SPRING BREAK: ALASKA STYLE

Mushing: if you have a job you don’t have any time, if you quit your job, you don’t have any money. Unless, you’re winning races. I gave that a shot, but it didn’t work out so I had to keep my job. I was a teacher in a tiny village in the Alaska Bush, isolated from the rest of the world, 400 miles from the road system in a community of 600 people on a vast expanse of flat tundra, which stretched to the horizon in all directions. Trees were nonexistent, and neither hills nor mountains beckoned. Dog mushing was the thing to do. Despite the full time job, I developed a respectable dog team and did some mid- and long-distance racing for about six years. This of course required abandoning the vibrant social life I may have enjoyed in the village (joking) and using my two days off a year very carefully. Now, I know what you’re thinking: teachers have all the time off in the world. Well, that’s in the summer, and in order to coincide with the Russian Orthodox Christmas, semester break occurred in January. The Yup’ik Eskimo word for January means “The Bad Month,” and I usually spent most of my Christmas vacation sitting in my shack waiting for a break in the gale force winds so that I could empty the bucket which served as a toilet. It was not a glamorous lifestyle.I managed to pull off middle-of-the-pack finishes in most of the races I did and had a great time doing it, but eventually the novelty of racing wore off. It was beginning to feel like work; lots and lots of backbreaking endless work. I missed sleeping. And, since I wasn’t really winning any money, I think a lot of mushers go through this.After eight years in the village, I moved to Fairbanks to become a recreational musher and attempt to reacquire a social life. The latter is still pretty stale, but mushing in Fairbanks is SPECTACULAR. There’s snow on the trails, the wind doesn’t constantly howl, and there are trees and hills. Best of all there are roads. You can put your dogs in a truck and go mush somewhere else. This was an amazing concept for me. It was no longer a weeklong trip just to get to the mountains. The potential for adventure mushing was huge,Despite giving up on dreams of being a competitive musher, late night after-work training runs continued. A good night’s sleep still remained a distant memory, but now I had a renewed vigor for dog mushing. I was a weekend warrior, waking up at 4:00 AM on Saturday mornings to head out to some beautiful place to go run my dogs as far as I could get them to go while still making it back to work by 9:00 Monday morning. I could cruise along on the groomed trails of the White Mountains and spend the night in a plush cabin. I could go out moose hunting on the Tanana Flats. I could mush into Denali National Park, set up camp, climb a mountain in the moonlight and be back home the next day before midnight. I could break trail up lonely valleys through majestic mountains, or I could mush snowmachine trails on the Minto Flats. Opportunities abounded.Being both a teacher and a dog musher, my weeklong spring break in March is sacred. One year I went up to the North Slope, and it was how I imagine winter to be like in heaven: no snowmachines allowed, smooth hard windswept snowpack, open country, long days of blazing sunshine, and caribou pouring out of the pristine arctic mountains like ants out of a stomped on ant hill.That year was a fluke. The next year I tried the same thing and it was a weeklong suffer fest of wind and 40 below, punchy snow and ground storms. I found out what it’s like to be rolled across the tundra in a tent and have all my gear packed with windblown snow. I also got to see what it’s like to get into a sleeping bag at 43 below, which isn’t so bad, but getting out of it in the morning sure is rough. It’s like this: burst out of your bag, put on everything you’re not already wearing as fast as possible, explode out of the tent and run for your life, while in your groggy uncoffeed head repeating the mantra, “Keep going or you’ll freeze. Keep going or you’ll freeze.” After hooking up the dogs that morning, I put a pre-cooked frozen steak in my inside front pants pocket to thaw it out so I could eat it for dinner, as was my custom. At the end of the day it was still frozen solid.This year for spring break, I tried something new. On my map of Wrangle/Saint Elias National Park there was an enticing dotted line labeled “winter trail” running through a narrow canyon above tree line. This trail was a short ten miles down the Nabesna River from the point at which it is accessible via the long dirt Nabesna Road. Most good backcountry mushing trips start with a cup of coffee and a map on my kitchen table. But, you need to do your homework. What looks possible on a map usually isn’t, so I called the park headquarters and talked to someone who sounded like he knew what he was talking about.“That’s a great trail. It gets a lot of snowmachine traffic this time of year and there’s tons of snow.” After a lifetime of being told by the Park Service, “You can’t do that,” this was indisputable evidence that this would be a great trip. I envisioned fifty-mile days of smooth trotting through spectacular mountains all the way to the Canadian border and back. We couldn’t lose.We got to the start of the trip to find what little snow there might have been mostly blown away, and the Nabesna River a gauntlet of glare ice, stumps, and gravel with a strong headwind. The dogs slipped and slid their way down river to the grinding tune of carbide brake tips gouging parallel grooves into the ice. After about an hour and a half and five miles, the dogs figured out that it was much easier to run on the gravel bars. Managing a dog team is a lot like managing a classroom full of kids, and one thing I’ve learned as a middle school teacher is that you’ve got to pick your battles. This was one I wasn’t willing to fight so we bounced and ground our way over rocks for the next five miles until we reached Cooper Creek and the start of that enticing red dotted line on the map. There was some snow. We were overjoyed. We set up camp and continued in the morning. The snow lasted a mile or two and then it was back to glare ice. The canyon narrowed, the rocky walls moved in closer, and the ice got steeper and steeper until the dogs could barely make progress, their little feet scampering at twice the speed we were moving, as the sleds careened off rocks and jumbled ice blocks. We began cursing the nameless, faceless park ranger and eventually turned around.The next day we retraced our route up the Nabesna. The wind was at our backs but now it was blowing hard enough to turn the non-existent snow into a ground storm, and it was cold. My wheel dogs would look at me funny when the sled blew side ways and past them. I had no control, but that was all right because neither did the dogs. We just let the wind blow us back while trying to minimize the damage. The sleds began to disintegrate. Bits of broken sled and lost gear would blow past us and get lost in the swirling snow. We made it safely back to the trucks, faces covered in ice rime and frozen dust.We regrouped and went to Denali Park, where the mushing rangers had recently put in a long trail through this jewel of Alaskan wilderness. Within a mile the side-hill trail was glaciated over, sending our sleds crashing into the trees. A few miles later the trail was obliterated in waist deep snow, which we slogged through at about two miles an hour. We reached the Sanctuary River feeling defeated and made camp.Every once in a while a day of dog mushing is so good it makes any amount of suffering and struggle all worth while. We decided to break trail up the Sanctuary River instead of pushing on to the Teklanika as we had originally planned. After a few miles of deep snow the river changed its character. It had been entirely overflown, refrozen and covered with two inches of snow. It was the perfect running surface. The sky was blue. The winds were calm. The dogs were jazzed to finally be able to get up and run, as we headed into the huge mountains of the Central Alaska Range. We spent one half-hour break watching a lynx watch us from the top of a bluff. We spent another 45-minute-break howling back and forth with a wolf. We sped across the landscape, big smiles cracking our chapped, sun burnt faces. Now, this particular year was a special year for this dog mushing school marm. Not only had I miserly saved my three days off, but I even had two days saved up from the year before. Along with two weekends, that gave me a whopping nine consecutive days off in mid-April, and as spring began to bloom in Fairbanks, we made the long haul up along the oil pipeline to the North Slope and back into winter.The plan was to hunt caribou, but more importantly, we’d be mushing in the Brooks Range and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; my personal Shangri-La of dog mushing. After nine hours on a mostly dirt road, we found a place to park the rigs near the mouth of the Ribdon River. The Ribdon is the last avenue into the mountains accessible from the road, before this lonely highway heads out onto the coastal plain en route to the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay. This road runs 400 miles north of Fairbanks through otherwise inaccessible land. In order to prevent every Joe Blow with a snowmachine from tearing it all up, there is a strict law prohibiting snowmachines within five miles of the road. In addition, hunting is not allowed within this 10-mile wide road corridor. Of course, for caribou hunters with dog teams, this is a wonderful arrangement. It keeps the trigger-happy noisy hoards of motor-heads away. The caribou continue with their spring migration in pretty much the same way they always have, and five miles with a team of dogs on a river is easy. At least it usually is.After camping out with the dogs in the trucks, we headed out onto the river with big loads of supplies intending to set up a base camp beyond the five-mile limit. The snow on the river was soft and about a foot deep in most places, and it was double that on the tundra. This was not necessarily a problem. We train our dogs just for this sort of thing, hopping through snow up to their chests while hauling a heavy load. What had us really worried was the possibility of a big wind event, which would put all this snow back into the air and pin us down in a treeless landscape with no cover. We marched along for about a half-mile before hitting deep overflow from bank to bank. We circumvented it by heading up onto the tundra and slogging through the bottomless snow. The dogs hop along a few dozen feet until the leaders flounder, the team bunches up, I brake to hold back the team, the leaders get the line stretched out again. Repeat. Shortly, the entire river became a wide swath of steaming overflow. It appeared as if the ice was frozen fast to the bottom and water seeping from the banks was flowing across the top, building layer after blue layer. No good for traveling. We continued slowly along the tundra.We saw a herd of caribou on a tundra bluff in the distance, but being less than five miles from the road and struggling with the deep snow and heavy loads we continued on. Luckily, seven miles from the road we found an unusually sheltered little gully with the tallest willows we would see for the entire trip. We dropped off our loads and headed back to the trucks. Our trail was a trench of sugary unconsolidated snow, but at least now we could move along without stopping every fifty feet.We took a snack break for the dogs and my partner Phil, pulled out his rifle to get a better look at the caribou through his scope, thinking aloud, “I wonder if they’re five miles from the road.” This was quickly followed by, “Dude! It’s a herd of musk ox!”This possibility had never crossed my mind since everything I had learned as a kid about musk ox on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom said that musk ox existed in small groups of no more than ten. We were looking at forty animals. They were up on a tundra ridge about a mile away, so we decided to get a little closer.At first the dogs were less than enthusiastic about breaking more trail up hill, but we plugged along, getting closer and closer until we were about fifty yards away. The oxen formed a wall of shaggy dread locked covered beasts crowned with sharp curved horns, and then turned and started to drift away, some of the large bulls stopping occasionally to butt heads. We watched in awe as they lumbered away up and over the ridge, disappearing on the other side, as we sporadically cursed the excited dogs, as they repeatedly broke free of the tenuous hold of the sled brake, wanting to chase.We didn’t want to disturb them too much, but the trail they put down for us made for relatively easy following. Besides, how worried can they be if they’re stopping to butt heads while we’re practically on top of them? We decided to follow their tracks and make one more approach.I expected to crest the top of the ridge and find them not far down the other side, at which point I could get another good look at them and take some pictures. Pair by pair the dogs reached the top and disappeared down the other side and when the sled reached the top (Oh $#!%) I was surprised to see my leaders directly at the feet of the huge shaggy beasts, standing face to face with their big horned heads, steam pumping from their nostrils. What followed happened as if in a slow motion dream. It was a standoff, with one two-year-old leader hysterically trying to get at them, and the more cautious leader pulling the other way while giving me a look that said, “All right boss. You better do something about this.” Although the brake had minimal effect on the loose snow and tundra, with half the dogs wanting to move towards the heard and the other half trying to get away we reached a tenuous equilibrium. All I could do was stand there yelling “Haw” in a terrified voice while envisioning my leaders impaled and flung into the air like unlucky matadors. I don’t remember taking pictures, but I must have since, well, here they are. And then, the prehistoric behemoths turned and galloped away in a thundering cloud of snow.Disaster was averted. It was an intense experience, but one I never want to repeat.The next day, we hauled the rest of camp out to our oasis in the willows at the start of the Ribdon River Canyon. We passed by the herd of oxen perched up on a bluff. In the flat white light of the overcast sky distances are deceiving, and I looked at them for a few seconds before realizing they were our friends from yesterday huddled in the distance and not a nearby flock of ravens. The trail had set up hard and the going was easy. We pushed on another five miles past camp to look for caribou, found none and returned to camp. The following day we retraced our steps over the thin ribbon of a trail meandering across the unblemished snow-covered expanses of white, and again broke trail another five miles, until we found a small heard of caribou which spotted us right away and galloped up the mountainside to a col, dropping down the other side. We once again returned to camp with the hopes of finding caribou tomorrow that didn’t act like Dall sheep.The next day our trail was even better. “Like a work of art,” commented Phil. We found caribou in the same place and they did the same thing. They ran up the mountain to the valley beyond, except this time there were more of them, and we were able to anchor the dogs, slap on snowshoes and cut them off in mid-flow. With a lot of running and positioning, we harvested three caribou in the chaos and confusion which results when caribou are separated from the rest of the herd. All the while, three moose stood in plain sight, seemingly unconcerned, watching the spectacle of caribou charging around in all directions, being chased by men.As I field dressed my second animal, it occurred to me it might be difficult getting the two of them in my six-foot toboggan. With a lot of rope and bungee cords, I managed to make it work with one hoofed leg sticking straight out like a drunken flagpole, but making a wonderful snow hook holder. On the way home I quickly fell behind Phil who zoomed ahead of me. Unbeknownst to me he was in hot pursuit of a group of caribou which had run down-valley following our wonderfully hardpacked trail. Myself, I took my time, stopping often to bask in the late night sunshine coloring the landscape.That night there was the tiniest amount of wind, but it was enough to erase any sign of our glorious trail back to the trucks. We waded back to the road through snow so deep I considered inventing dog snorkels for just such an occasion. The musk oxen watched our progress from afar. Seven miles and five hours later, we had the caribou back at the trucks. We grabbed a few beers and headed back to camp to thaw them out on the stove. We made one more push up the valley. Our trail was not so badly blown in once we got into the canyon, allowing us to follow it and take advantage of the hardpacked base under the shallow drifts. We made good time to our previous turn around point and broke trail a few more miles before stopping for a long rest to laze around in the sun. I gazed up the serene U-shaped valley, wishing we could go further. Maybe next year. But why? There are a dozen valleys within reach of the road just in this range, all of them offering unknown wonders, and I’m sure to go up another valley next year. I wished we had more time to explore the Ribdon. We had only made it twenty miles from the road in six days. But who cares? It’s not the quantity of the miles, but the quality of the experience. I also wished we could camp longer and I could climb some of these mountains. I wished I could simply laze around in the sun taking in the sights for a few days. I wished I could do a lot of things, but I had to go back to work so I could afford this expensive sport. Or did I? I could get by working the summer and fall and have the entire winter and glorious spring to mush dogs wherever I pleased.Well, as I write this I’m sitting on a jet en route to Peru to go climbing and trekking in the Andes for ten weeks. So much for a summer job. It’s a big world. You can’t do it all, but it doesn’t hurt to try. Ron is currently 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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