Ever since arriving in Alaska, I’ve dreamed of exploring the Brooks Range by dog team. After living in Alaska almost nine years, we finally made it a reality! Mushing with a dog team into the heart of the Brooks Range is a bucket list item for many Alaskan mushers, so when we had some free time after the end of our expeditions with Last Frontier Mushing Co-op, we jumped at the opportunity to head north.
Saeward (Ryno crew), May (guide on our Wild Women Retreats and yoga instructor), 21 canine athletes (K. Louie, Badger, Cooke, Nile, Vanessa, Loretta, Smoky, Otis, Yuker, Elmer, Uno, Amelia, Rucu, Supai, Lefty, Goblin, Bull, Thresher, Mario, Bowser, and Yoshi), and I loaded up in the F250 dog truck and settled in for the 10-hour drive. However, I should note one minor detail. “Loading up” isn’t our normal “load up” of pulling the truck next to the dog yard, storing the gear in the back and letting dogs loose to easily call them to their individual boxes in the dog truck. Nah, that’s just too easy! Every spring for about 1-2 months, the driveway into our little slice of paradise turns into a wicked mud pit, forcing us to park about a mile away on a gravel road and shuttle everything (gear, sleds, dog food, tents, dogs, humans) from the kennel to the truck. So the day before our departure, we loaded all the gear, and then the next morning, we ran two teams by ATV to the dog truck, at which we loaded up our expedition party and off we went! NORTH!
While some might consider driving with dogs to be a hassle, I find traveling with the whole pack to be a fun, thrilling experience. It forces you to stop more often for pee breaks, drive a little slower, and oftentimes, a canine companion (or several ) snuggle into the cab. Plus, whenever you do stop, it’s like having a rowdy sports team, jostling with each other, bantering, and trembling with excitement for the adventure to come. It’s hard not to get caught up in all the enthusiasm.
So after about 10 hours of driving north, passing through Coldfoot, Wiseman, and Atigun Pass, paralleling the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and sharing the road with dozens of truckers, we arrived at the mouth of the Atigun Gorge. Prior to leaving, we’d talked with several other mushers who had already traveled north and determined that Atigun Gorge was a must-see, assuming the overflow and glare ice wasn’t too bad. As we pulled into the parking lot, we were surprised that no other dog trucks were staged in the parking area. The Gorge is a popular place for mushers to access the Brooks Range. Glancing across the valley to Galbraith Lake, another staging area, we could see several vehicles, indicating that most mushers had chosen to mush to Brent Sass’s camp on the other side of the road. Instead of using this as an indicator of trail conditions up the Gorge, we thought, how fortuitous, we get this magnificent country to ourselves! Later, we learned why most folks had chosen the other side of the Dalton Highway.
Since we pulled into the parking lot late in the afternoon, we thought it’d be a stretch to load the sleds and mush to our planned camp that evening, so instead we went for a fun run. We each took 4-dog teams and scouted a few miles into the Gorge. We found glare ice, a few areas with deep overflow, but otherwise, we concluded it was certainly do-able and we’d embark the following morning. The trouble with traveling up the Gorge is that as temperatures rise in the spring, the runoff trickles down from the surrounding peaks and settles as a layer of water over the ice of the river (hence overflow). At sections where the walls of the Gorge are tight, there can be no escape for a dog team to get around deep overflow, so you have to be prepared to mush right through it.
The next morning, we loaded up our three sleds with hundreds of pounds of gear, hooked up seven canine athletes to each sled, and loudly clattered our way down the Gorge, scraping our claw brakes on the glare ice, pinballing our sleds off boulders, and giggling and laughing the entire way. Now THIS is an adventure. The dogs thrived. I felt like Lefty (who was leading for my team) and I were of one mind. The directional commands in mushing (Gee for right and Haw for left) don’t really articulate how far gee you’re asking your team to travel- 90 degrees? A gentle gee followed by a swooping haw to skirt rockfall? And there’s nothing more annoying than a micro-manager, so incessantly shouting commands isn’t great communication either. But miraculously, it didn’t require much. A gentle direction here or there, and Lefty was on it. Edge around that deep pool of overflow. Trace the high ridgeline of ice directly across the river to then work our way along the far bank. Lefty just knew the plan. And he was a great role model for all the yearlings in the team. For example, the correct path wasn’t always the easiest. We might have to dash through overflow to avoid being trapped in deeper overflow later on, and rather than balk, Lefty would plow ahead and the youngsters would throw themselves into their harnesses and eagerly follow, picking up on his excitement.
May, Saeward, and their teams were amped by the terrain as well. Goblin single-led for Saeward. Although driven, he’s a stubborn one, so it took the whole trip before he’d listen to Saeward’s commands. Instead of listening to Saeward’s drier path, he’d put his head down, ignore her command, and blaze through the deepest water as if to say- this is the shortest way to reach the team in front and WIN! May’s team, on the other hand, was captained by Cooke. Like Goblin, he was unfazed by the deep water, but he was at least willing to listen to May’s suggestions. Well, most of the time. May’s team was so fired up, that she had to let two dogs run loose and only have five hooked to the sled, otherwise she’d surely spend the whole time being drug down the ice on her side.
(Side note- one of the funniest sights of the trip- my team was calmly standing on the ice of the river. I look back to see May and team come launching off the bank, hockey-sliding across the ice, promptly falling onto her side, and then ever so slowly being drug past Saeward and her team. The dogs, with determined faces and haunches low, were grinding against the friction of May being drug face-first down the river and ignoring her calm requests of woooooah, woooah. Those little turds didn’t let up until they were parallel with my team, and I could reach over and grab the gangline! Haha! I can’t imagine the whole incident from Saeward’s perspective! Saeward standing on her sled, watching May get drug on her side at about 3 miles per hour, up and then around Saeward’s sled and continuing on down the river at a snail’s pace. Haha! May is such a good sport).
Anyways, long story short, the mush in was an adventure. The final couple miles before we reached the Sag Valley, the water had frozen up and the conditions were excellent. So we set up camp and then began the hunt.
I debated about whether or not to share about our hunt. Hunting can be a polarizing topic, and even beyond that, it is often a private experience. But I’ve decided to share our experience more as a story of empowerment, because that’s exactly what it was. All three of us gals had played a support role in many hunts. May had grown up in Wyoming and helped her family harvest elk to fill the freezer. Saeward grew up bird hunting and had helped with deer hunts. I’ve tromped through the mountains with Derek on his hunting pursuits. But never before have any of us had to make all the calls, and it’s not really the norm for women to do so. Upon moving to Alaska, I’ve met many amazing women who do go out and harvest their own meat to fill their family freezer, but it’s certainly not the norm. So our hunt was a test for ourselves. From the scouting to the glassing to the harvest to the meat storage, we had to make all the calls. And on the second day when we successfully mushed back to camp with a caribou stowed away in the sled bag, we were elated. It was a group effort, and we’d all challenged ourselves and pushed ourselves out of our comfort zone. I feel fortunate to live in such an incredible place with so many natural resources and thriving wildlife, to be surrounded by fearless, driven people and courageous, incredible dogs. Alaska is a land like no other, and just when you feel like the harshness of the place has worn you down, you accomplish something that fills you with love for Arctic and sense of self-reliance. So at the risk of coming off as sappy and dramatic, I decided to write about our hunt and include it in this blog. Outwardly, I’ve tried to play it cool as if I’ve been on loads of hunts and it was no big deal, but inwardly, I’m cheering- holy smokes, we did it ladies!
Ok, moving on. After our hunt, we knew we had to get out of the Gorge soon, because every day we spent in the Valley was another day for warm air to melt the snow on the hillsides and fill the Gorge with overflow. The next morning, we loaded up camp and started the trek back to the truck. Immediately, we were swimming. And this was on the section that had been good on the way out! Lefty still launched into the deep overflow and deliberately criss-crossed our way up the Gorge, but it wasn’t uncommon for the sled to get bogged down and stuck. I’d have to run to the front and heave at the brushbrow to unstick the nose of the sled from the overflow, calling up the dogs. At the next gravel bar, I stopped to wait for Saeward and May and suggested that we travel closer together in case we have to help each other’s sleds across. Putting a big smile on my face, I said, “we’ll just see how far we get, and if we don’t make it out to the truck today and have to climb to higher ground to camp, that’s no big deal, we’ll just do that.” May and Saeward, smiling wide, always optimistic, were fantastic travel companions. “Sure thing!” they said. Apparently I was the only one concerned. Fortunately, my concerns were unwarranted. As we continued up the Gorge, the spots that had been bad a few days prior were frozen, so with the exception of the first few miles, the mush out was glorious! Once we returned to the truck, we loaded up all our gear and the dogs and drove around to Galbraith Lake to start part two of our trip.
The west side of the Dalton Highway somehow had a monopoly on the snow, and wow- was it a musher’s paradise! Brent Sass operates expeditions out of a large, multi-tent base camp. He acquired a much-coveted permit that allowed him to take a snowmachine in from the Dalton Highway. In this particular area, the first five miles on either side of the Dalton Highway are closed to motorized vehicles, but by Brent having the permit, he was able to bring a snowmachine in and create trails galore! The trails ventured high into mountain passes and up expansive valleys. He was very welcoming to other mushers, so when we arrived, he gave us a general overview of the trail system and said- have fun! We set up our camp on the other side of the pond and enjoyed the premier trail access.
When it was finally time to pack up and make the long drive home, it was hard to say good bye to the North Slope. Looking over the map, we scouted out new valleys and drainages that we’d like to explore and promised ourselves that we’d be back next Spring. Until next time Brooks Range.