Fulda challenge
Three ample dancers wearing bloomers and bright lipstick do their best to recreate Klondike Days. Click image to enlarge

By Paul Williams

Whitehorse, The Yukon – The third annual Fulda Challenge wrapped up in Whitehorse early in 2004, with its surprise Canadian winners, the Dawson City husband and wife team of Greg and Denise McHale, beating out the European favourites and taking home $10,000 worth of gold nuggets.

Your intrepid reporter from Autos was there, but it’s taken months to put this unique experience into perspective (plus, no-one else would publish a 3500-word report).

You probably didn’t read about the Fulda Challenge, an “extreme Arctic adventure” sponsored by Germany’s Fulda tire company with Toyota supplying vehicles, as it made virtually no impact on Canada’s sports media.

But in Europe it was a Big Deal. There, newspapers, magazines and TV-stations followed the Fulda event in minute detail. Literally planeloads of reporters and film crews were dispatched to the Yukon to cover the action and interview the athletes. Results were tabulated in real time on numerous websites. People were pumped.

Why all the fuss? It’s got to do with mythology, I think. In Europe, Canada is seen as a remote, wild place, where vast ice floes separate far-flung communities, and tough, resourceful Canadians battle nature on a daily basis to scratch a living from the bleak, inhospitable, landscape.

This must explain the official description of the Fulda Challenge, as “2000 endless kilometres following the Gold rush trail. Sweating at minus-50 degrees Celsius; ice cold nerves in snowstorms. In the middle of the bizarre and inhospitable climate, sleeping in a tent beneath the Northern lights, where songs of lament are heard by no-one and only the wolves howl in sympathy.”

As I say…mythology.

The Challenge featured 18 contestants (nine couples). They came from the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, Great Britain and Canada. These were serious, experienced competitors, including iron man tri-athletes and Alpine winter sports instructors. But while the Europeans whittled down their impressive 40,000 entries to identify the final contestants, it has to be said that including a Canadian entry was pretty much a courtesy to the host country.

In past years, Canadian coach and Edmonton Journal columnist Nick Lees has personally selected the Canadian entrants, and this year Yukon Tourism advertised for contestants and came up with the McHales (Greg, 31, is a Mountie in Dawson City, and Denise, 30, is a fitness instructor).

But courtesy or not, our team was good. Perhaps too good. According to Gary Bullen, a British Royal Marine fitness instructor and member of one of the British teams, “The Canadians at times were in a class of their own.”

Fulda challenge 2004 Toyota Highlander
Autos correspondent attempts to blend in. Click image to enlarge

Fortunately, the McHale’s exploits wouldn’t go unnoticed, as Toyota Canada generously invited a team of seasoned Canadian auto writers up to the Yukon to drive the new Toyota trucks used for the event, and to follow the competition (from a polite distance).

Not being sports writers, however, we were inclined to be more interested in horsepower and torque, as opposed to half-marathons and ice climbing. True, there was an extreme tire-changing event and a hovercraft control contest, but unfortunately we missed those.

We were game, though, and being Canadians, perhaps had a slight air of disdain for all the talk about ice-cold nerves, wolves and degrees Celsius. After all, it’s just winter, right?

On the morning of Day One, our little group of 10 writers assembled in temperate Vancouver, dressed mostly in golf shirts and jeans, and stayed at the same hotel as the veritable army of print journalists, film and TV crews, assigned to the Challenge from Europe. You couldn’t miss the Fulda people, as everyone was wearing matching boots and snowpants, insulated hats, and a bulky red jacket emblazoned with corporate patches.

The first meeting with our colleagues was scheduled over breakfast at the tony Vancouver Fairmont, after which we’d all continue on to Whitehorse. We expected perhaps a brief introduction to the event by the organizers, and a friendly greeting to the Canadian contingent.

That didn’t exactly happen.

“Good Lord,” said Howard Elmer of the Toronto Star when confronted with the ocean of red jackets. “Are we in the right place? These don’t look like auto writers to me. They look way too fit!”

It was true. For journalists, they seemed suspiciously lean, but the sign said “Fulda,” so we helped ourselves to the buffet breakfast and sat at a table in the corner, nodding hello to our colleagues who looked puzzled by our presence.

Presently, a tall, stern-looking gentleman marched toward us with an outstretched finger. Clearly he had something important on his mind, and it wasn’t “Welcome!”

“You are in the wrong place,” he said curtly. “You should go now.”

So there we were, stopped in mid-chew, blinking stupidly at our German host, with one eye on him and the other on our sausages, in case he tried to remove those as well.

I should say that beneath our jaunty exterior, we were stung. Scruffy yet proud, we could afford our own breakfast, thank-you-very-much (well, maybe not in this hotel, but at a Tim’s we could), having actually got up early to socialize with this group after an exhausting flight in the executive cabin the day before .

But no smile replaced the scowl after we explained that we were, in fact, the Pro’s from Dover; the Press from the Best (Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Halifax, even); the Canadian Contingent.

Our host was not impressed. “You should not be here,” he repeated.

And with that, he turned on his heels and the entire European Fulda Challenge press corps got up in a huff, and left.

Well, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but it was sudden, and you must admit, oddly coincidental. Fact was, it was exactly two hours from the departure of our plane to Whitehorse, and these guys were paying strict attention to the instructions on their ticket, so they left to get in line. We knew we had plenty of time, so we finished off the sausages and did our best to consume the rest of the bacon and scrambled egg substance. No point in having a good breakfast go to waste.

We still don’t know what caused the misunderstanding, however. There was a minor incident in which one of our group was involved concerning the ownership of some toast, and it’s true we finished off the orange juice, but I’m certain hotel staff would have brought more.

However, the die was cast, I reckon.

In Whitehorse that evening, each of our rooms at the High Country Inn contained enough complementary cold-weather gear to clothe Nanook of the North and his extended family. The centerpiece was the red Fulda jacket — a nice item of Far West manufacture — with grey trim and a hood. But there was also fleece underwear, insulated outwear, woolen headwear, fleece innerwear and triple-layered footwear of a type and size that NASA surely will use for its upcoming Mars expedition.

And there were giant arctic gloves made out of some kind of exoskeleton that, once put on, resisted all attempts to actually bend your fingers. These were like putting great lobster claws on your hands

Fulda challenge
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Thus dressed, and having flashbacks of being four-years old and bundled up in a snowsuit, we waddled downtown to the doors of City Hall for the opening ceremony of the Fulda Challenge and its first event, “Pulling a V8 Toyota 4Runner Down Mainstreet on Ice.”

It was here that we became sure something was not quite right.

Why? Because although the Fulda press was there, and the challengers from many nations were there (and that’s Gary and Jill, not Gill, corrected a visibly annoyed young lady from England after being introduced, while everyone wondered if in fact there was a gay couple in this), and even though the Minister for Yukon Tourism, Elaine Taylor, was there, along with an enthusiastic mayor of Whitehorse (we pronounce it Gill, he muttered defensively) and two totally frozen Mounties were there for show, wearing only dress tunics and resolute expressions; even though all these people including the Canadian Contingent were there, what you couldn’t find were any spectators at all.

Apparently nobody from Whitehorse was interested, except for one drunk guy making a nuisance of himself. No kids, no curious onlookers, no sports fans, no local media. Nobody. The streets, dark now, and feebly bathed in yellow light from the streetlamps, were deserted.

Undaunted, the mayor mentioned there was some hot chocolate available in City Hall if we were getting chilly, then dragged up the organizer of the Fulda Challenge, Holger Bergold, to say some words.

“Hey, wait a minute,” blurted out one of the Canadian writers, “that’s the dude in Vancouver who tried to kibosh our breakfast!”

And so it was! He seemed a lot friendlier than when we’d last encountered him, which was a good thing, I reckon, as there was no-one here to actually throw out.

Forty-thousand people had entered the Fulda Challenge he said. Whittled down through a grueling selection process to the very best Europe has to offer, they’d come to the ends of the earth to compete in this event.

Then the great race-car driver Hans Stuck Jr. joined him onstage – he had helped with the driving components of the Challenge – and Markus Wasmeier, world champion skier, was to have been there but sent apologies.

After the speeches, and rather than starting the competition (it really was getting cold, even with all the gear, and the Mounties looked ready to fall over dead and shatter), the mayor introduced three ample dancers wearing bloomers and bright lipstick who did their best to recreate Klondike Days, while the music from their sound system unfortunately sputtered, crackled, popped and eventually stopped completely.

Then, a couple of guys playing guitar and gut-bucket sang some folk songs about freezing to death and being mauled by bears, and the Fulda Challenge trulybegan. At which point, the Canadian auto press promptly headed inside City Hall in search of the promised hot chocolate.

Thus fortified, and after a brief chat with Miss Yukon (who admitted she hadn’t a clue what was going on but added she was happy to be there), we witnessed a young German woman gamely trying to pull a Toyota truck along mainstreet (no, not with her teeth; she had straps over her back and was trying to pull it like a cart horse, albeit a very tiny one). She quickly ended up flat on her face, of course, her boots finding no purchase on the icy surface. It was like watching someone try to pull an apartment building.

But man, could she grimace, and the European press absolutely loved it, cheering her on as they do competitors hurtling down Alpine ski slopes.

“Hai, hai, hai,” they yelled, only here nobody was actually moving and the event had all the drama of turtle racing.

Back at the High Country Inn, my colleagues now noticed something strange about the Canadian journalists’ red jackets. They were all different, pointed out Richard Russell of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. Not in a big way, and don’t get me wrong, they were all lovely jackets and we really liked them for sure. But the fact is, they were a patchwork-quilt of Fulda attire.

It looked, and I could be wrong about this so don’t quote me, but it looked like the Canucks had been given the remnants of previous years’ Fulda gear, whereas all the other people had the proper uniform, so to speak, with all the right corporate patches and jackets of the same length, colour combination and style.

Fulda Press
Fulda Press. Click image to enlarge

However, we had come to regard our status at the event as peripheral, anyway, and we rather liked our rag-tag look. It matched what was becoming our rag-tag attitude.

The next day the Fulda people trekked off into the expanse where they planned to camp out and engage in more challenging activities. We drove to Lake LeBarge, which, you may recall, is where Sam McGee personally fuelled his ambitions in the Alice May.

The lake was enveloped in ice fog, which is basically like being in a dense, frozen cloud, although unlike Mr. McGee, we were warm enough in our climate-controlled Toyotas. Our guide, a grizzled and ironically German individual, named Michael, told us that on days like these, ghost ships could sometimes be seen on the lake. We all had a good laugh about that.

“No, I’m serious” he said, and we laughed some more.

Abruptly, he stopped what he was doing and turned to us looking like a pissed-off Gandalf, his eyes narrowing, his right hand tightening around a wooden staff.

“I said… you can see ghost ships,” he hissed, “On…ze…lake.”

I know I for one caught a glimpse of something vague in the mist at that point; we all did, in fact.

Then his mood brightened. “Ve go now!” he said, jumping into his Highlander and crashing though piles of snow, back onto the highway.

Nothing could stop the Toyotas, it seemed, which was a good thing because we’d long ago passed a road sign that said, “911 zone ends here.” (Ironically, most of the locals were driving 1976 Fords and old Chevy station wagons, but “Cars of the North” will be another story.)

Fulda challenge
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That evening another Fulda contest was staged, this one involved pumping a hand-operated railway trolley down a length of track. Not all of our auto writers attended this as some had important work to do in the hotel bar, but I did, and I have pictures to prove it.

Later, and after being yet again dragged from the bar with its delicious wings and endless flow of Yukon Gold beer, we collected at the Panda restaurant for supper. This was a truly strange experience where meals were hilariously served in chunks shaped like whole internal organs, and some suspiciously familiar external ones.

“Don’t say a thing,” said Mike LaFave of Driven Magazine, as his fork hovered above something that looked disturbingly like the John Thomas of a prize Hereford bull. But it was too late, as the hilarity of this monster sausage sitting atop a giant grey meatball, absolutely reduced our group to tears (unfortunately, no photo record exists of this meal, called the German Meat Sampler).

After eventually regaining our composure, we returned to the hotel, Fulda’d out for the day.

Fulda challenge
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Day Three we drove to the town of Carcross, which from a distance seems very picturesque. There we chewed up the prepared track by skidding around on Lake Bennett before the Fulda competitors arrived for their ice race. The crew later said we had done them a favour, as this permitted their snow-clearing equipment to get down to the slick icy surface which would make the subsequent driving event more interesting.

After helping with the track, we drove to the Alaska border for the excellent mountain views, but the fog and snow obscured any scenery that was supposedly there. Did you know that in Whitehorse they receive only 25-centimeters of snow per year (it’s semi-arid), but on the Alaska coast they get 25-meters? It’s true, or at least it is according to the intense Michael, our guide.

We gave up on the scenery and drove back to Carcross, still well ahead of the Fuldites, and enjoyed a hearty lunch of moose stew, fruit salad and bannock supplied by Marsh Lake Tents and Events (in the history of Canadian cuisine, bannock is classified as a form of pre- or proto-doughnut). We’d worked up an appetite demolishing the track that morning and searching for scenery, and several hungry auto writers dug in with gusto.

Fulda challenge
Autos correspondent attempts to blend in. Click image to enlarge

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the Indian Trappers Association to try on some local headgear. It had been recommended to us by our guide as the most authentic place to find local handicrafts, and by now we just went along with whatever he said, even if it took us to dead-ends and white-outs.

This was an entire store filled with politically incorrect hats, although one of our group did refuse to try them on “for philosophical reasons,” (lest you think all auto writers are oblivious to social issues and only care about cars). I, however, was smitten by the beautiful Yukon environment and was thinking I’d like some clothes that would enable me to more easily blend into the community on my next visit.

Consequently I tried on several popular styles of hats, which for some reason completely cracked up the salesperson, who became progressively more hysterical with each hat that I tried. She ended up literally in tears of laughter, red-faced, pointing and crying, barely able to stand behind the counter, her knees threatening to give out from under her.

Fulda challenge
Click image to enlarge

“Here, put this one on,” she’d say, handing me another more preposterous piece of headgear. Then, when I did, she’d slap her thigh and erupt into uncontrollable howls. For me, it was a little disconcerting and seemed an odd sales technique.

Apparently – and this is something I wouldn’t have known without her expert assessment – apparently I don’t have the right shaped head for this kind of hat (or maybe any kind of hat!). At any rate, even though I didn’t buy a hat, she said it was worth it, whatever that means.

Later that night, word filtered through that there were more complaints from the Fulda competitors about the Canadians. Apparently we’d destroyed their ice racing track and eaten all the moose stew, or at least all the moose in the moose stew. These guys… bunch of complainers, I think.

On our final day we witnessed the most competitive event to date: the snowmobile race.

These were not your family-type snowmobiles. No, these were full-blown race sleds with viscious looking track studs and enough power to satisfy the most experienced rider. If these were motorcycles, they’d be superbikes, and the problem was, out of 18 competitors, 17 had no experience on snowmobiles (that includes our Canadians, although you’d have thought a Mountie would know how to drive a snowmobile).

The contest took place on a converted go-kart track, onto which they’d built jumps and banked corners. Three women started, who clearly had never mounted a snowmobile in their lives. Gingerly, they proceeded around the track to get the feel of it (a sensible, but insufficient precaution) and then the race began.

One rider, as we say in Canada, “gave ‘er” whereupon the snowmobile instantly shot out from beneath her and headed, riderless, straight for the European journalists, causing them to scatter wildly. Meanwhile, the former rider shot up and was momentarily suspended about ten-feet in the air, before succumbing to gravity and landing flat on her back in the middle of the track. Then the other two riders crashed into each other (which was a good thing, as they were about to perforate their teammate lying prone in the snow).

Eventually, the riders remounted and got going again. Unfortunatly for the fastest rider, she thought the white flag signified the end of the race, driving off the course while punching the air in victory, only to be told a chequered flag signifies the end of a race (white ones mean there’s another lap to go). The second fastest crashed again on her last lap and was out of the race. She was swearing like a sailor by that time.

Slow and steady won the race, surprised but intact.

Subsequent races were equally dramatic. There were crashes, people hanging onto the handlebars for dear life with their rear-ends above their heads, runaway snowmobiles, runaway journalists. Honestly, it was a sight to see.

Now we were getting into it, we thought. This was fun! But the time had come for us to return to our respective ice floes and hunt for money. A bus was waiting to take us to the airport, and the Fulda Challengers would have to get along without us.

Fulda challenge
Click image to enlarge

Anyway, we knew the Canadian team was holding their own, and with only a couple of events to go, they looked good to win. So it was goodbye to the Fulda Challenge and no more Whitehorsing around. Time to get home and write this puppy up.

As far as our victorious Canadian team is concerned, coach Nick Lees explains that RCMP constable McHale is an experienced adventure racer and travels the world to compete. His wife is a talented runner who hasn’t been beaten in the Yukon in a foot race since she arrived several years ago. She runs a sub three-hour marathon and placed second in the Niagara International Marathon last year. Typical Canadians, in otther words.

Mr. Lees adds, “The advantage the Canadians had was being used to extreme physical exercise in sub-zero temperatures. They also knew the terrain, especially useful when it came to traversing Miles Canyon on a rope and running up a mountain in snow shoes.” Who doesn’t?

As far as the Yukon goes, it’s a great place. I’d go back anytime. And as far as Toyota goes, the trucks were unstoppable, and thanks for inviting me. It was a truly bizarre, but thoroughly enjoyable experience.

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