When I first told my friends I wanted to go mushing across the Alaskan tundra, most thought I had utterly and completely lost my mind. But to me, mushing across the tundra and experiencing the vast, untouched beauty of this unique wilderness…witnessing natural phenomena, such as cryospheres, sun dogs, and sastrugi…was, well…captivating, mysterious, intriguing. And my response was, “Why not?”
Austin’s Alaskan Adventures: Dogsledding from St. Michael to Golsovia River and back
Day 1: Preparing in St. Michael.
After flying to Anchorage, and then to Nome the night before, I was ready for the adventure to begin. From Nome, we flew to St. Michael on a tiny six-seater community postal ‘bush plane’ over the Bering Sea.
We arrived in St. Michael, a small village with less than four hundred people, at the five thousand-foot airstrip two hours afer leaving Nome. I spent the first night in the tiny village home of my hosts, and my sleeping quarters were the closet-size bedroom of their eight year-old daughter. This little girl’s gesture of sweet hospitality—giving up her room to a total stranger—really struck me.
We met our dogs, and then took a drive through the village…in the blink of an eye. Reindeer skins hang from everyone’s front porches—antlers, hoofs and all. It is the way of life there; Alaskans living in remote areas such as St. Michael must hunt for their entire protein supply, which includes reindeer, moose, salmon, and even an occasional whale (which, they tell me, gives the dogs energy). Their way of life, and survival, is reliant on hunting, mostly because foodstuffs here are exorbitantly expensive and hard to come by. At the one and only grocery store, a half-gallon of milk is $13.50, for example. Just as it was becoming hard to believe that this is still the United States, I ran into a man who worked for Winn-Dixie three years ago while living in Mandarin.
The first day was about getting familiar with our environment, and readying ourselves for mushing. I enjoyed a crash course in the food and the mushing traditions of the Iditarod.
As for the food…during the first twenty-four hours we had Moose tacos for lunch; moose noodle soup for dinner; reindeer sausage for breakfast; and finally, wild king salmon chowder—yummy! The moose…not so much to my taste.
As for the Iditarod, the word itself is derived from the Indian word Haiditarod, meaning a far distance, and it is actually a network of trails. Here, it is known as “the last great race,” as much a lifestyle as it is a sport, and it is symbolic of the Alaskan mystique.
No one knows exactly when people first used dogs to pull sleds, now known as mushing, but they say the practice began among the indigenous peoples of Northern Eurasia. Some of those earliest dog drivers eventually crossed the Bering land bridge into Alaska within the Northwestern region.
Alaskan native dogs are large powerful animals. The word “mush” comes from the French command “march,” but interestingly, the word is never used while mushing. Some people think the word mush means go, but not so. Hike means go. (See the entire list of commands on my tag, pictured, that hung around my neck the entire trip).
Day 2: Waiting out the weather.
The wind had whipped up to a freezing thirty-five below zero and visibility was barely two feet. So we decided to hunker down and stay put.
Day 3: Setting out for Klikitarik.
We woke to beautiful weather, and although cold, it really felt quite comfortable. Around 10:30 a.m., we packed our sleds and met up with our dogs, who were visibly excited… jumping and barking wildly.
Each musher got six huskies and we helped harness and hook them up in an attempt to “get right in there” from the start and participate in all aspects of mushing. This was not a toboggan, and there would be no mistaking this adventure for a sleigh ride. Nope, this was full-fledged Alaskan tundra dog sledding. No Dancer, Prancer or Donner… more like Moose, Blue and Storm, three of my six dogs.
The trip began at the coastal edge of the Bering Sea Northern Sound, which was frozen solid! No one mentioned that when the dogs first get started they are so anxious that they tear across the starting line. I got on that sled and the sled took off without me—landing me on the frozen ground, which is not very forgiving. Ouch!
Once firmly on, it was smooth riding, as we traveled on Bering Sea ice, three to five feet thick, for almost four miles. Leaving the frozen ocean, we traveled about twenty more miles over low rolling hills with sparse willow and alders, over an ancient Yupik trading trail. Part of this trail was also incorporated into the telegraph line that connected Nome to the lower forty-eight states during the gold rush, and the steel poles are still visible in places.
We arrived at the Klikitarik camp about four hours after departing St. Michael. This is the site of an ancient Yupik village, and more recently a reindeer corral (turn-of-the-century). We unharnessed the dogs and placed them on the stakeout line, a chain where they spend the night together, before giving them a quick snack of frozen meat or fish. The dogs always come first, a principle learned from native Americans and practiced on all long distance races such as the Iditarod.
We brought our gear into our heated twelve by fifteen-foot structures: two sleeping yurts and a small pinewood log cabin with a tiny stove.
Immediately following our dinner, we fed our dogs, having learned that the sooner the musher is seen by the dogs as in charge, the sooner the relationship emerges. About a half-hour after a feeding, the team reverts to the “wolf-syndrome”—a majestic howl that lasts for several minutes and can be spine-chilling if you don’t realize that in actuality they are saying “thanks for the meal.”
By the time we went to sleep, it was -37°, with a -45° wind chill… brrrr.
Day 4: Mushing north to Golsovia River Lodge.
At 7 a.m. we awoke to another clear, sunny, and very chilly day, with temperatures at -20°, wind chill -32°. By the time the dogs were harnessed up, it had reached 0°, and we headed out before noon. The rolling hills had given way to Klikitarik Mountain and Ditch Creek and thus we set off with almost six miles of uphill sledding.
We came to Wagon Box Creek, cut across it in a portage route through the trees, negotiated Tripod Crossing in a wind-blown area, passed Tip Creek, and then followed the old telegraph line/Yupik trail to Pilgrim Creek, a rocky and tough portage that resulted in quite a few tumbles.
One thing they tell you over and over again is to “Never let go of your sled.” Well, when we went into a very deep portage we all fell off our sleds. As I tried to crawl back onto mine, while on a near ninety degree angle, five feet up, my dogs took off running… and I held on for dear life! I had a fun belly flop snow ride as I got dragged behind my sled for about one hundred yards. Although it sounds disastrous, I’ve never laughed so hard in my life: it was like something out of a Laurel and Hardy movie.
The rest of the ride was illustrated by the beautiful, vast white wilderness, ethereal and peaceful. The last hour of our trip, a most unusual ring appeared around the sun, unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It looked as though the sun had a big rainbow wrapped around it with two prisms at points east and west.
As we rode into the sunset it was as if we were riding into this huge rainbow. This phenomenon is referred to as sun dogs, or ice halos, which are rings and arcs of light that appear in the sky when sunlight shines through ice crystals in the air.
Golsovia River Lodge popped up out of nowhere as we came over a hill. When we got to the cabin chaos broke out. The dogs got excited and hard to control, and Jerrine and her husband, Louie, (our guides) rushed to get the lodge ready and warm. There were snow piles in just about every room. One room had snow on the steps of the bunk bed ladder, and a very stuffed warthog head hanging in the main room had snow piled on the tip of its nose. The lodge is used mostly for hunting and fishing, so there were lots of rifles and fishing rods everywhere. No cots and heated tents that night; we slept in the dormitory-style bedroom on real mattresses listening to our favorite tunes.
Day 5: Exploring and bonding.
A fabulous sunrise coming over the frozen tundra of the Golsovia River greeted us: there are no words to accurately describe my awe.
I spent the morning with my sled dogs—Blue, Moose, Swayze, Apollo, Roy and Storm—and took portraits of them. I had become particularly attached to Swayze and Moose, whose personalities really blossomed as we hung out.
We explored parts of the frozen Northern Sound on foot, checking out the sculpted snow drifts called sastrugi, or wind sculpted snow. Sastrugi are formed when the wind erodes and drifts the snow, whipping it into peaks that cover the surface of the tundra…reminiscent of the topping of a lemon meringue pie, or whipped cream; so soft yet so formidable.
Day 6: Returning to St. Michael in the rain.
This last day of mushing was extremely challenging and a very long—nearly fifty-mile— trip back. There was concern that the weather was turning and we needed to get back fast. It turned out that some of the equipment at the lodge had frozen to a point where fuel tanks burst and we were running out of fuel. The ride back was very long through what became a very cruel environment. One bright spot was my team of dogs. We returned after sunset, at -35°, windchill -40°, and it was raining. It’s the rain that makes the cold intensely painful. By the time we reached the house back in Nome I could barely move.
Anchorage and the Alaska Zoo
Day 7: Watching the Reindeer Run and other Exotic Animals
Heading back to Anchorage, to the Captain Cook Hotel, I arrived on the day of the Reindeer Run and the start of the Iditarod.
In spite of aching muscles, I was not about to miss the action. What is the Reindeer Run? Crazy people, dressed in crazy outfits, or barely anything at all, try to outrun reindeer. Well, after watching the reindeer decisively outrun the people, it was time to rest. Movement still wasn’t easy the following day, but I had a mission: to go visit the Alaska Zoo.
I rented a car (a two-day rental was only $83, with airport drop that saves on the $20 taxi fare), and it was an easy fifteen-minute drive to the zoo.
It’s a very small zoo that felt and looked like being in an igloo; snow was piled over five-feet high, with a narrow walking path through the park. First up, and showing off, were the otters and seals. Then first out, the lynx. Yes, the lynx escaped as it was being fed! I noticed that two foxes seemed very anxious, but did not realize I had walked right by the lynx and did not even see it until several nervous zoo keepers tried to push me away. I was probably twelve feet from the lynx. What a rush of excitement! Such mystical creatures. As is the breathtaking snow leopard, and this particular one at the zoo had me captivated by his antics for a full hour. He paraded around… playing with his enormous fluffy tail, running up the rocks, flipping himself down the hill and into the glass wall, endearingly rolling around and purring. What a show off!
At the zoo, I saw three of my favorite animals—the snow leopard, snowy owl and the lynx. But how ironic that I had to go to a man-made zoo to see these creatures, after spending days in the absolute barrenness of their natural habitat.
What an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime adventure this was. The aching muscles were quickly forgotten, but the friendly, hospitable people, the mushing experience, the incredible vistas, “my” dogs, even that show-off snow leopard, are indelible memories from an awesome experience.
This adventure is:
Austin’s Alaska Adventures, St. Michael, Alaska, 877-923-2419
There’s an app for that! www.TheAlaskaApp.com
Consistantly rated as the preferred Hotel in Achorage:
The Captain Cook, captaincook.com, 800-843-1950
Ginger, excellent Pacific Rim cuisine. 907-929-3680, gingeralaska.com
Sack Cafe & Restaurant, 907-276-3546, sackscafe.com.
Article written by Cinda Sherman