MUSHING DENALI

Despite all the rules and logistical difficulties, my best mushing trips have been to national parks and other protected areas where snowmachines are prohibited. Disliking the restrictions on motorized mobility, most Alaskans stay out of such areas, which are all but empty of people in the winter. Consequently, you don’t have to go very far to get the feeling of remote wilderness. Hunting restrictions also result in an abundance of wildlife that is less fearful of humans. You can call me a bunny-hugging, tree-worshipping, hippie environmentalist if you like, but I love having wolves around. Denali Park is my favorite place to see, hear and run with wolves.Wilderness is unpredictable, and things don’t always go as planned when you venture into the backcountry. A lack of established trails in Denali Park means you never know what things will be like. The trails put in by the rangers are ephemeral to non-existent. Mushers who limit themselves to running on snowmachine trails would probably not even consider them trails. They tend to disappear under deep snow and drifts, only to reemerge later as scratch marks in the ice leading into a lake of overflow, emerging as a faint track through uncut willow thickets.At times, the passage of several teams can put in a good route to Wonder Lake, eighty miles from the park entrance. I made this round-trip in four days once, running about eight hours a day, with the best possible trail conditions: a three-dog team snowpack that hadn’t blown in yet. With this trip in mind I headed into the park last March with 400 pounds of sled and ambition.The route to the north facing aspects of Mt. McKinley heads south from Wonder Lake and over McGonagall Pass. There’s a small business that freights climbing supplies from Wonder Lake to this pass by dog team in March. Having designs to climb this mountain soon and with the purist pipe-dream hope of doing it without any outside support, I envision hauling all my own gear in March by dog team, stashing it at the pass. In May, I’d hike out from Wonder Lake to retrieve it and climb the mountain. On this particular dog trip, I would be just checking out the route. I figured three days to Wonder Lake on the trail recently put in by the rangers, one day to McGonagall Pass on the freight trail, one day to rest the dogs and climb around in the foothills of Mt. McKinley, and three days back with a light sled.I got nowhere near McGonagall Pass; didn’t even make it to Wonder Lake, not even halfway. The heaviest, wettest, stickiest snow imaginable had fallen and blown around. All signs of the park rangers recently broken trail were gone. After a long day of struggle, I hadn’t made it very far with my heavy load of stuff, crammed into a six-foot toboggan. I was at the bottom of Sable Pass, which was socked in with fresh snow. I knew it had some horribly steep sections and willow thickets to navigate so I camped for the night and rested the dogs. Still in high spirits, I awoke the next day to melting temperatures, which turned the already supernaturally thick snow into something like wet cement. I broke trail with snowshoes, 100 yards at a time, at times sinking mid-thigh. I moved the dogs up and started again. The only visible section of windblown trail I came across all day was the steepest part of the route, leading from a little willow gully up to the park road. I could have gotten up it but coming down the steep tundra tussocks without any snow for the brake would have been a disaster. I decided to break a new trail up an equally steep, but slightly larger hill that had a lot of snow.Three hours later, roasting in the 45-degree sun and soaking wet, I had my dogs at the top of the hill and on the road. After two passes with my snowshoes we had started up where the dogs had failed. We then continued to make progress, one foot at a time in a series of coordinated lunges, me standing up to my waist in snow and pushing on the back of the runners and yelling. The dogs hear me yell, feel the inch of slack I manage to give them, hit their harnesses in unison, move up a foot and rest as I get my footing for the next round. Halfway up the hill, a little steeper, snow a little deeper, sun a little hotter, this stopped working. I unloaded and shuttled gear to the top. We then spent a few hours at a slow walk, breaking trail up and over the pass on the road, before plunging into another willow gully, where we encountered 100 feet of perfect trail, before the snow disappeared entirely and we descended a mile of willow-gully, half buried in wet glaciated overflow. Careening through the mess, whipping sideways into trees and tipping over, slamming tree trunks head on and getting launched over the handlebar, shooting down little ice chutes, we eventually descended some ice that was steep enough to make me wonder if we could get back up it. Jingling on my sledbag is a pair of ice climbing screws for anchoring the sled down if I need to leave the team unattended on ice. As we continued onward and downward to the damage of dog, man and sled, I was imagining myself rigging up a pulley system with the screws and hauling the dogs up ice chutes on the way back, when it suddenly occurred to me that I was no longer having fun and should probably stop. I gave up, and we spent the night in the only little spot I could find that wasn’t standing or flowing water.The next day we just barely managed to ascend the ice without the necessity of an ice-screw pulley system. We plunged down my unconsolidated trail of ridiculously steep slush, crashing at the bottom. Two days later I was putting an ice screw into the slanting shelf ice where my dogs were precariously standing in front of an open hole in preparation for hacking a trail through the willows when a hundred ravens circling raucously above informed me I was really close to something big and dead. As I was struggling through the thicket with my snowshoes and a skyful of screaming ravens, a wolf ran across the river in front of the dogs. Good thing for the ice screw.Several hours later I was back at my truck, humbled and defeated. That was supposed to be the easy trip of the season. The hard trip was coming up in April in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where I expected trail-less deep snow, blizzards and overflow. I was determined to make the annual trip to the arctic, but I needed something fun and easy before heading out for what could possibly be another grueling sufferfest. The groomed snowmachine trails forming the 100-and-something mile loop in the White Mountains were perfect for the three days I had left of my week off. Ron Koczaja is a school teacher in Two Rivers Alaska. He has mushed dogs and taught in a Yup’ik village school on the Kuskokwim River Delta for eight years. Ron has also raced in several K-300’s and Iditarod in 2001.

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