December 20, 2010
By Jen Raffaeli
The biggest unknown of this last patrol was the ice on the Teklanika River. This fall was impressively warm across Alaska and all of the rivers have been very slow to freeze up. On our first patrol we skied along the Savage River in mid November and found one huge flowing channel. The Nenana River at the park entrance has ice on the edges but is still a fast-moving river in the middle. How long does it take to freeze? How do you know when the ice is good enough to walk on? Drive a dog team on? Drive a vehicle across? These are questions that any longtime Alaskan can answer based on years of experience. If you are a newbie to the area you are wise to start talking to the old-timers and learning from them because there is a lot to know. Judging the condition of ice is an art and a science and it takes a long time to learn to do it well. If you make a mistake the consequences are serious.
Breaking through the ice into rushing river water is every musher's nightmare. Mushers who have been doing it long enough have their own stories to tell of dogs or themselves nearly drowning in the water and heroic lead dogs who responded to the musher's frantic calls to, "Get up!!" and pulled the team, sled and musher out of the water and back onto solid ice. I have a deep respect for this winter landscape and the inherent hazards we accept when we venture out into it. With that in mind on our last patrol, we headed out to cautiously examine the condition of the Teklanika River ice and determine whether we could continue to travel farther into the park.
We planned carefully in advance the safest way to test the ice. I would ski ahead of the two dog teams with an old, experienced park dog to guide me. I chose Esker, a 9-year-old veteran leader who knows the park trails like the back of his paw. As I skied onto the Tek I tested the ice with my poles, looking for faint changes in surface color of ice or the snow on top, feeling for places where ice formed and then collapsed in, listening for water flowing in nearby open leads or under thin ice beneath me. All of my senses were involved in this journey and I was acutely aware of the environment around me. Esker relied on his innate awareness and was bounding like a puppy all over the ice which gave me the message, "Don't worry, this ice is good." Esker knows, and my careful tests were all confirming his judgment, so I called Kristin and Jess on the radio and told them to bring the dog teams onto the river. I rejoined Jess on the runners with the front team. Spur and Chulitna were doing a great job navigating frozen channels and setting a good trail for the rest of the season. As we neared the bridge where we would leave the river and hop back onto the road I could see evidence of recent overflow on the right side of the river and turquoise-blue glare ice. Some dogs really don't like trying to travel on slick ice and will avoid it at all costs. Their brains and reliable instincts turn off when panic runs through a team. The goal becomes just to get off the ice as fast as possible with little regard for any hazards between here and solid ground.It is crucial for a musher to recognize when the dogs have stopped running smart and switched to running scared. At that point, it is time for the musher to step in and maintain calm and control for everyone. Our dogs saw the overflow and didn't want to go there and started to lead the team toward more snow on the ice, but also toward open water in the deepest center channel of the river. I stepped in and called a sharp, "Gee!" to Spur and Chulitna. Thankfully, they listened and so did the rest of the team and we steered easily away from the water and back onto the slick overflow ice. Within a few minutes we had safely navigated across the Tek and we were on the road heading toward Igloo cabin. The recent (and current - it was probably 30 below zero Fahrenheit when we were out there) cold temperatures had given us the good ice we need to continue to patrol deeper into the park.
I am sure that the Eskimos have just as many words for ice as they do for snow. There are so many forms of it to know. There are no guidebooks or training courses that I know of that will teach you how to read ice. Only winter after winter of firsthand experience, in addition to a wealth of local knowledge and stories, will give you the know-how you need to make safe choices. Right now, the daily, local consequences of global climate change intrigue me. When my husband and I ran dogs in Kotzebue a few years ago we asked our boss how everyone knew when the ice on Hotham Inlet was safe to cross with dog teams or snowmobiles. He said, "When the little old ladies walk out on the ice, you know it is good." What he meant was, those women had the years of experience, the wisdom that is so hard to put into words and clear rules, that they just knew when the ice was good. As climate change affects our annual weather patterns, it also impacts everything the long-time residents think they know. If the ice always used to be reliable and solid by November, how does that affect us when rivers are still flowing in December? Dog mushers are always talking about how they could count on running dogs on sleds on snow by October. These days we are lucky to be off ATVs in November.
When I read the old logbooks in our NPS patrol cabins I can see that dog teams used to routinely be out as far as Sanctuary by early November back in the 1970s and 80s. We would have had to mush on dry tundra and swim across the Savage River to make it to Sanctuary cabin by early November this year. I would love to take the time to dig through all of the old ranger logbooks from all of the cabins. It would be fascinating to see the human record of climate change in our park as everyone has recorded their dog trips, dates, trail conditions, etc. Who knew the potential learning that these simple observations might someday offer? For the moment, I am too immersed in the daily travel out on the ice - learning to read it, building my knowledge through my own experiences. I am too busy out there to be able to sit in the museum digging through old record books and compiling statistics. I hope someone has the time and interest to take on that project. In the meantime, we will continue to log what we see and experience out on our patrols every day. There is so much for us and for future generations to learn from the long history of dog teams and people traveling across this ever changing landscape.