Featured in the Sept/Oct 2007 Issue of Mushing Magazine:In the July/August 2006 issue of Mushing Magazine, I introduced to you the first winter of my solo dogsled expedition on the arctic slope of Alaska. To recap, “Retracing Leffingwell,” is a multi-year expedition to commemorate the “forgotten explorer,” Ernest De Koven Leffingwell (1875-1971). From 1906 to 1914 Leffingwell and his party of local natives mapped the geographic and geologic features of Alaska’s Brooks Range and arctic coast… Dedicated to Major, a very dear friend whom will always be in our memories.Throughout history many arctic explorers suffered severe physical and psychological hardships in this arctic region consisting of very few trees, brutal blizzards, and extremely rugged mountains. Leffingwell, however, suffered little, mostly due to his firm belief in using the same diet, camping and traveling methods as the local natives did. One of these methods was the use of native dogs; the Alaskan malamute.The Alaskan malamutes started their “careers” pulling sleds for native families about 3,500 years ago when the first sleds were invented on the Arctic slope of Alaska.According to recent DNA tests the malamute have been in existence and domesticated for at least 14,000 years. It is interesting to note that many of the Alaskan husky breeds today have traces of malamute bloodlines. For the past two winters I have been following Leffingwell’s footsteps with my team of 22 purebred Alaskan malamutes. With 4-5 months of supplies loaded on three large sleds tied in tandem, the mals and I are able to sustain ourselves on the expedition for up to 5 months at a time. By following Leffingwell’s route and searching through his personal journal I have found that we have shared the same difficulties in travel and dealing with the extreme arctic environment. Many times I found myself camping at nearly the same location and negotiating the same rugged mountain passes he had 100 years prior. But it is now mid-May and the tundra is still white and the rivers are frozen. As I begin to reflect on another winter passed, I can almost smell the campfires in the air and hear the malamutes’ howl ringing in my ears. Above all, the rugged arctic extremes are fresh in my thoughts.FREEZE-UP In September, the snow covered the mountains and low lying hills. Our Alaskan malamutes’ fur coats grew long and plush. Their well rounded shoulders and necks showed they had grown a thick layer of fat over the brief three months of summer, insulating them from the inevitable cold of the up-coming arctic winter. By the first of October the sounds of freezing river ice cracking filled the night. Breaking the sounds of the ice were the howls of the malamutes, all chorused perfectly together. Those eerie mournful howls and moans would wake me several times a night. It seemed as if they were answering their ancient ancestors that were calling them from deep within the mountains. As the days grew shorter, the dogs knew the time was fast approaching when we would head back into the mountains. SUNSETOn November 23rd the sun set for the last time until spring. Along with the setting sun, a fresh layer of snow fell on the tundra. There was enough snow to start hauling supplies over a low lying pass, then into the mountains where the malamutes would finally have their chance to run in the country where they originated thousands of years ago. There is something about living in the mountains with 22 of your friends and companions. Each malamute has his or her own unique personality and character. It would be impossible to describe with words what it’s like, and words could hardly do it justice anyway. The hardships, brutal blizzards, dark days and nights are many. But every spring I look forward to another winter when the northern lights illuminate the clear skies, the freedom of roaming and exploring new country, hearing the malamutes howl that ancient tune, and watching the young pups grow and become handsome, powerful dogs. This year we had four new pups to bring along for the winter expedition. Born May 14th, they were still too young for the harness, but their education began with them running beside the team, or behind the sleds when I started the expedition in late November. The pups grew rapidly in size and strength as the soft snow of November and December fell on the arctic tundra. Traveling in December was tough. Thick brush, steep cut banks, and overflow alongside the rivers were obstacles, to say the least, as we penetrated deep into the rugged Brooks Range. THE CHINOOKAs the dark days of January grew near, the snow became deep and snowshoeing in front of the team was the only way to make progress. After a long day of traveling, I made camp alongside a riverbank amongst some dry willows. Next to the willows on a wind blown gravel bar flowed a warm spring. The crystal clear water ran onto the river ice, through an opening, and into the river under the 3 foot thick ice. This was a perfect camping spot with plenty of firewood, and there’s nothing better than good spring water for the dogs and brewing coffee. I decided to spend a couple days there to catch up on sled and harness repairs. Then I intended to cross the ¾ mile wide river at a point where a creek ran through 40 foot high black shale cliffs on the opposite bank. The creek supplied a passage up a tight twisted canyon, then over a mountain pass. The temperature was a comfortable -20 Fahrenheit with a light southwest wind and clear skies. But true to arctic extremes, Mother Nature had a trick up her sleeve. I awoke the second night in a sweat. Crawling out of my sleeping bag, I slipped on my caribou fur mukluks, and rushed outside the tent to one of the sleds with a thermometer attached to the back stanchion. It read 42 degrees!! A “Chinook,” (southern warm front) moving in fast means trouble in the arctic, especially in the Brooks Range where thermal springs are locked tight, deep within the frozen river beds just waiting for a thaw to bust loose and release the water that has been building for months. Making haste, I trotted across the river where I had planned on crossing. The faint glow of the moonlight reflected off the wind polished ice on the river, giving me ample light to see that the ice was firm and there was no overflow on the river… yet.Returning to camp, I boiled up some coffee on the wood stove inside the tent, fried a good portion of caribou meat, knowing it would be a long day, then thawed some frozen blueberries topped off with raw muktuk (whale blubber) for dessert. Immediately after breakfast I heard the unmistakable sounds of ice cracking like gunshots in the distance, becoming louder by the minute. Quickly, I pulled down the tent and broke camp, loaded the three sleds and hooked up the team. I then grabbed a handful of chains out of the sled bag and hurriedly wrapped and fastened them around each runner of two sleds ­­– the chains prevent the sleds from swinging side to side as we cross the slippery ice. By the time I fastened the chains to the runners, the mals were excited to go. They broke the morning silence with an impatient howl that echoed in the valley. After the dogs sounded off a few good howls they all listened intently for the command to go. But that day I decided to lead the team myself, feeling uneasy about the cracking ice. I pulled the snow hook and told the team to stay. Then I tied the snow hook securely to the top of the sled with a rope, to prevent the hook from accidentally falling off and hooking into the ice. I then walked up to the three leaders that were standing side by side: Angel, Bear, and Nanook. They were watching my every move. Bear was shivering with excitement, anticipating the command to go. I walked past the three leaders, turning my back to them, and started off in a jog, telling the leaders to come. As I trotted across the river I could hear the 22 dogs panting and the chains on the runners grinding on the ice behind me. As we approached the opposite side of the river my heart sank—“too late,” I thought. Water was running and gushing against the rocky shale cliffs in a torrent. Making a quick turn upriver to avoid the water, I jogged back to the third sled where I kept my binoculars in the pouch, glanced upriver and spotted a narrow crossing where the water didn’t look as deep. Quickly, I took the chains off the runners in case we broke through the ice in which case the chains would hang up on the broken ice and cause serious problems. Water was soon flowing around us on all sides, so we had to cross where we could. Again, trotting in front of the team I led them to the narrow channel of water flowing on top of the main ice which was about 100 feet wide. I didn’t know how deep it was, but we were committed, and as you all know, dogs don’t know “reverse.” I’ll tell you what, the first step into that cold water really got the blood moving and I ran all out to the other side. As my feet and shins became numb leading the team, I glanced back at the pups and couldn’t help but laugh; three of the pups, each one sitting on top of a sled, dry as can be, actually looked as if they were enjoying the “boat ride.” After reaching dry land I shed my wet mukluks and clothes, put on dry ones which are kept in dry bags for these occasions, offloaded the sleds, repacked them and headed for high ground! The Chinook lasted about five days, melting a good amount of snow and creating some high winds which blew most of the remaining snow into low lying valleys and canyons. A BLIZZARD Mother Nature has quite an arsenal of tricks up her sleeve, especially in the mountains where, under the right conditions, wind tunnels can occur in the most unexpected times and places. On several occasions I have clocked 75-80 mph winds with temperatures -15º to -20º Fahrenheit, which knocks the wind-chill temperatures off the charts. These windstorms come up quick and can last up to four solid days and nights. I am always conscious of where we camp, never knowing what may come unexpectedly in the night. Since I carry no gas or cook-stove, (it would be unfeasible to bring a five month supply of gas), I rely entirely on dry willows and driftwood to cook with and melt snow. The two things I look for when we make camp are dry firewood and deep hard packed snow for cutting snow blocks to build windbreaks in case of a windstorm. These two items are essential to surviving the most brutal blizzards Mother Nature throws at you. As February rolled around, the orange glow of the sun finally started to show itself between the mountains and the winding river valleys. The temperatures started to dip in the -50º to -60º Fahrenheit range, and traveling became slow due to the dry sandy snow. February is a month ripe for blizzards. I am always on the look out for those unforgiving windstorms. Sometimes they can be spotted on the horizon, giving us a chance to pitch camp and “dig in,” but often times they come up fast and furious making traveling nearly impossible and setting up camp an absolute nightmare. The early February sun gave us a few more hours of light by which to travel and explore. The mals were all pulling well as we climbed above a narrow river valley to a patch of dry willows that I had spotted with the binoculars. I stopped the team alongside the willows, where the snow had drifted over a bank, and grabbed my snow probe (a short pole with a 90 degree handle on the end) driving it into the hard-pack. Satisfied the snow was sufficient for cutting snow blocks I set up the tent. The temperature was -55º Fahrenheit that night as I let the fire die in the small tin wood stove, zipped up the sleeping bag and went to sleep. During the night I heard wind gusts shaking the tent. Getting up, I prepared immediately for the inevitable. Dressed in my caribou fur parka, mukluks and mitts I went outside the tent to make sure gear was in the sleds, harnesses tied together and attached to the gangline, and all the dogs were secured on the picket lines. I then shoveled snow onto the tent for added protection, and went to work cutting snow blocks. Using a carpenters hand saw, I cut the blocks and stacked them four feet high and six feet long, diagonally off of the corner of the tent to deflect blowing snow from entering the door when it’s opened. I then went back inside the tent and picked up a book to read while listening to the wind gusts pick up speed and force. Within 20 minutes of entering the tent the winds were gusting 50 mph. The tent shook from the blasts. From inside the tent, it sounded as though someone was taking a sandblaster to it.As morning arose the wind died down, so I spent the morning shoveling out the buried sleds and gear. The dogs all faired well in the storm, and the temperature was steady at -25º Fahrenheit with clear skies. I felt pretty lucky to be let off the hook. But it wasn’t too long before I realized the wind was just shifting directions 180 degrees and the real blizzard was on its way. The storm came in with fury, burying the dogs and sleds in an instant. Visibility was a few feet at best and my wind break obviously was useless being built on the opposite side of the tent. So I suited up yet again in my caribou furs and went back to work cutting snow blocks. This time I encircled the entire front of the tent with the blocks, placed a roof over it, built a long L- shaped tunnel leading out of the “half igloo” and settled back into my refuge, exhausted from fighting the wind. The winds were gusting 50 to 60mph accompanied by a temperature of -25º Fahrenheit, which produces a wind-chill around -80º to -90º Fahrenheit. The dogs dug into the snow and allowed themselves to be buried, giving them extra protection from the storm. The blizzard lasted a solid three days and nights without letting up a bit. Even in a storm like this there is still plenty of work to do; feed the dogs three times a day, gather firewood, and melt snow for water. All these chores have to be done in close to hurricane force winds where the dry snow feels like sand pelting and stinging your face. Under such conditions you run the risk of freezing any exposed flesh within a matter of seconds. Sometimes I wonder how anything can survive in such a brutal environment, but somehow, Mother Nature provides the essentials to make it through another day, another blizzard, and another winter.SPRINGTIMEIt’s not all about the trying times, though. There are also good arctic extremes which erase the memory of the hardships. For example, as March and April arrived so did the long sunny days. Although temperatures were still hanging well below freezing, the sun’s intense heat penetrated my parka as I sat back on top of the sled and enjoyed the scenery as the dogs eagerly pulled the sleds across the tundra. Finally, on the last day of April, it was time to call it a winter and set sail towards Deadhorse where the dogs would be transported to Fairbanks for the summer. When I say set sail to Deadhorse I do mean literally “sail.”Breaking camp on the last day of April the east winds were blowing a consistent 20 mph, and the temperature was a steady 10º Fahrenheit. Deadhorse was approximately 120 miles west of our camp. After running the team a short distance north until we were on the Beaufort Sea coastline, I turned the team directly west. The four lead dogs, all hitched up side-by-side, picked up the westerly direction by following the angle of the snowdrifts. An experienced leader will not need verbal commands once established in a direction just by seeing and following the angle of the small drifts on the ice. As we headed west, and offshore several miles, the winds picked up to around 35 mph with blowing snow. Visibility soon dropped to just a few hundred feet at best, but the leaders kept a true and straight course. The sleds pounded on the drifted snow and rough ice making the dogs put in extra effort pulling the sleds. The wind was fairly consistent and directly at our backs – if we can harness the power of 22 Alaskan Malamutes why not the wind? Always keeping driftwood and willows in one of the sleds for firewood, I lashed two of the longest driftwood poles upright to the handle bars on the front sled. Over the poles, which were standing straight up about four feet above the handle bars, I tied some nylon dog food bags on them, creating a makeshift sail. When the wind filled those white nylon bags the sleds lunged forward, nearly overtaking the wheel dogs. Soon the entire team was trotting at a good pace, all tails were up and the dogs seemed energized again. We made it safely to Deadhorse in what must have been record time. Through the many fierce blizzards, bone chilling temperatures, and months of darkness, the Alaskan malamutes have, for thousands of years, proven themselves with their stamina, toughness, agility, and loyalty, to be a true symbol of the arctic extreme.I would like to mention special thanks, and a tribute to all of our hardworking Malamutes, which made the Leffingwell Expedition a success. Also, a special thanks to the following businesses that support us: Grubstake Feed, Iridium, Costa Del Mar, Big Ray’s, Alaska Tent & Tarp, Caribou Creek, Nodykn, & Petzl.Joe Henderson has been working with Alaskan Malamutes for 25 years. He and his team spend most of the winter dogsledding alone and end each season offering clients remote expeditions throughout Alaska.


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