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.



Blogger #1 Dinosaur said...

I linked you. This is too good not to share.

Sunday, April 20, 2008 4:40:00 PM  
Blogger Shar said...

Sure enjoyed the great coverage of your expedition to the Arctic. Rahs

Sunday, April 20, 2008 5:41:00 PM  
Blogger .m. said...

Sounds Perfect. I loved reading all the details. Your picture of Sukakpak (first pic in the first post) had me missing the Brooks range something fierce. I love that mountain. Thanks for the update. Sucks that you had politics to return to. I hope this blog reaches enough folk to change things down there.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008 9:48:00 AM  
Blogger Vicki said...

Wow, great stories! I'm really enjoying reading your blog!

I'm working on a great project with my students this year combining science and literature while studying the Arctic and Antarctic. Your stories and adventures are inspiring and I would like to keep in touch--perhaps you could be a useful resource! You can contact me through my blog if this seems at all possible. Thanks!


Wednesday, June 11, 2008 2:59:00 PM  
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Sunday, November 20, 2011 2:03:00 AM  

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