The barrel wood stove was stocked and cranking, bringing the temperature up to the somewhat-cozy range. Inside, the digital thermometer read 50.4 degrees F. Outside was another story. A high pressure weather system from the nearby polar north had settled in, and somewhere past midnight it just kept getting colder and colder, tenth of a degree by tenth of a degree until it held steady at minus 50.1 degrees F. The historic log walls and thin windows of Slaven's Roadhouse on the Yukon River were all that separated us from the bone jarring, snot freezing, breath-removing cold outside. We were experiencing over 100 degrees of separation- separation not only from the elements, but from the mushers that were coming through as they attempted to complete the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
Yearly, the Quest travels through the heart of the Yukon-Charley National Preserve as mushers make their way along the Yukon River. Cabins and roadhouses have provided travelers in these regions with respite from the elements over the years, and this year was no exception. A Yukon Quest race judge, a veterinarian, a journalist, and volunteers from parks in Alaska- Yukon-Charley, Gates of the Arctic, the Western Arctic Parks, and including Jen and I, from Denali- all ventured to Slaven's Roadhouse to ensure that the mushers had a place to rest and feed their dogs, warm up, get a hot meal or two, and get medical or veterinary attention if needed.
All but one musher stopped for at least a few hours to take advantage of the refuge that the old roadhouse provided. They had just dealt with storms while attempting to go over summits, and now had severe cold slowing down their progress on their 1000-mile journey. They were following the trails from shelter to shelter much as the old mail carriers and miners did, taking advantage of northern hospitality that in conditions like these can mean survival. And as many mushers know, you can't survive out there on the trail unless you and your dog team are in the best condition possible.
We made sure to have hot water ready so that when teams pulled in, they could prepare a broth and/or meal and immediately give their dogs sustenance to maintain hydration and replace calories. Despite the conditions, musher after musher, rather than coming in to warm and feed themselves first, took to immediately caring for their dogs. After running for up to 10 hours in the harsh, freezing cold, it was often an hour or more of dog chores before the mushers came in, excited to have a fresh cooked meal and catch a few hours of sleep before they headed back out to care for their dogs again prior to getting back on the trail. It was amazing to see the efficiency of those who had done this before- like well oiled machines- and to see the rookies finding their rhythm as they gained experience.
After a musher had squeezed the frost off of their eyelashes, hung some of their gear to thaw, and settled in they often looked around to see who they recognized at Slaven's from last year. All of the returning mushers recognized Pat who spearheads the effort, but most were a bit surprised to see Jen, as she had run the Quest last year.Even in their tired state, they were happy to hear about Jen's work in Denali as she encouraged them to come and explore the park with their dogs when the race season was over. She talked dreamily of the trails and potentially warmer spring conditions, getting them excited to get out and experience one more of Alaska's special national parks. Experiencing the camaraderie of the Quest with the mushers and other volunteers was one of our highlights, enjoying Slaven's much the same as travelers who have met along the trail before us have been doing for decades. Another highlight of getting to be a small part of this event, and maybe even the best part, was getting to see the amazing dogs (of course!).
Though the difference between the inside and outside temperatures separated us from the Quest mushers' experience, there was usually less than one degree of separation that connected us to the mushers themselves and some of the dogs. There is comfort in venturing out to the middle of nowhere and recognizing almost everyone. True to what they often say, even though Alaska is a big state, it really is just a small town.