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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

...to 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.

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