November 13, 2011
Can you imagine planning for a 300 night (10 month) camping trip in the dead of winter in Alaska?Or, as an alternative, would you rather plan for an overnight backcountry trip for 300 people and at least that many dogs?
These are the calculations the kennels does each summer and fall as we get ready for the upcoming winter season.Before the snow flies, we need to estimate, purchase, and divided up the food for both humans and dogs for the 2011-12 winter patrol season. From late December to early April, we usually have a patrol out in the park, so we plan on 80-100 nights in the backcountry with 3-5 people and 20-30 dogs out at a time.Then we balance that amount with the current budget, do a massive shopping spree in Fairbanks, and divide the bounty up among rodent-proof plastic bins.Now the food is ready to go out to the historic NPS cabins the Kennel's rangers use for patrols.
Photo of action packers
The easiest historic cabins to stock with winter food are along the Park Road, the 92 mile road which winds through the center of the park's wilderness. Visitors access the park along this same route on the bus system in the summer.After the buses stop running in mid September, the kennels staff drive the road, leaving the plastic bins behind inside each cabin.You get to feel like Santa Claus - or at least a helpful elf - so when the winter staff arrives by dog team, there is magically food there to sustain them.However, it is math, not magic, that makes this moment happen.
Harder to reach are the cabins along the Wilderness boundary.These patrol cabins have no roads to them - only trails and unmarked routes that run from "moderately-easy" in the winter to "please-don't-let-me-drown-hard" in the summer.Traditionally, the kennels carries all the food for these trips with the dog team, but this year looked to be different with increased time on the boundaries due to road construction on the first 15 miles of the park road in the fall months.
The kennels staff reached out to other divisions to see if there was another option.The Rangers were already along the boundaries for hunting season, and offered to take in some supplies to north side cabins.
Twice the rangers headed west along the wilderness with loads of dog food and the plastic tubs.For the last trip, in mid October, I went out went them.Driving UTVs down the Stampede Trail out of Healy, we followed a well worn trail over soil, rocks, frozen bog and two major rivers, the Savage and Teklanika.Due to the cold temps, the rivers were a ghost of their summer selves and there was little trouble crossing them.
Beyond the NPS Wilderness boundary, no motorized transport is allowed, so we parked the UTVs and carried the 1000 pounds of gear the last ¼ mile.If we had dogs it could have been done in a few trips - under human power it took longer with many small loads.
When we woke up to leave the cabin - we were treated to a world of white.Everything was covered in a couple inches of wet snow. We took off, sliding around a bit on the trails and trying to avoid the large rocks hiding in the new snowpack.Our machines arrived back at the trailhead covered in slush and mud."Time to put those things away!" remarked someone at the local gas station when they saw the amount of snow on the UTVs and trailers.We couldn't agree more - it's time to put the UTVs to bed -and wake up all the sled dogs.
Photo of UTVs in snow just outside wilderness boundary
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The vast landscapes of interior Alaska are changing. Large glaciers are receding, permafrost is melting and woody plants are spreading. Comparison of "then-and-now" photographs and data from major vegetation monitoring should allow detection, understanding and potential management of these changes.