National Park & Preserve Alaska
December 22, 2011
by Michael R.
The logistics for getting 20 individuals out on overnight patrols can seem overwhelming. Fortunately, on this patrol 17 of those individuals were the dogs, making planning easier. And, thankfully, the summer staff at the kennels pre-prepared almost all of the human food and dog food and stashed these and other crucial supplies out at our roadside cabins complete with menus (see previous blog entry on cabin stocking). Meals packed range from burritos, to canned vegetable curry, to chili with cornbread, to pizza, to kibble, protein powder, and extra fat (the latter is the menu for the dogs!). We use propane to heat the roadside cabins and thus have a stove-top range with oven making baking a luxury after a long hard day on the trail. On this patrol, pizza was our favorite.
We experienced one of those long days (with almost not enough daylight!) on this last patrol in early December. It was the first patrol out past the Savage Cabin at mile 12, and the conditions were unknown, except that there was no trail and we had to put one in as far as we could. It is important for us to establish a base for the trail for two reasons- because then the dogs can feel it later when fresh snow erases it for our eyes, and to be sure that the cold temperatures do not degrade the snowpack. When the temperatures are very cold (below zero degrees Fahrenheit) the air is also dry. This causes the moisture from the snow pack to sublimate into the drier air, making the underlying snow light and virtually un-packable.
For this patrol we decided on a configuration of two dog teams with drivers and a skier, the skier's job being to break trail ahead of the team where the dogs couldn't or set the trail if we wanted it to go in a specific spot. Trail breaking was a lot of hard work for the skier from the Savage Cabin to the Sanctuary Cabin, as it was too deep for the dogs to work in (deeper than their belly). In places, the snow was windblown into a hard crust on top of three feet of snow underneath. Unfortunately, that crust was not strong enough to support either the dogs' or the skier's weight, making the trail breaking worse than running in deep sand with ankle weights on. Needless to say, that night we decided to treat ourselves with pizza for dinner. Just because the skier broke trail didn't mean that the leading team of dogs didn't have to do any hard work. We decided that the lead dogs had done their share too, and we let a few of them into the cabin for the night as a reward.
We knew that the work wasn't over, though, as we still wanted to push on to Igloo Cabin. Some sections of the trail go on the park road itself. This year it was blown bare in places except for a thin layer of ice that formed during a rain event a few weeks ago. It was exciting moving over the ice and it made for a fast pace. We decided to put a long section of trail on the Teklanika River as the ice is thicker and allows us to better stop the teams of eager dogs. Cautiously the skier checked and rechecked the thickness of the ice, putting in a few side-trails to avoid some open sections of water. There was one section of overflow that couldn't be avoided. Overflow is water that is forced on top of an ice filled river by a blockage of ice in the river below. Water then flows over the top of the river ice, freezing into layer upon layer of what we call aufice. This can be a solid surface to travel on, but when it is forming, it can be a thin layer of ice on top of almost knee deep water. I got the worst of it being the skier that day, and for the most part my boots stayed dry with my gaiters on. Once through the 25 yard section, I quickly removed my skis to knock out forming ice and water so as to not freeze into them. And the dogs, they just rolled into the snow on the other side, as the snow helps to absorb the moisture.
By the end of another long day, we (and the dogs) were once again pretty tired but we knew the next day we needed to head back. That night, fresh snow started falling and the wind blew and we were worried all our hard work would be filled in. Fortunately, our new trail had solidified enough that the dogs made easy work of finding and breaking trail back home, and the staff and dogs left back at the Kennels continued to maintain the first 9 miles of trail closest to the park's Headquarters for us. What took 20 of us three days to establish a trail only took one and a half days to travel back home on. Life is good when your hard work pays off.
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