Sunday, April 01, 2007

Feeling Like Spring

On Wednesday afternoon, spring arrived with a flourish. My post that morning (which bordered on whining, I admit) notwithstanding, by 2:00 pm we had a seasonal shift. No primavera in a green dress; in southwest Alaska, “spring” means that the snow and ice get softer and start to melt, the air doesn’t burn your lungs when you take a deep breath, and an afternoon outside can result in an “Eskimo suntan”—from the neck up and the wrists down.

From the -16F we woke up to on Wednesday, by afternoon the thermometer read +20F, the sun shone quite warmly and the breeze felt soft. Henry was anxious to get out with the dogs; he had just returned from a two-week visit with his family in the Midwest and we both missed our mushing adventures in his absence. Last weekend’s big snowfall meant that the trail conditions were just about perfect.

We took seven dogs and spent the afternoon driving around to some of our favorite spots. We took frequent short breaks, had coffee and cookies, gave frozen fish snacks to the dogs, and collected the herb used to make tundra tea (artemesia) where it was breaking through the snow pack. It was so nice to be lightly dressed and warm enough. Spring mushing is just the best—more daylight hours to do it, all the fun of winter mushing and not nearly as much work to stay warm.

Over the next few days, the temperature continued to climb slowly, and we are now staying right around freezing. The icicles have crashed to ground and the snow is melting everywhere. The river is still solidly frozen; it will take more than a few days at +35F to melt a four-foot-thick ice sheet.

One of the last local mushing events in the spring is the Campout Race. It is held the last weekend in March, and is a family/community event. Mushers and their eight-dog teams leave Bethel on Saturday morning at a leisurely pace, followed by friends and family on snowmachines or driving trucks. The destination is a designated spot about fifty miles from Bethel. People pitch tents, build a big community bonfire and generally have a party on Saturday night. On Sunday morning the mushers hook up their teams and race back to Bethel. The winner takes a purse of $1,000.

The destination for this year’s Campout was a spot far up the Gweek River, near its headwaters. The Gweek is a tributary of the Kuskokwim, about ten miles upriver from Bethel. At its mouth, the Gweek is a fairly broad river, perhaps a half mile across; after 35 miles of a meandering course with bend after bend after bend, the river becomes much narrower—a hundred feet across, or so.

Henry’s niece Angela decided at the last minute that she would run the Campout last weekend, so Dutch and I showed up on Saturday morning to load her dogs and sled in my truck and drive them to the start line. Which was upriver at the mouth of the Gweek, not in Bethel. But no problem, my truck is always ready for a river adventure. Since the Saturday portion is not a race, the atmosphere is very relaxed and everyone is just having fun with their dogs. Angela waited until last to leave, so she could have a peaceful run with her team.

The finish of the race was in the same place, at the mouth of the Gweek, so on Sunday at noon, Dutch and I joined Angela’s husband and another friend and we headed back up river. The three of them were on snowmachines and I drove the truck. We only had a very general idea of when the race would be finishing, as no one knew how far up the Gweek they were able to go before camping.

By the time the race leaders were getting close, there was quite a little crowd at the finish area. A dozen trucks or so clustered together. Word from the race chasers was that Mike Williams, Jr. had a substantial lead, followed a few minutes later by a small pack of three mushers that included Angela. There were a total of seven teams in the race.

As predicted, Junior won the race with a ten-minute lead over 2nd place Jessica Klejka. The pack finishing 2nd, 3rd and 4th were separated by only a minute. Angela came in 4th, earning a check for $650 for the effort. She and the dogs all had fun, and she said that the area upriver was just beautiful. Angela was so impressed with the upper reaches of the Gweek that she decided to go back this weekend to camp out and do some more dog training.

Henry’s long-time friend and mushing buddy Tom is training his dogs for the same race next weekend that Angela plans to run, and wanted to do a training run of four hours out, four hours rest, and four hours back. A visit to Angela’s campsite would be just about perfect. He talked Henry into going along on snowmachine for support.

Dutch and I had not planned any outings for the weekend, but as we looked out from the breakfast table on Saturday morning and saw how quickly the snow was melting, Dutch said,” it’s going to go quickly now. If we want to get the snowmachines out one more time, we’d better do it today.” He was right.

Without much planning or packing, we fired up the machines and took off about 1:15 pm, thinking we would just go some distance up the Gweek. I had no idea whether we would catch Tom and Henry, or whether we would make it up to the dog training camp.

The Ice Road on the Kuskokwim was in excellent shape and we had no overflow problems (i.e., water at the river’s edge) getting on or off the river. There was a reassuring amount of traffic, both trucks and snowmachines, on the main river, and we made it up to the Gweek in good time.

Overflow was much more in evidence here, with standing water at the sides of the smaller river, and patches of shiny brown ice that indicate recent refreezing. It is important to pay attention and be careful; even on a day as warm as this one, getting wet means getting cold.

Once we got above the mouth of the Gweek, the overflow disappeared and the trail was excellent. We traveled mile after mile, following the loops and bends of this moderate-sized tundra river, and saw no more traffic. Except for the tracks we were following in the snow, the land was empty of people.

About two hours up the Gweek, we finally caught up with Henry and Tom. Henry was driving snowmachine and Tom was driving 14 dogs. Henry was surprised and delighted that we had made it all that way on our own. We continued on with them, and in another hour we came to Angela's camp.

The area was truly beautiful. I had never been so far up the Gweek before, and had no idea how lovely it is.

Once we arrived, the clock was ticking for Tom. He would give his dogs a four-hour rest, a hot meal, and then hook up for the return trip. Dutch, Henry and I helped him remove booties and harnesses and settle the dogs on a drop chain at the edge of the river with some nice fresh straw under them.

Next we needed a bonfire to melt snow and cook both dog and people food. There was adequate dead wood around, and with a little gasoline from the jerry can on one of the snowmachines, we had a good blaze going in no time. Henry collected spruce boughs and arranged them at the base of two trees near the fire, covered them with a tarp, and presto! Instant sofa.
While the snow melted for a meat soup for the dogs, Henry found a long sturdy branch and trimmed a fork at one end to two sharp pointy prongs. He jammed some beef on the prongs and positioned it over the fire. It was sizzling in no time. “Dinner is meat-on-a-stick. Find your own stick,” he said. He also had a large, long-handled fry pan, which he filled with boiled red potatoes. The smoke from the fire made everything taste delicious.

Our four-hour rest drew quickly to its end, so we threw stuff together and made ready to leave. Dogs bootied, harnessed, and hooked up; drop chain collected, gear stowed. At 9:30 pm Tom pulled the hook in the last of the fast-fading light.

It took us four hours to get back to the mouth of the Gweek, where Tom’s truck was parked. Henry was afraid we would pass it in the dark, and we almost did. Tom and the dogs were ahead of us, and they went right by the spot (the truck was quite a way off the trail). The dogs instinctively left the trail and headed for it, but Tom’s headlight wasn’t strong enough to pick out the truck and he corrected them back to the trail.

Our snowmachines were about fifty yards behind. Henry was in front, saw the truck and headed for it to show us, then took off after Tom and the dogs. With our machines off, we watched in the darkness as Henry caught up with Tom, then made a big circle back to the truck. The dogs pulled in right after.

Once more we went through the drill of getting 14 dogs unbootied, unharnessed, and attached to the drop chain in the truck. It was around 1:30 am when we cranked the snowmachines and followed the truck down six more miles of the Gweek, around overflow spots at the mouth, and then down ten miles of Kuskokwim back to Bethel. Dutch and I finally got home about 2:30 am, thoroughly exhausted and happy. What a great spring day!



Blogger Maggie Rosethorn said...

Sounds like a great time, TPA. I'll admit, my idea of a great spring run is a few hundred miles on my motorcycle without all the electric clothing hooked up. Haven't been able to do that yet here (NYC area); we've had some warm days but I've been at work every time. Soon....

P.S. I may have missed the explanation when you posted about mushing, but what are the dogs' boots for? Are they on all 4 paws?

Monday, April 02, 2007 5:44:00 AM  
Blogger TheTundraPA said...

Hi Maggie--thanks for pointing it out; I may not have mentioned booties before. A booty is a small fabric bag with an elastic velcro strap at the open end. It slips over the dog's foot (one for each) and fastens around the wrist. When conditions are icy, they prevent cuts and abrasions to the pads and the soft skin between the pads. Booties are routinely used on all dogs for racing; many mushers use them for all training runs as well.

Monday, April 02, 2007 7:25:00 AM  
Blogger #1 Dinosaur said...

We got some custom booties for the Rolling Peke when we first got the wheelchair for her. At that point, she didn't have enough movement in her back legs to keep them from dragging on the sidewalk and getting scraped. Haven't used them in over a year now, but they were a great help when we did.

Monday, April 02, 2007 12:59:00 PM  
Anonymous patientanonymous said...

Good grief, I finally made it to your blog after you "invited me" way back when I started mine. I completely lost track of you!

I so hate the cold, even though I'm from Canada but our winters are probably like summer to you.

I'd love to go out with the dogs though. That sounds like fun.


Monday, April 02, 2007 3:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

50 + years ago I was enjoying many of the things you write about and amnow enjoying both the stories and the pictures. Thanks

Tuesday, April 03, 2007 5:59:00 PM  
Blogger SeaSpray said...

Wow! What a great day! You have amazing experiences and I am reprinting this one for my husband to read. He likes ice fishing although hasn't done it in a while. we used to build bonfires and cook food and stay warm. Ice skate too.

Your dogs must get anxious to go on a run and really excited when winter returns. How nice that you get to do something you love to do and win money for. Angela must've been really happy about that. :)

You must sleep really well after a day like that.

I love winter but I have to admit that I am now getting anxious for spring.

Have a beautiful day! :)

Thursday, April 05, 2007 7:19:00 AM  

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