Denali NP, 2018
Alaska, my lover, do not leave me. I will return again to your rivers and mountains; be patient with me. But with just a taste of your embrace, envelop me, enrapture me. Alaska, my temptress, I will return soon.
How harsh, stark and beautiful this land is. No description or photograph can do it justice. Alaska, my mistress, may we visit again post haste!
February 22, Fairbanks
It is morning. It is 4am and I am wide awake. It is still dark, and outside it is snowing. At first light I go out, it is time to walk. Finding a coffee shop I ask my phone for directions to buckos, my first time with a parka in the snow. It is almost too warm even though outside it is only 23 degrees. After a mile finally I see the coffee shop, drive through only. I put myself behind a car, waiting in line, as the barista meets me in line asking if I was staying warm. No idea that I was too hot from sweating inside this parka...
Terry meets us eventually and drives us to the dome in Healy. The fog lifts and I see the great pines, birches and aspens. The permafrost stunts then to be trees only a few feet tall but near a hundred years old. Rutting the road so when he speaks his voice waivers. We see a glimpse of the ridges, the frozen rivers, but Denali hides. We are in a bar, the sun breaks through, then the snow states again.
February 23, Denali Dome Home
Up at 5:30, still dark outside. I find a lovely road to go out for a run. The 18 degree cold starts of cold, but soon my glasses are fogging up in the parka from a slow jog and the hood comes off, a knit hat goes on. Down the road my headlamp goes out, battery drained, hand holding a bobbing flashlight as I continue to run. But why are all the cars coming through the snow? Big trucks create wind of their own, blowing fine powder into my face that I can't see through. White outs, finally I can understand. I pass a spinning light, a plane covered in at least a foot of snow, must be a runway. Further down a factory or power plant. The green and white light spinning, I turn around as I need to return soon.
Today is training day. Delayed due to heavy winds the clouds and snow of morning break into sun, as great light on the trees. We go to the yard to meet the dogs and get our equipment reviewed for what we should carry. Extremely warm, but also with lots of new fallen snow. It was a day of new trail breaking, something the guides said very few experience. The dogs yelp and run around while waiting, some not wanting to get until their harnesses. But on the trail they are silent, running forward, happy to run. They are powerful, plowing through inches of deep fresh snow, pulling along the sled as it undulates left and right and left through the drifts and turns, shifting weight back and forth on the runners, the sled does not tip. The clouds break, among the short trees of the permafrost the mountain ridges are visible. The great one still hides but we can see its base. With help, we are driving a dog team for the first time. We stop to talk with the owner, he too is from New Jersey and his family owned the airport near where I went to college. His mother ran the flight school, now handed down but still in the family. Amazing for how large the world is so we find people that share tight bonds to our past.
Back walking through 8 degrees to the one bar open in town, the bartender again from New Jersey. We return to the bed and breakfast to great local caught halibut, so juicy and tasty I eat more than I should. We repack our bags, preparing to be in our own sleds soon in the wilderness. Finally, seeing the snow covered mountains, the diminutive spruces, today I begin to finally again feel alone and awaiting an adventure.
Our first full day on the trail. We wake up to another great breakfast and load up on calories for the day. We get to the lodge and begin sifting through gear to get what we need. We meet our teams and load on up to hit the trail. It was snowing and has created drifts, obscuring all the trails. The snow is a wet snow, you can hear it crunching and sticking to the runners. Great for snowmen, but not for sledding. We go through such beautiful terrain, from forests of spruce vertical, draped in snow, to wetter areas with the birch and aspen, dropping into barren bogs and across frozen rivers, onto the bare tundra with the wind blowing strongly. The artic eats my hat, but it is found by Steve, behind us on his snow machine heading to his cabin. The snow is so deep that when I step into it to try to give the dogs a helpful push sometimes it will sink in past my knee. There are times I have to get out and push with both legs, helping to move the sled up a hill, some hills so steep that two of us had to push. I have the slow team and bring up the rear, but this gives me solitude and time to see the mountain ridges poking up on the horizon through the falling snow, appreciate the stark beauty of the tundra, the only sounds the wind, the snow crunching under the runners or scraping when it's ice, and the panting of dogs dutifully pulling us along. So much pushing today, it is not a team of six, but a team of seven. The trail breaking makes us go so slow, soon it is dark. My glasses fog as the temperature drops, I cannot see anything, I cannot see our guide Brian in front of us or see my friend. I must place my trust in the funds, my lead basil with Gus, brashear who pulls alone, Apollo, kira, others who I still am trying to remember their names to encourage them on as we slog through the snow. Soon it is dark, my headlamp buried in the bottom of the sled, the light I always carry inaccessible, caught somewhere in the oversuit or the long underwear I rarely wear, so along in the dark without seeing the trail. Past an overflow, my sled gets stuck. In the dark I am pushing harder than I have in a long time, but the sled is not moving and no one coming to help. Soon, the dogs pulling, it breaks free. I cannot see a thing, glasses totally fogged, when Brian's headlamp shines around it is a bright light diffusing into a mist. Soon he tells us to stop, but I can't even see where we are. After eight hours and 30 miles, we made it to the cabin. Inside, a bed, a wood stove, a range, propane lights, a sofa, an eating table, comforts of a home greet us. How great to be warm instead of trying to set up tents in the snow. The lead dogs join us inside as Brian cooks us a great dinner; we melt huge pots of river ice for the dogs and for ourselves. A hard day, but still we can all tell each stories of adventures we've had, all having had one of our own. 8 outside, but 80 inside, we are tired and prepare to sleep. Tomorrow, we must see just what surrounds us and where we can make a trail, but tonight we shall sleep well.
Waking up to a cabin with dogs is a fun way to start a morning, a bright eyed friend wanting a little scratch. Outside it is still snowing, 8 degrees with a wind blowing. The dogs have run a long way yesterday, and another team has been waiting out a storm. We go up to the ridge to see if we can help break some trail for them. After climbing a steep hill we put on our snow shoes, exiting the stands of white spruce we are onto the open tundra. The skies have cleared but the winds have picked up. The snow is blowing across the tundra like fine grains of sand, forming wind shaped ripples and dunes, some 40 miles per hour or more. We look behind us; the wind has already erased our snowshoe tracks. Even with empty sleds there is no purpose to touring the dogs to make a trail that would just be erased. So instead we continue to snowshoe around to perhaps break a little trail for Mike and the German, the sun creating shadows in the scalloped snow, a storm present on the horizon. Soon, the clouds break, and we see it. The peak and flank of Denali rising up from the horizon, clouds streaming off of the top. The time spent braving the wind has been worthwhile.
Even on snowshoes I still am slow. It is good, it gives me time to experience a bit of solitude and look around and smile at this gorgeous landscape I've always wanted to see. It gives me time to take some pictures. But at the same time it reminds me of sometimes why I like to be alone; a group pushes you along, making you feel like you need to catch up and don't have time to take that picture you want. The group will wait for you to catch up but then move on instantly; the slow one never gets to rest. The slow one doesn't get to hear the stories of the land from the guide at the front, descriptions of the mountains and passes before us. But the slow one can always find solitude in a group and that solitude renews the spirit in such great land. Maybe it isn't so bad to be slow after all; why would you ever want to rush through beauty instead of savoring every moment?
On our way back we stop off to visit Steve and Heidi whose cabin is next door. Steve, who had rescued my hat from the artic a day before was a treasure trove of stories about the history of the area, Heidi tells tales of fat tire bikes in the snow. They share with us tang bang, hot water mixed with tang and whiskey; cookies and hospitality from folks living for months up here in the north. They show us their new cabin, the mansion, big and successful.
While cooking lunch Mike and the German arrive having made it through despite the wind. Even though there is a language barrier the German clearly seems annoyed. Heidi arrived early for our sunset walk. We help get Mike's team settled, but the German still seems dissatisfied. There is some vigorous debate; the German wants to get out that day, but Steve won't take him out by machine. They think Brian may tow him out on a sled, but we know from the winds that the trail we made yesterday is most likely gone. It is too late to go, but Steve lets them stay in his partially completed mansion. After an hour the excitement ends, problem solved.
Heidi comes on into the cabin early for our planned sunset walk. Alaska time seems the opposite of island time. We go walking down the frozen river, Brian and Steve joining us too. You can hear the ice on the overflow cracking under our boots, sometimes stepping into a little ankle high slush. Halfway through. Steve slips on a little ice. While trying to help. Heidi falls in too, gets water up to her crotch. But she powers on-site rolling in the snow. eventually she shows us all the way to the park boundary, and we turn around and go back, the cuffs of her shirt now frozen solid but she is so happy and glad to be out. The spirit here seems to be happy people that enjoy the beauty of the land, solitude, but also friendly and welcoming and ready to lend a helping hand as everyone has been in a pickle of some type out here.
Brian cooks an amazing chicken stir fry dinner back at the cabin and the conversion starts again, recounting tales of where we've been, backpacking, and topics meandering through hours. He saysto go to district 19 in Denali backpacking in the summer and to look about going around to a rental place that will allow me to drive onthe Dalton highway where you can pull off, park on one of the pipeline pullout areas, hike a few miles, cross a river and then get into Gates of the Arctic. That they plan to perhaps build a road in that vast roadless park, and that I should go for there and ANWR may be the last truly wild places left. After learning what it takes to build a house out here, the complexity of water systems, midnight rolls around. Soon I shall sleep.
The day starts off slowly, Mike and the German do not leave really like they had planned. It is still snowing lightly, but we plan on seeing if we can make it to the toklat. 20 degrees and the snow is very wet. We leave around 11:20 after packing everything up and cleaning up the cabin as the next team may be coming in and proceed with sleds on the same route we snowshoed the day before. Both that trail and the trail Mike and the German had made are long gone, much new wet snow has fallen. The overflow is now wet and Brian's lead dog goes the wrong way down the trail right at the start; he has to wade knee deep in cold water to right the team. It takes all three of us to push the sleds up through the steps, but we make it. The going is slow, creating new trail, pushing a lot of the way. It is obvious we will not make 20 miles; we change to hope for the east fork as a backup. The winds are again blowing strong on the open tundra. I am again in the rear. After Brian and my friend both help to push their sleds up a hill, they leave me to fend for myself. Though lighter, the dogs cannot pull my sled, pushing with one leg does not work. I go to push with two, my legs sink four feet into the drift; without my weight on the runners the sled is light enough for the dogs to pull, so they pull. I am hanging on, dragged behind the sled, no whoah making the dogs stop, each time they slow I am unable to get any leverage to stand back up. No one looks behind to see if I was ok, the wind carries my groans away and the Brian and my fried keep pushing forwards. After a tenth of a mile of being dragged my grip slips, the over mitts come flying off, the dog team runs ahead and I am face down in the snow and wind. Groaning, I get up and start walking as fast as I can along the trail, sinking feet into the snow with each step. After the top of another hill they finally stop and see me walking. The sled is wrapped the wrong way around a tree on the trail. Again I am left to try and push a 150 pound sled, at least, around a tree and out of a drift alone. It is impossible. After five minutes finally someone comes to help, and we can finally plow on, with me out of breath and drained.
We are approaching another ridge, they both are stopped. I cannot hear anything they are saying. The light snow has turned into a blizzard and there is no horizon, just a sheet of featureless white. We need to turn back. In the process of trying to control the team, the anxious dogs lurch forward and in the wet snow the claw anchor does not hold. It catches the sole of my boot and slams me to the ground, my foot under the runner of the sled. Again, no one seems to notice or come to my help. I need to push up the sled and try to free my leg. I do and finally they let me rest and just hold the sled in one position holding the break as the teams are untangled and we 180 back for the cabin.
On the way back the side of the sled hits a tree. It drags the line and tosses the boat anchor off, bringing the team to a screeching halt. The anchor is stuck buried under the runner. Yet again, no one seems to notice and they do not check until they are at least 50 yards further down the trail, not hearing me requests for help over the wind. I cannot pull it out from the line. I take one foot off and do not get leverage, the claw anchor slipping. I let the sled go forward, finally it is unstuck, but I am sinking into the snow yet again. Grabbing the handlebar I slam on the claw brake with my already sore knees to keep from losing the sled again. As I stand up at least finally I see my friend coming to help, but I already am back up on the runners. We eventually get back to the cabin, my friend excited that he felt great on the sled and wanted to keep going on, myself winded, with twisted knees, wondering why he never looked back to check where I was or if I was ok or help when I was down. So telling that even now I need to solve my problems alone and their magnitude is never really shared. But at least I succeed in solving them somehow, and at least I didn't tip the sled so none were directly caused by me.
The weather has definitely not cooperated, but what experience in problem solving on a very difficult day of sledding. Time to hunker down and see what weather tomorrow brings. Steve and Heidi come over, surprised to see us again, running it was the next crew. We share the stories of the attempt and share a little tea while Steve starts a fire, welcome as I an drenched from pushing so hard and the stress. Another team has come on in to stay; jj and another Brian. They too will stay at Steve's mansion. But they stay and we do dinner together. But I do not want to really be social now; I just want to decompress. He keeps attempting to drag me into the conversation, I just want to sit and recover. Brian is a product manager like much friend who loves dogs and has been happy learning the quirks of his team, meeting all the dogs, meeting new dogs. So different the motivations that bring us here. I wonder how all these great and simple mushers can deal with people from such a different world.
Eventually the two teams split up after dinner and the conversation dies down into dishes and a game of scrabble. Tonight I'll get the bed. Basil, the lead dog of my team is on it too and is hogging one whole side, but for all her work it is deserved. Outside it is still windy and snow is falling. We only can wait for tomorrow to see what the weather will bring.
I wake up, and near immediately basil stirs beside me. I give her ears a scratch and she gives me kisses. Now I completely understand why people have dogs.
Brian and jj come over for breakfast in the morning. As they talk of stock options and million dollar salaries and how to maintain long distance relationships, I realize all I want to do is to escape to the mountains and be among nature. A hearty breakfast and soon we were preparing to leave. It was snowing, but ever so lightly, with a very light morning breeze. We got our sleds packed, again trying to get to the toklat or east fork. The lessons from yesterday have taught me something, nothing along the trail seems to phase me today, all of the same areas where there were problems everything seemed easy. Soon, though, we meet up with jj and Brian who were out for a day trip and turned back. We decide to push on following the trail via GPS, they follow along for a bit. Soon the wind picks up, the small flurries creating a white out yet again. Jj and Brian turn back. We keep pushing on but the lead dog does not want to turn left. The dogs keep heading face first into the wind and the snow, becoming slowly more stubborn. We stop, as Brian gives boomer both some discipline and encouragement, but she still will not follow his commands. It seems as if in her heart she believes the trail is opposite of where we know it to be. Though only 7 miles away, soon the head dog team has had enough and their rear dogs no longer will pull into the wind and blowing snow. Like yesterday we must turn back. The toklat will not be ours this year.
We try to turn around. 180s are very difficult for dog sleds. We try to make a big loop, my friend holding his leader and me holding my sled in the back, but soon the head dog and second sled head dog run to each other, their gang lines tangling, dogs intermingling. My friend is now surrounded by his team, holding the gang line from his sled. Thankfully basil is behaving well and it is easy for me to hold them there. After thirty minutes we are turned around, heading back.
On one stretch of the open tundra the wind and the snow finally abate. I look around and am overwhelmed by the beauty. The same scalloped waves on the snow, the mountainside on the horizon, the ridges and stands of trees in the distance. Such a beautiful land. I am grinning and ogling like passenger on a bus; it's now easy to feel what's going on with the sled through listening to what goes on with the runners, the changing retain through your legs, variations in the sled speed. This is truly beautiful, coasting along through the stark wonderful landscape, in solitude.
We decide to set up camp. Winter camping in Alaska definitely requires a different set of gear than in America. First we need to unharness and feed 22 dogs. We are in a sheltered stand of spruce, but are not close to a river so to make the dog food we need to melt snow. Brian has an ingenious alcohol stove made from a pot and a few cake tins as burners with an inside pot we fill with snow. It is amazing how much snow it takes to make water. With the mixed teams I brought the wrong suffering bag; instead of a very warm camping one I brought the other emergency bag. Although the cabin is just over a mile away it is already dark. I'll just use the backup one as there's more than enough other gear to keep me warm... I've never even heard of an over bag before! We feed the dogs and set up the tent. The tent has a small stove on the inside that makes some great heat, but while Brian is working on dinner we do not feed it properly and soon the tent is filled with smoke and again we are in the cold. For hours we are trying to restart it, but it does and soon we have heat for a little while. We eat some jerky and a small amount of chili and then head to bed for it is midnight. Tomorrow we will see what the weather brings and decide what to do.
I wake up and by chance the first thing I see is his face, sleeping next to mine. Nothing like waking up to see basil and her immediate love. Why must people be so complex. Love is not to be found in people for me, it is in the land and in the dogs.
I always wonder why it is that no matter how warm your sleeping bag is that your feet will be cold. I'll need to think about a solution for that. It was cold enough that my glasses are covered in frost. They need to bet on the bag a bit too warm up with me so hopefully soon I can see. Ah, the small things of snow camping I always forget, to keep the glasses in the bag!
It isn't that cold, but it still takes a while for me to roll out of the bag, but my camping mind sets in and I unconsciously start packing. I poke my head outside and it is a beautiful day, cold and clear and sunny. I step outside to walk around to take some pictures... Being so close to the cabin Steve and Heidi walk up to wish is a good morning, and Steve gives me some pointers on the different types of miniature Brian cooks breakfast trees peeking through the top of the snow. Brian cooks breakfast on the top of the tent stove as we pack. My friend is getting sick, so we decide to head on out to the lodge while the weather is good. We load up the sleds and begin to harness the dogs. While I am putting the harness on Naomi, she begins to bark and looks suddenly down the trail.
Jj is waking towards us. He was supposed to leave earlier to take Brian out to the lodge. They had started down the trail on the river but soon got stuck in waist deep overflow. The trail out is impassable. We harness up the sleds for a short 700 yard run to the cabin park the sleds, secure the dogs and then get together and regroup. There is one possibility; a new trail that Brian and jj had been scouting out on a map for a long time and that Steve had started to outline on his snow machine. The "hypotenuse" trail is the only open option. But no dog sled has run it in 10 years. The guides decide we will try it, and we are again overnight in the cabin, all 5 of us stuck.
We go on out walking to see what we are getting ourselves into. Steve goes out tonight on his snow machine to start breaking the trail; with the dropping temperatures we hope the top snow will become more solid, forming a good start for us tomorrow. We start down the same river but soon take a turnoff leading us away in a new direction. The trail opens up onto beautiful open tundra with stands of spruce and glorious mountains surrounding us. Taking pictures I let the others get ahead of me and soon I have what I have wanted the whole trip, to be alone on the tundra. So stark, beautiful, and silent. Who ever would have guessed that alone time would be something needed to be so cherished and would be so rare a gift here in the wilderness.
The temperature is dropping and it is now -13 outside. The snow is hardening and everyone is asleep, preparing for an early start. Sleep comes to me in congress with disappointment and excitement, for tomorrow five dog teams will try to run a trail not run in a decade...
We are up early, it is -25 degrees outside. The fire had died down and the wood floor is cold. Time to stay in the over bag on the sofa for a bit. Soon Brian starts the fire too warm water to feed the dogs; I poke my foot out and it is warm enough to get up. Even though early and cold, Brian walked up the overflow and very quickly from the cabin hit more overflow. The hypotenuse is the only way out.
We eat breakfast and harness the dogs and begin heading out, a long drawn out dance with five teams and nearly two dozen dogs. Little things become so important to not let everyone get so friendly they can convene. The launch goes well. As we thought the lead team didn't want to take the new path, but with a little coaxing we were on our way. This trail weaved its way through some stands of spruce and willow onto the open tundra. Soon we were onto the frozen lakes, upon which riding the undulating drifts making the sound of the ocean under the runners, the slow build and swell. All around are astounding mountain ranges snow capped and high, begging me to visit, no longer hiding behind the clouds and snow they are rugged, strong and bold. Behind us is Denali, her cloud shroud lifted her peaks and flanks naked to the world she looks upon us like a guardian wishing us well on our journeys. We shoot down moose alley, weaving through the trees. We have learned much, the ease with which the hills and turns come is surprisingly natural and it is the first time a group has made it through without a crash. We reach another open plain and rush around; the sun setting behind Denali rendering golden the mountain and the plains in front of an orange sky. No picture can capture this moment, this feeling. This day is glorious, perfect and sublime, cold and cloud free with the mountains strong and the sun bright. Earth I finally see through all your tricky robes, vestments of an obscure right of passage, my lover, my savior, you now stand there naked and cloudless, surrounding us, welcoming us. The Alaska range is in my heart, has permeated my soul. So I must chase it as that is what we are born to do.
We return to the lodge it is time to leave the sled and the trail. We unharness the dogs and give them treats, still amazed that they have carried us all these miles. Goodbye to strong pulling Bashear, shivering Naomi, excitable Kira with the white nose and blue eyes, Gus and Apollo, and to young Basil who led our team through good weather and bad, calm when the others were excited and barking, jumping with happiness waiting anxiously to run. The five mushers share a final drink together and go our separate ways, the perfunctory exchange of contact information that may never be used. Bonds that form on the trail are so strong, helping everyone to pull together and succeed. But even those bonds are temporary in the face of a shifting world.
We go out drinking, Brian coming along. Even without the constriction of the trail I still am dragged out to be social with strangers. Frustrated, I go out for a run to help center myself, to think if my decision is right. In the course of hours no meaningful conversation is exchanged, more of the dance of people occupying time talking about nothing. We drink and kvetch and eventually make our way home.
Alaska, my new long distance lover, I thank you for your embrace. Though I know you will never be lonely, be patient with me; I shall return soon will never forget to call and will always dream...
Picutres were from the a900 system with the 24-70 lens.
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