First Night Out of the Season
December 07, 2010
By Michael Raffaeli
With all the trails broken as far as the Savage Mountain Vista Trailhead, we decided that it was a prime time to get out for our first overnight patrol of the season. Lists were generated, revised, and checked. Gear was given another go-through and minor adjustments and repairs done. The kennels staff met and discussed the plan.
As we pulled the sleds out from the shed, the dogs sensed the anticipation lingering in the air. They slowly wound up as we unwound sections of gang-line. Several dogs started pacing as we began to stow our supplies into the sled bags. By the time we were ready to put the sleds into position to leave the yard, a few dogs were whining to go, and almost everyone was out of their log houses, staring at us intently.
And then the pandemonium of hook-up began. All it took was one dog to be brought to the lines and every other dog was barking deafening yips and yaps to get to go next. And this trip, every adult got to go, plus the three ever-growing puppies from Keta's litter. For the puppies, Lucor, Mixtus, and Sitken, this was going to be a grand adventure. Their walks and skis with us had not yet brought them as far into their park home as we were headed. Nor had they ever slept out. Nor had they had the chance to run with the big dogs yet.
One team gone, then the second, then the third with the puppies in tow, and finally the fourth. Normally, it is both a sad and beautiful scene to hear the howl of the dogs that are left behind for a run. Today, it must have been strange as there was likely only silence, except perhaps for the barks of little Sylvie (a younger pup acquired from an outside kennel- too young to run with the big dogs yet) and the quiet waving goodbyes of her puppy-sitter.
Another inch or so of fresh snow had fallen the night before, but the solid underlying trail allowed us to glide quickly over the 10 miles to our overnight destination - the historic Savage Cabin. Darkness began its two-hour winter process of settling in as we strung out the picket lines. These are the lines that the dogs are clipped into for the night to keep everyone together and out of mischief, and far enough apart to maintain good neighborly relations with the other dogs. Headlamps came out as the last dogs' harnesses were removed and they began to curl up and nest into their home for the night. Even the puppies, who instinctively knew what to do on the trail, again seemed to know to settle down and patiently awaited dinner. I guess that's the way it is when you are bred to be a sled dog.
Though cabin life may be simple, in no way is it easy. There is no electricity and no running water, but the outhouse usually offers a good view. The Savage Cabin is an old one-room log shelter that provides respite from the elements outside. The chinking between the logs keeps the cold breeze and blowing snow to a minimum inside, while a wood stove keeps it plenty warm (and at times too hot).This place provides us not only with a place of refuge, but allows us to take a step back in time and connect with the not-too-distant history of the park, living the routine that many a pioneer has followed.
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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.