Howl of the wild
Fur flies during ice dog sled expedition
By Heather Mundt
Special to The Denver Post, Jan. 5, 2003
HEALY, Alaska - I sit in the basket of a toboggan sled, watching the fluid line of sled dogs run before me, a kaleidoscope of fur disrupting the infinitely white landscape. An Alaskan told me winters here are black and white and many shades of gray. But that Spartan palette is also infused with muted maroon and yellow vegetation, interrupted in the distance by snow-dusted spruces and craggy mountains.
From my low vantage point, I notice dwarf birches, their naked branches black against the snow. We travel through walls of frosty willow bushes, the leaves a salmon-colored blur, and I shield my eyes from their reaching, skeletal limbs.
It's Day 1 of our three-day dog-sledding adventure, the only day my husband, Michael, and I will train before driving our own sled-dog teams into the Denali wilderness, about 115 miles southwest of Fairbanks in Alaska's south-central region.
Jon Nierenberg, who with his wife, Karin, established EarthSong Lodge in May 1997, will guide us during the excursion. A 20-year mushing veteran, he is one of only two concessionaires licensed to guide overnight expeditions into Denali National Park & Preserve, the 6-million-acre home of North America's highest peak, Mount McKinley (20,320 feet). Located 17 miles north of the park, EarthSong is a convenient starting point for Jon to lead trips into the expansive interior.
"I think taking people on a guided tour into the park is an authentic way to see it, and is something that satisfies the people who want to do adventure travel," he says. "It's a living history type of thing. It's very similar to the way it used to be done in the old days."
On this trip we'll pay homage to those bygone eras, when indigenous Alaskans relied on dogs for tracking game and hauling gear to seasonal hunting, fishing and trapping grounds; when polar explorers such as Sir William Parry relied on dogs to cross arctic terrain; when throngs of prospectors, during the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush, depended on sled-dog teams to haul freight, deliver mail and traverse Alaska's winter wilderness; when traveling into the wild meant entrusting your life to canine instinct.
Michael and I awake at 8:30 a.m. to an indigo sky, still disoriented by the mere five hours of daylight available here in January. We struggle with the thought of leaving the cocoon-like warmth of our cabin - named Sled Dog and adorned with worn sled-dog booties of assorted colors - to face the minus-21 degrees weather.
We're each ready with standard winter gear: long underwear, fleece jackets, lined snow pants, wool socks, mittens, ski masks and earflap hats. Our pockets are stocked with a cache of hand warmers. Jon also has outfitted us with parka coveralls with a hood - Michael's and Jon's are fur-trimmed - pack boots rated to minus-70 degrees, and a pair of overmitts, oversized mittens that overlap our coat sleeves and form an elastic, airtight seal at mid-forearm. We're both dressed entirely in black, which Jon jokes will make us easier for him to see in the snow if we fall off the sled.
Out in the dog yard, Jon's 23 dogs pace restlessly, anticipating their impending run. When people think of sled dogs, they typically envision brawny Alaskan malamutes or blue-eyed Siberian huskies. But Jon's affable dogs are Alaskan huskies, which are the most common mushing breed. They are bred for temperament, intelligence, body type and ability, not necessarily appearance. As Michael observes, these dogs will have run more miles than two marathons today and tomorrow - 28 miles to the Sushana River and 28 miles back - and they'll do so blissfully.
I'll have five on my own team today. My lead dog, a petite blond female named Saska, patiently keeps the gang line taut as she awaits teammates Brucie, Eli, P.J. and Geordi. I harness and hook them to the line, a task I liken to harnessing an octopus. My hands - protected with glove liners that allow some warmth and dexterity - ache from the cold. The cacophony of eager dogs fills the yard.
Jon will lead with nine dogs, and Michael will run behind me with six. We'll be following Jon, so we won't need to command the dogs "gee" or "haw," right and left respectively. But I'm uneasy about driving my sled without him directing me, particularly starting the dogs out of the yard. I meticulously check the line that holds my sled to the fence, practicing unhooking its panic snap that allows quick release.
Sensing we're leaving, the dogs' howling reaches a fever pitch. As soon as my team sees Jon taking off in front, they'll be anxious to chase, and I've got to be ready. Jon reminds me to use the brake to slow the dogs once we're out of the yard. Hearing Jon's "Hike!" command, I fumble for the panic snap, narrowly unhooking my line in time. My dogs are soon on Jon's heels, and I look behind me to see Michael's team in tow. There is silence, save for the steady shhhh of the runners gliding through the snow beneath me, and the haunting wailing of the three dogs we've left behind.
I'm surprised at how much warmer I am driving the sled than riding, shifting my weight and anticipating the trail ahead. The wind is cold on my face, freezing my eyelashes and triggering a throbbing between my eyes like an ice-cream headache. I realize my hood has slipped off my head and refasten it more tightly.
The terrain before me is smooth, with the occasional stretch of bumpy tussocks and steep hills. I soon find myself relaxing, looking occasionally away from the dogs and trail, and appreciating the landscape. Jon signals me to stop, pointing skyward toward a "sun dog," a columnar rainbow caused by sunlight refracting through ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere.
The first part of our 28-mile route retraces our steps from yesterday's training session: west along the park's northern boundary on the historic Stampede Trail - now a partially-paved road, leading to the famous Stampede Mine that lies 45 miles west of the park's headquarters - toward the Savage River. We'll continue through the Teklanika River toward a back-country cabin on the Sushana River, where we'll stay for the night.
I relax as we travel through the now familiar tundra, past Eight Mile Lake toward the Savage. The sky is overcast again, the sun burning pale yellow behind the haze of gray-blue clouds. Behind me I can hear Michael's lead dogs, Fella and Baker, panting and urging me to go faster.
I focus ahead on my dog team, checking for tangles or any signs of trouble. I love watching them run, their heads hunkered down between their shoulders in concentration, tails low and ears craned toward me. Occasionally I see a pink tongue dangling or tufts of air rising as they breathe. "Good dogs," I repeat often, more words of gratitude than encouragement.
We travel through a variety of terrain, some flat tundra but also many more hills and climbs through mountainous areas. I begin to enjoy the hills, both the challenge of pushing the sled upward and the thrill of not knowing what to expect on the other side. Approaching a steep climb, I hop on and off the sled to push so often that my lungs burn once we reach the top. Despite the biting cold, I begin to sweat.
We enter more difficult terrain, a combination of small hills and sharp curves dotted with spruce trees, and it requires both significant mental and physical exertion. I fight to hold on to my handle bar while negotiating my cumbersome pack boots in the soft, deep powder. My stomach muscles stretch and burn as I struggle to hold on, but I finally succumb to my fear of being dragged and let go, falling face down. Michael has the best view of what he later describes as my "hopeless flailing of limbs." I yell to Jon so he can catch my team, sheepish that I've broken the first rule of dog mushing: Never let go of the sled. I don't doubt that my dogs know they're dealing with a rookie.
We continue upward, traversing corridors of 6-foot-high willow bushes and alder trees that form overhead arches in places. After more than 3 1/2 hours, we reach the Savage River and stop for lunch: A cup of hot soup and cheese crackers.
The blue sky peers through streaks of white clouds, the landscape bathed in golden hues of late-afternoon light. We tip our sleds on their sides, set our snow hooks - "emergency brakes" - in the packed snow, and unhook the dogs' tug lines so they can rest. Several begin rolling in the snow, a "snow bath," which indicates they're enjoying themselves. Jon notices fresh caribou tracks nearby, and we investigate as we eat. But we don't linger, hurrying to return to the trail and restore the circulation to our now-cold extremities.
We continue the last 6 miles in a flat, tree-dense riverbed and arrive at the cabin near dusk, about 4:30 p.m. Tucked amid towering spruce, the honey-colored log cabin is a welcome sight. It is approximately 14 by 16 feet and constructed of native white spruce. An outhouse stands about 30 feet from the cabin's entrance. We hook up the dogs, feed them, and settle in for the night.
After dinner Jon invites Worf inside. It is customary for dog mushers to give lead dogs extra attention, and Worf is one of Jon's young leaders. He sniffs his new surroundings and lies on the floor, while Jon kneels down to wrestle with him. I marvel at how similar these dogs are to mine, who know nothing of survival in these unforgiving conditions.
When Jon came to work in the park's kennel, he says, he realized mushing combined his love for animals and his desire to explore the backcountry. Twenty years later, he considers Alaska his home.
"This is the best spot possible I can imagine. It just seems to have everything," he says, with only a hint of a New Jersey accent. Not only is there the variety of topography - accessible glaciers, big river valleys, mountains - but the remoteness and restrictions on snow machines in the interior increase chances of viewing wildlife.
"Unless you catch it just right, you can go hundreds of miles without coming across anyone or seeing any signs of anyone," Jon says. "You don't have that in too many places."
I ponder that later as I lie in bed, the cabin so toasty from the wood stove that I lie above my sleeping bag. I write in my journal: "I'm in a remote cabin, in the middle of an often unforgiving land, rugged and harsh throughout the winter, far away from civilization, electricity and running water. If not for Jon, I wouldn't know how to survive here." If not for the dogs, survival would be nearly impossible.
We begin today much like the last two. It's minus-34 degrees, the coldest it's been so far. My dogs lunge against the line, ready to pull, and I unhook the panic snap. But I forget there are two hills leading immediately down from the cabin, and that I have a brake. My panicked cry gets lost in the surprise of catching air beneath my sled, and I bend my knees to absorb the impact of each landing. Somehow I manage to hold on. As we wind through the riverbed, I turn behind me to see Michael has successfully negotiated the perilous hills.
We take a side trip along the way, following Jon off the trail through slushy ice and unfamiliar hills. Six miles from the cabin stands the Sushana Bus, a backcountry shelter made famous by Jon Krakauer's book "Into the Wild." The story details the quest of Christopher McCandless, who in 1992 ventured to Alaska to live in the wild and ended his four-month journey here, where a moose hunter later found his body. Just inside its entrance, we notice a placard left in memory by McCandless' family, an eerie reminder of Christopher's death. In this land, where one misstep can mean the difference between life and death, I feel indebted to my dog team.
We're back on the trail. The sky has opened up today, a sprawling sea of blue streaked with lavender clouds. Amber light rejuvenates the landscape so it's as if we are traveling through new territory instead of backtracking.
We climb upward along a ridge, the trail flanked by walls of willow bushes that swish along my coveralls as we travel. Below us, on either side, stretches the flat tundra, and a line of spruce trees in the distance demarcates the base of the Alaska Range that surrounds us. We stop for a moment and look behind us toward Mount McKinley - The High One to native Athabaskans - a faint but massive, grayish peak in the distance.
We continue through a tree-dense area, full of small hills followed by several 60-degree turns, and I often flop like a rag doll from the back of the sled, fighting for footing. I hang on, too preoccupied to be afraid.
As we return to the tundra, my dog team veers "haw" to Jon's "gee." I watch Jon disappear over a hill to my right and look behind me, where Michael's team is following. I feel powerless as my leaders ignore my commands to turn right, and I worry that Jon hasn't yet noticed my teams' mistake. As soon as it seems my heart cannot pound any more loudly, the path converges until we're again following Jon. I laugh with embarrassed relief; these dogs knew all along that the two paths would meet. I scold myself for having doubted Jon or these canine sages.
The dwarf birch cast blue shadows that grow longer with the day, so by the time we're back on Stampede Road, the shadows have become dusk. We all fishtail on the road without the constraints of a packed trail, and I concentrate to keep the sled upright. By 4:30 p.m. we're back at EarthSong, returning the dogs home in the last hints of daylight.
We have mixed feelings about leaving, our first dog-sled trip behind us. For three days, those dogs were ours, and we each feel a connection to them, to this place. But we also miss our own dogs back home.
As we get into the truck to leave, we watch longingly through the car window as the team readies for a practice run. We smile, hearing the now familiar racket of eager dogs - a veritable call of the wild - already urging us to return.
Freelance writer Heather Mundt and her husband, photographer Michael Mundt, live in Longmont.
If you go
EarthSong Lodge, P.O. Box 89, Healy, Alaska 99743, is about 115 miles south of Fairbanks and about 235 miles north of Anchorage.
Click here for more information on dog-sled tours.
Contact EarthSong Lodge for more details at 907-683-2863 or visit www.earthsonglodge.com.