Monday, 23 January 2023, Healy AK
"We bring our own worlds to bear in foreign landscapes in order to clarify them for ourselves." - from Arctic Dreams, by Barry Lopez
Let's start with the last installment of the interview: on the dogs...
How many dogs do you have? For the last three years, I've had 23 dogs. Are they all Alaskan Huskies? Actually, 'Alaskan Husky' is not a recognized purebred species. The have varied genetics - some Siberian Huskies and other breeds mixed in. Which is a good thing - that helps avoid diseases like hip dysplasia.
Where do you get your dogs from? Most of my dogs, people gave to me, and I still have them. Maybe they had a good sled dog, but it couldn't do hundred-mile days [like in the Iditarod]. Since I don't do those extremes, they fit well into my teams.
You mentioned about the dogs sounding the alarm when the moose came around. Is that a different bark than at other times? One is the alarm, when someone or something they don't know is around the yard. They have another song for when they know food is coming. [I'll call that 'Meat Me In St. Louis'.] Of course, you have the 'Pick me! Pick me!' tune when you get the harnesses ready. And if you start walking away, they'll sing, 'So Long, Farewell'.
How young do you start the dogs pulling? At around six months, they're too young to pull, but I'll let them run loose with a team I'm driving. That way they can see what it's all about, how a team actually works.
How old are your dogs? My oldest are 12 and 13 years old, but they're both retired now. That's hard on them. They love the work, but they can no longer keep up. Sometimes I'll just hook up a few of the oldest dogs and take them out on a short ride, let them feel the thrill again.
A warm front must have come in overnight; a glance at the thermometer indicated a balmy -20°. (That's probably only a two-dog night.) I noticed the sign posted just above the door into the cabin - looks like a slight leak lets moisture-laden air out of the cabin, which quickly precipitates
when it hits the cold, outside air.
Before hooking up the dogs, JJ walked me a few yards down the trail, showing me the tricky spots at the start.
As we walked down the trail, the dogs harmonized on their 'So Long, Farewell' song.
"I'll start you out with four dogs to get past this opening stretch," JJ said. That did the trick, as I navigated the traps (at a slower speed) with no setbacks. The crisp snow included a new dusting from overnight, so the dogs still had their work cut out for them. The challenging snow did lead to a couple of tumbles once we got truly underway with my full eight-dog team, but I quickly adjusted to it.
My skill set improved. At one point, I found my sled heading directly for an altercation with a tree, with JJ out of sight around a corner and downhill. I stopped the sled, dropped the anchor, stepped forward to yank the nose of the sled back onto the main track, hopped back on the runners, did the graceful grab of the anchor, and headed down the trail... almost running into JJ, who'd begun walking back to check on me.
The time had come to warn my guide. "Now don't get too worried, JJ, but I've been paying attention to my body signals, and I'd say there's a 25-30% chance that I may have a bout of, err, intestinal distress. No guarantees, but I may have to call an emergency stop."
"Well, if you need to, you can just evacuate anywhere. No one will see you but the dogs." Yeah, unbundling from my snowsuit at -18° would certainly be a high point of the adventure, I'm sure.
We soon faced the intimidating descent to the Savage River. Remembering the ice that bedeviled us when climbing out of the valley two days earlier, JJ chose an alternate route. Different, sure, but that doesn't always translate to 'better'. Remember yesterday's Tree Tunnel? Call this descent the Tree Car Wash - a couple of minutes down a corridor with branches and twigs extending onto the trail from both sides. We moved through it (our average sled speed for the whole adventure was 6-7 mph), branches snapping against our snow suits. At one point JJ had to stop and chop off a large branch that proved a barrier.
I made it through the arbor gauntlet with little trouble. Finally the trail widened again - and at the last second, my shoulder got clipped by a protruding limb, knocking me on my keister. BUT... my right foot still perched on the runner, my right hand still clung desperately to the driver's bar, and I was pulled down trail.
A single thought flashed through my brain: I'M. NOT. FALLING. HERE! Calling on strength I didn't know I possessed, I hauled myself upright, planted my left foot on the other runner, grabbed the driver's bar firmly, and brought the careening sled under control. What a rush!
We still had a bit before the river. On an otherwise uneventful stretch, the sled hit a banked side and dumped me. (Welcome to my final fall of the adventure.) I landed on my hip on a trail that was somewhat packed. When I stood up to get back to the sled, a spasm of pain shot through my lower back. Oh boy, I'm going to feel that tonight, guaranteed. Even this, though, had a silver lining: It must have scared the shit (or diarrhea) out of me, and I didn't hear another peep from my bowels for the rest of the ride back.
As before, having to cut through new snow kept slowing JJ's team. It felt like I drove a shiny white Corvette, ready to open it up, but I was stuck in a lane behind a Zamboni. At least the beauty of the surroundings gave me something to focus on. JJ pointed out caribou tracks as we passed them, a reminder of the wildlife that lurked nearby.
As we passed through a flat area, down a wide corridor lined with pine trees, I called for a stop to start my GoPro one more time. Good timing!
After a couple of minutes, the trail turned left, dropped slightly, then angled to follow the river. Holes in the snow and ice showed the river, flowing on it's chilly way downstream. I tensed up as the trail crossed over the river, only feet from one of those holes. That ice bridge better hold!
After a short break with hot tea and frozen Kind bars, we faced a long, easy path back to 'civilization'. After what we'd been through, you could almost call it boring. For the first time during this trip, JJ's team outstripped mine. Suddenly JJ had the white Corvette, with me in a rusty old Yugo putt-putting behind. The dogs kept looking back at me, seeming to say, "We're tired of haulin' your fat ass. Why don't you get off and walk awhile, you malingerer!" JJ had to keep stopping and waiting for me to catch up.
The biggest excitement for the afternoon came when we passed the two sleds, complete with passengers, heading out on their adventure. The dog teams - ours and theirs - didn't stop, but they each yipped their greetings to each other as they passed, a canine chorus, a sub-zero symphony.
When we finally reached the end, we had logged another 4:50 - nearly five hours! -on the trail. Once my legs got used to not standing on the constantly shifting runners, they notified the rest of my body that we had finished. Without the sledding to focus on, my bowels now demanded their tribute. I barely had time to strip off the cumbersome snow suit, get the boots back on, and high-tail it to the outhouse before they let loose. Oh, blessed relief.
As I drove back to Dome Home, a peace settled in, savoring a challenge met. Another Eskimo word from Arctic Dreams rang true: quviannikumut, 'to feel deeply happy'.
Now for an evening relaxing at Dome Home Denali, where I could finally rest my sore back. After another wonderful dinner of halibut, I chatted with Ann and Terry (the owners). When they heard about my painful spill, they jumped into action. "Would you like some pain-relief gel? Do you need a heating pad to sleep on tonight?" I accepted both offers.
they brought the gel, I did a double-take when reading the label: 'Veterinary Liniment Gel', designed for horses with stiff joints and bones. "I used to run horses," Terry explained. "Soon enough, I found out it worked well on humans, too." After rubbing it on, I couldn't argue the point - it replaced the pain with simple soreness.
Later on, they asked me about my Litterwalk book. "How did you ever decide to walk across the U.S., picking up litter?"
I told them the story, how Sue and I had read many books of people who took long walks, trips, or bike rides (A Walk Across America. Worldwalk. Blue Highways. Others too numerous to mention). One day we went to hear Dave Kuntz (the first man documented to have walked around the world) speak at the local library. Three days later, as we sat in a traffic jam on I-405, I saw where someone had thrown whole bags of kitchen trash onto the shoulder. Without a filter, I told Sue, "If we ever walk across the country, we should pick up trash while we're out there, so we'll accomplish something." Once the words were spoken...
Ann nodded sagely. "I've always said, if you have a question about what you should do, just ask the Universe. It will tell you."
Ann and Terry, your autographed copy of 'Underwear by the Roadside' will be in the mail to you the day I get home!