Saturday, April 26, 2008

Corruption in City Government

It has been six weeks since my last post on the political goings-on in Bethel, and in that interval the situation has continued to deteriorate. We have reached a point where the actions of the Mayor and selected council members can only be characterized as corrupt.

Until now I have not referred to the council members by their actual names, but have used labels for them. Several commenters have named them (and, on occasion, labeled them far more spearingly than I), and from this point on I will simply refer to them by name. I will also identify some of the labels.

The Mayor is Eric Middlebrook. He is the leader of the Block of Four and has been called Clipped Gerbil in an earlier comment, and Mayor Mugabe in a more recent one.

The Vice Mayor is Raymond “Thor” Williams. A member of the Block of Four, he was the maker of the motion to terminate the City Attorney. Referred to by a commenter as McCheese. Noted by another commenter always to be on the wrong side of every vote, along with Tundy Rodgers. He is an incredibly insecure individual who tries to make himself feel less inadequate by cutting others down (doesn’t work but he has no other strategies). He wastes an inordinate amount of Council’s time splitting hairs over insignificant issues, like making miniscule and unnecessary budget modifications. He thinks this makes him look smart. Uh…no. Raymond is one of the three current Council members who is also a former Mayor; he was a disaster in that position and could not get re-elected to the following year’s Council when he was one of four people running for three open seats. The codeword among the voters was “EBT”—everybody but Thor. He managed to get elected to the current Council with only 216 votes.

Stanley “Tundy” Rodgers, also a former Mayor and member of the Block of Four; referred to by me as the Blustering Bloviator. That’s all he ever does: bluster. He sees himself as the champion of the little man, the watchdog of the Natives’ interests. He is the Council member with the most seniority, having sat on Council for something like seventeen years, and in all that time he has done absolutely nothing positive for Bethel or its citizens that I have been able to discover, and I have been asking long-time residents. He is quick to trash other people’s ideas and suggestions, but he offers nothing positive himself. He just votes against everything; that way if something doesn’t work out later he can say “see? I was against it all along.” He is incapable of understanding or contributing to the city’s budget approval process; he simply does not show up to those (mandatory) meetings, or leaves early if he does show—yelling as he walks out “doesn’t matter what you decide, I’m going to vote against it anyhow!” It is totally unclear to me why the voters of Bethel have continued to reelect him so many times, but it has to stop. He has to go. He is up for reelection in October; perhaps we’ll be lucky and he simply won’t run again, but I doubt it. He has no other source of ego gratification.

Willie Keppel, the Newly Appointed Council Member. He ran for Council last fall but was defeated by Raymond Williams by 2 votes. When a now-departed Council member moved away from Bethel in January, he applied for appointment to the position along with several others, and when the vote was evenly split, received the appointment by literally drawing the right straw. He is only there for the remainder of the departed member’s term, and must run for election in October. He is the final member of the Group of Four, and along with Tundy, he simply must not be reelected.

Keppel is the Council member referred to by commenter Two Dogs as Torch, because he is widely believed to have set fire to a wooden building owned by his arch-rival Harry Faulkner, the citizen who brought the injunction against him for Conflict of Interest in participating in the termination of the City Attorney. Keppel not only voted for her termination, he seconded the motion to terminate when it was made by Raymond Williams. (No update on that injunction; it hasn’t gone away, but nothing has happened as a result of it that I know of.)

Keppel is the Council member who is and long has been in violation of the Bethel Municipal Code (BMC), and who faces $18,000 in fines for that violation. His case was being prosecuted by the City Attorney; he believed that by firing her the case would magically go away. The Conflict of Interest in this situation is neither subtle nor complicated.

And his violation is particularly disgusting. All Bethel residents are required by the BMC to have their homes signed up for sewer evacuation service, either hauled or piped, at a minimal cost of about $30 per month. For years Keppel refused to sign up; he crapped in a bucket and was seen dumping it in the tundra pond behind his house, which is right in the middle of town. The city even gave him a sewer tank for free AND delivered it to his house. All he had to do was hook it up, but no. It has sat there, a lovely eyesore, for several years now.

The BMC was created by the City Council, and during the swearing-in ceremony of each new Council member, he or she is sworn to uphold and abide by the Code. There is no gray area here; Keppel’s violation is clear-cut, obvious, provable. His hearing in court is on Monday, April 28th. In the absence of a City Attorney, the City Manager will present the city’s case.

And here is one place where we reach a level of misbehavior that can be called corruption in this City Council. At the regular meeting of the Council which Dutch and I missed while we were in the Arctic, the Mayor actually pressured the City Manager to just dismiss Keppel’s case. Middlebrook actually seemed to think that the City Manager could be coerced into just telling the judge that the city didn’t want to prosecute after all, and it would all go away. In his view, apparently, Council members are exempt from the Code they are sworn to uphold, rather than having the responsibility to lead by example.

The second, and far more significant, situation vying for the label of corruption involves the recall petitions, which I have mentioned before. After the debacle of the firing of the City Attorney, a grass-roots movement of citizens came forward wanting Middlebrook and Williams recalled. Rodgers and Keppel were not eligible for recall, or they would have been included as well. One woman, Diane Moffitt, took the lead in asking people to sign up as petition circulators to gather the necessary 285 signatures of registered voters to place the recall question before the citizens of Bethel.

There were 12 of us who signed up to be petition circulators. We had sixty days to get the signatures, and then the petitions must be turned in to the City Clerk to have the signatures verified as registered voters.

Middlebrook and Williams have acted as if this recall movement were nothing but a joke, and have been openly scornful of it. Middlebrook instructed the City Clerk to be sure the petitions were handled according to the precise letter of the law.

When we had over 300 signatures, Diane asked the City Clerk how the 12 of us go about turning in our petitions. The Clerk said for each of us to bring them in to her office at our convenience. After about half of the petitions had been turned in, the Clerk announced that the petition had failed due to insufficient signatures; only the petitions turned in together counted, the remaining five or six would not be accepted. The Clerk refused to return them to the individuals who had submitted them to her, so that we could turn them all in at once, saying it was “against the law”; but she could not quote what law it was against. We have a week yet before the deadline of May 2nd.

The Clerk is now denying her initial instructions on how to turn the petitions in. She is saying that she never told us to bring them in to her office at our convenience. She is refusing to do the right thing, which is to return the petitions that were submitted so that we can all turn them in together as a single instrument. Several of the circulators consulted an attorney who said there is absolutely no reason she cannot return those petitions. It was he who said that this is nothing but corruption.

Those same circulators have now contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, who feels that this is pure suppression of the voice of the people. The ACLU is writing a letter to the Clerk, telling her basically to do the right thing: give back the submitted petitions and allow all of them to be turned in together. If she refuses, litigation will follow.

So once again, Bethel’s scarce resources can be squandered by the Council to cover their heinous and illegal behaviors. The Group of Four is leading Bethel down a road which will end in bankruptcy for the city. Those of us trying to apply the brakes may not be enough.

A new comment was posted by Anonymous this past Monday evening to the last blog post I did on the City Council. It speaks to these issues, and is now likely to go completely unseen, being so deeply buried, so I have copied it here.

This evening on the news I heard Mayor Eric "Mugabe" Middlebrook at a council meeting last week pressuring the city manager to release Councilman Willie Keppel from his civil penalties by instructing the judge to dismiss the case. This was after Keppel failed to observe city ordinances and hook up to the city sewer system. Instead he dumped his sewage in the tundra. The kind of example that could lead us all to cholera. He ignored citations served him by the city that have been well documented. Mayor "Mugabe" as we have come to know him, also instructed the City Clerk to throw out citizen petitions to recall him and another city council representative. These council members swore to uphold the laws of this City and by extension the laws of our state and nation. They are so deep into this mess that they lost whatever ethical perspective they might have once possessed.

I agree completely.

For those of you who might be new to this thread—and who have enough interest to read more—I have written four posts in the last two months on the outrageousness of Bethel’s current City Council:

Political Shenanigans, February 13

More Bethel Politics, March 2

City Council Doesn’t Get It, March 15

More on City Council—An Inside Perspective, March 17

And for those of you don’t live in Southwest Alaska and could care less about our local political woes, I beg your indulgence with this diversion. It is having a huge effect in our lives, and if this venue I have created can reach a few people who need to hear of this and might not by other means, then I will use it for that purpose.


Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Arctic Expedition, Part 3

With clear skies and a fresh crescent moon that we could barely see, the temperature continued to drop. By the time it was getting dark, about 10 pm, the thermometer read 25 degrees below zero. Pretty cold to be camping out in! But the wood stoves in our Arctic Ovens did a good job of beating back the cold and with good gear, no one was suffering. We were pretty proud of ourselves for thriving in a true Arctic experience.

Earlier in the evening, Aliy had decided that a run back to the trucks was needed to retrieve another bag or two of dog food and some more Duralogs. I had not yet driven a team, so she asked me to come along.

We hooked up a single 12-dog team with two sleds and took off with me driving the team and her on the tag sled. Until that moment, the biggest team I’d ever driven was nine dogs. Standing on the runners in charge of 12 dogs was a heady experience!

I haven’t driven dogs since I had back surgery six years ago and gave away my team to a young musher who needed them. I was more than a little concerned about how I would do. But Aliy’s well-trained and disciplined dogs were light years away from the half-wild canines I wrestled with in Bethel. Driving a team with a leader who actually responds appropriately to gee-haw commands (go right or go left) is a pleasure I did not enjoy with my own team.

A 12-dog team has a lot of power, especially with two empty sleds. We flew down the trail! It was exhilarating in the extreme. My sledcraft skills came back to me immediately and I was completely comfortable on the runners. It must be like riding a bicycle, something your muscles don’t forget.

The soft light of early evening is the best time to see animals, and there were wild Dahl sheep all over the mountain tops around us. They were unperturbed by the dog team and simply looked at us without moving away. The dogs, however, get pretty excited when they see the sheep.

We had one perilous moment of almost losing the team when we stopped to take some photos of the sheep. We were on nearly-bare ice where neither the drag brake nor the claw brake work very well. My camera had gotten cold, so the batteries needed changing for the warm ones in my inner pocket. I was standing on the drag brake with no hands on the sled’s driving bow and Aliy came up to help hold the sled when the dogs caught wind of the sheep. They leapt forward in excitement, barking and lunging; Aliy jumped on the drag brake with me while I tried to come down hard with one foot on the claw brake, hold the driving bow and not drop my camera. They dragged us about fifty feet down the frozen river before we were able to get enough pressure on the brakes to stop them. Fortunately no rocks were in the trail to tip the sled and we managed to bring the team to a halt without disaster occurring. Meanwhile the sheep just watched, and I was able to get a few good shots.

We made it back to camp in about three hours, and everyone was glad to have more fuel for the wood stoves. I was hopeful that the cold clear weather would mean a more impressive display of Northern Lights than we had had so far. The previous two nights there had been only a thin rope of white light arcing across the sky between the crests of the mountains on each side of our gorge.

Sometime after midnight the dogs began barking and Dutch and I heard Aliy come out of her tent to check on them. There was a fox in camp nosing around the frozen food stored outside the Sherpa Tent. “Hey you guys! Northern Lights!” she hollered to the camp in general. Several of us got up to see a flickering, flowing, waving river of blue-green light dancing across the sky. It was awesomely beautiful. I wish I had a camera set-up that could have photographed it.

Meanwhile, Aliy was off on her fox-chasing mission. She managed to get the animal scared off by running towards it and yelling at it and the dogs settled back down. In the dark she was only able to see its bright red eyes reflected in her headlamp, she never got a good look at it. I would so love to have seen a live, snowy white arctic fox. The next morning the paw prints in the snow told the story of its meanderings.

The weather remained clear and cold for our last day in camp. Our routine continued, with dog feedings, a water run, and short mushing trips with 4-dog teams. Everyone wanted one more chance to drive a team. With the drop in temperature, the open hole in the Sag had frozen up and it took a bit of chopping ice to get any water. There was a determined attitude on everyone’s part to enjoy every possible minute, with a hint of melancholy that our trip was coming to its end. Everyone wished we had a few more days in this beautiful place.

Our day of departure had an early start. Allen was up at 6 am to load all the luggage on the flat sled and make a run to the trucks with it. He left before 7 without breakfast or even having coffee. By the time he returned we had eaten, cleaned up and were ready to go.

For the return trip we had a huge dog train: two 16-dog teams, one with a single tag sled and one with two. As we took off, Dutch waved good-bye; he would stay in camp to start packing up tents for Aliy and Allen’s return.

The additional snow that had fallen during the week made the trail much less bumpy than it had been on the way in. We left with the gorge still in shadow, but soon the sun crested the peaks and we had a gorgeous day with a bright blue sky. As always, Aliy was on the lookout for sheep, and we stopped a couple of times to watch them. I had my camera ready just as a full-curl ram (7 or 8 years old) popped his head over a rocky ledge just a few feet above us. He stood watching us for a few minutes, then turned and ambled off.

The dogs made reasonably good time back to the trucks with such a large load. There was no sign of our transport van, which was driving up from Coldfoot. We got the dogs unhooked from the sleds and put them in their dog boxes on the trucks, out of the wind and with some nice warm straw. We got all the luggage out of the trucks and piled on the ground. Still no sign of the van. Aliy got out the satellite phone to call and find out when the driver left. The news was not good: we had an hour and a half wait. With the sun up, the temperature had warmed to about 10 below, but the wind was whipping like mad out in that open space. We estimated the wind chill at about 40 below. Aliy and Allen got the two trucks started (requiring double jumper cables for the diesel one) and everyone but Mackenzie and I crammed inside to stay warm. Aliy waited with us and Allen hooked up his team and headed back to camp to help Dutch with the tent packing.

The van finally showed up and we quickly stowed gear and hopped in. Aliy was hooking up her dogs as we waved good-bye and began the three hour drive to Coldfoot to meet our charter planes. Aliy, Allen and Dutch would spend the rest of the day and into the evening packing out the tents, the gear, and the garbage. We learned later they finally finished about 10 pm and then began the 12+ hour drive back to Fairbanks.

Our drive south on the Haul Road was quiet, our energy spent. Following the Alaska Pipeline was a symbol of return to civilization, even though we were still in the Arctic. We continued to see caribou everywhere, and saw several bow hunters wearing pure white camo to stalk them. It is illegal for non-Arctic residents to hunt caribou with rifles less than five miles from the Haul Road, but they may be hunted with bows anywhere. The treeless plains provide no cover for the hunters, and it is difficult to get close enough to them to shoot. Good for the caribou.

At one point, as we were heading up the pass, we could see a small herd of Dahl sheep running up the road in the same direction we were going. Slowly we overtook them, and one by one, they jumped over the guard rail seemingly into thin air. The drop off was quite steep. The last two went over just as we passed them, and I got one good photo of them. Our driver said he had never seen that before.

We made it back to Fairbanks without a hitch and had the day on Saturday to do a little sightseeing. Most of the women wanted to go to the museum and gift shop at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, probably the best museum in Alaska. It was April 12th, and Mackenzie’s birthday. She has a tradition of going swimming in whatever body of water she is near on her birthday, and intended for this year to be no exception. Boo, Susan and I went with her to the Chena River in front of our lodge to watch and lend moral support. She had to break the ice at the edge of the river with a log before doffing her clothes and diving in completely naked. Yee haw! Cold! In 30 seconds her hands and feet were numb and she came out fast. Yes, I took photos, and no, you won’t see them here. Happy Birthday, Mac!

Saturday afternoon, Dutch and Allen showed up in the dog truck, and I never saw two more tired and grizzled guys. They had driven almost straight through with only a few hours’ sleep on the side of the road. Allen off-loaded Dutch’s gear and took off to join Aliy at home in Two Rivers, another hour’s drive away. After a solid week of hard work, Dutch was glad to finally get a hot shower and a shave.

That night Mackenzie took us all out to dinner at The Turtle Club, a premier Fairbanks eatery, to celebrate her birthday (another tradition of hers). It was a wonderful time with many toasts, and a great conclusion to a fantastic trip. Already I dream of going back next year...

Photo credits:
1. Dog team in the Serengetti, Kat driving, Aliy in tag sled.
2. TPA and Aliy, ready to leave, by Dutch.
3. Young sheep.
4. Older sheep.
5. Dog team moves on.
6. Sandra at Serengetti.
7. Dutch drives a team, by Aliy.
8. Full curl ram.
9. Dog sled team drives out.
10. Headed out on the Haul Road.
11. Young sheep on the Haul Road.
12. Group photo by Boo.


Friday, April 18, 2008

The Arctic Expedition, Part 2

Our first full day in camp had a leisurely start, eating breakfast and drinking coffee in the Sherpa Tent, and listening to Aliy and Allen tell stories of their most recent Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Aliy finished 21st out of the 78 mushers who completed the race (of the 96 who started it), and though she had hoped for a top-10 finish, she was satisfied with her dogs’ performance. Allen was plagued by illness; he contracted a parasitic diarrheal disease somewhere on the Yukon River and was running fevers over 104 degrees for the next several hundred miles. When he finally reached the Bering Sea he was too sick to continue the race and had to scratch. It was only a few days before their scheduled departure for the Arctic that he felt well enough to make the trip.

It was nearly noon before the sun climbed high enough to clear the mountains on the eastern side of the gorge and flood the camp with direct sunlight. The sled thermometer went from zero to 10 above pretty quickly. Aliy took the group outside for a “Mushing 101” lesson while Allen and Dutch did kitchen clean-up and prep for a hot soup lunch in a few hours.

With Aliy’s team leading and Allen’s team in the rear to pick up any fallen mushers, they took three women at a time, each driving her own team of four dogs. There were a few spills as everyone learned the basics of sledcraft, but no serious injuries and no lost teams. The smiles on every returning face spoke of how much fun it was.

They used the trail we had come in on for training, as Aliy felt it was in better condition than the trail leading downriver to the confluence with the Sagavanirktok River (Sag for short). She had not been down to the Sag in several days, and it had been hard icy going. They got some snow the night before our arrival, and she wanted to scout the trail again before taking people in that direction. I was delighted to ride in the sled with her, and we set out as everyone else was settling down to dinner.

It was about five miles to the Sag from our camp. The Atigun continued to twist and wind through the gorge for the first couple of miles, then gradually widened out to more open space as the mountains fell away. About a mile before the Sag, the land opens up to a huge vista with tall mountains in the distance and nearly endless, seemingly empty rolling tundra. Aliy calls this spot “the Arctic Serengetti.” There were caribou all around us, and we saw three moose in the distance. Fresh wolf prints crisscrossed the snow on the Atigun River in several places, but we never saw their owners. “You can bet that they see us, though,” Aliy said.


I stayed with the dogs while Aliy carefully made her way to the edge of the Sag and was pleased to find a lead of open water. She and Allen and Dutch had been chipping ice and hauling snow to melt into water for the dogs’ food; an opening in the Sag meant we could make daily runs to haul back water and save on propane for the cook stoves and alcohol for the dog cooker.


The next morning Allen and Dutch took off with two dog teams and several empty five-gallon buckets to bring back water. Before this trip, Dutch had never driven a dog team. When he met up with Aliy and Allen before the group’s arrival, they divided the dogs into three teams, pointed him toward the third sled and said “OK, drive ‘em!” And he did. He has always been an athlete and is a pretty quick study on most things. He was handling his team like a pro in no time.


The dogs were a steady presence in camp throughout our time there. They were attached to a long drop chain across the river from the tents where we could see them and hear their songs when they howled together. Aliy knows her dogs so well that if a single dog barked, she could tell which one it was and usually what had roused it. They howled after dinner, they howled in the night if a fox came around, and sometimes they howled just for the pleasure of a song.


Usually when Aliy and Allen are camping with the dogs, they bring straw along so that each dog has a soft warm bed. In ANWR they are not allowed to bring straw (which might introduce seeds of foreign plants), so the dogs were sleeping directly on the ice. Their body heat melted small depressions under each dog while they slept, some deep enough that the dog’s head was level with the ice. When that happens and it is snowing, the dogs disappear under a warm insulating blanket of snow! We didn’t have that much snow.

None of the dogs seemed to mind the cold. Several of them were allowed to roam freely about camp, and a few were given “tent privileges” and allowed to sleep with us. Katherine immediately chose her favorite leader to share her cot, as did Julie and Sandra. With a normal body temperature of 101 degrees, sleeping with a dog curled next to you can be warm. It gives one a new appreciation for the phrase “a three-dog night”—that’s a pretty cold one.

With more mushers than sleds, we took turns driving small teams, and though everyone wanted to go every time, we were a congenial group about sharing. Several of the women wanted to do some serious hiking and they put miles on their boots in search of shed caribou antler and stunning photographs. They found both.

Since there are no trees of any size to provide wood, we were not able to have an outside campfire going in camp (we had cases of Duralogs to burn in the tent stoves for warmth). But a gravel bar near the Atigan and Sag confluence had quite a bit of small wood from uprooted brush that had been washed down in previous spring floods. Several of us spent an afternoon collecting it for a bonfire and felt like we had found gold when we came across a 3’ long piece of 4”x6” lumber that was dry. Where in the world had that come from? We added it to our pile.

It snowed lightly off and on the first two days, but by the third day the sky was clear and the temperature was dropping. Mackenzie, Boo, Chris and I were dropped off by the dog sled train at our gravel bar to light our bonfire and make prayers to the universe. It was ten below zero with a brisk breeze. The heat from the fire felt great on our hands and faces, but with so many layers on, it couldn’t penetrate to get our feet warm. Boo inched closer and closer to the fire, and soon we smelled the distinct odor of melting rubber and plastic. The straps holding her ice cleats on her boots burned through, and the inner side of one of her pant legs crinkled up. She backed up quickly in amazement. “My foot never even felt warm!” she said. The dog train to take us home arrived just as our wood was burning out, and we were glad to get back to camp and a hot dinner. be continued...(and new photos in Part 1 also)

Photos by The Tundra PA:
1. Breakfast in the tent: Sandra, Chris, Julie, Mackenzie, and Boo.
2. Allen, Mackenzie and Boo drive teams.
3. Mackenzie "flies" on the sled.
4. The Serengetti.
5. Aliy checks the ice on the Sag.
6. Dutch drives on the water run.
7. The dog line.
8. Dog holes in the ice.
9. Dogs singing.
10. Dutch chips ice with dog supervision.
11. Mackenzie takes a musher's nap on the sled.
12. Boo at the bonfire.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Arctic Expedition, Part 1

Wide-open, snow-covered land, so huge, so vast it seems endless. Massive, treeless mountains that stretch to a distant horizon. A sky so big and deep and blue you can get lost in it. Cold, cold, cold nights with twinkling stars and bold Northern Lights that dance and swirl and almost hum with intensity. Wild animals galore—caribou, fox, sheep, moose, marmot. And, of course, sled dogs; 32 of them—our companions, our transportation, and occasionally, our warmth.

It was so incredible that words simply cannot do it justice. Descriptors like fabulous, amazing, gorgeous, fantastic, awesome just seem tired and worn out when applied to this experience; they are not fresh enough, exciting enough or big enough to encompass the place we were and what it gave to us. It was the trip of a lifetime.

There were eleven of us who journeyed into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by plane, van and dog team: four from Alaska, three from Montana, three from Colorado, and one from New Mexico. Our ages ranged from 17 to 72. Most had no experience mushing dogs.

The guides for our expedition were Iditarod mushers Aliy Zirkle and her husband Allen Moore. They are absolutely delightful people—hardworking, energetic, dedicated to their dogs, caring, attentive, knowledgeable, skilled in the outdoors, high-spirited, funny, great storytellers, and darned good mushers. I can’t imagine better guides than Aliy and Allen. With Dutch as the third person on their support crew, they took excellent care of us and saw to it that everyone was both physically and emotionally comfortable, safe, and had a great time.

There were eight of us who constituted the client group, of which my dear friend, psychologist Dr. Susan Rangitsch was the leader. The trip was initially conceived of as an offering in her program, but once we arrived, the notion of doing process work was mostly abandoned to the joy and excitement of being in the Arctic with dogs.

Her teenaged daughter Katherine was the youngest member of the group. A nationally-ranked junior handler and trainer of German Short Haired Pointers, Kat is a serious dog person who fell in love with mushing and sled dogs, and drove a team at every possible opportunity. Lithe and athletic, she is a natural musher.


Julie and Sandra, our septuagenarians, were the oldest members of the group. Living in the mountains of Colorado, they are no strangers to cold weather; but camping in it at 25 degrees below zero is a challenge for anyone, and they did exceptionally well. Under Aliy’s excellent tutelage, they each drove small teams one afternoon, but were more interested in the dog care aspect. They were first to show up to help with the twice-a-day feedings, and to gather snow to melt for water for the dogs.

Chris, the other Coloradan, is an enthusiastic participant in whatever she does. As a pilot for Continental Airlines, she has flown over Alaska, and the North Pole, many times. She said she has often looked down at this huge white landscape and thought, “I have to go there.” Every ounce of her energy was straining towards this experience, and she delighted in every aspect of it. She took a few tumbles with her sled due to watching sheep on the mountaintops more closely than rocks in the frozen river, but she is small and agile and not daunted by a bruise or two.

Boo is a long-time friend who I haven’t seen since we went downhill skiing together ten years ago. She has worked with Susan off and on for many years, and is a calm and steady spirit who has a great knack for seeing what needs to be done, and quietly doing it. Her observations about people are often humorously put, and generally spot-on.

And then there is Mackenzie (new nickname bestowed by Boo on this trip). Along with Susan, she is one of the handful of people I count as my dearest, closest, best-loved friends in the entire world. A Seattle transplant, she lives in the rural mountains of New Mexico, in an energy-efficient house she built herself completely off the grid. She works as the principal of an alternative high school which she founded and for which she is the prime mover. She is strong, bold, confident, competent, insightful, intuitive, and gifted with words. I love both hearing her speak and reading what she writes. I love how her mind works, and how she carefully crafts her thoughts and ideas into communication.


The eight of us flew into Fairbanks from our various starting points on Friday, April 4th. Dutch had gone up the day before to join Aliy and Allen, who had been in the Arctic for over a week already with a previous client group. The weather was pleasant, with temperatures just above freezing, and we had the day to play on Saturday. So we rented a van and drove out to Chena Hot Springs for a long, hot soak. It felt great. We were driving back just before dusk and saw several moose, one a pregnant cow who was standing fairly near the road munching on strips of willow bark from the trees along the Little Chena River. She was unperturbed when our van quickly pulled over, backed up, and sprouted cameras snapping shots of her.


The next morning we showed up early—7:30 AM—to the charter company, Arctic Air Adventures, who would fly us to Coldfoot (pop. 15), the northernmost truck stop in the world. It is about 10 miles north of the Arctic Circle, on the Dalton Highway, colloquially known as the Haul Road. The road was built along with the Alaska Pipeline, exclusively to service the North Slope oilfields and to provide maintenance access to the Pipeline itself.


The flight to Coldfoot took about an hour in two
small planes. We had an excellent lunch at the truck stop and then piled into a van for the three-hour drive up the Haul Road which would
take us from the thickly-treed, gentle white hills of the south face of the Brooks Range, up over 7,000 foot Atigun Pass to the treeless, stark and rugged north face of those ancient mountains. Along the way we saw caribou everywhere, but generally at some distance.


The Haul Road bridges the Atigun River just south of Galbraith Lake. At a pull-out next to the road with access straight onto the river, we saw Aliy and Allen’s two dog trucks parked next to each other. There was no sign of dogs, sleds, or people, and for a moment we were a bit concerned, but Aliy and Allen showed up shortly with two ten-dog teams and five dog sleds. They unhooked the dogs and attached them to drop chains around the bottom of their truck; that kept them out of the way while sleds were repositioned. Then they made quick work of organizing the gear and assigning sled positions to the eight of us.

Rather than having novices jump right in to driving a team, they have found that it works better to get everyone to camp the first day on sled “trains.” They each drove a team with the additional sleds hooked on behind, and two people on each sled, one riding in the basket and one standing on the runners. The following sleds are called “tag” sleds, and can be a challenge to control. It is hard to see the bumps that are coming and they take you by surprise; also, the third sled in line is called the “whip” sled, because it tends to do just that.


The Atigun is a Class IV white-water river, mostly shallow and fast and rocky. It freezes solid in the severe Arctic winter. Aliy and a team headed by her main lead dog Cha-Cha put in the trail about ten days before our arrival; before that it was completely untracked, and in the interim had been used only by Aliy and Allen’s teams. It was unique and startling in my experience to see a trail with only paw prints and sled runners marking the snow, and no sign of snowmachines whatsoever. The only transportation into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is by dog team; no motorized support is allowed. Aliy said that in all their years of coming to this remote location, they have never seen another human being once they left the Haul Road.

With two teams and five sleds, we were not able to transport both people and gear in one trip, so all the luggage was secured in the trucks to be retrieved by Allen on a second trip. We settled quickly into the sleds and took off down the Atigun River for the hour and a half trip to our base camp.


With the Haul Road behind us we were deep into wilderness. The river winds through a gorge shaded by tall rocky mountains on either side, still mostly covered in snow and ice. There had been no recent snow and the trail was icy, rocky and bumpy for much of the ride. It is very early spring that far north, and still looks and feels like the dead of winter. The thermometer on Allen’s sled read about five degrees above zero. The south-facing slopes of the mountains are getting 14+ hours of sunlight each day now, and are bare of snow in many places. It was a giant wonderland of quiet stillness, highlighted by the panting breaths of working dogs and the occasional delighted whoops of their passengers.

Light was fading a little as we came into base camp and the tents looked warm and inviting. Dutch had dinner ready for us and we were glad for a hot meal. As we all tucked into the yummy food, Allen unhooked the tag sleds, turned his team around, hooked up a flat tow sled and headed back up the river to retrieve all the luggage. He was back in about three hours, just as dark was falling.

Base camp was set up in a wide spot in the gorge. There were four Arctic Ovens, large orange tents with small wood stoves designed for extreme cold-weather camping. The large tent, 10’ x 20’, was set up with five cots for Boo, Mackenzie, Julie, Sandra and Chris; the three smaller tents housed two people each: Aliy and Allen’s, referred to as the Sherpa Tent, where all the cooking was done, Susan and Kat’s, and Dutch and mine. The dogs were on a long drop chain across the river at the base of a small bluff. There was a small outhouse tent with a porta-potty next to the big tent and a second uncovered porta-potty just out of sight downriver. This was our home for the next five days. be continued...

Photos by The Tundra PA, Dutch, Susan, and Boo:

1. Heading north out of Coldfoot on the Haul Road, south side of the Brooks Range (where there are still trees) by TPA.

2. Aliy Zirkle at the dog truck by Dutch.

3. Allen Moore in the Sherpa Tent (with foggy camera lens) by TPA.

4. Susan Rangitsch, by Boo.

5. Katherine and lead dog, by TPA.

6. Sandra and Julie, by Boo.

7. Chris in the charter plane, by TPA.

8. Boo, by Susan.

9. Mackenzie at camp, by TPA.

10. Moose cow, by Susan.

11. Charter plane, by TPA.

12. Caribou near the Haul Road, by TPA.

13. Sled dogs around the dog truck, by Dutch.

14. Allen leading the dog train, with Katherine and Susan driving tag sleds, by TPA.

15. Dogs taking us down the Atigun River, by TPA.

16. Allen goes back for luggage, by TPA.

17. Base camp, by TPA.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Home from the Arctic

Dutch and I made it home to Bethel last night, tired, stiff, sore, and very happy. Our expedition into the Arctic was fabulous, and everything we hoped it would be. I will be writing about it and sorting through the huge number of photos I took tonight and tomorrow; look for a big post about it all before Wednesday is over!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Arctic Adventure

Dutch and I are going to the Arctic!

We leave tomorrow for a week-long dog mushing expedition into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with our friends, Champion dog mushers Aliy Zirkle and her husband Allen Moore. This trip has been planned and in the making for about six months, and after so many weeks of anticipation, it is finally here.

For about ten years, Aliy and Allen have been offering guided tours in ANWR for small groups of clients after they have finished the Iditarod. When I first met Aliy and heard of these trips, I thought “Oh yes, I want to do that!”

Last year, my beloved friend, psychologist Susan Rangitsch came to visit me in March (and I blogged about it here, here, and here). I told her about the ANWR expeditions and she said “Oh yes, let’s do that!” Susan’s work involves a wide variety of outdoor challenges and she was immediately thinking of the trip as a program offering. Susan is the leader of the Women’s Harvest Celebration, which I blogged about here.

And so it all came together. Aliy, Allen and Dutch will be the dog mushing guides and support crew for a client group of eight people who will comprise Susan’s arctic program, Motion in the Arctic White Silence. I am excited to be one of the eight, and delighted that Dutch will be there as support crew. It is going to be an awesome adventure. After ten years in Alaska, this will be my first trip above the Arctic Circle.

Just getting to where we are going will be arduous. We all fly in to Fairbanks, then take small charter planes to the village of Coldfoot, on the Haul Road north of Fairbanks (a gravel road that parallels the Alaska Pipeline from Fairbanks up to the North Slope, used primarily to supply the Slope and service the Pipeline). From there we transfer to a van for four more hours of travel up the Haul Road to an uninhabited wide spot at a place called Galbraith Lake. There, Aliy and Allen will meet us with many dogs and sleds for the two hour mushing trip to our base camp just over Atigun Pass on the Sag River.

For a week we will live in the most amazing tents with wood stoves in them known as Arctic Ovens. They are so well constructed that you can camp out in 40-below weather and be comfortable. And it can be that cold in early April in the Arctic. Aliy said one year they were having a hard time getting the Arctic Ovens set up and wondering why the fabric was so stiff; Allen looked at a thermometer and it was minus 50! I am very much hoping that we will be blessed with a little more warmth than that; zero to ten above would be great.

The daily structure of activity for the group will evolve out of the combined energy of the group itself, and will likely include morning and evening sessions in the Gathering Tent to do the kind of meditational/spiritual work that Susan is so adept at leading; and the afternoons will be devoted to learning how to be dog mushers and driving dog teams. Over the years, Aliy and Allen have established some nice dog trails through the mountains for half-day trips. We will have to do daily water-hauling chores with the dog teams, as all our water will come from a hole in the river ice about a mile from base camp.

The dogs are crucial to the entire operation; no snowmachines or any type of motorized vehicle are allowed in ANWR. The entire camp—all the tents, gear, food and wood to burn—must be hauled in by the dogs, about 25 miles from where the trucks are left at Galbraith Lake. We will have about 50 dogs in camp.

There will be plenty of daylight for this expedition. Here in Bethel, at 61 degrees north latitude, it is light out this week from about 7:30 AM until 9:30 PM; up on the Sag River we will be a smidge north of 68 degrees, and should have an hour or so more light than here. But the dark of night will be truly dark, and Allen tells me that the Northern Lights up there in April are fantastic. They don’t just appear along the horizon like they do here in Bethel; they cover the entire night sky from horizon to horizon, flickering and dancing in a mesmerizing display of color. I so can’t wait to see that!

The past week has been a chaos of trip staging and packing—sorting gear, changing batteries, airing the tent and checking woodstove and stove pipe, washing fleece. It is pretty much all packed, and a veritable mountain of gear it is; our Arctic Oven alone takes up two large duffles. Tonight I am down to the last few details, and wondering what I have forgotten.

There may be no more posts until we return on the 14th. We are going deep into the wilderness.
First three photos by The Tundra PA: Aliy mushing her dogs, Susan on the Kuskokwim River, Aliy with her leaders. Last two photos of ANWR by Aliy and Allen.