I am a lover of all seasons, except for spring breakup in Alaska. This year when breakup season came earlier than normal, I had zero hesitation to follow the snow so we could continue to run our dogs. This required us to drive 13 hours north on one of the least maintained “state highways” in Alaska at an average of 25 miles per hour in the dog truck.
After Iditarod, we had the choice between a warm, tropical beach vacation and running our dogs in the Arctic.
The Arctic won.
We packed up 13 dogs, two toboggans and a week’s worth of human and dog supplies and hit the road, headed for colder temperatures than the 60°F and mud that surrounded us near Fairbanks in mid-April.
After 10 hours on the road, we pulled over for the night where we dropped our dogs from the truck so they could eat, go to the bathroom then curl back up in their boxes for some shuteye. We got about three hours of unsatisfactory sleep, eager to hit the road again. After three more hours of driving, we arrived at a parking lot and began to unload the dogs and our gear, packing our sleds for a minimum of three days out and three days back to the truck.
When you pack your sled for this type of trip, you utilize every centimeter of space in your sled, the bag busting at the seams, straps as loose at they go while still keeping the sled bag closed. Our necessities for a weeklong winter camping trip are as follows : dog food (meat and kibble) a cold weather tent, small wood stove, cold weather sleeping bags, sleeping pads, avalanche shovel, propane cook stove, methanol fuel, dog cooker, dog food cooler, straw, dura-logs, human food, other various camping essentials, headlamps, a high caliber rifle, at least two good books, polarized sunglasses and a bag of wine.
After taking off from our truck, we headed out into the snowy abyss. We had passed over Atigun Pass at this point, from there on out, there were no trees. The landscape was coated in white and once a stormy front passed, the blinding sun lit of the snow in a way I had never experienced. This is where those polarized sunglasses become absolutely necessary.
We mushed less than 10 miles out to meet some friends who were camped out for the entire month, guiding tours and soaking up every last bit of winter that they could. They were kind enough to invite us out to their spot, which gave us access to a hole drilled into a fresh-water pond, over a hundred miles of broken out trails and the company of wonderful friends.
Located in a bowl that protected us from the Arctic’s common winds, we set up our camp for the next week. First, we had to park the dogs and secure a cable picket line for them so they could have more space. We fastened a snow hook to a carabiner, which hooked onto the picket line. The hooks were set into exposed tundra and then packed with snow and ice to prevent them from pulling out when the dogs put force on the line. Next, we put up our arctic oven; an insulated, fire retardant and weather resistant winter tent that is simple to set up, easy to pack down into a sled and a game changer when embarking on a multiday dog mushing trip. After making the tent cozy with our wood stove and bedding, we cooked dinner up for the dogs using our methanol cooker and then dinner for ourselves before getting a good read in and hitting the hay.
Every day on this trip was essentially the same process: Wake up, feed dogs, scoop poop, feed yourself, get geared up and pack the sled, hook up dogs and then take off on one of the trail loops that were out there. Choose from one of the many incredible options that always led to spectacular views, amazing conditions and hopefully some caribou. Driving small teams of six and seven dogs, we were able to stop, start and turn around a lot more easily than the 10- to 14-dog race teams we generally train. It gave us the freedom to explore less frequented spots as well as work very closely with our small crew and try out some new dogs in lead that hadn’t had an opportunity to shine during the winter months.
While finding caribou was an important part of our trip, we were pleasantly surprised by the unbelievable scenery that surrounded us every day. Some of the trails lead to a cliff face that appeared to drop off into nothing, but getting closer to it’s edge, the trail would loop back around and a view into the vast, frozen rivers in the valley bottom below.
Some trails did the opposite and swiftly dropped down to said rivers, except sometimes the weather shifted and we’d be driving the dogs through whiteout conditions. With no protection from tree cover, it is easy to lose sight of the trail and become stranded out there. Your eyes would play tricks and you had little to no depth perception once it became overcast.
Traveling through these landscapes often had me not only in awe, but respectful of how out of touch with wild, vast nature we have become as a species and that it could swallow me whole in an instant if it wanted. This ecosystem was not so inviting to humans, almost as a way of warning us to stay out and not encroach on what is basically the remainder of uncharted, unspoiled wilderness.
After several days of exciting new trails, shedding several tears as I gazed out into the Arctic’s beauty, taking naps with my dogs in the warm spring sunshine, it was time to return to my dreaded reality. We broke down camp as if we were never there, loaded up our sleds, said our goodbyes and Thank You’s to our wonderful friends and blasted off back to our fossil-fuel reliant vehicle and way of life to embark on the long drive home.
This adventure left me feeling humbled. To exist solely with my canines and my partner in a place completely cutoff from modern society was something too few people are able to experience anymore. You tap into your primal instincts of survival and menial tasks necessary to get from point A to point B during the day. While I thoroughly enjoy the life of sled dogs in racing or tours, I highly encourage those who participate in these events to get out to more remote places with their dogs and allow yourself to take it all in. We are so fortunate to have such a minimal impact mode of transportation at our fingertips, and if you love chasing winter as much as I do, there is no better opportunity to explore our great Last Frontier.