Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Clearing Trail

Am I addicted?

A PA colleague of mine who has dabbled in dog mushing says that it is a totally addictive behavior and there should be a twelve-step program for it. It is certainly true that once you get bitten with “dog fever” it is very hard to quit. If I am a blogaholic, am I also a mushaholic? Just maybe.

Southwest Alaska has been whipped with wind the last two days, and it is coming from the north. That means cold. It was ten below zero this morning under a clear blue sky, with wind steady at 25 MPH and gusting higher. That gave us a wind chill of about minus forty. Serious frostbite weather.

Henry has been running dogs every day for the past week, and had no plan for today to be an exception.

“You’re not wimping out on me, are you?” he said on the phone this morning. Who, me? Nah!

We were dressed in maximum gear, with eight dogs on the gangline when we left the yard at 2 pm. The few inches of snow we’ve had in the last few days has helped the trail a little, but it is still mostly hard-packed snow and ice. Teeth-rattling bumpiness at times and loud plastic runner noise on the trail. We couldn’t even hear the dogs’ panting as they ran, though white puffs of breath were sometimes visible before the wind snatched them away. As usual with a hard trail, it was also a fast one, gliding quickly around corners and sliding easily across ponds. There were moments that had the exhilarating feel of a rocket blast as we careened down sections of half-pipe shaped trail that frequently had the sled teetering on one runner.

We got to Hangar Lake in jiffy, and without rolling the sled, and stopped to look at the near ground-blizzard of wind and snow blowing across its nearly mile-wide surface. Glare ice alternated with good-sized drifts, and to follow our blown-out trail we had to cut directly across the wind. This is a very difficult skill for a sled dog team to acquire, and out here is an essential skill for a good lead dog. The leader must follow voice command alone to head the team to a point in the distance that looks no different from any other point on the far side of the lake. The dogs’ natural instinct is to follow the shoreline, staying close to the trees and as protected from the wind as possible. A well-trained leader will go against instinct and follow the musher’s command. In a race situation, it can mean the difference between winning and losing.

With a full-on side wind hitting the team, both dogs and sled are blown off course, and frequent corrections are required. If the ground blizzard becomes a white-out, it is very easy to lose any sense of direction. Though it is only two miles from town, it is quite possible to be lost on Hangar Lake, and have to hunker down and wait out the blow.

It was bitter cold in that wind as we crossed the lake, and the leaders, Pistol and Speedo, did well following commands. Once on the other side, the willows and cottonwoods protected us from the worst of the torrent.

The trail we were following winds through several small sloughs and stands of willow before coming to the edge of Steamboat Slough, which connects to the Kuskokwim River. The Slough is a winter parking place for huge barges which are tied up there at the end of summer and allowed to freeze in. It is kind of eerie to walk right up to them, with their huge mooring lines connecting them to the shore like umbilical cords.

We parked the dog team at the edge of the willows and unpacked the sled. Henry had brought his small chainsaw so that we could work on clearing the “pingos” from the new cut-off trail we put in last year. The snow had been a foot higher then, and now the new trail was a nail bed of short stobby willow stumps.

With an hour’s diligent labor we managed to clear about half of the trail. There was little wind among the trees, and though it was ten below, we were both overly warm when we decided to quit. Still glad to have a thermos of coffee, however, and a quiet spot out of the wind to drink it and work on our tans.

The trip home was smooth, as homeward legs usually are. All the dogs were pulling hard, focused on their work, eager for the warm meat soup they knew awaited them back in the dog yard. It was about a three hour trip altogether, and I was only cold during the Hangar Lake crossings. Wind is the killer when it comes to cold.

Three hours outdoors on a windy day at minus ten degrees, just for fun. And it was a blast! Yeah, I’m hooked. Dog mushing is just the most incredible sport.

Photos by The Tundra PA. Henry straightens a harness problem at the edge of Hangar Lake. Huge barges are silent inhabitants of Steamboat Slough in the winter. Henry attacks the pingos.



Blogger SeaSpray said...

We are going down to 8 degrees tonight. is that beach weather for you? :)

I know I tell you I like your pics, bur you really do have beautiful and interesting pics. :)

Monday, March 05, 2007 7:33:00 PM  
Blogger Dr. Ed said...

I am from New England and considering relocating to Bethel. Any advice? I would appreciate any response.

By the way, you have a lovely site!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007 5:52:00 PM  
Blogger TheTundraPA said...

dr. ed--sure! Plenty of advise. Email me and I'll respond. Glad you like the blog, welcome!

sea spray--I like 8 degrees. My favorite winter range is zero to ten above. Cold enough but not too cold. I'm really glad you like my photography. Thanks for visiting.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007 7:55:00 PM  

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