Dog sledding in the Alaskan wilderness (part two)

James WerbDog Sledding0 Comments

Alaskan view

We were all buzzing after out training run and talk turned to the trip ahead. I can’t remember who mentioned it first but we learnt of a very steep drop we would be tackling on our first day.

They called it ‘suicide hill’. It was built up a bit to scare us and though we joked about it at the time I think we were all slightly apprehensive of what lay ahead the next day.

Before we turned in for the night I asked Matt about where we would be sleeping while out on the trail. He’d arranged for us to visit two cabins, the second of which would be his. Wanting a more authentic wilderness experience I asked if we could try ‘hot tenting’. I’d read about others enjoying this type of winter shelter and was keen to give it a go for myself.

Rather than sleeping in a normal nylon tent and wrapping up warm, you take a canvas tent and use a wood burning stove instead. Not having had an opportunity to try this in the UK it seemed like the perfect time to give it a go. I’d worry about breaking the news to my dad later.

Matt was keen on the idea and Wayne went to find the tent which he’d figured wouldn’t be used again that season. A new plan was formed and instead of staying in cabins for the whole trip, we would spend the first two nights under canvas. My dad took the news rather well even if we did end up passing a ‘perfectly good cabin’ as he put it later on.

Alaskan husky at the homestead

Longing for the trail

The next morning we met up as usual in Wayne and Scarlett’s cabin for breakfast and started to prepare for our trip as we wouldn’t be returning until the end of the week. We packed our gear, spare clothing and roll mats into our sleds. We also shared out the tent, stove and equipment as well food for ourselves and the dogs. This was the first time we’d harnessed our full team at the homestead and it was an experience for all the senses.

The dogs immediately knew what was going on and all 50 plus of them launched into a cacophony of howls, leaping into the air to get our attention. For anyone that says these dogs don’t want to pull sleds, they need to think again. I’ve never seen an animal more desperate than a huskie wanting to hit the trail. If they could speak they’d be shouting “pick me, pick me”.

We harnessed our teams and got ready to set off. We were about the experience the full force of a dog team, fresh from a night’s sleep and raring to go. Matt led the way, followed by Marie and then my dad. As I shouted ‘let’s go’ and took my feet off the brake, the dogs launched into action. We shot over the crest of the hill as I hurtled towards my dad’s sled. I had barely been able to slow them down despite following Matt’s instructions to keep my foot on the brake at all times.

Eagle, Alaska

View over Eagle from the frozen Yukon River

Being closer to the sled in front only made them more eager to make headway. As pack animals they’re hardwired to chasing what’s in front of them. That’s another reason we tried to keep a fair distance between each other. The closer you get, the faster they run.

After what can only be described as barely controlled chaos we made it down the steep section from the homestead and out towards the Yukon River basin once again. We sped through the trees and paused at the top of the river bank. We each climbed as slowly as we could over the edge of the bank, both feet pressing the brake firmly into the snow to ease our descent. After a short drop down we made our way, following the Yukon back towards Eagle.

It dawned on me that we were now at the same stage the two Californian’s were at when we’d met them two days before. They’d looked like pros then, and we were probably unrecognisable after just a day on the trail. We’d all picked it up quickly and were gaining confidence with our new teams.

Video – heading out of Eagle

We headed through Eagle and started to slowly climb up into the tree line. Matt pointed out some large trails running parallel to us as gold mining operations. I was surprised that there was still gold mining going on here but that was apparently one of the few larger operation in the area. Most were individuals or small groups simply hoping to pay for their prospecting lifestyle.

Getting access to this area isn’t easy in summer or winter. In the summer when the road is clear from snow and ice it’s still a 2 day drive to the nearest city of Fairbanks. Even then, the only way to access the more remote areas is by boat or on foot.

It was hard to imagine that in the days of the gold rush, the population of this small community had exceeded 1,700 as a trading post for miners hoping to make their fortune. In the end very few did and I suspect you would have been better off selling shovels that mining the hills.

An old log cabin

An old cabin on the trail

The scenery opened up spectacularly as we reached the top of our climb. The trees thinned out and it was possible to see the snow covered canyons that lay around us. Small patches of conifers lined the more distant slopes and we took a short break to admire the view and prepare for what lay ahead. ‘We’re not far from suicide hill’ Matt said as we sat with our flasks of Gatorade on the upturned sleds. ‘When we get to the top, we’ll stop and I’ll tell you what to do’.

Though I was fairly confident that it wouldn’t be as bad as we’d made out in our own heads, I could tell that Marie was a little uneasy, especially as she would be the first to follow Matt down the hill. When we approached the top, it was difficult to appreciate how long or steep the drop would be as it lay around a sharp right turn. Marie asked if anyone had decided not to do it and was told, no. Without wanting to be the only person to not brave the descent she followed Matt round the corner and out of sight.

Dog team hurtling through the woods

My team of 6 dogs, RJ and Swannie in the lead, followed by Feisty and Nenana, with Menden and Delilah in the ‘wheel’ position

I turned to my dad who was up next and said ‘well here we go I guess. Good luck’. He crept his team forwards and too disappeared out of sight. I was left at the top of hill, not knowing what lay ahead or how Marie or my dad had got on. I let the dogs pull forwards but kept my feet firmly on the brake as we rounded the corner.

As we crested over the hill I planted both feet as far as I could to slow the sled down. The dogs were clearly not worried about whether I was on the back of the sled or not. One way or another I’d be making it to the bottom. I’d hoped it would be in once piece. Even with the brake on full, we soon picked up a lot of speed and I started to feel slightly out of control. I could see the bottom now as I raced towards it. Then with a final hard push on the brake followed by ‘whoa, whoa’ the dogs came to a halt behind my dad’s sled. We’d all made it and it had been one hell of a ride.

Dog teams along the trail

Marie snaking through the trees with her all girl team.

The trail continued going up and down as we made our way through the landscape. We had a chance to practice commanding our lead dogs to change direction as the trail split and re-joined itself in a number of places. ‘Gee’ for right and ‘haw’ for left.

My lead dog RJ was Wayne’s favourite and I could see why. Without any problem he listened to my commands and swiftly changed direction. My dad was having a more love hate relationship with his lead dog Nugget while Marie was settling in nicely with her all girl squad. I could often here her as I got closer saying ‘well done girls’.

We continued through the trees as the trail twisted downwards. At this point, having conquered suicide hill, I was feeling very confident in my abilities. My newly found confidence was short lived, however, as I rounded a particularly tight bend. I took it too fast and lost control. First my right foot came off the sled and then I planted head first into the deep snow on the edge of the trail. As I stopped the dogs and started to climb back on to the trail my dad performed the same manoeuvre right behind me.

My dad and his dog team

My dad and his dog team following along the trail.

I did what any loving son would do in this situation and laughed. We dusted the snow off and helped each other pull our sleds back on to the trail. Something which was much harder now they were full of all our gear. We tried to deny our mishap as we met back up with Marie and Matt but the truth soon came out.

As we approached our eventual camp site we met our final challenge of the day, Seventy Mile River. Named not because of its length but from the distance it stood from a long gone outpost. This was our first experience on ice and we couldn’t tell what the conditions would be like until we started up it.

The plan was to go a short distance along it to pick up the trail further upstream. In order to maintain traction on the ice and stop the sled fishtailing out of control, I kept my feet on the drag brake at all times. It always seemed a little cruel to me, slowing the dogs down but it was either that or fall off. Something I wasn’t keen to do again, especially on hard pack ice.

Waiting by the frozen river

Matt, our guide waiting next to the frozen river

We all made our way onto the river which in perfect conditions would act like a highway through the wilderness. Something we would find out tomorrow. Unfortunately the warm days had taken their toll on the ice and it had started to melt quite badly in places. We could see Matt ahead struggling to keep his team from escaping up the nearest bank, keen to get out of the water.

I was still on ice at this point but that was soon about to change. I could see Marie breaking through the thin layer of ice as it turned to mush and soon I followed. My dad at the back this time had the worst of it as we all broke up the ice and left him in our wake.

The mush turned to water and we were all soon up to our ankles in it trying to keep the dogs going. Having not expected it we weren’t sure what to do other than keep going. How deep was the water? What happens if I fall in? Will I freeze to death? These were all question going through my mind.

We were in very remote country and though we had a satellite phone with us, there was no chance of a quick rescue even if we could get a signal. This thought went through my mind more than once as we continue up the river. Thankfully the end was in sight as we saw Matt pull out on to the opposite bank and back on to the trail.

Marie and I made it too and then stopped to see how my dad was doing. Having been in the worst conditions all the way through it and that his team was less experienced in the water, I could see the concern in his eyes. His dogs were getting tangled as they tried to make their own way out to solid ground. Matt shouted to him just to keep them going rather than try and deal with it and soon he joined us on the bank.

We learnt that we were not in any real danger of falling into deeper water. What we had experienced was overflow. Basically the river water freezes in layers so when we put our feet in the water we were stepping on to another layer of ice below. The water on the top was running from further upstream. Also the rivers appear much bigger covered in ice as it expands up the bank making it look wider than it is. The Seventy Mile River apparently has barely enough water to float a canoe in the summer. If only we’d know this before we headed on to it.

It wasn’t going to be the last time we’d be plunged into the icy cold river water on this trip. Something we were all blissfully unaware of at the time.

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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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