Gunter Wamser trotted out of Ushuaia, Argentina in 1994 with nothing but two horses and his dog Falko for company.
He was headed for Prudhoe, Alaska. Eighteen years and a couple new travelling partners later, a trip that was meant to take five years has come to define his entire life.
“It’s an adventure. It’s a challenge. It’s a very intensive way of life. You have very big highs and very deep lows,” said Wamser.
“Even after so many years, I like that when I wake up in the morning, I never know where I’m going to sleep that night.”
Wamser – a 53-year-old former aircraft engineer from Germany – has been riding steadily northwards for almost two decades.
Wamser and his travelling partner Sonja Endlweber arrived in Whitehorse in late September. Sitting in a rustic cabin by the Takhini River with their feisty terrier Leni, Wamser glances at the thermometer (reading minus 20 degrees C), shivers and goes back to planning their route onwards from Dawson City in the spring. There is much to be done to prepare the final leg of their odyssey, but Endlweber seems most surprised by the temperature.
“People keep saying winter is still coming, that it’s not even here yet,” she said, shaking her head.
Thirty-nine-year-old Endlweber gave up a successful career as a business consultant and joined Wamser seven years ago after he almost quit the quest. At the Mexican border, officials refused to let Wamser take his horses into the U.S.
“My aim was to do the whole trip with the same horses,” said Wamser. “I nearly gave up.”
It hadn’t been an easy trip through South America. Wamser was forced to deal with corrupt border officials in parts of Latin America. The lowest point in his trip came when a rattlesnake bit his dog.
“She died in my arms,” he said.
Wamser returned to Germany feeling defeated. He wrote a book about his voyage, and the writing of it forced him to experience everything all over again, he said. He decided the story wasn’t finished.
Buoyed by Endlweber joining his cause, he decided to give it another go. The duo found four American mustangs, wild horses that had been trained by a prison inmate program in U.S. With Dino, Lightfoot, Rusty and Azabache, they began the quest anew.
“Gunter doesn’t really believe in problems,” said Endlweber.
Optimism is vital, but they also put a lot of faith in “trail angels,” a common belief among long-time hikers and adventurers, said Endlweber.
“There is a sort of trail magic,” Wamser explained. “Help always shows up right on time.”
They followed the Continental Divide Trail through the States, travelling in the warm seasons, and returning to Germany in the winter to promote and finance their journey with speaking engagements and books. It took them two years to cross the U.S., reaching the Canadian border in the fall of 2009.
Crossing countries and continents has given Wamser a unique perspective on the cultures and people that share the Western Hemisphere.
“The biggest difference is the people,” said Wamser.
“In Latin America, the people were most important.”
In North America, it is the enormous landscapes and isolation that most occupy the couple’s minds. Since crossing into Canada, that scarcity of human contact has only increased.
“In the U.S. you could go for 10 days at a time without seeing anyone. Up here, you can go for months,” said Wamser.
“It’s fascinating to ride for months with no people, no roads. You only see outfitters out there,” said Endlweber.
Those outfitters have become a crucial part of their journey in the North. Spending months in the backcountry up here makes arranging supply drops vital. They have recruited the aid of many outfitters and mining companies to help them resupply on the trail.
“We want to say a big thank you to the outfitters. People have been helpful everywhere,” said Endlweber.
As the two riders press north, the trail has gotten increasingly difficult, said Endlweber. In the U.S. they were riding across mountain ridges and high country. The route through much of Canada has confined them to valleys, which means crossing treacherous bogs and fording rivers, often forcing the horses to swim.
Through it all Leni, the little terrier, has kept pace easily, jumping into the saddle herself when the going gets tough.
“She can’t jump all the way up,” Endlweber said, “so you have to catch her and lift her into the saddle.”
Canada also means bear country, something that Wamser said is unnerving.
“We don’t have bears in Europe. We killed them all,” he said, adding that on the trail he and Endlweber don’t carry weapons save for a couple cans of bear spray and bear bells for their horses.
Bruins aside, the backcountry is fraught with many dangers, but Wamser and Enlweber have worked out a strategy to keep them safe.
“I’m a coward,” Endlweber said, “especially when it comes to the horses.”
Finding the best routes and keeping the horses safe means keeping each other safe, she said.
“She keeps me out of trouble,” Wamser said.
It’s a partnership that the couple didn’t expect. When they started out from Mexico together, they weren’t a couple but life on the trail has forged a bond between them stronger than any marriage certificate.
The secret is that neither one is doing it for the other. They both want to be on the trail for themselves, Endlweber explained.
“If I would only do it because Gunter wants to, it wouldn’t work,” she said.
The couple is filling their time this winter caring for the horses, writing two more books, planning for the spring and immersing themselves in Whitehorse’s community.
Wamser plays soccer with a local rec team. At 53, with the last leg of his epic journey before him, he said his age only slows him down on the soccer pitch.
“When I run, I sometimes think, ‘Where did those 20 years go?’ We’ve travelled 28,000 kilometrers, but it’s just a figure. No one really knows what it means,” he said.
They’re also looking for anyone who can help them prepare for the spring’s departure.
After many close calls and frigid nights, Wamser and Endlweber said the only reason they keep going is, essentially, because they don’t have to.
“We have no sponsors, no fame. We could stop whenever we want. Money, fame, they would all make little problems seem bigger. If you know you can stop, it’s easier to keep going,” said Wamser.
Contact Jesse Winter at