Mushing in Alaska - Roger L Melvill

Sitting across the isle from me in the MacDonnell Douglas MD-80 was a Russian tourist.  I had been amused at the difficulty the air hostess had experienced in trying to understand his broken english.   As we descended towards Anchorage through dense cloud, laden with snow, there was no doubt about understanding his body language.  For a full thirty minutes the Russian sat chewing at his knuckles as the aircraft was buffeted by incredible turbulence in what seemed to be zero visibility.   There was a collective sigh of relief from passengers and cabin crew when the aircraft finally came to rest on the frozen runway.  The remains of an aircraft buried in the snow beside the runway bore testimony to the effects of arctic storms;  we had been lucky.

We had come, in mid-winter to try our hands at dog sledding in the Alaskan bush.  By four in the afternoon the streets of Anchorage were dark and frozen.  Motor vehicles crept slowly over the icy streets with headlights shining.  Pedestrians stepped gingerly along the curbs, avoiding blocks of ice and heaped-up banks of snow.  We were soon drawn to the warmth of the Days-Inn coffee bar where we listened to tales of the far North and knew our adventure had begun.

Our knuckle-bitting Russian and his friends had moved into the hotel room beside us, and were spending the long winter's night celebrating the successful landing.  I don't think they had a moments sleep:  we didn't.  There was no welcoming sunrise to herald the end to our sleepless night, only a dark, cold morning.  We rouse to meet Anita who called promptly at 9h00.  She lead us across the street, rucksacks on our backs, to her waiting car.  She was to deliver us to our host south of the Denali National Park.  It was not until we had been travelling for an hour and a half along the Anchorage-Fairbanks Highway that the gloom gave way to a pale ineffective sun far to the South.  We had become accustomed to the frozen highway but were not prepared for the frozen wonderland we saw.  The leafless birch and cottonwood trees were encrusted white with snow, the dark green spruce bowed by the weight of snow caught in their branches.  The road signs were illegible hidden behind a layer of ice.  To the North, ahead of us, Mount McKinley rose above the arctic forest, her 6160m summit obscured by an enormous lenticular cloud.  This mountain is affectionately known as Denali (The Big One) by the Alaskans and is the centre-piece of the enormous Denali National Park.  We would be making our way into the park, reaching to within 3 miles of the snout of the Ruth Glacier by dog sled.

John Neill, the owner of the Tokosha Mountain Lodge, had cleared the ice off the 131 milepost:  this was the end of the highway for us.  John and his partner, Mark Wildermuth, were waiting for us.  John has lived on the banks of the Tokositna River in the Denali National Park for nearly 30 years, at first as a trapper and now as a host to winter adventurers, mountaineers and fishermen.  Mark is the proud owner of a husky dog team, an expert musher.  During winter the only access to the Tokosha Mountain Lodge is along the 30km frozen trail from the 131 milepost on the Fairbanks Highway.

Our rucksacks were soon loaded onto a small sled behind John's snow mobile and he set off down the trail.  We were to travel to the lodge with Mark and his dogs, twelve beautiful Alaskan Huskies, ranging in colour from pitch black to "white fang" yellow.  We were very soon to know each individual in this excited howling pack.  There were two sleds.  Mark would take the larger sled with Merle as a passenger with 7 dogs on the trace, while I was given the smaller sled with 5 dogs. Mark took great care to be sure that each dog was well secured to the trace, each team with its leader, his favourite dog Breeze would lead the way.  Standing in the snow at the roadhead, my mind was on my freezing toes and hands, and with dogs yelping to go.  I was given a short lesson on mushing by Mark, shouting above the sound of the dogs: "Stand on the runners at the back of the sled".  "Whatever you do, don't ever let go of the sled".  "Don't let the dogs get tangled up". "Don't let the sled run into the hindmost dogs when you go down a hill".  "If the dogs take strain up a hill, help them".  "Don't ever leave the sled without tying it up as the dogs could take off and you might have a very long walk".  The foot break and anchor were demonstrated.  I had not grasped the significance of his instructions but I was soon to have theory put into practice.

I stood on the runners with one foot on the snow break, the dogs were in line and howling to go, I turned to find out how Merle was managing behind me while Mark was making final adjustments to his sled.  My dog team mistook the call to Merle as a call to go.   Without warning the five dogs leapt forward onto the trail as one and the sled lurched from beneath me.  My foot slipped off the break and we were on our way down the trail at a full gallop.  I was dragged through the snow lying fully stretched out behind the sled hanging onto the hand

rail, trying desperately to maintain contact with the sled.  My calls of "whoa, whoa" went unheeded by the dogs who were excited to be on the trail again.  Fortunately Mark saw what had happened and he spurred his team after me, shouting "on by, on by", the instruction to pass another sled.  Once he had passed us he was able to slow my team and I could once more take my rightful place on the sled runners as the musher of my dog team.  We set off down the trail at a happy trot with Mark and his sled leading the way.

The thirty kilometers to the Tokosha Lodge passed through gentle undulating hills, across frozen lakes and over streams and marshes.  The countryside was buried deep in the snow, a picture-book wonderland.  At times Mark would be far ahead out of my sight.  Then I would experience a little of the solitude of that vast and wonderful land - Alaska in the grip of winter.  The rhythmical pant of the dogs, the sighing of the sled as it crossed the hardened snow and the biting cold were magical.  We stopped to rest the dogs from time to time - then one could sense the love the musher has for his dogs.  Mark would go down the line, stopping at each dog, checking their paws, their harnesses, a stroke and a pat here, a word of encouragement there.  In this harsh environment the musher is entirely dependent on the well-being of his dogs and a very special bond develops.

We arrived at the musher’s hut.  The tired dogs were released from their traces and allowed to rest.  This had been their first major outing of the winter and they had done well.  While Mark stayed to feed and care for his dogs Merle and I walked the last kilometer to the lodge in the gathering gloom of mid-afternoon.  We were met at the cabin door by Marissa, John's wife.  There was hot black coffee brewing on the wood burner and we were soon thawing our hands and feet in the warmth of their home.  A home warmed not only by a wood fire but by the hospitality of the family of one of America's last true "homesteaders."  We were to spend the next few evenings listening to the stories of the 20th Century pioneer, of bears in the Denali National Park, and, of course dog mushing.

In the early days of Alaska the dog sled was the main form of transport during the winter months, the dog teams covering extraordinary distances during a day’s march.  The term "mush" is derived from the French "marcher", to march.  Initially the dog sledder would walk ahead of his dog team, leading the way.  For him it was a hard march, not a ride on the runners it is today:   the term has stuck, however.  The musher would be totally at a loss if he were to lose his team of dogs in the Alaskan wilderness.  The dog team, without the musher would not survive.  A very deep bond develops between man and dog under these circumstances.  That long tradition of interdependence between musher and dog has been carried through to this day and is as special an experience to see as the wilderness itself.  As the musher rides the sled behind his dog team he will call out commands:
"Gee" - turn right.
"Ha" - turn left.
"Line out" - stay in line.
"Come around" - turn back.
"Go ahead" - keep on going along the trail.
"On by" - pass another sled or object on the trail.
"Whoa" - stop.  The dogs ignore this command unless they feel the resistance of the snow break biting into the snow.
It is usually the lead dog which knows and understands the commands and literally leads the rest of the team who follow in the traces behind.  Despite these commands and the amazing responsiveness of the dogs they will still do just whatever they wish at times.  If a musher is separated from his sled and dog team there can be disastrous results.  A dog may become entangled in the traces.  If the musher is not able to untangle the dog soon the trace may injure the dog;  it will not understand this and attack a dog beside it.  A fight ensues, other dogs are drawn into the fight and it is possible that a full team of dogs, all of them tied together, could end up fighting each other.  If a musher falls off his sled the dogs will keep going along the trail until either the trail ends or the dogs become entangled.  It is very unlikely that the dogs will respond to the musher’s calls to come back.  On a good trail, dogs will travel at 10 to 15km an hour and it is impossible to catch up with the team.  As I mushed along I had visions of falling off a boat with sails set in a wintry sea.  On one of our mushing trips I did fall off the sled.  I pulled myself out of the soft snow to see the dogs heading off down the trail out of reach.  Fortunately Mark was riding as a passenger in my sled that day and he was able to retrieve the situation.  I stood watching as he carefully climbed out of the sled basket, over the hand rail and onto the narrow skids behind the sled before he could apply the snow breaks and call a halt.  Had he fallen while conducting his "wild west trick", we may have lost the sled and the dogs completely.  I trudged back to the sled feeling rather crestfallen.  That evening Mark told of how he too had fallen from his sled - alone - while sledding along a snowed-in railway track.  He had to run  home to telephone a friend who owned a snow mobile in the next town, and then drove miles to meet him.  They were then able to use the snow mobile to intercept the dogs.
They drove the snow mobile up onto the railway tracks and were just in time to meet the dogs trotting happily along the line.  Mark caught the lead dog, "whoa" he shouted, whereupon all the dogs looked back at the sled as if to say, "Hey, you should be back there!"  Typically, the dogs had gone for miles without stopping.

During our stay at the lodge most of the United States was in the grip of a cold spell, except Alaska!  Our daily temperature varied from -10 to -50C.  We needed a really cold spell to freeze the Tokositna river completely and thus make it safe to cross towards the lower slopes of Mount McKinley and the Ruth Glacier, a tantalising 3 miles away.  We never did cross the river.  Despite this, we came away filled with the wonder of Alaska, her winter, her people and her dogs.