Finding Tuktoyaktuk

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This was my conversation with Leigh Swansborough back in early January 2018. We were throwing ideas at each other of the adventures we both wanted. Leigh’s sounded so amazing and I have to admit I was jealous. But at the same time, I was extremely happy for my fellow Aussie friend.

Leigh was excited as she described the idea to me, “The trip is a tad nuts – a 2000 km journey starting with a four day ferry ride from Bellingham, Washington to Skagway, Alaska. Then, in honour of the Klondike Gold Rush miners, we’ll hike the Chilkoot trail into British Columbia, Canada. Here, the boots are swapped out with a paddle and pack-raft and we paddle 900 km, along the remote section of the Yukon River up to the heart of the Gold Rush town Dawson City. Then, we will finish it off with a 900 km hike pushing a cart up to the Arctic Circle, along the newly built dirt highway and beyond to find Tuktoyaktuk and the Arctic Sea”. 

Leigh, a mental health clinician raised in Wagga Wagga New South Wales, was joined on this journey by another courageous and inspirational woman, Clarissa Black, an animal trainer and founder of Pets for Vets, a non-profit organisation that pairs up veterans with shelter animals. 

I asked Leigh what adventure as a woman meant to her and she said, “Adventuring as a woman gives me a freedom that I can only experience in the wilderness. The wilderness is the only thing that has ever made sense to me. Perhaps it’s because Mother Nature offers me an equality that society does not. My gender, ethnicity, orientation and social economic background are of little significance during a backcountry monsoonal storm at 12,000 feet. A willingness to be vulnerable, a craving for connection and an insane love for the unknown fuels for my desire for adventures”.

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Clarissa feels a sense of peace, belonging and grounding when exploring Mother Nature. “I use ecotherapy as part of my healing from PTSD, I feel empowered and the weight I carry lifted,” she said. 

Neither of them had ever taken on a journey of this magnitude before. They were certainly not on a rush to find gold but more on a journey to reach and discover the Inuialut community of Uktoyaktuk (Tuk as it is known by locals). This area of Canada is all coastal plains and until fairly recently, Tuk was only accessible in the winter when the land froze, creating a permafrost road which could be driven on. In the summer, the town was only connected only by plane. However, in November 2017 a permanent road was built across the open tundra, connecting this remote community with all year round access. The girls planned to be the first to walk it.

The journey was inspired by this very women’s magazine – Travel Play Live – when Aussie female adventurers were invited to apply for the 2018 Women’s Adventure Grant. “I finally felt like a publication understood the true value of adventure – creating and developing community connection, enhancing personal growth, and inspiring change,” said Leigh. (While in the end Leigh chose not to apply for the grant, she was elated that herself and other women had the opportunity to do so).

The girls expectation from such an adventure would be to increase the visibility of women in the wilderness through media and social media coverage they generated along the way and possibly inspire others to venture out of their comfort zone. 

The knew it would be a challenge and tackled a number of hurdles right from the start.  

A week prior to departure, Clarissa was rear ended in a car accident leaving her with back, neck and shoulder pain and almost no time to recover. Ensuring they had access to adequate food was also difficult. Leigh has an allergy to soy products and after carefully preparing $1,200 USD worth of food drops there were hassles with getting the food through border control. Posting from Los Angeles to the Canadian post office was an issue due to restrictions on international mail but, with the help from Canada’s Visitors centres and kind strangers they managed to make their essential food drops. 

On June 1st, 2018 the girls set off from Skagway Alaska along the Chilkoot Trail, a vital trade route for the indigenous Tlingit people, and a major route for the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1800’s. Although early summer, conditions were still wintery and the challenge began straight away for Leigh. She has both rheumatoid arthritis and Raynaud’s disease so exposure to severe cold can be extremely taxing. To help combat this, Leigh wore plenty of protective clothing and a dry suit for the paddling sections of the journey.

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The girls trekked through the snow towards the Chilkoot Trail Mountain Pass (1067m) and scrambled their way over the rockface of the Golden Staircase towards the false summit. Leigh became stuck and hurt her ankle and Clarissa’s only way to reach her was to slide back down the slope. She slid at an alarming pace with only her hiking pole to stop her from crashing into the rocks below. Managing to continue on up the pass they decided to spend the night in the emergency shelter at the top to recover.

Finishing the 53 km Chilkoot Trail, they arrived at the abandoned town of  Bennett, British Columbia, where they began pack-rafting through the lake system, along the Yukon river to reach Dawson City. Paddling was extremely difficult through the harrowing wind storms of Bennett Lake but the girls eventually managed to make it to Bove Island on Leigh’s birthday. For four days they were held up at the mercy of the weather with 80 kph winds which prevented them from making the Windy Arm crossing to get to the Southern Lakes resort for a belated birthday celebration.

Closer to Dawson City the river became quite an obstacle course. Murky water rushed in from White River as it joined the Yukon, fallen trees littered the waterways and submerged branches made navigation treacherous.

But it wasn’t all wind and rain on the Yukon, there were some welcome moments of sunshine, the best not even from the sun but rather from a sign they spotted in the trees saying, ‘campground and bakery in 9 km’. It had been almost two months of paddling and the thought of baked food was heaven. Arriving at this remote campground they found it to be an off-the-grid property that provided food and a place to stay for paddlers of the Yukon and was run by three generations of women (and a duck). 

More challenges struck in July when the girls were camped at the Whitehorse Campgrounds. The girls were woken up by the local Police after Leigh’s passport was found on the other side of the river. A large amount of their gear (including clothes, tech-gear, camera and backpacks) had been stolen from their vestibule during the night. After hearing about their situation on a CBC radio interview, the town of Whitehorse rallied together to help the girls continue along their journey.

The next hurdle they encountered was to do with their custom made car, a crucial part of their equipment which they had shipped ahead from Oregon to Dawson for the long trek up the Dempster Highway. However, on arriving in Dawson there was no cart! With only three resupply points in the 900 km stretch and around 50 kg of supplies to carry it would be extremely difficult without it. Not to be defeated, they used all their resourcefulness to scavenge around Dawson, including the rubbish dump, and came up with a less than perfect solution. A vintage stroller, named ‘Strolee’, and a three-wheeled golf cart named ‘Bad Boy’. 

The plan was to push these carts as far as they could, and then blessed with the generosity of a local woman named Cynthia, the girls were given a Burly Trailer, aptly named ‘Miss Cynthia’. 

Another angel, Olav from Inuvik,  drove past with a tour group heading to Dawson. On his return he brought them some treats like fresh bread, fruit and gave them his number insisting they call if needed. Olav was worried that Miss Cynthia wouldn’t make the treacherous journey ahead, and a few days later he messaged the girls and surprised them with the gift of a new cart.

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Trekking the highway bought some huge challenges but also great pleasure too. The girls were blessed with the beauty of mother nature, her rainbows, the night shows of the dancing northern lights, even seeing black bears crossing ahead of them. Many people stopped along the way giving them gifts of handwritten cards, food, drinks and a whole lot of encouragement. 

“That incredible human spirit, the connection, the caring, the kindness of the North, the Yukon – it was unbelievable,“ said Clarissa. The girls told how it really helped lift their spirits when the days and nights were challenging. At one point the cart fell down into a ravine bending the front wheel and handlebar. A passing motorist helped retrieve Miss Cynthia and Olav returned again to help repair her. Pushed through potholes, wind, rain, snow, sleet and hail Miss Cynthia made 253 km before she was retired from the journey.

For two days the girls were stuck in a snowstorm with white-out conditions and unable to walk but no obstacle was going to stop them from achieving their goal. Held up in their tent alongside the highway they spent their time writing, editing their photos and fantasizing about food before the weather subsided enough for them to continue safely. 

As October came, and the bone chilling winds ripped through, the girls pushed closer to reaching their target. Clarissa started to suffer from sharp stabbing pains in her Achilles and became sick just days away from reaching Tuk. But with sheer determination and strength the girls pushed on to become the first women to hike, paddle and walk from Skagway Alaska up the Dempster and the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway to the Arctic Ocean. 

On reflecting on what they had achieved, the girls had the following to say:

Leigh – “Ladies just do it! Don’t let others project their fears into you! Regardless of the obstacles we faced, everything always seemed to work out, the obstacles made us stronger.” 

Leigh is currently researching a new adventure to Iran.

Clarissa – “This adventure lit a fire in my soul and I feel proud to play a part in normalizing female adventurers, hopefully encouraging others to go outside of their comfort zone. The people we met truly were the Yukon Gold and the Northern Lights of this journey”.

Story by: Michelle Ryan

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