As the Alaska sky gradually turned indigo in the fading light, the scraping of ice and frantic unheeded commands to my sled dog team broke the stillness. Thundering down the frozen waterway in the sub-zero temperature, I snatched glimpses over my shoulder. Where was Mike, my guide? How far had we come? And was he aware I was now some miles away, with the gap increasing by the minute?
Out exploring in the early evening, an irresistible scent had wafted by my lead dog’s keen nose. Following primal instincts over my instructions, he wheeled around and led the obliging pack in the opposite direction at full speed. Applying all my weight to the hook brake barely scratched the smooth surface of the ice. It saved me from fishtailing wildly from side to side, but did nothing to slow the charge.
The evening chats with Mike over the last few days had provided enough insight to know that if we lost each other entirely, I was in trouble. I had nothing – no extra clothing, no shelter, but more importantly, nothing to start a fire. We had seen wolf tracks regularly, so fire seemed particularly important to me at that moment.
* * * *
It was March, the tail end of the long, cold winter in this region of the Alaskan interior. Roads were closed, rivers were frozen, and the only access was by air. A long journey from Australia by plane, train, and mail plane had landed me in the tiny Yukon community of Eagle, a fascinating, history-packed community of timber dwellings, home to 85 residents.
Still spellbound from gazing at the enormity of the Alaskan wilderness, I had stepped from the small aircraft to be wrapped in a bear hug. Such is the warmth of the people out here. The first order of business – appropriate gear. Donning Arctic-grade overalls, jacket, and boots, my 120lb (55kg) frame morphed into something resembling a Sumo wrestler.
The jumping-off point for my 10-day expedition was my hosts’ log cabin, a jarring 4.5mi (7km) snowmobile trip down the frozen Yukon River. Here, Wayne and Scarlett live sustainably, hunting, fishing, and gathering, consciously leaving a minimal footprint. They’ve enjoyed many years of wilderness expeditions, and now provide opportunities for adventurous souls to experience their lifestyle first-hand.
Once the lead dog passes the last tree on a bend, he will turn. The rest all follow. If you aren’t prepared, T-boning the tree is the inevitable and embarrassing result.
Driving a mushing team well is harder than it looks. I had imagined riding along, feet comfortably planted on the rails, totally relaxed and smiling pleasantly while gazing at the passing landscape. The reality: anticipating your team, the surface ahead, possible camber (tilts in the trail), and corrective maneuvers make it a much more physical endeavor. The “ice highway” can be anything from porcelain smooth to oversized ice cubes. Slam one of those on a sideways slide, and you could be scrambling for your SPOT messaging device.
But winding through the spruce forest on soft, snow-covered lines is a delight. Crossing a small lake's glassy surface, I looked down to see designs befitting the most exquisite crystal ware – bubbles of all shapes and sizes suspended in time, cascading into the dark depths.
It pays to remember that a dog sled doesn't behave like a car. Once the lead dog passes the last tree on a bend, he will turn. The rest all follow. If you aren’t prepared, t-boning the tree is the inevitable and embarrassing result, so you learn early that weight shift is your friend.
Climbing slopes in more mountainous areas, you don't get a free ride. No, you step off and push, all the while providing verbal encouragement to your team. The downhill portion is a mix of sheer exhilaration, terror, and expletives.
Then, there’s overflow ice (liquid water sitting on top of a frozen layer). Think of a slushy minus the coloring. Knee-deep, it’s wet, freezing, exhausting, and fun. “Is there any more around we can do, Mike?” I asked excitedly. He looked at me like I was nuts.
There were, of course, many spills. Towards the end of one adrenaline-charged downhill run, I gracefully landed in a soft pillow of white. Another was much less dignified, as the sled crashed onto its side and my team continued on, with their inept operator horizontal on the ice, attached only by my hands.
Each evening, we settled in at a different location, often a trapper or old miner’s cabin, where our teams were secured and cared for. They are your lifeline and your escape route, so their health and wellbeing are paramount. Only after this did we collect snow or ice for water, and cut firewood. The night skies were nature’s artwork, a ceiling of stars on dark nights, or flooded with rippling, emerald green curtains – the Northern Aurora.
The most memorable night? Using only nature’s materials, we shoveled, hacked, and sawed, creating a lean-to shelter that kept us safe and warm in the 0°F (-18°C) temperature. A reflective wall of logs threw the pit fire’s heat under our makeshift roof as Mike spoke with passion about life out here: the connection with nature, the joy of relative freedom, the changing seasons and associated challenges. As I burrowed down for the night, fire crackling in the stillness, the howling of wolves drifted to us. It was a moment of complete and utter contentment and immense gratitude for this remarkable journey.
Exactly how far I traveled through the twilight with my errant team, I’ll never know. Thankfully, our detour didn't have a dramatic end in the fangs of a wolf pack. Only when fatigued did the team slow and glide to a halt, Mike rounding the bend sometime later on his way to locate me. In their excitement to be reunited, our teams headed straight for each other and entangled themselves, creating rope spaghetti to unravel. There's never a dull moment.
As a way to celebrate my 50th year, I went on the hunt for a genuinely authentic encounter. There could not have been a better match. In a world where it’s increasingly challenging to find off-grid and untainted adventures, this one was a gem.
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