They say every journey begins with a single step, and that is certainly true of our plan to cover over 1,000 miles of mud, ice and snow to cross Alaska with two horses. There is myself - a 31-year-old Korean-American - my 29-year-old French partner Laurent, and his best friend, Philippe, 29. We think of the 4,000 or so Gold Rush pioneers who landed in Valdez in 1898, searching for an all-American route to the Klondike. They entered this land with no idea of what this vast territory would hold; with only their dreams and naïvete to sustain them. Unlike them, though, for us the first step is taken 8,000 miles from Alaska, in Paris.
With the Alaska Yellow Pages staring at us from the computer screen, we start calling ranches and stables in the hunt for suitable horses. "Hello," I say, "we are looking for horses to buy or rent this summer to travel across Alaska." Replies range from, "Are you crazy?" to "Wish I could go with you." Not wanting to let on how inexperienced we are, I discover that it's best to say as little as possible in the hope of sounding horse-savvy. Fortunately, this works and we compile a list of vendors to visit when we arrive in Alaska.
We meet up with Laurent in Palmer, 45 miles north of Anchorage, where we have found a selection of horses to buy - a task not as easy as you'd think in a land dominated by four-wheel-drives, RVs and pick-up trucks. We settle on Boogie, an 11-year-old Appaloosa and Chevelle, a five-year-old Paint, a real looker and a real handful.
Like the gold-diggers of old - who used horses to carry their mining gear - we start our journey in Valdez. As Chevelle is smaller than Boogie, I am assigned the task of looking after her. Three days in, after being soaked to the bone in summer rain, getting tugged this way and that, and with Chevelle injuring herself on a bridge, we start to wonder whether we've thought this out properly. Leaving Chevelle at an animal hospital, we are wracked by feelings of guilt and responsibility. To top it all off, we receive news from the vet that some time after our trip we will become parents. Chevelle is pregnant. We take a diversion for two weeks waiting for her to be ready to rejoin us. When she returns, her behaviour is even odder than before. Get close to her food bag, and she'll whirl around and kick any fool trying to help. Can't live with her, can't live without her...
As we drop down into the vast Copper River Valley to head into the towns of Kennecott and McCarthy, we meet the 17-strong Pilgrim family, who live in Wrangell-St Elias, the largest national park in the United States. They share with us how they live: "We have chickens, goats, dogs and hunt for subsistence." When the day is done and the family fed, the Pilgrims even make their own entertainment - every member plays a bluegrass instrument and the family sometimes plays concerts under the name Heaven's Hillbillies. We marvel at their seemingly fulfilled existence, their deep religious beliefs and their ability to live off the land.
'You all will have no trouble at all. The Seven-Mile Lake trail is stunning and in good condition." Famous last words from a worker at one of the lodges on the highway when we ask her about trails. We've not had much luck so far, having had to turn back on several trails due to mud, marsh or both; but we are eager to get off the highway and into the mountains.
Heading out, we experience patch after patch of mud, sometimes knee-deep, * mostly created by tracks from all-terrain vehicles that have been deepened by rain. Boogie gets mired several times. Chevelle loses her saddle and we have to quickly repack her. It is raining and cold and getting dark and we are all looking forward to one thing: a warm meal. Another pipe dream... we have no fuel.
We cross the Susutna River, its enormity passing below us, when we notice Chevelle is walking strangely - her shoe is missing. Deciding to wait until the next day to see what we can do to help her, we settle down for the night and are treated to the swirling display of an aurora borealis. But that won't help solve our dilemma. So, the next day, without a farrier in sight, we decide to make a temporary rubber boot for Chevelle with the help of a local tyre-shop worker called Larry. "It should work until you all can get to a farrier. But I'd better make another one in case this wears out," Larry says helpfully.
As summer turns to autumn, we push on into the reddening leaves of the tundra where we meet Gary Pinard, owner of several horses near the Brushkana Campground. After inspecting Chevelle's foot, we ask what he thinks: "Buy another horse," he chuckles. But then he digs around in his stable and pulls out an easy boot, a more sophisticated version of our improvised tyre, and slips it over Chevelle's hoof. We thank Gary and off we go, our horse's red boot glistening in the autumn sun.
We head past Fairbanks and Livengood, finding a farrier for Chevelle and loading up on supplies. We're warned that the Dalton Highway can be treacherous so we seek another route and, with permission from the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, are given access to its corridor. But after two days of climbing, we begin to have serious doubts. Water is in short supply and mosquitoes are thick.
Fortunately, the corridor flattens out and we continue north past the wide, calm flow of the Yukon River. Two months in, we cross the Arctic Circle and the isolation of the area envelops us. It is also getting colder at night - with winter drawing in and temperatures dropping to minus 10 at times. Snow looms in the peaks of the Brooks Range ahead.
Atigun Pass is steeper than we thought and covered in snow, but there's little time to moan as we start our ascent. The horses' hooves are packed with ice, but they climb effortlessly, amazing us as we struggle with our footing. The snow continues to fall and, despite the euphoria of crossing the pass, the horses, like us, are shivering and look miserable.
This is also the first time in the months we have been travelling that we have had to pitch camp in snow. We're lucky enough to have decent gear that keeps us mostly dry, but we awake to our shoes frozen solid, the laces stiff. We squeeze our feet into them. Boogie starts acting strangely - making an odd-sounding whinny as we lead the horses to be saddled. Is it the snow? Or bears? As we start to walk, a local worker pulls over to warn us that two bears have been spotted not far from here. Maybe Boogie is on to something.
I have to admit to being curiously excited. Since the beginning of the trip, I've become obsessed with bears, reading every pamphlet I can get my hands on, even dreaming about them. Now may be my chance to see them...
Be careful what you wish for... Suddenly, Laurent shouts: "Bears!" and I crane my head to see the brown hump of a grizzly. I stop in my tracks but Laurent and Philippe have already retreated behind Chevelle and are preparing the gun we were so reluctant to bring along. We consider travelling high on the tundra until we spot a pick-up with two hunters. We wave them down and politely ask if they wouldn't mind buffering us, worry and panic seeping out of our voices. "Probably a good idea," the younger hunter muses.
We arrive in the inappropriately named town of Deadhorse, uncertain of how to reach the ocean. The corridors here are owned by BP and, even after being told no many times, we keep trying, refusing to allow our trip to end here. Finally, we're given clearance.
Which is how we reached the Arctic Ocean. Having experienced many things for the first time, being supported by the local folk and endured some challenging times, maybe that pioneering spirit is not so dead after all. And maybe, a little of that spirit can be had by us all simply by following a dream. *
For all travel details concerning Alaska, visit www.dced.state.ak.us/trade/tou/home.htm, or contact the Alaska Travel Industry Association on tel: 001 907 929 2200
Can you go the distance?
Drive Cairo to Cape Town
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Climb every mountain
Impress all with tales of two weeks of mountain climbing in the Himalayas and of how you conquered a 20,000ft peak. Just make sure that your porter, weighed down with your bag, is well out of the way during the photos. Exodus, tel: 020 8673 0859
Heave-ho with huskies
A 25km to 40km white-knuckle ride each day across the wilderness in Finland. After being dragged along in sub-zero temperatures by a pack of yelping animals, your guide will cook, leaving you to relax in the sauna. Trips run November to April. www.international-adventure.co.uk, tel: 01767 650 312
Make a pilgrimage
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Head for the Appalachian trail
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All aboard the Trans-Siberian
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