vela huskies

Mush!

I.

There’s a story that circulates in Haines, Alaska, a small town hemmed in by year-round snowcaps and cold, clear, fish-rich waters on the northern edge of the Inside Passage. The story is always told third- or fourth-hand, but if its details have blurred or morphed over time, it still retains a core of truth, a local lesson, at its heart.

It’s about a woman, a visitor to Haines, who emerged one summer morning from a monster RV with Texas plates. She was a big-haired bottle blonde, so the story goes, a caricature of a Southern suburbanite, and she cuddled a tiny, shrill dog as she greeted the Alaskan morning.

Then: a rush of air from powerful wings, an instant of confusion, maybe time for one shriek from the woman, and suddenly her manicured hands were empty, the unlucky dog’s yips fading in the distance as a bald eagle bore it away across the water.

The story’s lesson is clear: This is no country for tiny dogs. This is the land of the husky.

 

II.

Ever since I’d moved cross-country, from Ottawa to Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon, I’d been confronted by the reality of dog mushing in my new home. A young singer-songwriter at a coffeehouse, all soft bohemian fabrics and soothing acoustic guitar, would refer casually to her next song having been inspired by her time running dogs. A friend of a friend would lend us the use of his lakeside cabin for a snowmobile trip – and instruct us to follow his dog team’s trail across the ice to get there. And around town, in the grocery store parking lot or on the steep climb up Two Mile Hill to the Alaska Highway, I would spy renovated pick-ups, dogs peering in groups of six or eight or twelve from behind the barred windows of the bulky homemade kennels built into the truck beds, dog sleds strapped on top.

Before the move, I’d known dog sledding only as a gimmicky set piece for winter tourists, or as a historical remnant – a mode of travel straight out of a Pioneer Days exhibition. It belonged alongside the grizzled fur traders and striped Hudson’s Bay Company blankets and as-yet-unconquered, free-ranging native tribes of my junior high school history textbook. I couldn’t fathom mushing as a modern lifestyle, a hobby no stranger than hot yoga or scrapbooking, but there it was, all around me.

 

III.

I met Jen and Michael Raffaeli outside a National Park Service hangar on the fringes of Fairbanks International Airport, in the false twilight of an Alaskan winter morning. They were looking for the same flight I was, to a historic roadhouse deep in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, and none of us yet knew that our NPS pilot, Brad, had been stranded by bad weather at the roadhouse the night before. So we gathered in the undisturbed snow of the airstrip and waited, exchanging introductions and brief biographies, until another pilot arrived with the word on Brad.

Jen was the kennel manager at Denali National Park, the only park in the U.S. system that keeps its own in-house dog teams; Michael worked as a ranger at the park in summer and a kennel volunteer in winter. Before settling in at Denali, they’d mushed dogs in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, in the Lake Tahoe region of northern California, and in an isolated Alaskan village north of the Arctic Circle. Now, as NPS staffers, they were members of a volunteer crew headed into Yukon-Charley to man a remote dog-drop station on the Yukon Quest trail.

The Quest is one of mushing’s marquee events, a 1000-mile race that runs from Whitehorse to Fairbanks (or from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, in alternate years), following the frozen Yukon River for most of the way.

It’s billed as a purer, less corporate sister to mushing’s most famous race, the Iditarod, a north-south 1000-miler that runs from Anchorage to Nome across the heart of Alaska each year. It’s much smaller – in 2011, just 25 mushers attempted the Quest, while 62 tackled the Iditarod – with fewer checkpoints and longer stretches of remote trail. Its proponents argue that the greater self-sufficiency required for the Quest makes it the toughest sled dog race on earth; most veteran mushers I’ve talked to say, diplomatically and probably realistically, that each race is brutal in its own way.

Thanks to a contact at the Anchorage NPS office, I was joining Jen and Michael and a handful of other full-time parks staff on the Slaven’s Roadhouse crew. First, though, we had to get there.

For two days we lounged in Fairbanks coffee shops and checked in at the airstrip, waiting for the cloud cover to lift. While we waited, I asked Jen about her pre-Denali years of nomadism, working seasonal guiding and mushing gigs in a half-dozen states, and what it was that made her and Michael build their lives around sled dogs.

“It’s interesting,” she said as we sat on the futon in the pilots’ office at the hangar, on the afternoon of our second day in limbo. “I was just thinking about it the other day. Mushers always jump to say it’s the dogs, and it is, hands down, it’s about learning from the dogs. But it’s really not telling the whole story to say, it’s just the dogs, because if somebody told me, you can run dogs for the rest of your life around this little track loop, that wouldn’t be what it is for me.”

“So it’s the dogs, and the wilderness. I love long distance travel, and I always say if I was an animal I’d be a caribou – I love just wandering and going, and I think the beauty of working with sled dogs is, that’s what they love to do, too.”

 

IV.

On our third morning at the hangar, the sky cleared and Fairbanks regained its mountain horizon, and we were on our way. It was a ninety-minute flight north over layer after layer of empty white mountain ridges and frozen river valleys, an enormous sunlit meringue now that the clouds had abandoned the sky.

We landed in a makeshift airstrip on the Yukon River, and were met by a couple of other volunteers on snowmobiles – the advance team had made it in a day before the weather tanked. Up on the bluff above the river, 70-year-old Slaven’s Roadhouse waited for us. The cabin had been built for sternwheeler traffic on the Yukon; decades later, the NPS had renovated it and put it into service as a public use cabin for summer paddlers passing through Yukon-Charley.

Our job for the next several days would be to keep the woodstove going and the large buckets of fresh water – pulled out of a hole drilled in the river ice below the bluff, then divvied into “dog water” and filtered “human water” – fully stocked. A volunteer vet and a race judge were also on hand, tasked with checking the dogs; the rest of us would feed and water the mushers as they came through.

That night, a pack of not-quite-frontrunners came off the river and up the bluff one after another. Lead musher Hugh Neff had checked in at Slaven’s the night before, getting back on the trail just as we were arriving around lunch time, and as the evening deepened his closest competitors arrived in a rush. Hans Gatt, a four-time winner and Yukon Quest legend, came in first, followed only minutes later by 2009 champion Sebastian Schnuelle.

Gatt, an Austrian who now lives in Whitehorse, was lean, clean-shaven, dark-eyed and dark-haired, and soft-spoken. Schnuelle, a German who’d settled in Alaska, had a crazed set of graying curls and a full, ice-coated beard, a wild bush man in stark contrast to Gatt – but both, at the risk of invoking tired Teutonic stereotypes, were overwhelming in their efficiency and intensity.

The two of them strode in and out of the cabin, shedding padded layers onto the hooks above the woodstove and hanging dog booties to dry and scooping up water for the hot, meat-marinated liquid meals that sustain the dogs on the trail, rapidly but without ever seeming to rush. They exuded total competence: There was no hesitation, only smooth and certain familiarity, in the cadence of their routines. I sat in a corner out of the way and gave up any thoughts of attempting an interview; within an hour of their arrival, both had fed and bedded down their dogs, inhaled plates of pancakes and eggs and bacon and cups of Tang, and gone to catch a couple of hours’ sleep in the bunks upstairs.

The rest of the frontrunners came in succession through the night, in varying states of ice-crusted intensity. The temperature was dropping steadily towards -50 Fahrenheit and, so the mushers reported, the wind was blowing the trail to hell out on the river.

 

V.

My move to Whitehorse had brought me face to face with other realities, too. I’d grown up in the lefty-progressive, upper-middle-class, urban heart of a city that was just shy of a million people. I’d been a mostly-faithful vegetarian for my first 27 years, raised meat-free from birth, and I had called myself an environmentalist since childhood. For a couple of years in junior high I’d worn a button on my backpack that read: “Equal Rights for All Species,” a statement that in retrospect seems equal parts naïve and extreme.

Now I lived in a town where hunting was commonplace, where obeying the progressive maxims “eat local” and “go organic” meant coming to terms with wild game. A bumper sticker on a friend’s car read: “Eat Moose – 40,000 Wolves Can’t Be Wrong,” and I did, sampling homemade moose ribs, roast muskox, and caribou burgers in the first months after my arrival. I bought a parka whose hood was rimmed with coyote fur, because everyone knew that the real thing repelled icy wind and blowing snow better than any synthetic. The more I traveled in the north, the more I could feel my attitudes shifting. It had been easier to lay down simple, strict ground rules for human interaction with the natural world when I rarely did any of that interacting myself.

There’s a belligerence that comes with living in an isolated place whose habits and customs are reviled by outsiders. When I lived on the east coast of Canada, I’d seen bumper stickers that read “I Club Baby Seals,” and “Club Seals Not Sandwiches,” no matter that most of the occupants of those cars had never been out on the bloody ice themselves. It was about solidarity, a closing of ranks. There was, sometimes, a similar bird-flipping attitude here, a contempt for the soft southerners who had no notion of life in the north, who criticized or condemned its traditions without attempting to understand them.

Dog sledding, of course, was one of those sometimes-controversial traditions. I’d seen the PETA report condemning long-distance dog racing as cruel and harmful, and I’d sat through a long, pre-emptive Yukon Quest media briefing, before I left for Slaven’s, in which veterinarians and race officials explained all the safeguards in place, all the standards for dog care. When I arrived at Slaven’s, I’d been given the code word to use on the radio if I needed to report an “expired” dog – a dog who’d died on the trail. It happened, every couple of years, from dehydration or exhaustion or a freak accident, a dog tangled and strangling in the lines of the harness, and it happened again on my first night at Slaven’s.

Word came in to the cabin from the newly-arrived team outside, and while our crew chief got on the radio for a terse report, the vet and the race official bundled up and hurried out into the night. A few minutes later, they came back in carrying a small red plastic sled, a child’s toy, between them like a stretcher. A blanket was tossed over the still form on the sled, and as the pair climbed the stairs carefully, another volunteer whispered to me that the sled would be kept under the vet’s bed, to keep the corpse from freezing, until a bush plane could make it in the next day to evacuate it for an autopsy in Fairbanks.

I’d seen a few dead cats before, wreckage on the streets of Thailand, but I was pretty sure I’d never seen a dead dog. I tried to imagine sleeping with one under my bunk. I supposed the vet would be accustomed to dead animals – she’d told me earlier that she got far angrier about the overfed, under-exercised animals she saw dying of diabetes and obesity in the cities than about anything she’d ever seen on the Quest trail. I thought back to that media briefing, in Whitehorse, and the head race official acknowledging that yes, they’d lost a few canine “athletes” over the years. “Sooner or later I believe we’ll see a human athlete die in this race, too,” he’d said. It seemed like a morbid sort of reassurance.

 

VI.

By my third day there, I’d gotten into the rhythm of life at Slaven’s. As the extra volunteer on the crew, I hadn’t been assigned to either day shift or night shift, and I settled for a sort of happy medium between the two, trying to get a sense of the workings of the cabin and pitching in as and when I could. I did dishes, swept up heaps of straw from the snow where since-departed dog teams had slept, and helped fetch water from the frozen river.

That evening, though the skies were clear and the Northern Lights swam above Slaven’s, every radio report from the later checkpoints hinted at nasty weather and disasters further down the trail. Each update was brief and frustratingly cryptic: “Dan Kaduce and his dogs are reported safe.” “Snowmobiles have gone in search of Hugh Neff and his team on Eagle Summit.” “Hans Gatt has gone through the ice into neck-deep overflow on Birch Creek.” (We soon learned that Sebastian Schnuelle, running close behind, was able to pull Gatt and his team out of the water.)

The mushers who’d cowed me with their quiet competence and assurance 48 hours earlier were foundering, and for several agonizing hours, even the survival – let alone the race standing – of Gatt and Neff and their dogs remained uncertain.

At the back of the pack, the litany of bad news was sinking in. When I woke up the next morning, Michael, coming off the night shift, warned me that the final cluster of mushers were a gloomy bunch. Though we’d learned overnight that Neff and Gatt were alive and safe – Neff had lost a dog and had scratched; Gatt, in hospital in Fairbanks with second-degree frostbite, was also out of the race – the trail ahead still loomed ominously for the remaining racers. At the breakfast table someone noted, half-joking, that with so many scratches every musher who managed to finish would be in on the purse. Kyla Durham, a 19 year-old rookie, shook her head. “This isn’t how I wanted to land in the money,” she said.

Hank DeBruin, who’d arrived at Slaven’s in last place, a couple of hours behind Durham, caught my attention. He didn’t have the controlled urgency of Hans Gatt or Sebastian Schnuelle, but he had their same intensity, and – possibly thanks to his relaxed calm – maybe an even greater air of competence. He was bearded, like most of the Quest mushers, and his face was deeply tanned and wind-weathered. His eyes were blue, bright and alert, and he was noticeably cheerier than the other back-of-the-packers. When a volunteer called into the Eagle checkpoint to report his arrival time, confirming that he was indeed the last musher on the trail, he hollered in the general direction of the radio: “I’m going to win the damn thing!”

Everybody laughed. The way frontrunners were falling out of the race, it didn’t seem totally impossible.

“You know, I get accused of sniffing too many roses,” he told me a few minutes later, “but I just don’t see the point of coming all the way out here if you’re not going to stop and look around.”

 

VII.

Back in Whitehorse, a local recreational musher, Bryan Alp, invited me out to his home on the outskirts of town to meet him and his dogs, and to go for a quick ride in the sled.

It was a bright-sun-and-blue-skies winter day in early March – the type where the light crinkles your eyes into a permanent squint without cutting into the sub-zero temperature by a single degree. I drove out north along the Alaska Highway and then took a right on the Klondike Highway, the road to Dawson City and its winter-dormant gold fields.

When I reached Bryan’s bungalow in the Grizzly Valley subdivision, he – and a half-dozen barking, squirming dogs – met me in the driveway.

Bryan was 52, round-faced and balding a little. He didn’t look like the strange, half-wild mushers I’d encountered on the Quest trail, didn’t have their almost-dangerous air of competence and competition. He wasn’t risking his life or living out of a car or remortgaging his home, as one of the Quest mushers I’d met had done more than once – instead, he lived outside city limits (to avoid a three-dog legal maximum in Whitehorse proper) and commuted every day to his job at the local phone company.

His life, in comparison to the other mushers I’d met, seemed domestic, conventional. But at the same time, in its conventionality, it was an oddity – Bryan didn’t fit the picture of mushing that I’d formed so far. I couldn’t fathom Bryan’s quiet, suburban life with 34 – 34! – dogs any more than I could understand the half-frozen madmen on the Quest.

It’s hard to explain the pandemonium of a musher’s dog yard. With the exception of a few troublemakers and fight-pickers, Bryan’s dogs ran free in their large pen, so when we opened the gate and ducked inside the fence I was greeted by a mass of reaching paws and frantic tails and big, gaping, toothy grins, pink tongues hanging loose. As I waded through the crowd, pushing 40- and 50-lb animals off my thighs and chest with each step, one particularly ecstatic dog launched itself high into the air and landed cradled like an infant in Bryan’s arms.

Somehow, the noise increased when we started laying out harnesses and lines. Dogs yipped and squeaked and coughed and howled and fell over each other trying to get to Bryan, who separated them calmly with quiet words. “No, it’s not your turn,” or “How about you, you want to run today?” One of the troublemakers strained at the end of his chain, running back and forth and back and forth past an impressive foot-high stalagmite of frozen urine.

Bryan showed me how to fit the dogs into their harnesses and I helped haul the chosen team into position. Then, when all was set, the gate was opened and I settled into the sled bag under a thick blanket. Bryan climbed onto the runners behind me, pulled up the snow hooks, and we were off, out the gate and across the yard and away from the bungalow into the white-bound wilderness in instants.

The first thing I noticed was the sound. After the chaotic symphony of the yard, the quiet was so abrupt it was almost painful. The dogs had gone silent the moment Bryan released the brakes, and now they strained voicelessly, sprinting ahead eagerly but without any kind of exclamation. There was the dim slithering hiss of the runners sliding over the packed snow of the trail, and the occasional jingle from the harness – and beyond that, nothing.

It was like no other method of wilderness travel I’d ever experienced: More graceful than snowshoeing, faster than cross-country skiing, lacking the stink and aural pollution of the snowmobile. The steady slice of a canoe on a river current might possibly compete, but the harshness of the winter landscape around me, the ease with which we passed through the beautiful but inhospitable snow, made a friendly float trip pale in comparison. I’d gone dog sledding with a local tour operator the year before, but that ride had been punctuated by photo ops and the exhortations of our guide – this silent glide was something else entirely.

The sun hit the grey and white jigsaw of snow and rock on the mountains above me, the team wove smoothly through silent evergreens, and I thought: Ah. This is it. I understand now.

 

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