A mushing life

A mushing life

If all you have ever seen of dog mushing is the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in Anchorage, then you really have not seen mushing.  I can make this bold assertion because that used to be my only exposure to mushing.  After spending a few days in the Arctic backcountry of Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve with a park ranger and his dog team, I now for the first time feel like I have an idea of what mushing is all about.  And I am afraid to say that it is rather addicting.

Most dog teams do not take off from their kennel and go out into the wilderness; they often have to be transported to the debarkation point.  In this case, the nine dogs in National Park Service Ranger Zak Richter’s team had to be loaded into a Cessna 185 for transport from Bettles to the base camp on the North Fork of the Koyukuk River, about three miles downstream of the two mountains, Mount Boreal and Frigid Crags, that form the “Gates of the Arctic.”  It was not as challenging as you would expect.  The dogs were very mellow – several of them had done this before – and did not struggle as they were each individually strapped in to the plane.  Seth McMillan, a law enforcement ranger and pilot, flew Zak and the dogs out to the base camp, leaving me to wait until later in the day when winds calmed down enough again to fly.

When I arrived at camp that evening, I started my education on the world and life of mushing.  Zak has been mushing for 15 years, having worked at a summer glacier dog mushing operation near Juneau and trained with an Iditarod team.  While others may use dog teams to race or to conduct subsistence trapping and hunting, Zak uses his team to access the wilderness for winter backcountry travel, either mushing or skijoring.

Aside from the intenstve time required to develop a relationship with your dogs and dog team, as well as train them, mushing requires a time-intensive daily commitment when out in the field.  When in the wild, you simply cannot let the dogs run loose; they must be contained on a dog run, but clipped in place so that they can have their own space.  To minimize impact on the ground, you also need to rotate that line to different locations and fill back in the snow that the dogs dig up in order to bed down.  Since transporting hay into a wilderness area is problematic on several levels, they need to be dressed in little doggie coats at night to help keep them warm.

Then, there is feeding time.  We fed the dogs in the evening, and it was not quite as easy as reaching into the dog food bag and pulling out a scoop.  Rather, Zak had flown out several large cans of donated meat and fat chunks, mostly fat, as well as a large bag of kibble.  The dogs each got one pound of the meat/fat a day and one pound of kibble.  To prepare the food, we took the frozen meat/fat and put it in a cooler for mixing.  Then, we melted snow to create hot water, using methanol, for mixing with the frozen meat/fat, creating a sort of stew.  Each dog got a large dish of the stew, topped with a large ladle of kibble.  Any leftovers were frozen in the dishes to create meatcicles to give out as treats on the trail the next day.  All in all, it took about a half an hour from start to feed the dogs.

I learned a great deal over a few days of how a musher relies on his team and what are some of the characteristics that make a good lead dog.  It should come as no surprise, although it did to me, that a musher’s attitude toward his team will vary depending on the purpose behind the mushing, as well as the personality of the musher himself.  Zak mentioned that, despite other mushers, he does not train his team by reacting to what they do right, or what they do wrong.  Rather, he builds and trains his team by building a relationship with the dogs, generally fostering a positive and encouraging relationship, relying a great deal on the lead dog’s judgment, and being in tune to and aware of the overall health and state of mind for the team.  Quite often, the team’s performance will depend greatly on what is going on with their health and mental state, more so than the various dogs’ capability.  Zak said that, in creating a dog team, he created a partnership.  In exchange for hauling gear and taking him into the backcountry, he promised to take care of the health of his dogs, ensuring that they are happy and well fed.

Sometimes ensuring their happiness also meant sharing quarters.  While some mushers grant special treatment and privileges to their lead dogs, Zak believes in sharing the wealth among the team.  Each night, we had a couple of dogs sharing our Arctic Oven tent with us.  Mostly it was Chica and Solita, two of the lead dogs, but we did have other dogs in there with us as well, like Comatose, or Coma, Twilight and Mardel.  Unfortunately, one of those nights, Coma was having some bowel troubles.  On this particular night we had a full house: Zak, me, our pilot, Seth, and five dogs, all in an Arktika tent by Alaska Tent & Tarp.  I was up at around 1:30 in the morning, woken by the chill of a dying fire.  I spent a few minutes to add fuel to the fire and get it going again.  As I was drifting off to sleep, I started to smell the rather unpleasant smell of dog poo, followed by the sound of gas and liquid release.  That ended the short slide to sleep rather quickly.  I turned on my headlamp, with which I slept, and trained it toward the door to see poor Coma pacing among the various liquid fecal deposits he had just made in the only open space in the tent, near the door.  “Shit,” I said, and Zak was instantly awake; sort of.  “Whaaat,” he questioned sleepily.  “One of your dogs just shit all over the tent doorway,” I responded.  Amazingly, Seth slept through it all, despite the commotion that followed as Zak used snow and ice as scrubbing agents to clean up after the mess.  Even after we discovered that Seth’s flight suit had not escaped the mess, and Zak went outside to scrub it on the crusty snow, Seth kept sleeping on.  Surely enough, though, he found out about it in the morning.

I cannot say that anything I have ever done could prepare me for the experience of riding in a dog sled behind a nine-dog team into a winter wilderness backcountry.  As is often the case, our primary route was along and on top of a river, the North Fork of the Koyukuk River.  Navigating the river, and the ever-present hazard of overflow ice and related conditions, required the eyes and instinct of both the lead dog, Chica,  and the musher, Zak.  A good lead dog will often be able to read the river correctly, and you can tell they are looking for routes as the lead dog is frequently looking very intently ahead, turning the head occasionally to view routes and check alternatives.  When she is missing the right signals, the musher is there to call “ha” for a left turn or “gee” for a right turn.  Usually, the rest of the team just falls in line and goes along with the lead.  When we stopped to rest the dogs or give them a chance to poo (Zak told me that some mushers will make them work through the poo), it required a little more discipline to keep the team disentangled and looking ahead, down the trail.  Sometimes, I got out to break trail for the dogs.  Not that the snow was deep, but in some of the more complicated areas, it was easier to guide them upriver so long as there was a trail for them to follow.  There were a few disconcerting moments along the way.  One came when we were passing over some ice, and I could hear cracking building beneath us and following us upriver, like one of those movies where the heroes are running just ahead of the collapsing ice behind them.  The other came when we had stopped, and Zak was up ahead, untangling the dogs; then, without warning, he called the team into action and running again, with me sitting in the sled with no driver.  As the sled started to pass Zak, he grabbed the handles and jumped on behind in the driver position again.  A rather skillful maneuver, but disconcerting nonetheless.

Learning about the life of mushing on the fly out in the field can be a little overwhelming.  And there were certainly times when I was a little outside of my comfort zone, both literally as we rode over some rather sharp drops in the ice or snow drifts but figuratively, too, as I headed out into the wilderness without the usual level of control I am accustomed to.  But, as I told Zak, in order to be a better wilderness photographer, I am going to have to increasingly go outside of that comfort zone in order to reach out into the far places in the backcountry I know I want and need to go in order to be a better photographer.  And I certainly could not imagine a better way in the winter than with a dog team under the direction of someone like Zak.

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