We had envisioned running dogs across pristine spring crusts for several years, but it wasn’t until last year’s arctic experience that we decided on something more ambitious. I typically reserve the word “epic” to describe extended wilderness forays, but in this case, the towering Brooks Range peaks, thousands of caribou, 150 miles off-trail, and wolves howling with the dogs should count for something. It was an epic 6-day trip westward across the North Slope and southward into the Brooks Range.Brent Sass ran the show, providing the dogs and most of the supplies for the remote camp, from which the longer adventure would start. He and Casie Stockdale, a handler for Sonny Lindner, were residents of “Small Mound in the Arctic” (a.k.a. “Rio de Gelo,” “Camp Nowhere,” etc.) for all of April. There is a long list of friends who helped establish the wall tent village, located a day’s travel west of the Haul Road. The list of pulling dogs is even longer – never fewer than 53 dugout locations at the camp – and, while puppy teams were regularly run to the road for re-supply, the veterans broke trail in every direction.Enter Danny Dominick of Fairbanks, who, despite his lengthy wilderness resume in the Interior, had never been to the North Slope, and never run dogs. He and I skied from the road into the remote camp on April 19th, following the trail through dense fog. The zero visibility seemed an appropriate introduction for Danny to the North Slope. The daytime temperatures had been hovering around freezing for a week, making it hard to recall the 30 below temperatures that we experienced the year before, or the cold winter in the Interior. This was tropical and wet.Upon arriving at the camp, we assembled gear, looked at maps, and speculated about routes, terrain, and snow conditions. We would head westward across the Slope, crossing north-flowing river valleys. After reaching the Nanushuk River, we would turn south and head deep into the Brooks Range. Brent would drive the leading team, while Danny and I would alternate between mushing the second team and “ski-mushing” behind either team. Ski-mushing is as it sounds: skiing, while attached by a harness and bungee to a team of dogs driven by a musher. If you want more on ski-mushing techniques, there are a few suggestions on the facing page. It was warm and enough snow had melted to expose bare tussocks and rocks in many places. After assuming the woodstove to be an essential part of any plush winter trip, we noted the elevated temperatures, the bulk and weight of the woodstove and duralogs, and opted for a Coleman lantern as our sole heat source. The foggy weather broke the following morning, and we got the early start that we sought because of rising daytime temperatures. We would run in the mornings, break during the hottest part of the day, and run again in the evenings.The dogs sensed the excitement, and we were off. By mid-day we were 26 miles from camp, 35 miles from the road, and amazingly at the Nanushuk River already. The distance included broken trail for the first half of the run, and unbroken trail for the second half. We encountered over 700 caribou from the Teshekpuk Herd that morning, including two groups of over 200 animals that we had seen leave the Haul Road the day before. It was well above freezing, and calm, so we rested both the dogs and ourselves in the melting snow. I had been skiing, and I was pretty beat from the distance, even though my skiing had been heavily assisted. On the evening run, Danny skied behind Brent’s team and I ran the second team. To look down the gangline and recognize dogs that had finished that year’s Quest was impressive, and a privilege for a novice musher. But the real privilege was more tangible: being pulled by 10 stoked steam engines across the North Slope, and now southward toward the peaks of the Brooks Range. We all felt the excitement as we neared the mountains, and neared an ideal that we had conceptualized some years ago. We wanted to take dogs off-trail and deep into the mountains, and finally, we were on the doorstep. However, we were slogging up deep snow on the river. It had been a mixture of soft and hard snow coming west, and now it was mostly soft, with occasional welcomed sections that were shallow and fast, due to recent overflow. I study snow in another life, and I have repeatedly observed the contrast between the shallow snow in the Atigun River Valley and the deeper snow north of the mountains. The disparity evidently results from katabatic winds flowing north and sweeping the mountain valleys clear of snow. As we slogged slowly southward toward the mountains, I declared my prediction that the snow would soon become shallow, as I knew well that Mother Nature usually has some tricks up her sleeve. Luckily, this time, she did not. Snow cover decreased, a concept materialized, and we flew into the mountains over shallow snow underlain by extensive overflow.The Nanushuk is a very shallow braided river with gravel bars composed primarily of large cobbles. Many sections of the river had no snow whatsoever, and the ice was often thrust up into ridges and domes taller than we were. The following morning, we continued ascending the river at about 7 mph. We watched the sun enter the mountains and we spooked ptarmigan along the way. With less snow, our path was soon littered with exposed boulders and glare ice, making the ski-mushing fast and technical. Otherwise, the traveling left little to complain about. We silently ran 22 miles in 3.5 hours that morning, including navigating a windswept slot through bedrock that hosted some obstructive snowdrifts. At one point, Brent’s sled was hanging nose-vertical over one such drift, while his team was above on a flat surface, unable to go forward. With one guy on the gangline and one guy under the sled, the dogs managed to pull the sled up and over the 8-foot vertical drift.After crossing a second shallow outwash plain, we encountered the 250-foot vertical rock wall that ultimately halted our progress. There was a heavily drifted slot canyon exiting the east of side of the wall, and we explored it on foot until we arrived inside something akin to a silo, but instead cut in bedrock and with a frozen waterfall coming from the sky above. It was time to rest the dogs, rest the humans, and start thinking about caribou hunting on the way home.Everyone relaxed in the sun, and we hiked to the top of the wall and took in the view of the glacier and continental divide at the head of the valley. It was easy to relax now, because we would follow our own trail back to camp, relieving Brent and lead dog Silver from all of the communication required to thread a dogteam through areas with exposed rock and no trail. Running down the river that evening was effortless and pleasant, minus the occasional boulder dance for the ski-musher. The highlight came around 7p.m., as we neared the northern edge of the mountains. I was skiing behind Danny when we saw Brent’s team about 60 yards ahead, apparently full stride and sprinting. We had experienced surges throughout the trip resulting from frequent ptarmigan sightings, but this one looked more pronounced, more determined. Moments later, Danny’s team surged, and it occurred to me that a helmet would be a good idea. I had never experienced anything like it in my short mushing career. From Brent’s account, the two surges that we felt that afternoon were the second and third strongest surges that he has experienced, the first one being near Slaven’s Cabin in the 2007 Quest. According to his GPS, we were doing upwards of 13 mph, and the surges lasted about 20 minutes. It was cool to see the enthusiasm and change in psychology that was so contagious among the dogs, and I suspect that mushers share similar mental shifts sometimes as well.Still descending the river, we approached caribou, and Danny decided to hunt them. The stalk drew Danny away from the dogteams, on foot, and he injured one of the caribou. Brent and I mushed the teams up to meet Danny, and he took the final shot from the sled. We rested the dogs while Danny and Brent boned out the meat from the caribou. It was the second time that Brent, a qualified guide, had brought a novice musher – albeit experienced hunter – within range of caribou. He had also done the same with pilot Zack Knaebel two weeks earlier, with fairly similar results.The process seemed routine for Danny and Brent, who grew up hunting. To me, it was about what I expected, but more timeless than anything else. And that timelessness was more a characteristic of the dog mushing than the hunting. With the exception of a few fancy pieces of gear (a gun and a GPS, for example,) as soon as the sights and sounds of the Haul Road faded it might as well have been any year that man has hunted and traveled the tundra behind dogs. This is probably a common sentiment that attracts people to the wilderness, but the novelty with dogs is that you can travel through the past at speeds of the future! Oh, and the glory of silence!We finished our 40-mile day and broke camp as we were consumed by fog pushing up the valleys from the north. The following morning, Brent shot a caribou, and we headed back toward our remote base camp. It was late in the trip, and I was being pulled behind and to the right of Danny’s team. Without warning, the momentarily slack bungee was caught under a 2-foot triangular metal plate with down-turned corners, mounted horizontally on a vertical metal pole extending about 2 ft. above the snow surface. Where did this thing come from? My knees quickly crumpled as I was pulled downward from the waist toward this sharp metal plate. I’m not going to articulate exactly what was going through my mind, but I foresaw some body part being severed upon impact with the plate. Every muscle and the bungee went tight and, at the breaking point, the metal plate ripped off its mounting. Somehow, I bounced back up, still being pulled behind the team, and Danny and I celebrated triumphantly while I cursed mankind and his footprint.That metal plate, placed in a nondescript section of open tundra, was the only man-made structure that we saw the entire trip, and it came closer to ripping me in half than any other hazard we encountered. We later found it to be a corner reflector – a reference point – for a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite sensor. I suppose I owe the Geophysical Institute at UAF a phone call, but the story is difficult to explain, let alone to believe.We arrived back at camp under the blazing sun that scorched us for most of the trip. That evening, while lounging in the relative comfort of Camp Nowhere, we heard wolves howling. We stepped out of the tent and scoped 13 wolves about two miles away. They were dots on an orange horizon, a huge pack by any standard, and the dogs in camp mustered a vocal response. The chorus that ensued between wolves and dogs struck another timeless chord, and it seemed that we eclipsed National Geographic specials. The next day was the last, and we skied out to the Haul Road, shirtless, under a blazing sun. Our adventure was only the latest for the Susan Butcher sled that hauled half of our gear. When I see caribou or migratory birds, I often marvel at the landscapes and sunsets they must’ve beheld. Similar emotions were evoked in me when I saw the old “Iditarod Champion” patch on the sled-bag. That sled had seen some country, and our trip was only the most recent in a long list of trips that preceded it. Stepping back even further, our trip becomes a continuation of an ancient tradition that still boasts aesthetic (scooping poop) and efficient advantages over other modes of winter travel. Until the snow flies again, you can find us on the porch, grilling caribou and planning the next adventure.TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL SKI-MUSHING:Ski-mushing is a freight train at its best, with 14 dogs (steam engines), 1 musher (conductor), and 1 skier (caboose – the most he can do is pull himself) chugging across the landscape. There are occasions where the musher, the skier, or both are not working, but the dogs are always working. The two pillars of ski-mushing are vigilance and conservative judgement. Ski-mushing safety is analogous to boating safety. You need to be vigilant, even when the proverbial seas are calm. How many canoes have been turned over simply because of inattention to an upcoming corner? The same is true for ski-mushing. Most wrecks are avoidable, so long as you keep a conservative eye on the upcoming terrain. You even get to “run” rapids – the frozen variety. Below are a few strategies that I employ to remain a minimal burden as well as to stay uninjured.Basics• Attach a bungee and variable rope length to the lower right vertical stanchion.• If you seek efficiency, then wear a harness and use poles to make a contribution.• Use metal-edged backcountry skis for overflow ice and crusts.• Use a quick-release.• Don’t touch the tow line with your skis. Once your edge catches the tow line, it will quickly get sucked under the ski, and then the tow line is wrapped around your leg. I have done my share of skiing on one leg, being pulled by the other ankle, while yelling at the musher to stop. It is avoidable.Tension• The goal, as a skier, is to reduce the load on the dogs when the going is tough, and to reduce the jerkiness of the load, making it consistent.• When starting, ensure that there is no slack in the line. This will prevent jerking and entanglement when the team is at its strongest and fastest.• When going downhill above, or north of, treeline, just glide next to the musher, so that you are applying no load to the dogs. • When catapulted forward, it is easiest to shoot to the opposite side of the dogsled to which the tow line is attached. Both sides are feasible, but as the tow line goes from taut to slack, both ski tips need to be on one side or the other of the tow line. At slower speeds, the slack can be accommodated between the skis. But if you’re shot straight forward, say, dropping onto a river or into a gulley, the slack ends up between your legs – behind you – again posing the risk of wrapping around your leg when it tightens. You can also end up straddling the musher, which, depending on who is standing on the runners, may not be the end of the world. It is also the only option when the trail is narrow or there are hazards on both sides of the trail.• Have your snowplow technique perfected, in all types of snow conditions. The most dangerous surfaces are heterogeneous crusts with soft snow underneath. One moment you are snowplowing or cruising down the crust sporting a perma-grin, and the next moment that perma-grin is bloodied from a forced face plant in that same crust. It is like skiing downhill through powder with a heavy pack, but worse. The moment your skis dive down through the crust your upper body is thrust forward.Subarctic HazardsTrees are the obvious hazard. My only dangerous ski-mushing wreck involved a tree. We were flying down a sled-width bypass trail paralleling the Denali Park Road, and as we dropped down to meet up again with the road, we flew over the inclined frozen seepages that inspired the bypass trail, and I took a semi-controlled fall. I slid at full speed across the ice and slammed my chest into a tree. In the brief moment before I hit the tree, I wondered if I was going to be ripped in half by the dogteam. Fortunately, the 6-dog team that Brent drove in those days had only a fraction of the power that his current teams do. So, the bungee was stretched taught, as was my chest, and I was pinned behind the trunk of a spruce tree. I managed to wriggle one hand free and released the carabiner. The simple mistake was not unhooking as the trail worsened, and it is exactly analogous to not scouting a rapid on a river.Arctic HazardsSheer bluffs dropping onto rivers. We have yet to drop a team over a cliff, but we have come close. The chances of doing this are small, but the consequences are huge, so I mention it here. When dropping onto a river, make sure you can see a clear route down while your team is still stoppable. The difference between a 30-foot steep drop and a 30-foot vertical rock wall cannot be overlooked.Rocks on gravel bars. These are the bane of the ski-musher’s existence, particularly in the northern half of the Brooks Range, where winds flow northward down river valleys onto the North Slope, sweeping away most of the snow. Of course, it is these locations that also host the ideal wilderness mushing conditions. Rivers are braided and shallow, with a dusting of snow overlying a highway of overflow ice. But, those conditions include lots of exposed ground. Moss will stop your skis almost as fast as rocks do, but moss is at least soft to fall on. Rocks will bring your skis to an immediate halt, and there is a good chance you’ll land on other rocks nearby, risking serious injury in a remote location. Usually, if the skier is paying attention, he can swing out wide to either side of the team and avoid the rocks. If the exposed area is extensive, then the musher must slow the team down so that the skier can run across the rocks. Also, when the sled is going over rocks, the typical instinct of the musher is to get off the runners and run, but this will actually cause the team to accelerate as they leave the rocky area, at the critical moment when the skier is entering the rocky area. The final option is for the skier to temporarily detach, which happens about as often as portaging a rapid on a river, and should likewise not be treated as a concession. Caribou antlers might seem trivial, but actually, antlers are scattered all over the landscape, and, in a certain orientation, pose a serious threat to the skier. The antlers that are jutting out of the snow like shrubs are usually not so bad, because there isn’t much to actually get caught on. But antlers that form an arch and are frozen in the snow on both ends of the arch are of serious concern. If you slide a ski tip under an arch-forming caribou antler, either a leg, a foot, or a ski-binding will likely be broken. You might think the odds are small, but in fact, the antlers are commonplace in certain parts of the Arctic – like the parts where you might be.Additional Suggestions• In a perfect world, the ski-musher should never be skiing while the track is down. The resistance from the ski-musher can be used instead of the track, so long as the resistance is sufficient. For example, if you are skiing behind a team that is trailing another team, the skier should stop skiing as the trailing team approaches the leading team. If the resistance is still insufficient, then the track goes down. For this technique to be successful, the ski-musher needs to pay attention to the distance between the teams and regulate his skiing accordingly. The one pitfall of this technique is that the musher can be caught with the track up on overflow or while dropping onto a stream channel. • As you proceed down the trail evaluating obstacles, try to assess the terrain before the dog team encounters it. This will allow plenty of time to evade the hazard, even if it means swinging far out to one side. Otherwise, the dogs obscure the trail, and you find yourself poised to execute lightning reflexes as obstacles pop out from underneath the sled. Ken Tape is an avid photographer and aspiring musher living on the outskirts of Fairbanks, Alaska. In real life he is a graduate student studying arctic snow and vegetation.


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