Dog sledding in the Alaskan wilderness (part four)

James WerbDog SleddingLeave a Comment

Alaskan Husky

Stunning and incredibly adapted Alaskan husky.

Alaskan huskies are not a pure breed, they all look quite different from each other. What sets them apart is their stamina and tolerance for the bitter Alaskan winters. They sleep outside year round whatever the temperature without a problem. A quality I wish I’d shared the previous night.

For a second night we couldn’t hold out to wait for an aurora and we turned in at around 9.30pm. It was still light until 11pm and each day would only get longer. Much different to the barely few hours of daylight they had received just a few months previously. Marie was feeling a little better but had become a bit nervous of getting back on the sleds again. She had fallen off the most and it had knocked her confidence a bit. I knew she would feel better after a good night sleep and so we donned an extra set of layers and turned in for the night.

The next morning I woke early having slept much more soundly. My first thoughts turned to getting the stove going, which I did as quickly as possible once I’d managed to locate the lighter. We went through our usual morning routine and prepared to take down the shelter. Thankfully my spare clothes had dried by this point and I was keen to keep them that way.

I packed my sled more carefully this time in case we went back through the ice. We fed the dogs and took down the tent and stove. This would be the last we saw of it as the next two nights we had planned to stay at Matt’s cabin.

Dog sledding along the frozen river

Where the ice was thicker, the river was much easier to traverse. However, it quickly deteriorated as the warm temperatures melted the ice.

We set off and stopped briefly at the cabin that we had originally planned to stay in. It had a huge wood burning stove, far too big for the size of the cabin. Though as it turned out we would be thankful for this later. Concerned that we might hit some more water I put on my pile lined salopettes figuring that if I did get wet these would at least keep me warm.

We headed off up the river but soon encountered some pretty difficult conditions. The ice turned to slush and we were already wading through having to push our sleds. It deteriorated as we continued and there was significant overflow. As we pressed on the water got deeper and we had to cross the river in a number of sections.

Marie was following Matt and we watched as she fell into the water, unable to hold on to the sled. My dad and I managed to keep on our sleds but only just. The water was at knee level for me and had already gone up to Marie’s waist.

I hoped that the conditions would improve and we waited to watch Marie and Matt before pressing on. It turned out that this wasn’t to be the case. Matt had come off his sled and we kept seeing him disappear as he tried to swing his dogs round. Marie was left standing in the water trying to keep control of her team as well.

Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve

Eagle airport runway..and so the adventure begins

My dad and I waited and watched as they both struggled with their sleds, unable to help. After a good 10 minutes of fighting the currents Matt turned his team round on the bank and was heading back towards us, followed closely by Marie.

Apparently the water had even deeper and there was a significant flow. At one point Matt said his sled was floating past him. That seemed like a good sign to turn around. It could have improved just up ahead or it could have continued for mile after mile. We were all getting cold and heading back to the cabin to warm up seemed like a good plan.

The conditions were actually the worst that Matt had seen for years and the fact that the other group had made it through this way just a day before us showed how quickly conditions can change.

We all turned around and headed back, crossing the river several times again. Marie fell off again and was soaked through. I too was getting cold and was starting to lose feeling in my toes having had both boots fill with ice cold water. I took a minute to drain them before carrying on, scrunching my toes and releasing them to keep the blood flowing. We finally made it back to the cabin and the oversized stove was now a relief. We got out of our wet clothes and hung them along with our boots and liners above the stove to dry out.

Log cabin in Alaska

Drying ourselves and our clothes at the cabin.

Luckily it was a most beautiful day and the sun was helping to warm us up. With my wet clothes off I soon started to warm up as we lay and chatted on the porch of the cabin. With our original plan of heading up the river towards Matt’s cabin now a thing of the past, we discussed our options.

Do we stay here for the evening and head out on a day trip tomorrow or do we push back to the homestead and make our way to the cabin the day after?

We decided that we would head back to Wayne and Scarlett’s and spend the night there. It meant that we could stock up on some supplies such as friendship bread and hot chocolate which had been very popular with all us and we were running out.

With the decision made we spent another hour or so drying out before heading back the way we had come a couple of days before. Remembering suicide hill I can’t say I was looking forward to climbing it any more than I had been coming down.

We headed off, crossing creeks and dipping in and out of the tree line. The uphill sections and especially suicide hill were quite a challenge. With the sun beating down I had soon stripped down to my base layer to keep cool. My team weren’t enjoying the heat either.

RJ who set the pace would run flat out going downhill but was less keen to put in the same effort going up, in spite of my encouragement. A lot of my time was spent running at the back pushing the sled up the hill. I definitely felt like I was doing my fair share of the work.

Taking a break on the sled

Taking a quick break.

My dad on the other hand casually walked behind his sled, gently ascending the steep slopes having barely broken a sweat. I on the other hand was quickly realising why the dogs would scoop snow into their mouths while running to cool down. It certainly seemed tempting at this point.

We made our way back towards Eagle, following the long descent into the edge of town. We knew from passing through this way that we would reach a large, straight clearing which acted as a second runway for light aircraft. The trail narrowed and we headed through tightly packed forest.

It split into two different paths before opening out on to the airstrip. As we’d all picked up speed I’d barely managed to ‘gee’ my team into following the same path as Matt.

We slowed to a stop on the open, snow covered airstrip and waited to see Marie and my dad come through the trees. My dad came into sight first but through the other path joining further up the airstrip. We watched as his dogs took him in a wide ark before he lost control and fell off into the snow.

Heading back towards the air strip

Heading back towards the air strip. It was a very warm day.

Marie’s team then burst through the lower trail but she was nowhere in sight. Trying to slow her dogs my dad reached out to grab the moving sled. Realising that he wouldn’t be able to stop it he let go. The sled tipped over and the metal claw used as a hand brake was flung out and tore through his trousers and into his knee.

Marie ran into sight trying desperately to catch up with her sled that had now come to a stop near me. Horrified that she had hurt my dad badly, she began apologising and had turned a distinct white colour. Matt and I had rushed to check on his leg but thankfully it was more bruised that anything else. His trousers had taken the worst of it and were torn completely. If it had gone just a bit further it could have been a very nasty accident.

As it was he was okay and Matt bandaged him up. It hadn’t been Marie’s fault at all, just an unfortunate series of events. Apparently her dogs had decided to change direction at the last moment, flinging her from the sled.

Back at the homestead

Back at the homestead.

We all got our breath back and headed out of town, back across the frozen Yukon to the homestead. The two Californian guys that we’d seen our first day were at the homestead having finished their adventure. This was their last night and they would be catching their plane back from Eagle in the morning. They were a little in disbelief at the conditions we had faced along the same stretch of river having had no drama themselves.

We enjoyed a meal together, cooked by Scarlett who somehow managed the time to run and organise the business as well as cooking very filling meals for all of us. She hadn’t always lived in Alaska as was clear from her southern accent, and Wayne too had enjoyed a previous life as a professional rodeo rider and bush pilot.

We finished our meal and spent the evening chatting and watching the sun set through the narrow kitchen window. My dad, a retired builder went over plans with Wayne for a new shed he was planning to build in the summer. It was a great social atmosphere and interesting to hear how others live their lives.

A frozen paradise

A beautiful but cold day. Just incredible scenery.

The next day the plan was to head straight to Matt’s cabin which lay on the edge of the Tatonduk River. The journey would take us across a frozen lake, up and over numerous beaver dams and through a huge burn area. In fact all of the trees Matt had used to build his cabin were claimed as a result of this forest fire. As far as we could see were dead trees but now new saplings joined them. We stopped to watch two ptarmigan dance through the snow before continuing along the trail. Thankfully the lake showed no signs of thawing out any time soon as we travelled across its length.

The landscape opened up again as we reached the river intersection. This is where we had planned to get to the day before. A few cabins lined its shores but these were summer residences only. Now a distinct feature on the landscape loomed ever closer towards us. A ridge, seemingly on fire dominated the view. Apparently thought to be a coal seam that caught fire, it has continued to burn for many years. It could have been caused by a lightning strike but there’s no way to tell.

It had been another lovely day and we approached Matt’s cabin early in the afternoon. We had got used to our sleds and were covering ground more quickly than on our first day or two. The cabin was exactly what I had in mind of what a wilderness cabin should like.

Matt's Log Cabin

Matt’s log cabin, complete with outhouse, kennels and even a sauna.

Matt had constructed it over a summer with his girlfriend and a friend who had lived in a tent while it was being built. A lovely spot but only accessible by canoe in the summer or by dog sled or snow mobile in the winter. He had kennels set up in the same way we had seen at the homestead.

We had also seen something else which caught our eye. A sauna. We hadn’t washed properly since we set out and the thought of a hot sauna later was very inviting. The cabin itself had one big room which had everything you would need. A large stove which heated the place, a kitchen and seating area as well as a workshop with a number of tools hanging from the wall.

There were a few bunks as well, and my dad soon made use of one to have an afternoon nap. The adjoining room had a double and single bed which is where the rest of us would sleep. It was very comfortable and I could see why Matt had chosen this spot.

Sauna in Alaska

The sauna.

We hooked the dogs up in the yard and noticed there was a dog there already. This belonged to another guide who was out checking his traps. He returned later and we enjoyed chatting with him over a warm drink. After he left we set out collecting water from the river. This involved digging through the ice with an axe to get at the clear water below. We filled up a number of large barrels and filtered out the bits of twig we’d managed to collect as well.

Marie and I enjoyed the sauna later that evening, taking Matt’s advice of waiting as long as you can until you can’t take the heat, then running outside and scrubbing your body with snow. We did this two or three times and in spite of the massive changes in temperature I felt quite refreshed afterwards. There was again no sign of the elusive aurora and so we went to sleep.

Our final day had come around too quickly and my thoughts turned to disappointment that it would soon be over. We had a leisurely start knowing it wouldn’t take long to get back. We chopped firewood and tidied up as it would be the last time Matt would set foot there until next winter. The final job was to seal the cabin up.

Digging through the snow for water

Matt digging through the snow with an axe to get the water from the frozen river.

There was certainly no fear of theft, something we found early on at the homestead with no locks on any of the doors. The reason for boarding over all the windows and door was to prevent bears getting in. It had never happened in all the time he had been there but was a necessary precaution. We also left a hammer accessible should anyone need to get in in an emergency.

Having boarded the place we set off on our final trip back to the homestead. It was almost as if the dogs knew it would be their last run of the season too as RJ jumped a clear 4 feet off the ground to get going. We followed the trail back though there was one final obstacle.

A very short, sharp drop lay ahead of us, made worse by the fact there was no leeway on either side, with trees tightly lining the trail. If we fell off here it was going to end badly. Matt instructed us to let most of our dogs go so that we would have a much slower descent. We would then harness them back up afterwards.

Digging through the snow for water

We were certainly sad to say goodbye to Matt’s cabin.

Even with only one dog pulling the drop to the bottom was swift but we all made it down with incident. Speaking to Matt at the bottom I discovered that in the past there had been a few nasty injuries here including someone that had to be airlifted out. I was glad I didn’t know this at the top and could now see why he had been so cautious.

When we arrive at the homestead and unharnessed our teams one last time, it was a sad moment. We had all been a little apprehensive of these dogs on the first day but now we had not only left any fears aside but over the course of the week learned to love our teams and got to know each dog’s individual personality. From troublesome Twosome, to the inquisitive Gecko (Marie’s lead dog) and the rock steady RJ, they were a real blast to be around. It was a shame to say goodbye.

Aurora Borealis

At last we got to see the Aurora Borealis. Well worth the wait, just an incredible display.

Aurora Borealis

An amazing spectacle right outside our cabin

The trip finished perfectly with an amazing display of the northern lights at midnight. They swept through the sky as if by magic, changing hues from green to blue. It was awe inspiring and I felt then that we had done it all. We spent half an hour watching this amazing event which felt like it had been put on just for us.

The last day we headed off on snow mobiles after saying our goodbyes to Wayne and Scarlett and thanked them for a fantastic adventure. Matt joined us as he was heading back to his family in Fairbanks. The small plane ride back was even more fascinating as we flew over the landscape we had journeyed through for the past week. Although the trip was over, it would be some time before it felt like it.

The most amazing adventure in pure, untamed wilderness. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

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