In late March, Barbara and I, inspired by the Iditarod (we've been following it closely for almost 20 years), decided we would learn to mush. Besides, the Sun is approaching the maximum in its 11-year cycle (actually, it is a 22 year magnetic cycle). We checked our gear and found we are well equipped. We then did some checking on what is available in terms of sled tours, and at first were dismayed to find that the majority of tours are POTT (Plain Old Tourist Tours, where you stay in luxury lodges and get day rides in sleds driven by your guide). Being woodsy folks and having spent a lot of time in snow and ice, we wanted The Real Deal - we get our own dog teams, hitch them, feed them, unhitch them, sleep in the snow, and so on.
We eventually stumbled across Bush Alaska Expeditions, run by Wayne and Scarlett Hall. A bit of correspondence via email and reading their website (hey! Some things get "modernized"!), and we discovered we had a number of things in common.
We soon discovered that getting to Eagle, a tiny town much like the one I grew up in, required taking a regular commercial flight to Fairbanks, then riding in the "mail plane" out to the Eagle air strip. From there, the Halls would pick us up and ferry us by snowmobile (some other touches of "civilization") on the frozen Yukon River downstream about 6 miles to their cabin and headquarters.
The "mail plane", flown by Evert Air. A Pilatus - Barb and I used to own a plane and long lusted over a Pilatus Porter
Well, it wasn't quite that simple. We ended up being delayed a day because of weather. Eagle's airport does not have an instrument approach, so we got delayed by a day.
Eagle is located on the Yukon River, about 20 miles downstream from the border with Yukon Territory. There is an unpaved summer road, but winter access is by snowmobile or airplane. The mail plane does carry some passengers. But passengers are alloted 30 pounds of checked baggage each - no carry-ons, no overhead compartments. We were allowed our full winter clothing to wear, though Bush Alaska has a certain amount of gear available for loan. We filled our 30 pounds with a change of clothes, our -40° Feathered Friends sleeping bags, camera gear, and a few other items, wearing our expedition long johns, puffy parkas, and layers in between, plus our Baffin boots.
Approaching the Eagle airport. Yukon River on the right, looking downstream.
Scarlett and one Bush Alaska's guides met us, along with two women from Minnesota who were returning for another outing with Bush Alaska, with snowmobiles. We made a short stop in town at the trading post, then headed out onto the frozen river for the half-dozen miles to the cabin, located on Last Chance Creek.
Climbing the river embankment on the snowmobiles
The main headquarters of Bush Alaska is a cabin that the Halls built themselves. Since they are far out from town, there is no running water nor any flush toilets. Heat is from a wood stove. Most food is from their summer garden, fish caught from the river during the summer (frozen or dried), plus moose and caribou harvested during the summer, dressed and frozen. Right from the start, I will tell you that the salmon from the Yukon is orders of magnitude better than anything you can get in the lower 48 in any store or restaurant. The freezer is located in Eagle, which does have its own diesel generator to supply the hundred or so people who live in town.
Main room of the Bush Alaska cabin
Bush Alaska HQ - the satellite dish provides internet connection. Electricity is produced by the solar panels on the roof of the cabin
There are several other buildings - a really nice sauna, storage for the dried fish for the dogs, and a guest cabin. And, of course, the bathroom facility.
The bathroom, with its signature symbol on the door
The dogs have their individual shelters (remember, these dogs come from generations of ancestors leading back thousands of years to Siberian and Alaskan wolves, who lived in the cold winter temperatures of the Ice Ages).
Some of the 50-60 dogs and their shelters. Guest cabin in the background
As soon as we arrived, we had a quick lunch, then proceed with our training. First thing was to learn the basics of the sleds - how to stand on the runners, the two brakes (snow brake and ice/drag brake), and the line to which the dogs are hitched (lead dogs up front, wheel dogs at the rear, and one or more in between), as well as the all-important snow anchor and when to turn the sled on its side to prevent dragging. Next we learned how to put the harnesses on the dogs. As we approached each of our dogs with harness in hand (labelled with their names), they leaped against their chains, barking in eagerness, anticipating their runs. At the same time, they were very patient with us cheechakos as we struggled to fit the harness over their heads and place their front legs through the correct holes in the harness. As soon as we unclipped their chains, they ran at top speed over to the sleds, waiting for us to come over and clip them into their place.
The next several hours here spent going over the correct commands. It is very important to remember that "gee" means "turn right" and "haw" means turn left. When getting set to run, remember to pull the snow anchor while standing firmly on the brake with one foot and the other on the runner, then say "ready!" before saying "GO!". I have driven dragsters that didn't get off the line as rapidly as these dogs leapt up to speed! Stopping requires saying "WHOA!" with the right inflection plus standing firmly on the brake. Slowing down involves a combination of the drag brake and the snow brake.
We went down to the river to go around in circles, turning right, then left, stopping, then starting, until time came to charge up the bank on the same route as the snowmobile had taken. It was steep enough that we had to hop off the runners and push a bit to help the dogs, being ready to leap back on the runners at just the right moment. Then off for a wild ride through the woods, up hills, and down through ravines. I only fell off twice, while Barb managed to stay in place. There is a special technique to turning sharp corners at speed, knowing just exactly when to stomp on the brake (too soon, and you may try to climb a tree with the sled, as I found out).
After a great dinner, we hit the sack early. It was overcast, so no chance of seeing the aurora. Besides, my son sent a message via my Delorme inReach that it would be a couple days before the ion cloud from the solar flare would reach the Earth.
Next morning, we loaded the sleds with our gear and food, along with the Arctic Oven tent (a large double-wall tent with provision for a wood-burning stove).
Sled loaded with the tent, stove, and some of the food
We set off upstream on the Yukon, headed for Eagle Creek, about 10 miles upstream toward the Canadian border. Wayne, the owner of Bush Alaska, was in the lead, with Barb following behind, and I was bringing up the rear.
A pause on the Yukon, just before turning up Eagle Creek
Shortly after making the turn into Eagle Creek, my lead dog, Comet, started stumbling, then collapsed. I quickly placed the snow anchor and yelled at the others that Comet was having a seizure. The signs were virtually identical to a human having a seizure, so I called on my Wilderness First Aid training to start handling the situation. Wayne dropped his anchor, as did Barb, and turned his sled on its side and came running back to me.
Taking care of Comet during his seizure
Wayne told me I was doing exactly the right things, soothing Comet and moving the other dogs to the side. He explained that these seizures are a genetically related thing for a small percentage of huskies. As with humans, they will recover, and will be able to continue with no problems. Once Comet had recovered and was on his feet, Wayne undid his harness and led him up to his sled, to put him into the middle. Comet is a good, but learning, lead dog. There is some thought that stress, such as being a young lead, can bring on the seizures. We then shifted my dogs around, moving Swanee up to the secondary lead position with Hy-O taking primary lead, leaving Lobo and Lill Missie in wheel and Twosome in the middle.
We were able to continue up Eagle creek with no further incidents with the dogs, though I did have a bit of a struggle staying on the runners at one point when my team took a shortcut at one turn to go over a mound of snow, rather than following the other two teams around it.
We arrived at our campsite, some 27 miles and 5 hours since we left the homestead. First order of business was taking care of the dogs. We laid out the tie-down cable, then unhooked each dog in turn and hooked him or her into the places that Wayne designated. When one eager young male sensed that one of the females was in heat, we learned why there is a certain order and spacing required. Poor boy - he got placed at the far end from his would-be girlfriend, and stood there pouting while the rest of the dogs curled up in the snow to cool down.
After the tent got set up and stove going to prepare the dogs meal, the dogs are eagerly awaiting dinner. The Bad Boy is second from the left, his girlfriend is at the far end
As anyone who has lived on a farm or worked with animals knows, the dogs come first. People get to eat later. As soon as the dogs were staked out, Wayne and I went in search of a place to chop through the ice to get running water. Unfortunately, at -20°F, the stream was pretty solid. So we had to gather snow and melt it. Barb got to run the ancient Coleman backpacking stove (Barb and I have a remedy for Wayne to solve that problem) to melt the water, while Wayne and I set the tent up, then I split wood for the wood stove that goes inside the tent and got the fire going in the wood stove.
Inside the tent - sleeping pads on which our FF -40 bags were placed and the wood-burning stove, with its chimney that goes through the purpose-made hole in the roof, fresh air coming through the vent in the sidewall.
The US-Canadian border was not far from our campsite. It is pretty obvious where the border is, because a couple years ago, US and Canadian authorities cut a swath through the forest to delineate the border.
Standing exactly on the US-Canadian border, left foot in Canada Yukon Territory and right foot in US State of Alaska
It reportedly cost several million dollars on each side. There are no border patrols and no customs stations. If you cross the border on the Yukon River, you have to go some distance before you get to a town (on either the US or Canadian side) where there is a Customs and Immigration office (small in both cases).
Next morning, we got up at dawn, melted more snow and prepared the dogs' meals, then had our own breakfasts. We knocked the ice buildups off the sled runners, packed our gear into the sleds, then put the dogs back into their harnesses and hooked them to the sleds.
Clearing the ice from the sled runners
We had a fun run down Eagle Creek. Although we never saw any moose or lynx, we did see their tracks. It was too early in the season for bears to come out of their wintering dens.
A rest stop on lower Eagle Creek. The dogs would burrow into the snow to cool down
Once we got out onto the Yukon, we enjoyed the fantastic ice sculptures that occur naturally as the water under the ice shifts and temperature changes cause the ice blocks to shift and break, creating these natural works of art.
These natural works of ice art are 3 to 4 feet tall. Others we saw were up to 6 or 7 feet in size.
The play of light and the lensing from the varying thickness of the ice sheets made for interesting patterns
That night, after we got back, I received an urgent message from my son, the atmospheric scientist. One of his research projects involves studying auroral activity from satellites. His message said "URGENT! Major auroral displays tonight!" He wanted pictures from the Earth's surface of the auroral displays. I was happy to oblige, going out in the -35°F weather to shoot a number of images, three of which are below.
Ursa Major, the Big Dipper is in the center
Auriga is at the top, just left of center, Pleiades just below the center, and the bright star next to the tree is the "eye of Taurus", Aldebaran. Orion is lost in the trees to the left.
The Big Dipper is again in the center. This was about 10 minutes later than the top photo, showing how much change there is in a short time.
The next morning, Barb was still tired from the two-day run out to Eagle Creek and back, about 54 miles. So she decided to relax for a couple days, while Wayne and I headed down the Yukon River, past Eagle to the Tatonduk River and to a cabin that we could use.
Putting the harness on Twosome
Wayne decided that I was now "expert" enough (that is, I had graduated from "Raw Beginner" to "Rank Novice Beginner") that he would take me on a more challenging route. We headed downstream (north) for a few miles, then cut across one of the bends in the river, crossing over the bare ice of Ford Lake and over a fairly steep pass.
The angle of the photo, looking down the slope doesn't do justice to the steepness of the slope, but you can get some idea by looking at how hard the dogs are working and noting that I was off the runners, helping push the sled up the slope.
We got across the bend and down a steep embankment onto the frozen river again, then turned east onto the Tatonduk. In one of the narrower sections, we stopped to chop a hole in the ice to fill up with liquid water. It is a lot easier to have liquid water and save fuel and the effort of cutting a tree down and splitting it to melt the ice for water. When we got even with the cabin, Wayne used the hatchet each sled carries to chop some clear ice to melt as well.
A gallon of fresh-frozen water - just thaw and use.
One thing Wayne pointed out to me that I was wondering about was that the smoke over the ridge behind the cabin was coming from a coal seam that had caught fire a couple years earlier. It is continuing to burn, with no apparent way to extinguish the fire. It is unknown what ignited the coal, though there have been a number of lightning-ignited forest fires in the area.
Smoke from a burning coal seam, source of ignition unknown
The next morning was a bit warmer than it had been earlier in the week. So we took more breaks on the return trip to allow the dogs to cool off in the snow. One of the really interesting thing is that the dogs learn how to grab a bite of snow from the side of the track as they trot along. They also learn how to relieve themselves while running at full tilt.
Not long after we turned back upstream onto the Yukon (south), we got to a spot we had worried a bit about the day before. Wayne had spotted a crevasse in the ice along the bank, located where someone not watching could have a dog fall into the crevasse, or a sled runner get caught and break, or even a person fall in and get seriously injured. We there for placed poles to indicate a slight detour that we had made on the way downriver.
Crossing at right angles is safe enough, while getting into the crevasse while running parallel could have serious consequences
When we got back to the homestead, we had a fine dinner, with naturally colored Easter eggs for breakfast the next morning (free range chickens fed natural foods in cold weather naturally produce a variety of egg shell colorations). Following breakfast, it was time to get Barb out on a fun, fast, and exciting ride or about 20 miles.
One of the more open areas of terrain
We went through a variety of winding trails through narrow tracks through thick woods, up steep slopes, and down narrow and steep ravines. I made videos of these, though I haven't yet tried to learn how to upload videos to Trailspace. At one point, Barb decided a tree didn't belong there and threw a shoulder block into the tree (the tree didn't budge, but Barb had a big bruise that took a couple weeks to fade).
A wider part of the trail in the forest. My dogs from front to back are Hy-O, Swanee, Two-some, Lobo, and Lill Miss.
Wayne and I discuss something of deep philosophical, and earth-shaking importance
After we got back to the cabin, Barb and I cleaned up by using the sauna and cold water (as is traditional), then got into clean clothes. A great supper, a good night's sleep, then in the morning, we waited to get news of when (or if) the mail plane was taking off from Fairbanks and when it would take us back to catch our plane back to the Lower 48. It got there eventually. As a formerly licensed pilot (single engine, land, commercial, IFR), I got to sit in the right seat and admire all the wonderful "glass" instruments that weren't available when I was flying actively.
On final for Fairbanks airport.
Thank to the weird schedule that Alaska Airlines has between San Francisco and Fairbanks (both ways), we had to sit around the Fairbanks airport for hours before we could depart at 1:30AM.
Fun trip! Now I am ready to win the Iditarod!