Driving a dog sled into the heart of winter
AT about that time of year when most Northern residents are afflicted with cabin fever, and seek relief by heading south in search of sunshine and warmth, I decided that rather than escape from winter, I would plunge into the heart of it. I headed north for a dog sled trip in Arctic Alaska. The last day of February found me riding in a dog sled leaving the town of Bettles, Alaska, some 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. I was the lone client on a guided trip into the foothills of the Brooks Range, a mountain wilderness beyond the reach of roads and telephones, inhabited more by caribou than people.
We would be spending our nights with residents of the area, in accommodations that ranged from a one-room log cabin without electricity or running water, to what must be the northernmost ranch in North America, complete with horses, hayfields, barn, electric generator, and a two-story log home with all the amenities one could wish for, including a longed-for hot shower.
I wasn't merely going for the ride on this trip, I wanted to learn about dog mushing. As we glided along in below-zero weather, my guide, Debbie Remillard, instructed me in the art of mushing.
First is direction: Shouting ``gee'' sends the dogs to the right at a fork; ``haw'' to the left. There were few forks in this trail, so I wouldn't have to worry about that one much. Then, you have to constantly watch that the lead dogs aren't stopping for any reason. If the team isn't halted, the rest will just keep going, tangling the lines and possibly starting a fight.
The trickiest part is going downhill. You have to apply the brake, a spring-loaded claw that digs into the snow, so that you don't get any slack in the towline. If the line isn't taut, the dogs can go in one direction and the sled in another.
Debbie let me take over the driving and rode in the sled, coaching me through every dip and curve. At the bottom of my first big hill she said, ``That was pretty good. I'd give you a B plus.''
My confidence swelling, I leaned into the curves, I urged the dogs on, I dragged the brake when needed, and kept a constant eye on the lead dogs.
I was thinking I had the hang of this dog mushing when we plunged down a sudden dip that had a sharp curve at the bottom. I never got my foot on the break. The rope was slack. The dogs made the turn, the sled continued straight into a snowbank.
``You flunk!'' cried my mentor, brushing snow from her face. Even the dogs, stopped in their tracks, looked back over their shoulders in contempt. Thereafter, upon approaching a difficult part of the trail my guide would announce, ``This is no stretch of trail for a cheechako,'' (Alaska slang for beginner) and took over the driving.
At feeding time I heard a different tune when I was told, ``Every champion musher feeds his own dogs,'' and instructed in cooking up pailfuls of a rice and fish-protein mixture, which I ladled out to the dogs.
As we traveled along through the winter landscape, Debbie pointed out animal tracks and landmarks and told of the lore of mushing, which is interwined with the history of Alaska.
Alaska natives had used the dog sled for ages when it was adopted by the white prospectors and trappers who came to the far North. In the 1920s and 1930s, the United States mail was delivered through a network of dog sled trails which crisscrossed the territory. The dog sled remained the primary wintertime means of transportation throughout rural Alaska until the advent of gas-powered snow machines in the '60s. A decade later, interest in dog sledding revived as a recreational and competitive sport.
Spending the days traveling through a wilderness that stretched as far as the imagination could conceive, and sitting at night in cozy log cabins by warm wood stoves, listening to the tales of people who piece together a living from gold mining, hunting, and trapping, I found it easy to imagine that I had traveled to a different time, not just a different place. After four days on the trail, my mushing technique did improve. When we pulled back into Bettles, I was handling stretches of trail that were certainly beyond the abilities of a cheechako musher. Practical information
The best time of winter for north country travel is late February through early April. Bitter cold and short days make January trips uncomfortable. Trips in the Brooks Range can be arranged by Brooks Range Wilderness Trips, Bettles, Alaska 99726, (907) 692-5312. Or, Denali Dog Tours, PO Box 670, Denali Park, Alaska 99755, (907) 683-2644. Establish how much of the trip you can count on driving the team, and ask if they can supply any of the cold-weather gear you might not have.