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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


...to 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.

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4 Comments:

OpenID indefinitely said...

So, how do you feel about the urgent need to drill drill drill in ANWR? Aren't you a "real" Alaskan?!? Ouch, poor choice of words after what those morons on the radio said.

Thanks for the report on an amazing place 99.99999% of us will never reach.

Friday, April 18, 2008 3:19:00 AM  
Blogger Bardiac said...

Wow, that looks amazing! (But COLD!) I can't wait to read more!

Friday, April 18, 2008 6:38:00 AM  
Blogger TBTAM said...

This is amazing. The first image alone is breathtaking. Thanks you so much for sharing this trip. Can't wait to read part 2.

Friday, April 18, 2008 9:00:00 AM  
Blogger akfnp said...

what an amazing trek! i cant wait to read more. it sounds like an unbelievable adventure. where can i sign up?? (:

Friday, April 18, 2008 1:06:00 PM  

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