Copyright © 1997 The Seattle Times Company
Friday, July 11, 1997

North country attracts the rugged individualist

by Ross Anderson
Seattle Times staff reporter

WHITEHORSE, Yukon Territory - Joe Bishop is no iron man. He does not pump iron or run marathons. He does not aspire to the Olympics.

Instead, Bishop aspires to a certain lifestyle. He makes a living cutting firewood and shepherding Japanese businessmen in canoes down wilderness rivers. His life is his contest. And this summer he proved, mostly to himself, that a true Yukon sourdough can hike and paddle with Olympic-class competition.

The test was the Dyea-to-Dawson Race, a grueling affair where two-person teams with 50-pound packs race over rugged, 33-mile Chilkoot Pass, then paddle 600 miles through the Yukon headwaters and down the river to Dawson.

The winner-take-all prize: $5,000 in gold.

At 36, Bishop had never entered a race before. It's not his style. With his reddish beard, wiry frame and granny glasses, he looks like he should be teaching biology or crooning ballads in an Irish pub.

But his story is quintessential Northwest. Raised in Ontario, he began migrating westward, ran into the Pacific Ocean and turned north toward the Yukon.

He stopped here in Whitehorse, a frontier town that is home to 24,000 - two-thirds of the Yukon's 32,000 people.

It's not a particularly charming place. There are pickups with dogs sleeping in the beds, too many seedy bars and at least one trendy pub with microbrews and hors d'oeuvres.

The economy is mostly government and what's left of the mining industry, plus a seasonal trade in outdoor adventure. Whitehorse has more wilderness outfitters than barber shops.

"I guess I've been longer here than anywhere," Bishop says. "So it must be home."

He worked for a while as a wildlife technologist, studying lynx and arctic hare. But government work did not suit him. "You feel like a cog," he says.

Now he lives in a pickup camper on his wooded lot near Whitehorse, wrestling 8-foot spruce and pine logs onto his 3/4-ton truck.

Summers he goes to work for Kanoe People, the folks who rented us our kayaks. For three or four months of the year, Bishop guides tourists on canoe expeditions before returning to his wood lot.

Last fall, Bishop heard of the Dyea-to-Dawson Race, a novel marathon designed to commemorate the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98. The race would follow the path of the stampeders, only at breakneck speed.

Bishop decided to go for it, and Kanoe People sponsored him. He teamed up with 23-year-old Thane Phillips, a fellow canoist.

The key would be endurance. "I cut wood until the snow got too deep. Then I started going to the gym, which I'd never done before."

By race time - June 13 - he figured he was ready. There were 50 teams, including Olympic-class cross-country skiers, marathon runners and "aerobic machines."

Bishop and Phillips covered the Chilkoot Trail in a bit more than a day, but still trailed the marathoners. "We knew this wouldn't be our strongest leg," he says. "We were staggering."

At Bennett Lake, they threw their gear in a canoe and started paddling. The race continued around the clock through the dusky, northern nights.

"We took turns sleeping in the boat, a half-hour at a time. We were making up ground on the leaders, but the pressure was pretty ridiculous."

There were no meals - just high-energy food bars and powdered drinks. "Five days of PowerBars, and we grumbled about the time it took to stop and unwrap them."

When Bishop and Phillips paddled onto the shore at Dawson City, they had covered 600-plus miles in 5 1/2 days.

That was good for fourth place. The winners, both Olympic skiers, did it in 4 1/2 days.

I hope to do it in about three weeks.

"We didn't expect to win," Bishop shrugs.

Winning is not what this place is about. Like most of the people in these parts, he came, in part, to escape the competition of The Outside. Bishop's only race is with himself.

"The North attracts people who are individuals," he says. "Here I feel I'm in control of my life.

"It's not always easy. There's no security. If I break my arm tomorrow, I have to find another way to make a living.

"But I think people expect more out of life in the North. It's adventure, exhilaration, whatever. . . . You aren't willing to get up in the morning and dread going to work. You overcome obstacles."

We have our own challenge - 450 more miles of river. It is not a race, and it will not make us rich. But we're going to Dawson City.

As we push off the beach, back into the gurgling river current, Bishop watches wistfully from the beach.

C'mon, Joe. Throw in with us. We're headed for the goldfields.

Bishop shakes his head. "Not this time," he says. "Be careful out there."

"And don't rush things. It isn't worth it."

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Copyright © 1997 The Seattle Times Company