Days on the Trail
December 18, 2010
By Jen Raffaeli
We sat in the Sanctuary cabin on Tuesday night happily munching on deee-licious pizza that Jess had made and recounting stories of the day. The dogs had been fed and were contentedly howling outside in the cold, clear night air. We were plenty warm inside and enjoying the soft glow of the propane lanterns and the frost feathers on the windowpanes. Fin was granted indoor privileges for the night after his excellent performance as a lead dog and trailbreaker and he was soaking up all the belly rubs and extra attention he could get. We laughed as we debriefed the day and Jess summed it up well saying, "Really, it was just a typical day out on the trail in Denali." Yes, it was, but most of you may be wondering what is a typical day out there like for us?
6:30 am: Beep, beep, beep, beep. The alarm goes off many hours before the sun will rise. Sleepy mushers get up and begin the long process of heating snow into hot water for dog and human breakfast.
7:00 am: Layer on clothes and head outside to feed the dogs hot soaked kibble stew, with a little fat blend or other supplements mixed in if it's really cold or we have a long day ahead (which we do) to all the sleepy dogs. They are like people and some of them are really NOT morning dogs. We have to rouse them to eat their breakfast before it freezes in their bowls.
7:30 am: Back inside for a filling human breakfast. Jess asked, "Do you want butter or cheese on your bagel?" to which I replied, "Both!" We pack thermoses of tea, bags of high-calorie, high-fat snacks to give us energy and warmth through the day and extra layers.
8:00 am: Check in by radio to our Communications Center to officially start the workday. We receive report of a winter weather advisory with extreme winds with gusts up to 30 miles per hour and cold temperatures of -30 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Last night was very windy at the cabin but this morning is pretty calm, just cold and quiet.
8:30 am: I put on skis to break a better trail on the road and scout conditions for the day. Jess and Kristin remain to get everything ready - the dog teams need to be made, sleds packed, poop scooped, dogs harnessed, bootied, hooked up, and the cabin shut down for the day…
10:30 am: I return from my ski scout and all looks good so we are driving dogs and sleds out from Sanctuary by 11 am. Jess and I share a 12-dog team and one sled so that I can hop off when we get to the Teklanika River and scout the ice conditions before we bring dog teams out there. The ice has been very late to freeze up this year with an unseasonably warm fall and traveling on river ice is the biggest hazard we face as we put in the trail. Kristin follows us with a 7-dog team. The dogs do well for the first part of the morning and Jess and I do our best to share one set of runners on a narrow tundra trail. When we reach the road, the dogs decide they need a rest from trail-breaking and it is my turn to put on skis again. I don't mind - it gives me an excuse to move and keeps me warm. Poor Jess and Kristin are not so lucky as they try to hold their impatient dogs back and allow the slow human to put in the trail, advancing their teams a little bit at a time and then standing and waiting again and again.
We finally head into Tek campground - new terrain for all of us - and I am ahead on skis searching for the best campsite to enter the river in order to avoid likely open water farther downstream. I find a good entrance to the river and have 9-year-old Esker join me as I ski ahead to check out the ice. I am trusting Esker to show me what he remembers from all of his years running down the river. Esker is like a puppy bounding all over on the ice. Clearly he is not worried, so neither am I. I radio to Jess and Kristin to bring the teams out to join us on the river and I take my skis off to rejoin Jess on the runners. I am glad to make it up the river to the road and to know that the cold temperatures are finally making the rivers as solid as we need them to be to continue our travels in the park. We break trail until almost 3 pm, our declared last turnaround time for the day. Remember, darkness sets in early here.
3:00 pm: Retracing our route back on the Teklanika an ice fog swirls crystals like snowflakes in the air, the deep cold has settled on the river ice and the wind blows straight in our faces. I crouch behind Jess on the runners and use her as a windblock. It is time to bundle up in the big parkas we carry for just such occasions. Jess and I laugh as we now try to fit two of us fully bundled onto the runners together. We are like a two-headed monster, like weebles wobbling on the runners. We are a sight to see, whatever we must look like. However, there is no one else around for miles to laugh at us. Maybe a lynx is tucked in the woods shaking its head at the silly humans who require so much clothing to survive out here.
As we reach the other side of the river we get a radio call from Kristin that her brake is broken. A few moments later she discovers her stanchion is, too. Jess and I mush up to her team to investigate the mysterious equipment failure. It turns out a bolt holding all the parts together sheared off. Luckily, we carry extensive repair kits and are able to clear all the snow, overflow and ice off the sled enough to force a new bolt through, despite freezing fingers handling cold metal. Ready to go again.
4:30 pm: We are drifting steadily along the trail heading back toward Sanctuary cabin for the night. The sun has set and the lingering twilight is turning slowly to darkness. Jess rides on the sled while I drive, it's easier to fit that way on the narrow tundra trail. The dogs pick up their pace as night settles in. Their deepest instincts still make them love to run at night. We are enjoying the quiet rhythm of the dogs running, the serenity of the starry darkness, the peace of the vast surrounding wilderness.
5:30 pm: Back at Sanctuary cabin at exactly time to check in with the Communications Center. We call out of service for the night, letting everyone at Headquarters know that all is well out in the park. Then it's back to work, unharnessing dogs, putting them on their lines for the night, hauling more water to heat for dog and human dinner, cooking, feeding dogs and humans, cleaning up.
10:00 pm: Everyone is ready to crawl into bed for a good night's sleep. Tomorrow is another day and who knows what surprises it will bring because as we all are learning, in a typical day of running dogs in the park anything can happen and everything does. That's what I love best about this work with the dogs - I am constantly challenged, constantly rewarded, constantly learning about my dog and human companions and myself out there on the trail.
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Did You Know?
Recent climate warming has affected Denali in ways that are readily apparent, such as reduced spring snowfall, earlier snowmelt, earlier green-up and thawing of permanent snowfields. Subarctic ecosystems, like Denali, are extremely sensitive to climate variability and change.