Dog sledding in the Alaskan wilderness (part three)

James WerbDog Sledding0 Comments

My dad feeding the huskies

My dad feeding the dogs

We had just passed the cabin that we were originally supposed to spend the night. Our camp site would be a short distance ahead. As I got ready to go my dad flew past me shouting ‘whoa, whoa, whoa’ as he was being dragged along, legs hanging off the back of the sled, with just his arms outstretched, hanging on to the handle.

There were two clear grooves in the snow where his legs had been. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get to my camera in time to capture it but it had quickly become one of the highlights of my day. Apparently Nugget had decided that he didn’t want to wait any longer and had immediately started chasing Marie’s sled.

After untangling his dogs and climbing back on to his sled, we caught up with the others and made our way to where we would spend our first two nights. We picked a flat spot, not far from the river and had hoped to use it as a source of water. When we later tried, there was no easy path to it and so we settled for melting snow instead.

Snowtrekker canvas tent

Canvas Snowtrekker tent with wood burning stove. An amazing way to spend time in the frozen north.

Our first task was to set up lines to attach the dogs to for the evening. We had 23 in total between our 4 sleds and so making sure they didn’t wander off was a high priority. Marie got a quick lesson in snowshoeing and started to flatten the area for the lines to go. It would matter too much to the dogs but would make it easier for getting to them and feeding them later on.

As they all dealt with the dogs, I started to flatten an area of snow for our tent to sit on. We only had one pair of snow shoes, so making my way through the thigh deep snow proved challenging.

Dogs attached to the lines and a flat area created for our shelter, we started on pitching the tent. The metal ‘A’ frame went up first, followed by the canvas flysheet. Matt then showed us how to make a dead man snow anchor from spruce branches in order to secure the guy lines. This involved taking a short section of branch about a foot or so long and digging it into the snow parallel to the tent. When the snow hardens around the wood, it secures it extremely well. In fact it took us quite some time to dig them out again with an axe and a shovel when we came to pack up.

Tent up, Matt put together the folding metal stove, with a flue pipe that stuck out through a cut-out section of the tent ceiling. He then got to work making a tripod outside to suspend a large pot over a fire for the dog’s food.

Cutting wood for the stove

Preparing firewood for the stove

I headed off with a bow saw to start taking down some dead trees to use as firewood. It was tiring work as it involved wading through snow to access the trees. The area we were camped in was one of many burns. Huge forested areas that had been devastated by fire, leaving only dead standing trees with no needles. Just by touching them, you covered your hand in soot.

As much of Alaska is unpopulated these forest fires are often left to run their course unless they threaten an urban area. As such these fires can cover thousands and sometimes millions of acres. It’s difficult to get your head around the scale of the wilderness as it’s so vast.

Fires going, we soon had toasted sandwiches and the dogs were fed well. A lot of water was put in their food to keep them hydrated given the relatively warm temperatures. A few weren’t fooled by it and they chose to upturn their bowls and eat what remained off the snow. Matt also told us that in the depths of winter when it can reach minus 60°F the dogs sometimes get their tongues stuck to their metal bowls so they learn to tip them up and eat off the ground.

Eating dinner in the wilderness

Enjoying our dinner outside.

We cooked dinner over the stove in the tent which was now noticeably much warmer than the outside temperature. So much so that we had to open the door and couldn’t sit inside for more than a few minutes before starting to sweat. We chatted over dinner and watched the sun set over the hills. The dogs started howling, which we at first thought might have been directed at a nearby wolf but turned out to be their own echoes off the canyon walls.

We all wanted to see the northern lights (aurora borealis) and March was supposedly a perfect time to spot them. We hadn’t been able to in Fairbanks as it was too well let up and tonight wasn’t going to be ideal either. Clouds had started to come in and to be honest we were so tired from a full day of sledding, setting up camp and processing firewood that we were all about ready for bed. As the sun set the temperature dropped dramatically. It wasn’t noticeably cold during the day other than the wild chill on your face but now we all started to put an extra layer on.

Having got wet feet from crossing the river earlier I hung my socks and boot liners on a line strung across the top of the tent. It also turned out I was the only one who had managed to get my bag wet as well and so my spare base layers and socks had also taken a dunking. With everything hung out to dry and the stove still burning slowly we settled in for the night.

Inside the canvas tent

The inside of our canvas tent. Wood burning stove on the left with firewood stored underneath. We had a groundsheet and sleeping mats for insulation from the snow.

I woke with a chill going through my body. I didn’t know what time it was but it was very dark. I hadn’t bothered to wear a hat and my socks were drying above me. With the stove having gone out some time earlier, the temperature had dropped dramatically inside the tent. I crept down into my sleeping bag in an attempt to keep warm but I spent a restless night feeling the effects of the cold.

In the morning I found out I hadn’t been the only one. We’d all had a disturbed sleep and not even Matt had expected the temperature to drop so much considering how mild it had been. We didn’t have any way of telling but Matt guessed that it must have been at least minus 30. The coldest night I have ever spent outdoors. Needless to say we were all much more prepared the next night.

We quickly started the stove up, using birch bark I had collected before we left the homestead. I was certainly keen to warm up and have a hot drink. I was also still trying to dry my wet clothes out.

We had breakfast and fed the dogs, leaving them for an hour before hitting the trail for the day. The plan was to stay camped here for the next night and go for a day trip further up Seventy Mile River. Marie was suffering the effects of a cold she managed to pick up on the flight over and so wanted a day to rest. The dogs we left behind at camp had other ideas and spent most of the day howling and barking at their own echoes again, so she didn’t get a lot of peace.

Our camp in Alaska

Stove fired up and preparing for the day ahead.

The rest of us headed off for the day. As it had been such a cold night Matt hoped that the conditions on the river had improved since the day before. He was proved to be right and we made fast progress sliding along the ice highway. The dogs had surprisingly good traction and rarely slipped. It was easy to lose concentration for a second and find the sled making its own route across the ice.

The scenery was different now as we headed through the deep canyon walls, winding upstream. Alder and willows lined the banks and there was signs of recent gold prospecting activities left from the summer season.

We progressed quickly up to a frozen waterfall which proved more challenging to navigate with the sled wanting to escape from behind the dogs. We took it slowly and carried on further until we came across a disturbed beaver lodge. From the looks of it an animal had tried to gain entry but had been unsuccessful.

Beaver lodge

The after effects of an attack on the beaver lodge. Luckily nothing got in though it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Matt assumed it had been something like a wolf looking for a tasty treat but had been unable to penetrate the walls of intertwined branches. Had it been a bear it may have had more luck. Whatever had done it, the beaver had a lucky escape.

We stopped for snack and gave the dogs a rest before heading back towards camp again. The day had gone quickly especially as it had been an easy run along the river. I felt like we could have kept going up it all day. The landscape continued to inspire and though we were in a very remote area I felt very comfortable in our surroundings.

Turning round proved to be easier said than done. With Matt past us and at the front again my dad attempted the turn. Twosome had been giving him grief since we started. Often picking on other members of his team or generally tangling himself up in the harnesses. As he tried to pass me Twosome went for one of my dogs, and a puppy at that.

Sledding up the frozen rover highway.

Matt quickly rushed over to break up the fight. Having been told to move my sled out of the way I managed to perform a manoeuvre he’d never seen before. Before I knew what was going on I’d managed to jump my sled over the front of my dad’s. Something not out of place on a Bond film. I kept upright and we were back on our way.

Having got used to controlling the sled, there was plenty of time just to be in the moment and let my mind wander. It was very relaxing, almost therapeutic. No phones, no work, no distractions, only the task at hand, travelling day to day. I didn’t want it to end.

The dogs quickened their pace as we reached camp. Marie was surprised to see Matt and me with some new additions to our sleds. We’d stopped briefly to take down a couple of trees by the side of the trail before getting to camp as it was easier than wading through the thick snow to get them later on.

We were already getting used to life on the trail and quickly settled into our routines. Chopping wood, melting snow, preparing dinner and feeding the dogs. We sat and chatted into the evening, not knowing that the next day we were going to get wet. Very wet.

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James is a passionate paddler, hiker and backpacker as well as a professional marketer and amateur photographer. He has made numerous journeys to wilderness areas across North America and Europe from the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve in Alaska to the Scottish Highlands.

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