BEARS BLIZZARDS BREAK-UP

Alaska’s arctic Brooks Range is the land of where extremes and adventures are created. Temperatures can vary 70 degrees in a day. Wind can shift from a soft whisper to a frost biting 60 mph blast in an instant. Dark winters can make a person dream of warm sunshine, and then cause them to curse the direct relentless sun a few months later. These elements I expect and prepare for every year on our dog sled expeditions in the Brooks Range, but once in awhile Mother Nature will throw a few twisted unknown obstacles at us…I believe just to entertain her.As the sounds of the dogs panting quieted down and the team settled into a comfortable pace, I directed the three leaders, Farmer, Bear and Boss, towards the jagged mountains on the horizon. Bear is a veteran leader with a black coat and brown mask. He’s a super light-weight dog and an expert at arctic navigation. He’s just unbelievable! I believe his brain is directly linked to the GPS satellites! This year Bear’s job was to teach the newbie leaders, Boss and Farmer, the art of navigating in a land where there are no land marks, trees, trails and visibility can sometimes be next to nil. Farmer is a 110+ lb. brute with a thick red and white coat. He has one ear up and his other ear droops down toward his mask, which looks like it was painted on with an artist’s fine brush. He’s quite a handsome guy. He’s the perfect Alaskan malamute specimen and he knows it! Farmer followed Bear’s leading example like a fine student except he would lean toward Boss once in awhile and nip her on the butt to get her to play. Of course, Boss wasn’t named Boss by accident. She would spring right back with a vengeance. Her grey and silver tipped hackles on her back would raise straight up like a wolverine and she would growl like a mad charging grizzly. What an amazing sight to watch – a dog half the size of Farmer whipping him in place in an instant. After a few days of traveling, the new leaders seemed to fall into a comfortable routine of navigating across the tundra. As the flat coast fell off in the distance behind us the Brooks Range seemed to grow. There was quite a distance yet to get to those rugged mountains and the hills were getting steep, the snow was getting deeper, and the dogs were starting to struggle pulling the 2-3 months worth of supplies. To gain more power from the dogs I bunched up the team, placing seven wheel dogs in front of the sleds then rows of four up to the leaders. This strategy gives the dogs’ incredible leverage that’s needed to pull the 2500 to 3500 lb. load. But care had to be taken while making sharp turns so the dogs wouldn’t tangle in the lines. For the first few weeks of the season I had cached a large quantity of supplies in various locations for later use, and upon returning to pick up one of these caches we were hit mid-day with a blizzard. I quickly stopped the team, pulled the tent out of the sled and made camp. After the dogs were staked out and fed I settled in. The sound of the blizzard beating the canvas wall was deafening until the tent became completely buried in snow. This situation can sometimes be dangerous in the arctic and a person has to be careful where to camp. Setting up a tent beside a bluff or cliff can be a fatal mistake; 20-30 feet of snow can drift over the camp within hours, smothering every living being. As the winds punished us and whipped our behinds pretty good, the dogs took it in stride. They allowed themselves to be completely buried. Those guys are masters in the art of energy conservation. They will not move a muscle during blizzards except to eat. The following morning the wind calmed and the early March sun rose, but the temperature dropped down to -50° F. And it actually felt quite pleasant after that pounding blizzard with -80° F wind-chills. I spent much of the day shoveling out the tent and sleds then broke camp.As I prepared to hit the trail I loaded a few last minute items on top of the sled; a double bit axe for checking ice thickness and my rifle. Normally I would pull the bolt out of the rifle and put it in my pocket so it would stay warm and ready for action. At minus -50° F temperature the firing pin was most likely frozen and the chance of it firing was slim. Since I was far from the arctic coast I didn’t feel threatened by polar bears and grizzly bears were still in hibernation. When I started to hitch up the team I felt that something was different, something was watching me, like a gut wrenching nervousness piercing my stomach. I felt uneasy putting the slower paced Farmer in lead with the faster Bear and Boss. Maybe I thought, there would be overflow to contend with on the rivers, and we would need some speed in case we got into trouble. So I got little Savage, another fast leader and placed her between Bear and Boss. The dogs were crazy about going again and howled continuously until I said that magic word – “OK!” and they were off. Little Savage seemed to be overjoyed for being selected as one of the elites that day and kicked it into high gear, energizing the whole team. The sun’s warmth was welcomed on my face, but wearing sunglasses in those temperatures is always a challenge because they constantly fog up. Straining my eyes through the foggy glasses I spotted a dark object above us on a cliff. Taking off my glasses, I got a better look. It was a grizzly bear charging right for us! A starving, killer bear out of his den in the dead of winter hunting for meat, any kind of meat, and he was barreling down for us. Suddenly my heart felt like it was going to explode as adrenalin shot through me. I had to get the dogs running in the opposite direction to get me between them and the bear. That damn bear had to go through me first before he got a shot at the dogs.Immediately I stopped the team, jumped off the runners, sprinted toward the leaders, grabbed them and swung them in a wide circle, pointing them away from the bear, then I gave the command to go. As the team took off I grabbed the handle bars of the sled and jumped on the runners as it went by. Then I told the lead dogs to “hit,” a command I seldom use to make them speed up which is usually reserved for going over thin ice. The leaders instantly responded to the command and took off at a fast lope. Immediately, I started unlashing my rifle, but at the same time visualized defending the dogs with my axe. I knew damn well my rifle was frozen and most likely it wouldn’t fire. I also knew that if that rifle didn’t shoot I was in a battle that I probably would never win. It seemed as if time was in slow motion. I noticed the bear’s dark brown hackles over his shoulders standing up in attack mode. His massive muscles vibrated on his chest in rhythm at every gallop. Thick steam rolled out of his nostrils as he exhaled and gained momentum toward us. I could see indentations of his ribs under his fur and his legs seemed longer than normal bears, probably because his stomach was sunken in from starvation. He was desperate and this was his last attempt to survive a brutal arctic winter before Mother Nature drew her wintry sword and pierced the bear’s life. But we had to survive too. It was either him or us. I unlashed the rifle. Suddenly he was right behind us. I hollered at him as I pulled the rifle from the case. The bear’s eyes took a bearing straight for me… time had run out.I pulled up the rifle and said a quick prayer, but suddenly it was over and everything fell silent except the sound of the runners gliding on the snow and my exploding heart beat. The bear stopped as if he hit a fence, then he stood up on his two hind legs, pulled his massive paws in toward himself and stared at us. With the sun behind him he looked like a giant, a king of the arctic, watching his prey (and probably his last chance to live) quickly slip away. The rifle, by the way, was never fired. It’s tough trying to prepare for all the unknown adventures in the arctic but sometimes we can prepare for the predictable extremes. Every spring I have the privilege to share part of my expeditions with adventurer/explorers from around the world. Last spring I had a great couple from Anchorage, Alaska (Mark, an engineer, and Rae, a tour operator) who wanted to spend 12 days to experience the arctic. Mark and Rae’s first day was fantastic. The arctic elements were behaving and gave us warm sunshine, blue skies, and the sweet smell of spring. Farmer even did a great job in lead. That afternoon we set up our tents amongst a few willows in a small winding valley. The snow was good for cutting blocks in case there was a blizzard, but I assured Mark and Rae there was no need because we were on good terms with Mother Nature and surely she wouldn’t betray us and bust our butts with a blizzard. Within a few hours of the moment I made that statement, we were cutting snow blocks and preparing for a blizzard. Now, for many of you that aren’t familiar with an arctic blizzard, imagine placing your face over the outlet of a snow blower. That’s exactly what a blizzard will feel like! And it’s vital that this snow blower effect is deflected away from the door of your tent to prevent snow from coming inside when the door is unzipped and opened. With a simple carpenter’s hand saw, snow blocks can be cut in about 2×2 foot chunks then stacked like bricks on the windward side of the tent.As the wind gained velocity, Mark and Rae proudly brought to my attention their eloquent snow block wall that was perfectly constructed, obviously designed with an engineer’s perspective. They felt their work was done so they said good-night and crawled into their comfortable abode. Suddenly awakened late that night from the sounds of blowing snow hitting the canvas wall of my tent, I knew right then, the real blizzard had come. The wind sounded like jets flying overhead and waves of snow were burying our little fortress. I quickly put on my mukluks and parka then crawled out the door to check on the dogs and secure gear that wanted a free flight to Siberia in the 60 mph wind. It’s important to check on the dogs periodically in a blizzard. Sometimes I’ll build wind blocks out of snow for the older dogs. They’ve endured their share of blizzards and they really appreciate help from a friend. Also I’ll extend the dogs’ chains so they have plenty of room to move around as the snow gets deeper. Of course, Farmer took full advantage of the longer chain and nipped Boss in the hind end just to get her growling. Malamutes have a hell of a sense of humor but that little nip pushed Boss over the edge, and she taught him a good lesson. Satisfied the dogs were taken care of, I grabbed the snow shovel and crawled back inside my tent. Early the next morning I awoke to the sound of silence. Either the wind stopped or the tent was entombed in snow. I crawled out of my sleeping bag, reached across the floor and pushed on the tent door. Sure enough, trapped! I unzipped the door, and exposed a solid wall of hard packed snow. After getting suited up I took the snow shovel and jabbed at the snow wall. Finally the snow broke free near the top of the door then I squeezed out the opening. The skies were bright blue, and the air was still. The sleds were completely buried and the dogs were curled up and sleeping. As I scanned the landscape toward Mark and Rae’s tent there was nothing there, just a flat surface. But protruding straight up out of the snow where their tent had been the day before was a stove pipe. Although I am sure Mark and Rae felt desperate in their situation, there was something humorous about that lonely stovepipe. I trotted over and placed my ear over the pipe. Sure enough, the calls for help sounded desperate yet amazingly calm. I called back, and asked how they were doing. Talking through the pipe they informed me that they were absolutely fine, but politely asked me if I could help them escape their imprisonment. I have to admit, I was chuckling so hard while digging their tent out I could hardly hold on to the shovel. After all, I had been in the same predicament a few times myself. Mark and Rae were unharmed by the experience. They admitted it was comfortably warm in their tent, and had no idea it was buried under six feet of hard packed snow until they unzipped the door. They couldn’t believe the wall of solid white staring back at them. Following Mark and Rae’s trip, I spent the next 22 days with a client traveling through the Brooks Range. About mid-April we finished the expedition at Kaktovik, an Inupiat village on the arctic coast. It was a great trip. The weather was too good to be true, and Farmer even behaved like a good school boy, which was a surprise. But I just had a gut feeling that the arctic extreme was just holding her cards and that she had a devilish plan that she would spring on me when I least expected it. At the village of Kaktovik, I prepared for the last 12 day trip of the season, after which I had planned on spending five or six days traveling back to Deadhorse. The night before our departure a south wind awoke from her slumber and tore through the village at 40 mph, causing the temperature to rise 50 degrees! Then the following day the sun joined in on the havoc, raising the temperature even higher, to about +50° F. I couldn’t believe one month earlier I welcomed the sun like a lost brother and now it betrayed us and became an enemy. Oh, how I cursed the sun that day! Then to top it off, local airplane pilots reported open water off shore from the coast and the snow was disappearing fast. Immediately after the news from the pilots I cancelled my plans for the 12 day trip, hitched up the dogs and turned the team toward Deadhorse. Time was of the essence. We had a long haul with some major rivers to cross and I wasn’t prepared to swim across them. The dogs and I took off from Kaktovik at a good clip then the team slowed down once they felt the sun beating down on their backs. They were not going to exert themselves and overheat. The large dark colored dogs have a tendency to be affected from the heat more than the smaller and light coated ones so they’ll usually pull at a much slower pace, which meant Farmer had to leave his lead dog position and join the grunts in wheel.I then filled Farmer’s position with Shorty, a small energetic girl with a name that describes her well. As we continued on the sea ice the cracks became wider and more frequent slowing our pace down even more, but Shorty brought fresh life into the team and jumped energetically over the cracks as if it were a game. She’s quite a gal. Her spirit seemed to energize the entire team and their pace picked back up. The following day the sound of the dogs panting was louder than ever before. The sun was torturous and had no mercy on the team and me, so I decided to shift our running schedule to nighttime when the temperature was a few degrees colder. But, conditions became worse and it started to rain. I knew there was only one chance to arrive at Deadhorse before the snow melted off the mountains and swept down the rivers in a torrent, and it required running non-stop for the next 20 hours. In order to save valuable time and shave off a few miles I guided the dogs off the sea ice and set the three leaders on a straight course across the tundra to Deadhorse. The leaders, Shorty, Boss, and Bear took to their new course quickly and the rest of the team excitedly followed. Suddenly, the dogs bolted forward and I didn’t like the looks of it. Right away that same gut wrenching feeling came back to me as when we had the grizzly encounter two months earlier. I just knew it – another bear! But this time it was a well fed polar bear with her cub and she didn’t want anything to do with 22 drooling and panting malamutes. She turned the opposite direction and waddled away. I veered the leaders off course and we made fast tracks the other way, quickly distancing us from the big girl and her cub. Excitement from the bears seemed to catapult the dogs into a good pace. They were all in great spirits with their brushy tails curled over their backs, silhouetted before the red 2 am sunrise. It was one of those magical moments – the team trotting in a perfectly orchestrated movement and moving as one unit. The sight caused me to reflect back on the last two and half months. The team had been pounded by blizzards, chased by a grizzly bear, and had ran a 20 hour non-stop marathon, yet they found it within themselves to work together and keep their spirits up through the last mile. For some of the older fellas this would be their last mile on the North Slope. They would retire, yet stay active on short trips in the Fairbanks area. For the younger guys and gals this last mile is the beginning of their careers in the arctic. After we arrived in Deadhorse, I staked out the team and fed them a well deserved meal. Hungry and exhausted myself, I started to unload the sled when a deep growl instantly caught my attention and made me visualize that grizzly charging us. But I knew that growl, that familiar tone, and of course I knew the reason behind that tortured growl. Sure enough, it was Farmer. He just wouldn’t be happy to end the season without one more nip on Boss’s hind end, just to get the last laugh. 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 at: www.alaskanarcticexpedition.com or call (907)-590-4980

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