Pelly Farm: Oasis of Humanity

Summer 2002: Robert Pollhammer drives up the long track to Pelly Farm. It is flanked by fields growing wheat, potatoes and vegetables. Insects fill the air and dust is kicked up by the tyres of his rental car; a distant contrast to the long, cold winters experienced here on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The dead end road is 35 miles long and seems to go on forever. It leaves him with plenty of time to ponder who he will meet at the end. Who chooses to live in the middle of nowhere?

“I distinctly remember that first visit, despite over twenty years passing since then. I was scouting a route for a race that I wasn’t sure was even possible. I visited a small First Nations community in the heart of the Canadian Yukon called Pelly Crossing. A contact at Travel Yukon had suggested that a farm nearby could make a good checkpoint. I set off down this dirt road and eventually the track terminated at the farm and I pulled up outside. Dale and Sue were in a shed sorting through potatoes. I introduced myself. ‘Hi, I’m Robert from Germany and we want to run this race. In the winter…”

A sense of place

February 2024: Alan Purdue is in fourth place in the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra. He is also the last person on course, and will be the last finisher. Six days have already elapsed by the time he reaches Pelly Farm. Purdue tucks into a family-sized portion of homemade lasagne. As he does so, steam escapes, rolling and rising into his weather beaten face. Strings of cheese stretch and droop off his fork. Bare feet stretch out below the table, relishing the opportunity to stretch and breathe. A kettle reaches a boil on the stove. Conversation is slow. Quiet. A few short sentences exchanged at a time. A farm dog sleeps on an armchair. For a short period, the world shrinks. It is no larger than the four walls of the farm. Nothing is more important than eating and resting. Barely anyone else exists. And for a while at least, there is no greater luxury than being cared for. 

Perhaps what makes Pelly Farm so special is how wildly it contrasts with the experience racers have on the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra beforehand, and after. Hundreds of miles of human-powered travel through some of the harshest conditions imaginable. Gruelling self-sustained movement; hauling sleds or pedalling laden fat bikes. Relentless forward progress; balancing racing with the challenge of simply surviving in conditions where a thoughtless mistake can have life-changing (or ending) consequences. ‘The Great Outdoors’ in every sense of each of those words. Great; vast, magnificent, powerful, overwhelming outdoors. To put the unique challenges that competitors face into context, those without cold-weather environment experience are required to take a multi-day course before toeing the startline. Competitors sleep on the course, bivvying in temperatures that drop as low as -50º celsius. They melt water and cook food. And then they start moving again. 

Then, in the middle of the yawning white emptiness of an arctic winter lies a farm. A checkpoint. A hug. A warm meal. Safety. Comfort. Indoors. Respite from the effort.

A pin on the map

While Pelly Farm is clearly so much more than a coordinate on a map, its location is intrinsic to both its past and present.  When Robert Pollhammer was scouting the route for what would eventually become the Yukon Arctic Ultra back in 2003, he had been inspired by the route of the Yukon Quest sled dog race and wanted to create a similar test of endurance, but one that was completed purely under human-power. The Yukon Quest was in turn inspired by the Klondike gold rush-era prospector routes and in time the trade and mail routes between the boom towns that cropped up along the way. Pelly Crossing was, as it sounds, a crossing point of the Pelly River. To give it its full name, Pelly River Ranch is the oldest working farm in the area, dating back to 1901. Dale and Sue are the second generation of Bradleys to farm cattle and vegetables on the 400 acres of land alongside a stretch of the river.. 

When Robert broached the idea of the race with the Bradleys, they were surprised, curious, but supportive. It was in their nature to be welcoming of visitors; not that they got many people ‘just passing through’ out there though. But, as well as raising their own son on the farm, they fostered countless others, and often hosted WWOOF volunteers (workers who stay on organic farms and swap labour for food and lodgings). The home of the Bradleys has long been home to many, many others. But now, it was to become the temporary home of racers and a mainstay of Robert’s race.

And out of all the times I talk or read about Pelly River Ranch, there is one word that is repeated over and over. Home.

More than a check point

Robert explains the format of the race to me, but numbers never convey the sheer difficulty of moving across snow. Hundreds of miles of running on tarmac is arduous. The same distance over hills and through varying snow conditions is true endurance. The route itself changes subtly each year, depending on those snow conditions, and even during the race itself like when “overflows” occur and sections of frozen river melt. The checkpoint locations remain the same though – pockets of human existence along the route. Roads and trails and rivers connect them. Stakes in the ground marking the way, unless fresh snow obscures them.

“We have three distances each year. A marathon, a 100 and a 300 miler. Every other year, we also have a full distance route which is 430 miles. It went all the way to Dawson City last year. This year is the ‘short’ race and ends at Pelly Crossing. So Pelly Farm is about 30 miles from the finish line. When you are looking at the whole map, it is relatively so close to the end, but 30 miles in the Yukon is never easy. Especially when you already have 270 miles under your belt.”

“Dale and Sue are so relaxed. It’s hard to find people like that in the normal world. The farm is still operating as the race descends for those few days. There are still chickens and cows to feed. All the chores that a working farm needs to just keep ticking over. Back in the day, there were no tracking devices or satellite phones. There wasn’t even internet in the rural communities. The only communication that the farm had with the race was via radio. But even with that, racers would leave on an expedition and when they completed a leg they would reappear at a checkpoint. We can now obviously check the racer's progress in almost real time, so there’s alway a laptop open at the farm, and they’ll know exactly when someone is due to arrive.”

The 2024 edition of the race started on February 4th at 10:30am. Jovica Spajic – the first racer to complete the full race – reached Pelly Crossing on February 8th at 22:34. Four and a half days. Along the way he called into eight checkpoints; community centres, tents and even a restaurant. Only at Pelly Farm does he step inside a home. Dale sits at his desk. His laptop is open on the race’s tracking page. A single dot rests a little longer than at the other checkpoints. Watery daylight streams through the windows of the farmhouse. Time slows down a little. Minutes cease to matter when you have been moving for most of a working week.


There is little to indicate Pelly Farm’s temporary dual role. A banner hangs from a small porch. A snow-covered barbeque sits underneath, alongside accumulated clutter. Gas bottles and empty plant pots. A fire extinguisher. A toy truck and a hurricane lamp. A homemade wind chime hangs off boards that appear to be holding the door frame in place. The farmyard stretches around the home… again, it isn’t tidy. For all the romance of the location and the idea of carving a living in wilderness, the reality is that it is hard work. And a functioning farm isn’t always pretty. Machinery is propped up against wooden barns and sheds. Livestock shuffle their way towards piles of fresh silage as Dale forks it out.

An unusually warm February means snow doesn’t fully hide a tall pile of used tyres. The trees on the hills above are also bare of snow – charcoal sketches of branches on a still-white canvas. On one side, the farmyard stretches all the way down to the Pelly River. The river is frozen and white, and there is no clear delineation between land and water, but on a larger scale, its sweeping curves are absolutely clear. On the coldest editions of the race, competitors arrive on the river itself. In 2024, milder temperatures meant the only way into and out of the farm was that dead end road.

John Nakel arrives tied in second place with Daniel Benhammou. They are almost two days behind Jovica Spajic, but over a day ahead of Purdue. Both are veterans of the race and Dale and Sue remember them instantly. As soon as they enter the door, their outer layers are stripped off and hung up to dry next to the boiler. They are guided into ‘the comfy chairs’ at the kitchen table. The drill is the same with every racer. Nakel can still remember the lasagne from last year “big enough to serve three in normal circumstances.” Then, overwhelmed by tiredness, they curl up for a couple of hours of sleep. Blissful sleep; warm and safe. No nagging cold. No frost forming on the outside of his bivvy bag. No slow reawakening of frigid, stiff muscles. But, for all of its sense of home, Pelly Farm isn’t the end destination. It too must be passed through.

“The hardest thing about Pelly Farm is leaving”, explains Nakel to me a week after the race. “But, you do so recharged and ready to complete the race. I’ve completed numerous ultramarathons and multi-day events over the last twelve years and never have encountered such an amazing place. It is warm and welcoming; it feels like home – it is someone's home.”


Solitude and human connection feel distinct; contrasts, opposite ends of the spectrum. But to truly appreciate one, we need the other. Endurance racing is, and always will be, a selfish pursuit. It doesn’t solve problems or make the world a better place. Nor is it the solo endeavour that it might appear to be on the surface. Behind each racer is a family that has made compromises – and in the case of the Yukon Ultra, a team of volunteers who work tirelessly to keep competitors safe – in their pursuit of discovering what they are capable of.


And despite the apparent and real remoteness of the Yukon, racers are repeating a human journey that has been completed many times before, whether that be in previous editions of the race, while towed by sled dogs, or on the feverish charge for gold. The environment that they journey through may be harsh and dangerous, but the land is still the home to a few souls; communities that thrive and welcome. 

Every endurance racer has their moments of darkness. Anything truly worth achieving requires perseverance. But we tell ourselves stories to get us through those times. We focus on those we love. We focus on when it will all be over. We focus on the process. We focus on a goal, or step along the way. We grasp the moments that despite pain or exhaustion – or even because of them – remind us why we are out there… a conversation shared with a fellow racer, the first hint of light at sunrise after a long night, the discovery of a favourite snack lurking at the bottom of a feedbag. And the care offered by a complete stranger, asking nothing of you, possibly never seeing you again, but willing you to success.

Homeward bound

Nakel and Benhammou replace every layer and prepare to leave. The final step is completed outside. They don the harness to their sleds, adjust the straps and head off, walking through a graveyard of vehicles that flank the entrance to the farm. Snow creaks under their feet. Each step is deliberate and hard, but each step now takes them closer to the finish line.

It seems incomprehensible that this race, which is large in terms of distance, is so small in scale. Four racers. With finishing times spread out over three days. Just 18 individuals entered the 300 mile race this year. There will be more next year; it perhaps says a lot about the psyche of endurance racers that more are attracted to the longest version of the race. But, Pollhammer tells me, the race will always stay small.

“I want to keep the essence of the race exactly as it is. It just wouldn’t be possible to do that on a larger scale. Pelly Farm perfectly represents this ethos. The race simply wouldn’t work without Dale and Sue’s generosity, and I would never want to take that for granted.”

While a journey is about so much more than a destination, it needs one to exist. It's an old truism that we should focus on the experiences we have along the way, but to do that, one must first be inspired to step out of the front door. Pollhammer has created something truly remarkable and has inspired people from all over the world to walk their way through a small farm in the middle of the Yukon. And in turn, Dale and Sue, the volunteers, the racers themselves and of course Robert himself generate memories, stories and experiences that will last lifetimes. 

A window of humanity in amongst the solitude. 

Robert tells me something as we finish our discussion. “Pelly Farm isn’t just the place – it’s the people.” Little more truly needs to be said.

Produced by: Coldhouse Collective
Words: Tom Hill
Photography: Mark Kelly

31 March 2024