Dog sledding in the Alaskan wilderness (part one)

James WerbDog Sledding2 Comments

Dog Sledding in Alaska

My dog team on the frozen Seventy Mile River

We were finally touching down in Eagle, a small community on the US Canadian border. With a population of around 85 people, it’s not only one of the small places I’ve been but also one of the most remote. Cut off from the nearest city for months of the year it was clear we were getting closer to our Alaskan wilderness.

For as long as I can remember my dad has wanted to go dog sledding. After his 70th birthday my partner Marie and I decided it was time to make the dream a reality. We scoured the net for companies offering dog sledding tours. Sweden, Finland, and Norway were discussed though the conversation always ended the same way, “but it’s not Alaska is it?”

Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve

Flying into the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve

We wanted remote, rugged wilderness, the real deal. A weekend in Scandinavia, however beautiful, just wasn’t going to cut it. Then I came across Bush Alaska Expeditions, a family business offering a proper wilderness adventure in the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve. A 2.2 million acre area of protected, pristine wilderness. After a few emails back and forth to Scarlett we were booked.

Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve

Eagle airport runway..and so the adventure begins

The landscape was simply breath-taking, stretching out in front of us. It seemed never ending. In the distance I could make out the thin gap through the forest that marks the divide between the Canadian and American border.

As we crossed the great expanse of the Yukon, three dog sleds approached us across the ice. It was a couple of guys from California with another guide. It was the first day of their trip and they already looked like they had the hang of it. With a ‘whoa, whoa, whoa’ they brought their dogs to a stop next to us. I’d watched some YouTube clips of dog sledding before we’d left but I was finally seeing it for real.

After a brief chat we wished each other on our way and watched them set off single file towards Eagle. We were headed towards Wayne and Scarlett’s homestead, and the real start of our adventure.

Bush Alaska Expeditions, homestead

Wayne and Scarlett’s homestead, and Bush Alaska HQ

We were greeted by Wayne and Scarlet and I glimpsed the maze of dog kennels as we were ushered into their kitchen for some lunch. Their cabin had been built by Wayne himself and the roof was a little low for my dad at over 6 foot tall but had a fantastic atmosphere.

I think we were all buzzing to get on a sled having seen the guys pass us earlier, and so after a quick tour around the homestead (and a check to see the depth of the snow) Matt started to go through the basics of harnessing the dogs. Before we had a try for real he asked how comfortable we were around dogs. You’d have thought we’d be dog lovers considering we had decided to go on a week-long mushing trip.

Falling through the snow

I think we’ll stick to the trail…

I’d been bitten as a child and the thought of being surrounded by over 50 wild huskies was quite daunting. My dad and Marie, both having had similar experiences felt the same way. However, we all knew what we were here for and were not about to fall at the first hurdle.

Matt introduced us initially to two of the largest dogs in the yard (his dogs) as he demonstrated how to harness them correctly. Then we all had a go at harnessing and unharnessing them a few times. I was a bit nervous at first but the dogs had clearly seen all this before. Not a bit bothered by us, they practically harnessed themselves, offering their feet through the loops and pulling tight on the line.

We ran through the basic procedures for starting and stopping the sled, and feeling brave I volunteered to go first. The braking system on the sleds, which Matt had built himself was fairly straightforward. A drag brake to slow down, a bigger foot brake to stop and finally a metal claw like device for throwing and pounding into the ground to act as a kind of snow anchor. It might have seemed like overkill at first but I could see you wouldn’t want to be left alone in the middle of the wilderness as your dog team disappears over the horizon with all your gear.

Dog kennels on Alaskan homestead

Soon to be our new companions

I stepped on to the back of the sled, going through the routine that Matt had told us. I released the hand brake and pressed firmly on to the foot brake to prevent the dogs from moving. For the first time of many on the trip I shouted out “are you ready? Let’s go”. If I’d wondered if the three brake system was needed before, I was convinced of it now. They were off like a shot.

Without wanting to disappear out of sight I immediately started telling them to ‘whoa’ as I’d seen the others do out on the Yukon. With both feet planted firmly on the brake, we stopped. Having taken my first steps into the word of dog sledding I stood to watch Marie and my dad do the same.

Comfortable with our new found skills we were each given a list of names and told to memorise them as they would be our dogs for the remainder of the trip. My note read RJ, Swannie, Menden, Delilah, Nenana and Feisty. I had yet to meet them but I was secretly hoping Feisty was not going to live up to her name. As we were all taken around the yard and introduced to our new companions my fears were unfounded. Feisty was as gentle as a lamb. In fact they all were.

Dog sleds in Alaska

Sleds and a magnificent view

Over the next week we would harness them, feed them, travel miles through the wilderness together and become close friends. For now I would be pleased just to remember their names.

We spent the rest of the evening chatting with Wayne, Scarlett and Matt, discussing the plan for the next day. It was going to be a short run but making sure we covered as many different types of conditions as possible to get us ready for the actual trip. Though I had 6 dogs on my list, we’d only take 4 each the first day to get used to it.

As the morning rose and we headed over for breakfast, there was a definite chill in the air. The sun hadn’t yet warmed the snow covered landscape and even with a number of layers on, the temperature was still taking some getting used to. Not least when a call of nature was required.

Afterwards, Scarlett took us back down to the river by snowmobile. Matt and Wayne had taken our dog teams ahead to meet us there. We’d travelled down a fairly steep section, with trees lining both sides of the trail. I could see why they hadn’t wanted us to start here. Plus the dogs had already had a chance to burn off some energy. Not that it showed.

Snowmobile on the Yukon River

Snowmobiling on the frozen Yukon River

We all mounted our sleds as I tried to remember the instructions from the day before. The river provided a fairly flat area to start so that we could get the hang of it slowly. I could see why. As my four dogs leapt into action I was soon hurtling across the snow covered river. I stopped from time to time, getting used to the braking system. It was also a good excuse to enjoy the scenery. It was hard to believe I was actually here with my own dog team after a year of planning back at home.

Our route took us through some more winding sections and both my dad and I nearly disembarked our sleds earlier than anticipated on a tight corner. Luckily with one foot scraping the snow to stabilise myself I made it round and we headed towards the river bank.

We were faced with a very short but steep ascent and I couldn’t see how we were going to get the dogs to travel up there. Matt led the way and told us to jump off the sled just before the dogs stop and then help them by pushing the sled from behind. This is done while commanding the team “up, up, up” to keep them going. Easier said than done.

My dog team and I taking a break

A quick break with my new team

Marie went first and because of her short frame, she struggled to keep hold of the sled while pushing it. The sled got away as the dogs pulled up the hill without her. Luckily they stopped at the top of the slope and she was able to catch up and get back on. My dad went next and managed to slowly climb up the slope and over the brink successfully. Thankfully I followed suit.

Keen to get us at least some experience of different trail condition before we set off properly the next day, Matt led us through a series of narrow trails, winding through tightly packed spruce and pine. For some reason I now couldn’t get my sled to sit neatly in the pack snow of the trail and it insisted on veering me off the left hand side.

With some trial and error I managed to balance myself on the right hand track of the sled to improve the situation but it was still no good. I bounced off a burned spruce and started sliding into the deeper snow at the edge of the trail. After my previous success on the river at regaining control, I put my foot down to try and correct the issue but instead plunged into waist high snow and quickly dismounted. Managing to hold on with one hand, I slowed the dogs down to a stop and slowly climbed out of the drift and back on to the sled runners.

Marie with her dog team

Marie with her dog team on our training day

We had been instructed to keep an eye on each other along the trail, but it was difficult (and slightly dangerous) to stay too close to each other through the dense woodland and sharp turns. We were often out of sight though a quick glance back as the trail straightened out revealed whether someone was lagging behind. I enjoyed being out of view. It felt like I was on my own adventure, guiding my team through the Alaskan wilderness like many great adventurers had done before.

Continuing to struggle to keep my sled straight, I fell behind. It was five minutes or so before I caught up to my dad who had stopped to check where I was. After blaming the dogs, the sled and the consistency of the snow, we moved on to catch up with Marie and Matt. They’d had a most uneventful section through the trees, something which Marie was particularly pleased about.

We stopped to snack and rest the dogs. For us the low temperatures were still something we were acclimatising to but the dogs were feeling rather warm. Matt explained that they prefer it to be at least -30°F to really have a good run. The temperatures were currently hovering just below freezing during the day, though dropping considerably as soon as the sun disappeared.

We pressed on towards the homestead and the end of our training day. As we approached I could hear the other dogs in the yard cheering our return. Apparently my team could too as they gave a final burst of speed towards the finish. Wayne and Scarlett met us as we disembarked and helped us unharness the dogs. After chasing Nenana around the homestead for some time I finally managed to chain her back up. What a day it had been, but the adventure was just beginning.

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2 Comments on “Dog sledding in the Alaskan wilderness (part one)”

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