sledges so we could find things quickly when cold and tired out on the trail.
The previous evening we had taken our sledges out on a trial run along the road and out to a lake where we could demonstrate our bivvying and stove lighting skills to the ever watchful Shelley.
There were some minor technical hitches- wheels falling off (not mine, but more about that later), setting my glove alight- quickly doused by putting my hand in a snow bank, but all in all, all twelve of the competitors managed to satisfy Shelley that they would manage on the race so we set off back to the hotel.
The race route on the website suggested that wheels would be needed for some of the course as there was little snow cover, I had retired to my shed and come up with a lightweight frame which could clip on and off the bottom of the sledge. My system was definitely the low end of the technical description, other competitors had gone to almost NASA levels of technology and I could only stare enviously, but it was too late to do anything now.
The kit check passed without a hitch, we were given out race number along with a framed version and a race fleece- embroidered with great care.
The chest infection that I’d been harbouring for three or four weeks finally seemed to be resolving with antibiotics, my appetite was returning and I was feeling generally better and raring to go.
Final decisions were made about what to take and what to leave behind. I made a mistake here leaving a ventile windproof behind - I’d not needed it for the YAU –I’d regret that decision later in the week! And the kit finally disappeared into sled bags and drop bags; the sledges were loaded into the trailer for transportation to the start at Eagle Plain. Most of them anyway, Calvin managed to leave behind a rucksack, but wouldn’t discover the omission until we reached the start. After loading the trailer there was a Pre race dinner. I made a few last minute phone calls home and then went to bed in preparation for the early start the next morning.
Friday 16th March 2007
10 hour drive from Whitehorse to Eagle Plain. Calvin discovered he’d left a rucksack behind but with a bit of help from everyone else he managed to get enough kit together to get to the start line. The Dempster Highway sounds really impressive, but in reality it is an icy, gravel track with varying amounts of snow cover. Eagle Plain is a truck stop that’s like stepping back thirty years into the 1970’s, which is when it was built. The welcome from Stan and the staff was unbelievable, and the truckers we got chatting to were incredulous when they realised we were going to try and walk to Tuktoyaktuk.
Last minute repacking of sledge and drop bags, managed to lighten the sledge load a bit further, but not too much. It really is too late to do anything now apart from sleep in preparation for the start tomorrow.
Saturday 17th March 2007–Race day 1
Woke up early, had a shower and went for breakfast. Managed to avoid looking outside so didn’t realise how bad the weather was until I got to the dining room to be told the road was closed because of high winds, up to 70kmh and snow drifts. Martin announced a delay until at least 10 am. Eventually the race started at 11 am, BUT only 23 miles to the Arctic Circle, then we were transported back to Eagle Plain, to await an improvement in the weather.
The first day’s racing was unbelievably difficult, it was much worse than all of the YAU except one stage (Pelly Crossing to Pelly Farm on the river at night), the temperature wasn’t too bad at approx -25C, but the wind was terrible. It meant you could leave absolutely no flesh uncovered because of the risk of frostnip or worse, and therefore made temperature control difficult. I had to keep hat, hood, balaclava and goggles on which meant I was sweating on the uphills (lots of those!) and cold on the downhills (didn’t seem to be so many of those). Eating and drinking were virtually impossible because I had to take off mitts to get in pockets or get to camelbak hose, and uncover my face to get to my mouth, it was such a palaver that by the time I’d uncovered then covered yourself back up, I was cold and would have to walk extra hard to get warm again. It seems that everyone ran into similar problems, but at least my camelback didn’t freeze and I didn’t get frostbite, unlike some of the other competitors.
It took me almost six hours to get to the Arctic Circle, arriving the same time as Steve R. We took a few very quick photos, then got into a support vehicle and were driven back to Eagle Plain. We passed Sue and Kath on the way, they still had a few hours to go, and I must say they didn’t look like they were having fun.
Despite the sweating I’d done throughout the day my kit wasn’t that damp, luckily the only two bits that were wet were my buff and hat. It was bliss to get out of the wind, and into somewhere warm. It seemed ominous that the first 23 miles had been so difficult and miserable; I just wondered what the rest of the race was going to be like. Word around the truck stop was that the weather was improving (it certainly couldn’t get much worse-or so I thought) and that the road would be open the following morning once the snow ploughs had opened the road. Losing almost a day to bad weather did make me think I wouldn’t finish as I’d worked out timings for the whole race. The timings were relatively easy to adjust; I was just worried I wouldn’t be able to walk as fast as I’d need to, to get to Tuktoyaktuk within the cut off time, especially if there was more bad weather ahead.
Sunday 18th March 2007
Another morning in Eagle Plain, waiting for weather reports and info regarding the race start, Martin got us all to the Arctic Circle under clear blue skies and we had a massed start at 1030. Next stop James Creek Highway Depot. Finally made it to the hut at Rock River at about 1700 (77km from eagle plain). It obviously wasn’t used for much as there were holes all over and the floor was covered in snow, but at least there was a fire, hot water and it was out of the wind. Stopped here for about an hour, had a meal then as the weather was still reasonably good I decided to push on to James Creek, as the weather wasn’t expected to stay good for very long. The route from Rock River to James Creek included a 19km uphill section to the top of Wright pass, the border with the Northwest Territories. It soon got dark, the snow started blowing as the wind picked up and the temperature dropped to about -28C. Ideal conditions for getting miserable cold and fed up, especially on day 2 of and 8-day race. The last 5km to the top of the pass were extremely difficult, so windy that my walking poles were blowing away. So cold that my glasses froze over and that it was impossible to take of my down mitts without my hands becoming too stiff to do anything with. The only saving grace was the marshals’cars, which provided a brief respite from the elements. I had to get in twice, to sort out my hood, hat and head torch and to have a quick hot drink. Northern lights appeared and lifted my spirits, although I wasn’t in the mood to appreciate them, and it was too cold to stop and watch them. Finally made it to the highways depot at 0241 (NWT time- clocks had gone forward at top of Wright pass, I had a hot drink then found a space amongst the snow ploughs and equipment at the depot. It was warm, dry and dusty but appreciated. Three hours sleep then up for breakfast –a double portion of freeze dried porridge and raisins, hot chocolate to drink then on the road again at 0800 for the 38 miles to Fort McPherson.
While I slept Sue K decided discretion was the better part of valour given the atrocious weather conditions, Francis managed to miss the check point, and Cookie decided to throw his guts up- not sure why.
Monday 19th March 2007
Yet another cold, miserable day on the road. A seemingly rolling ridge line which never seemed to arrive at the top and was windy again. It was too cold to stop for any length of time, and no cover to bivvy. Although I did try for a couple of hours but only succeeded in getting colder, and not really getting any sleep but did manage to get a hot lunch rather than just nibbling on trail snacks. Even though the bivvy wasn’t that successful the hot meal did wonders for my morale, and I did make the decision not to bivvy out again unless I was really, really struggling. So it was a useful exercise. But it did mean my pre-prepared race plan was now well and truly out of the window. Almost 24 hours less time to complete the distance, and instead of spending as little time as possible at the checkpoints and bivvying out, I would be resting and eating at the checkpoints and trying to reach the next without stopping if at all possible. A major change and I still think, in retrospect, the correct one, as there was absolutely no cover to bivvy. As well as being cold today my feet and shins were sore, not really any blisters but aching soles and sore shins, due to my shoes (Icebug DMG extreme). I think they would have been fine for snow and ice but didn’t really have enough cushioning for walking on the road. At least I was able to change to my Montrails at Fort McPherson, but brufen and paracetamol kept me going through the day. I arrived at Fort McPherson at 0015(Tuesday), and was met by Steve R (he’d dropped out with tendonitis on the way) in a car just before the town (village?), who pointed out directions, which was good as I think I would have missed the turning, and just carried on. The checkpoint was in the local community centre, so it was warm, dry and had plenty of room. Made the most of the space and hot water, had a meal and sorted out some spare kit from the drop bag and swapped shoes, although I kept my Icebugs in the sledge to use on the ice road to Tuktoyaktuk. I only had to average 47 miles in 24 hours from now on to finish within the cutoff, it didn’t sound like much but I had serious concerns that I wouldn’t be able to make it. No option really but to try and go as fast as I can for as long as I can and hope it’s fast enough
Tuesday 20th March 2007
I left Fort McPherson at 0710, and despite the almost seven hour stop still only managed three hours sleep, spent the rest of the time eating, sorting kit and taking advantage of an inside loo. It really isn’t much fun squatting in the snow when it’s minus 30C and blowing. The sleep at the checkpoint wasn’t really enough and I had a bad morning, going really slowly and almost falling asleep as I was walking. The sleepiness resulted in me zigzagging all over the road, which probably wasn’t the safest way to continue, but there was absolutely no tree cover and I didn’t want to bivvy and get cold. I was also concerned about time, and desperate to keep going. I Managed to keep going until early afternoon when a marshal’s car passed, so took advantage to get in out of the wind and had a hot chocolate and a load of biscuits (thanks Sue K and whoever was in the car with her- I can’t remember who it was –sorry) to supplement my haribo sourmix and garibaldi biscuits. I Perked up no end and made it to Tsiighetchic without having to bivvying out. It was on this stage that Martin, race director and master of understatement strikes again. The route description was given as long flat straights but was actually endless, undulating switchbacks the whole way, seemingly never-ending uphill, then even undulations on the way down to the ice crossing. This was a bit disconcerting as the road seemed to go a long way from Tsiighetchic but a turnoff did eventually appear. By this stage my sledge wheels were getting decidedly iffy, probably due to my lack of engineering skills, but no doubt partly due to the absolutely atrocious weather. Arrived at Tsiighetchic gym at 2010, a little earlier than the crew expected apparently, as they were just leaving to guide me in when I arrived, but I’d got directions to the checkpoint from a couple of locals who were out snowshoeing on the river. After a discussion with Martin and Sue, I borrowed Sue’s sledge with her more robust wheels for the stages to Inuvik but decided to use my own sledge without the wheels from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk on the ice road. Only have 200 miles to go now and four and a half days to do it in. My feet improved with the change of shoes, but my face was a bit wind burnt. I decided to Sleep until 0200, then to get up and get going. Managed to stick to that part of the plan and after having breakfast and re-packing my sledge was back on the road at 0330 (22/3/7). Only 51 miles to Caribou Creek
21st March 2007
I arrived at Caribou Creek at 2015 after another soul destroying day in the wind and cold. Despite staying at the checkpoints for longer and longer, sleep deprivation was starting to get to me. I’d managed four hours at Tsiighetchic but it obviously wasn’t enough as once again I was falling asleep as I was walking, although it was slightly straighter this time round. At this stage the hallucinations kicked in. I was seeing swimming pools by the side of the road, pirate ships- (floating in the sky, not in the swimming pools) and brick walls in front of me. The lasted all day and not just the hours of darkness, at least they weren’t quite as worrying as the bears I hallucinated during last year’s Yukon race. It was cold that morning down to -35C, I looked for somewhere sheltered to bivvy but again couldn’t find anywhere so carried on until Linda and Lucy passed by in a car. I had a hot drink and put on extra fleece trousers and after that the temperature wasn’t an issue. At some point that morning I passed Calvyn, who was bivvying. I vaguely remember seeing his bag, and we might have exchanged a few words but I’m not sure as I was on automatic pilot by that stage, just concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. The checkpoint at Caribou creek had been upgraded from a wall ten to two cabins, kindly donated by some of the locals. Food and hot water in one, and sleeping quarters in the other, with an outhouse a few metres away. Pure unadulterated luxury! I sorted my kit out, had a meal- pasta and hot chocolate- and filled up my flasks and camelback with hot water. Then went to bed asking for a 0100 call. That soon changed. One of the problems of sleeping at a checkpoint, even in a race of this size, is that they are busy and people are coming and going. Cookie and Calvyn arrived at approx 0030 and as I was awake I changed my alarm call to 0200, hoping the extra hour asleep would make all the difference (No chance, who was I trying to kid!). I left at 0255 (22/3/7) to trudge the 30 miles to Inuvik
22nd March 2007
Another day on the road, temperatures down to -30C and surprise, surprise it snowed for at least four hours during the stage. Yet again I was falling asleep while walking and hallucinating. The northern lights cheered me up, but it was too cold to stop and watch them for any length of time. Not a lot else to say about this stage really apart from the checkpoint at Arctic Chalet in Inuvik was excellent where I arrived at 1355. I managed to stuff myself with chicken soup &rice, bread rolls and biscuits then sorted out my kit and resorted back to my sledge as the next two stages were going to be on the ice road and I wouldn’t need the wheels any longer. I dried my wet kit, got spare stuff out of the drop bag and restocked food, snacks batteries and fuel. I switched back to the Icebugs but put my Montrails in the sledge just in case my feet got sore again. Emails had arrived from family and friends and they did wonders for my morale, but also made me realise how far away they were. Once the kit was drying and the rest sorted out I had a shower- my first since the race started then went to bed. The plan was to try and sleep for six hours and leave at 2200. This would give me a chance to catch up on the sleep I had missed out on and hopefully not fall asleep on the 70 mile stage to the trailer at Swimming Point (who called it this as I can’t think of a worse place to go swimming). In the end I did have four or five hours of disrupted sleep, again the difficulties of sleeping at a check point with other racers arriving. Cookie and Calvyn arrived; Cookie was seriously considering dropping out, but eventually restarted but unfortunately dropped out on the ice road.
My 2200 start was delayed by just over an hour, but I set off with some trepidation –70 miles without a checkpoint and if the route so far was anything to go by no cover to bivvy. I expected it to take somewhere between 26 and 30 hours and going non stop didn’t seem a realistic option, no matter how much I didn’t want to bivvy. Just before I left I had what I think was the best idea of the race. I made two enormous jam sandwiches and put them in my sledge for breakfast, the plan being to let them freeze then defrost them under my jacket when I was hungry. Only 117 miles to go!
24th March 2007
No, I haven’t gone completely mad and missed a day out, there was no diary entry for the 23rd as I was on the road for over 24 hours between Inuvik and Swimming Point. If I thought I’d been miserable before now I wasn’t really prepared for the pit of despair I was about to enter walking along the ice road.
I’d only been walking for an hour or so when I was stopped by a police patrol car, I can guarantee you it wasn’t for speeding. The policeman asked me where I was going, and seemed somewhat surprised when I replied Tuktoyaktuk (the only place the road went), but he just said good luck and drove off leaving me to continue up the road, watching the northern lights. Not much traffic really, and it got less and less as I went further north. My plan when I left Inuvik was to walk for about 12 hours then bivvy, but as with most of my plans it didn’t quite run smoothly and after about 6 hours, sleep deprivation, and hallucinations started to kick in again and I had little choice but to try and bivvy. I thought my technique for stopping was quite slick, but obviously not slick enough as by the time I was in my bag I was freezing. Initially I warmed up but then the cold started to seep through the two mats and into the bag and I started to chill again once I started shivering in my bag I decided enough was enough and packed up and started walking again. I wasn’t really quick enough getting going and it took about an hour of hard walking with my down jacket on to get anywhere near warm again. The jam sandwiches came into their own here, after about 30 minutes under my jacket they were defrosted enough to eat and tasted absolutely fabulous, even though they looked a bit worse for wear. This was definitely the coldest and most exposed part of the course so far. The riverbanks soon widened so it was incredibly exposed, and the straights just seemed to go on forever and ever and at times it didn’t seem as if I was making any headway at all. The wind picked up throughout the day, and it became more and more difficult to stay warm and virtually impossible to stop to get a drink or something to eat because as soon as I took of my down mitts and stopped walking my fingers just became stiff incredibly quickly and I became cold through and it would take at least half an hour to get warm again by walking hard. I managed to avoid frostbite but was starting to struggle, the camelbak somehow avoided freezing so I could have a drink but what I really needed was hot food and fluids but couldn’t see a realistic way of stopping and lighting a stove without making my situation worse. At some point between 1800 and 1900, Murray stopped in a control car and I took advantage and got in and made a hot meal with the water from my thermos flask, had a couple of mugs of hot chocolate and put on an extra layer. Within 15 minutes I was sorted and ready to be on my way, with serious hypothermia avoided.
The hot food made all the difference and I got back underway, the terrain and weather didn’t really change but the food had made all the difference and I felt much more confident that I would reach the next checkpoint. Despite my confidence I had particularly disturbing hallucinations on the way, seeing hundreds of dead bodies trapped in the ice, and trying to reach up and grab me. It also seemed like there were rooms under the ice and people were flicking the lights on and off just to annoy me. The northern lights were fantastic though and really do provide encouragement in some way. I arrived at the checkpoint trailer at 0340 (24th) after what seemed like an interminable last 6 miles. There were lights from a building visible in the distance and I thought they were the checkpoint but they just never seemed to get any closer. The trailer was fairly basic but provided shelter from the wind, relative warmth and some conversation. I made the most of it and had some hot food, drunk masses of hot chocolate and went to sleep about 0430, slept for two hours then dozed for another two then got up and made breakfast. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to sort out my kit as the sledge had to stay outside. The inside of the trailer was warmer than outside but still well below freezing, as I discovered to my cost- my trainers had frozen during the night. They were uncomfortable to put on, but soon defrosted. I was on my way by 0955 with only the last stage to do. The finish was at least imaginable now, if not actually in sight.
25th March 2007
0527 I finally finished, but not without incident. It was absolutely fantastic to reach the finish, but before ideal with that I ought to mention the last stage, which in some ways was the most difficult. I found it difficult mentally and hard to get into a rhythm. I think that the problem was that I was so close to the finish but still had 47 miles to go and until lunchtime I really struggled, eventually after something to eat in a control car I got my head round the fact that I still had a significant distance to go and that a finish certainly wasn’t in the bag yet. Once I accepted that I just seemed to click back into my previous walking rhythm and it became much easier. Not thinking about how far I had to go but how far I had already come. I saw Martin about 6 miles from the finish I and arranged to meet him, Cookie and Steve Reeves just outside town about an hour later, so I would have some company and encouragement for the last section. About an hour later I could see a car driving up and down the road in the distance and thought it was some locals out for a bit of excitement. Wrong! It was Martin, Cookie and Steve R looking for me. Somehow I’d managed to turn off the main road onto the runway and was heading in the wrong direction. OOPS. Martin looked relieved to see me. I was glad to know that I didn’t really have that far to go. I was put back on the right track and Cookie and Steve R walked the rest of the way into the finish with me. Mimi (the winner) was there to greet me as were a number of other people but I really can’t remember who was there. So I apologise to any one I’ve forgotten but I really did appreciate you being there. The finish banner was rigged up in between to igloos but I didn’t even notice amidst the relief of finishing. The fact that I’d finished was a huge relief more than anything else. I’d be able to sleep, have a shower and not have to come back next year to finish. (I would have had to do if I hadn’t finished).
I’d missed the celebrations the night before but was just glad to get out of my racing gear, have a shower and some breakfast. I was in Tuktoyaktuk for all off two hours before leaving in the car for Dawson with Sue K, Cookie and Steve R. After walking for nearly a week I didn’t really get a chance to see Tuktoyaktuk, but did step onto the frozen Arctic Ocean.
Physically I seemed to have come out of it quite well, a small patch of frost nip and only one blister. I had lost about 4kg in weight despite eating about 6000 calories per day.
The trip home
I thought the exciting bit of my Canadian trip was over but I hadn’t counted on Sue K’s driving. Luckily I was asleep for most of the journey to Dawson, but I did wake up at one stage just as Sue decide to show us her advanced driving skills, skidding and fishtailing from one side of the road after hitting a soft patch of snow. Sue, you coped fantastically but I just had to mention it. How you put up with the three of us in the car I don’t know. The road trip back to Dawson also gave me the chance to appreciate the scenery and beauty of the country I had been travelling through for the previous week but really hadn’t appreciated.
The post race party was held in Dawson where Martin gave out polar certificates, inukshuk trophies to the racers. Everyone indulged in sourtoe cocktails and a few more beers, and then the hardier fools amongst us went on to another local establishment called the ‘Snakepit’. I decided discretion was the better part of valour, phoned home and went to bed in preparation for another day of sleeping in the car on the way back to Whitehorse.
I’ve deliberately not discussed kit in any great detail, but if anyone wants to discuss it Martin Like has my email and I would be happy for him to pass it on.
I hope I haven’t come across as a complete misery in this race report, but it was without doubt one of the hardest, most miserable things I have ever done in my life, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
It was a small intimate race, where you got the chance to know everyone, other racers and checkpoint volunteers, and that made it so much better than the MDS (except Denise, Steve R and Cookie) and even the Yukon arctic Ultra where because of the way it was organised there was no real post race party as such. In my eyes it was a brilliant race even though I felt I was trudging along for most of it and I am glad that Cookie and Steve Reeves twisted my arm to enter. Especially knowing what I know now I would have regretted it forever not having taken part in the first one. I’m just relieved I finished, as I don't think it is something I would ever want to repeat especially the 70 mile section to Swimming Point which was the absolute pit of despair, but again I’m glad I got through it. I didn't really appreciate the scenery as I was racing except for the double circular rainbow, the northern lights and the sun pillars, but the drive back did make me realise what scenery we had travelled through on the way to Tuktoyaktuk.
The pre-race info was generally very good with regular updates which were useful even when there wasn’t much going on. My one complaint would be the advice about wheels as mine were a rather Heath Robinson affair that I didn't expect to use quite as much as I did, but no big deal really.
NB wheels really are a necessity for the first 200 or so miles
The training run in Whitehorse was a good chance to give any new kit a try before venturing out into the race, even though we weren't on the lake for very long.
Whatever happens do not fly either to the start or home from the finish, they are both a major attraction of the race and certainly gave me an idea of the terrain I had ignored for a week while racing. It would have been a desperate shame to spend the whole of my time in the NWT looking at the ground four feet in front of my feet as I did when I was racing.
I thought the delayed start was handled very well. We were informed of what was going on and we had time to prepare for both starts. I would have been disappointed if we'd had to progress up the course and had to miss a bit out. (I would have been back next year to do the whole course) and would have preferred to try and do the distance in a shorter time if offered the choice but would have gone along with the race director’s decision the majority view without making a huge fuss.
The checkpoints were generally very good even though facilities were variable. The important thing was that they were all inside and gave respite from the extremely harsh conditions, as bivvying out was a major problem. I tried twice and only succeeded in getting 2 hours shivering kip both times. It didn't seem worth the effort. The volunteers at the checkpoints were absolutely brilliant, Martin please pass on my thanks.
The support vehicles were a godsend. Given the harshness of the conditions I think it would be unsafe if there were fewer. They saved my bacon twice. Once going up Wright pass and the second time on the ice road, I didn't need long either time but it was just good to get in out of the wind and sort some kit out. If these were reduced I think you would have to take some sort of 1 person tent rather than a bivvy bag, so you could get out of the wind and still prepare food.
The post race party in Dawson is not to be missed, and partaking of a sourtoe cocktail is mandatory. Do not miss out Dawson even if it is just for a night and a drink.
The organisation and the volunteers were absolutely brilliant, and helped make the race the best I have taken part in.
To the other competitors, thank you, it was an honour and a pleasure to meet you and I look forward to competing with you again, wherever it may be.
To anyone considering entering this race- DO IT. If you’ve even considered it, you must have a masochistic, adventurous streak in you somewhere and you will not be disappointed. Martin’s race is an incredible challenge, and one that you will never forget.