Last October I was invited to speak at the International Sled Dog Symposium in Fairbanks, Alaska. I had a great time sharing my experiences and photos with the audience. Everyone asked me a variety of excellent questions, but one gentleman, none other than Mushing Magazine’s publisher Greg Sellentin, asked me a few unexpected questions that brought back some excruciating cold memories and funny heart warming experiences.Greg: Have you ever become separated from the team…or what’s your nearest to death experience?Joe: I have had many, many near death experiences. But I have never lost a team, not once, ever. You know, one good thing about malamutes, or any dog team, if you train them to stop on command, I use “whoa”- so if I fall off the sled for whatever reason, I just say whoa and they stop. But I won’t get into near death experience…I only have an hour and a half.Greg: So, if you won’t tell us about your nearest to death experience, what are some of the real dangers out there?Joe: You know, what will really get you is falling through the ice, and what really will scare you is if you don’t feel the bottom!Greg: Enough said!I have to admit there’s definitely a feeling of desperation when a person busts through ice into deep water, but at that point the fight only begins. Thin ice is like a hidden trap that suddenly springs up, grabs you then pulls you down. It has taken a toll on many dog mushers, but it’s not the only danger that hides in the arctic regions. The arctic is loaded with other dangers just waiting to sweep a person and dog team away that makes a hasty mistake. As far as addressing Greg’s first question about life and death experiences…well it would be tough to re-live the time when the fangs of frost pierced me so deep that crawling was the only way to survive after falling through ice. But in light of Greg’s second question, I feel that sharing my personal experiences about the dangers is one way to plant a visual that you can grasp and relate to. Since many of you may be already familiar with some of these dangers I hope you enjoy the following stories and hopefully they will give a clear image of other “dangers that are out there.”Alaska’s vast arctic region has no patience for mistakes. The vicious wind comes and goes, temperatures plummet to -70°F and snow blows where it may. There are no timetables or rules in this lawless and sometimes brutal environment. From Alaska’s Beaufort Sea coast to the Brooks Range, climate conditions and dangers vary. The flat coastline extends hundreds of miles east and west and wind can gain a velocity of 90 to 100 mph. I remember a windstorm when my anemometer clocked 85 mph gusts. That wind was outright hell! Those blasts hit so hard, knocking me to the ground and blinding me by blowing snow that I couldn’t see my mitt in front of my face. This hurricane of snow felt like bullets piercing my armor of clothing, soaking my skin wet and freezing me to the marrow. That was a tough two days and nights! But I have to admit, my malamute comrades took it like good sports, burrowing in the snow, closing their eyes, and let themselves to be buried in their cozy nests. They probably didn’t even notice, or care for that matter, that I was getting my butt kicked by that storm! As you travel off the windy coast and go south of the Beaufort Sea 10-15 miles, you will find yourself at the Brooks Range foothills. This area with its soft rolling hills, wide open valleys and scenic braided rivers is the place where “devilish” cold is conceived and born! The cold attacks at random and can drop to -90 to -100° F wind chill and stay for weeks at a time. A person passing through this region better not linger too long. This deep cold will seep its way into the thickest fur coats or clothing of human and animal with total disregard to its occupants. A few miles farther south of the foothills are the rugged Brooks Range Mountains. It’s here where you will experience a totally different climate, landscape and danger. There are many places in the mountains which shelter the high winds, yet there are other adversaries just looking forward to devouring a dog musher. Mountain crevasses are one of those traps that can be hard hitting and a rib breaking opponent. Crevasses aren’t shown on maps yet they hide themselves on mountain passes whenever and wherever they wish. No matter how long a person stayed up the night before mapping out a grand plan for attacking a mountain pass, those crevasses will be there waiting. Crevasses are born when early winter blizzards execute their dance over the arctic tundra sweeping up fresh snow and piling it on lee sides of mountains. Most of the crevasses are formed from deep snow drifts and then carved out by extremely high winds. A good 70 mph wind is the key ingredient for creating these dog team devourers. They can form in just a few hours and they span a variety of sizes. Once in awhile I’ll see a crevasse 4-5 feet wide, about 15 feet deep and 80 feet long. Sometimes they can be much smaller but they could still cause serious problems for both musher and dogs. However, the real dangerous crevasses are actually deep narrow mountain canyons and gorges whereas the wind has blown snow across them and created a snow bridge. If by chance one of these snow bridges collapsed under a dog team crossing it, the result could be quite a purple bruising experience…to say the least! But patience is still the boss of mountain travel and I’ve waited 2-3 days on a summit waiting for fog to lift before making my descent down a pass.After March, enough snow accumulates on the mountain passes filling most of the crevasses and strengthening the snow bridges enough to travel over them. Along with the deeper snow there’s avalanche potential in waiting. Usually the northern Brooks Range has dry snow and avalanches aren’t always a threat, but I prefer to pay respect to these dangerous allies of the mountains and keep my distance anyway. I’ll always remember when the team and I were traveling through a deep gorge in the Brooks when one of those avalanches took a swing at us. At first I heard a slight rumble, and then felt the snow beneath us shift. Willow brush suddenly seemed to snow on us, and then the dogs turned directly away from the falling debris pulling as hard and fast as they could, holy smokes… I just hung on to those handle bars and waited for the blow that I knew would hit. It was a strange sight watching that white wave approach us. It was high at first, like an ocean wave. As it came closer to us the wave lowered itself to about 2 feet high, hit the sleds, then the wheel dogs and fizzled out. The sleds stopped, the wheelers shook themselves off, I brushed the snow off and we continued on our way. But to this day, one of those wheel dogs apparently still remembers that wave of snow slapping his hind end; it must’ve really made an impression on his canine imagination. Now, every time the snow shifts beneath us I get a good chuckle watching him hop, jump and prance as if he’s running on hot coals! There’s another danger that flows in the river canyons and gorges of the Brooks Range. I prefer to call it rivers of “hell”, but it’s also known as overflow. This cold and potentially deadly fluid is actually water flowing on top of river ice and has a peculiar way of flooding an entire valley and creeping into a person’s tent at night, miserably soaking them wet! At -40° F it’s no match for man or beast, and a person that is stalked by this overflow better just pack up and get! Overflow is created when temperatures fall drastically. The extreme cold thickens river ice exerting pressure on water which flows continually from springs under the river beds. This pressure forces the water upwards through cracks in the ice, eventually causing water to flow on the surface. There have been many nights that I have camped alongside rivers waiting for overflow to freeze enough, enabling the team and me to cross, but there’ve been a few times when I rolled the dice and hastily crossed overflow ice only to lose the gamble and get wet. Usually overflow is relatively shallow and breaking through overflow ice does no harm, but there are exceptions.A few years ago I experienced one of those exceptions. Traveling in the Brooks Range with my team of malamutes, the temperature was hovering around -45° F as we weaved our way up a narrow twisted canyon at night. The steep canyon walls seemed to close in on us, obstructing the moonlight and giving me a feeling of blindness. But in the distance, bright moonlight illuminated a wide open valley. I knew if we could get to the valley we would have a good place to camp with plenty of dry willows for firewood. As I trotted in front of the team I heard crystals from newly formed ice crackle and crunch under my mukluks, but ignoring those warnings I continued guiding the dogs around boulders, jagged rocks and brush frozen in the river. Suddenly, I felt that unmistaken feeling under my feet as the ice sagged like rubber. “C’mon boys the shore is only 40 feet away!” I yelled to encourage the team while running directly toward shore hoping the dogs would follow me. Instantly a loud crack echoed through the canyon, followed with yelps and splashing. I turned back to see the wheel dogs floundering in two foot deep water “Hold on boys!” I told the leaders that were standing behind me, high and dry on shore. The lighter dogs made it, but the big fat wheelers didn’t have a chance; their combined weight broke multiple layers of the overflow ice. Reacting immediately to the wheelers’ whining distress calls, I waded out in the freezing water and pulled the wheel dogs out of their predicament. Let me tell you, those boys are heavy! And even heavier when wet! Now the sleds had to be pulled out of the watery hole, but luckily most of the team was on the shore along the canyon wall. “OK!!” I yelled which was magnified 10 times louder through the canyon. The dogs must have thought the command was from God because they lunged into their harnesses so hard that I thought they were going to tear the harnesses, lines and sleds apart….Boy, what an amazing sight to watch those sleds fly out of that hole in the ice. . After getting the sleds out I gave the wheelers a chance to roll in the snow and dry themselves off. I don’t think rolling around would have done me any good except make a spectacle of myself to the dogs. I was soaked to the bone and decided I had best get going before I became a permanent frozen fixture in the arctic landscape. Running quickly along the shore with the team following me, I reached the wide open valley and set up my tent and fired up the stove. As the heat from the stove thawed my aching frozen legs and feet I don’t ever recall scorching hot coffee tasting so damn good! There are other dangers out there that lurk in Alaska’s waterways and lakes. It’s a villain which can be a deadly and deceitful foe. Shelf ice is the term that’s used to describe this danger, but to best explain the circumstances in which ways this villain can be threatening, I would like to tell you about an experience I had a few years ago. We were crossing a lake when the sounds of ice cracked like gunfire under the sled runners. “Get going, Chief!” I yelled to the lead dog. Suddenly it felt like the whole lake dropped out beneath us. Before I knew it, the sled was teetering over broken ice slabs twice the size of picnic tables and a foot thick. A few dogs whined and quit pulling when their paws punched through the cracks of the floating ice chunks that were supporting us. I knew if we stopped for a second, the weight of the sled would cause the ice to topple over and dump us all into the blood chilling water. “Pick it up boys,” I calmly commanded, knowing the dogs fed off my emotions. The last thing I wanted was the team to panic and lose their fluid momentum over the cracking lake ice. As the sounds of ice snapping and splintering intensified, cold chills shot up my spine and my heart seemed to rise up and stick in my throat. I held my breath and wrapped my mitts tightly onto the handlebars, I knew in my gut our luck would soon run out. I could actually smell the fishy, brackish water lapping at my mukluks. Suddenly, the main leader, Chief, took a hard right turn. “C’mon buddy,” I yelled excitedly, yet at the same time worried about Chief’s erratic behavior. The other leaders sensed his confidence and kicked into high gear. Chief detected better ice under his paws and he went for it! The cold air felt strangely refreshing against my cheeks as we picked up speed across the lake with the sound of cracking ice fading behind us. With a sigh of relief and thankfulness my heart finally migrated back down to my chest when those runners hit the shore. Before crossing the lake, I checked the ice thickness. It was fine. What I didn’t know was that the water level in the lake had dropped several feet after it had frozen. This caused a hollow space between the water and ice, similar to a bridge, only a weak bridge that collapsed instantly under us, and this hollow ice is what’s referred to as shelf ice. There are many obstacles that the arctic imposes on us, but there are many treasures and riches as well. I wonder at times, is it worth it? But every spring I find myself aching for another winter in the arctic when I can watch herds of caribou migrate, hear the call of wolves echo across the mountain valleys, taste fresh lake trout cooked over an open fire, watch the malamute pups play freely along with the foxes, and see the aurora borealis exhibit lightening displays of colors overhead like a legion of guardian angels. ●Joe Henderson has been working with Alaskan Malamutes for 25 years. He and his team spend most of the winter dogsledding alone in the arctic and end each season offering clients remote expeditions throughout Alaska. For more information, please visit Joe’s website or call (907)-590-4980.


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