Last updated: April 14, 2015
It was the kind of light you can only see in the winter. It split dark clouds over the Alaska Range and lit up the white of the snow electrically against an indigo backdrop of weather approaching far in the distance. Mountains I knew from a map but not yet by eye were draped in pink along the horizon and I began to think of visible distance in terms of days rather than miles. The North Boundary. An interminable stretch of tundra warped in places by walls of temperature differences that caused parts of the landscape to appear smudged by a pencil eraser. A place across which we would travel with our four dog teams for nearly 70 miles before reaching the Stampede Air Strip.
The project was an important one. We would be taking along Davyd Betchkal - a park scientist who monitors the soundscape of Denali's Wilderness - and all of his fragile, expensive electronics and batteries and solar panels. Once we reached Stampede Air Strip, our duty would be to set up a station that continuously monitors sound frequencies that span beyond the range of human hearing. According to the Wilderness Act, Wilderness should be managed to preserve the inherent peace and silence of the land along with the other traits that characterize an area as "untrammeled by man." The air strip, located just outside the Wilderness boundary of the park, is one of many locations throughout Denali where sound scientists can record the Wilderness soundscape.
Many of these stations are installed with the use of helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft or snowmachines. Davyd wanted it to be different this time. This time, he said, the sound station would be transported in a manner that would not disrupt the natural silence and solitude of the wilderness. And so he enlisted Jason, Michael, 27 dogs and me to haul the sound station across the tundra, through thick forests, up and down precipitous drops, along frozen rivers and not-so-frozen rivers awash in knee-deep overflow, to its resting place in the taiga alongside the Clearwater Fork of the Toklat River.
Davyd, whose depth of scientific knowledge in terms of sound stations was an obvious necessity, would come along. And he would drive his very own dog team for the very first time.
It should be noted that Davyd is a natural at dog mushing. He looks into the dogs' eyes, reads their gaits, asks great questions and pays attention. By the
time we arrived at the bend in the Clearwater where we would cut up the bank to locate the air strip, Davyd had mushed 60 miles on his own. Those miles were full of adventure even for the experienced mushers and included big, vertical drops and tight turns through the woods on ice and tall, ankle-breaking tussocks and new places on the map. The day we came down the Clearwater, Davyd was riding along in my sled as my nine-dog team hauled nearly a 350-pound load including the two of us. In some sections, my sled seemed to float through the deep overflow that sat atop the river ice like a swimming pool. Davyd didn't seem to mind, and we both marveled at the determination of the dogs to get us there, no matter the conditions.
And then it was combat mushing time. Davyd ran behind us as we cut up into a world of schwack (thick, overhead willows and alders) and stubborn tree roots and branches. The sled caught on them all, and the load was so heavy and the hill so steep we had to get on the tow line and pull alongside the dogs. But then we topped out on a long, clear aisle of snow and everyone sighed with relief. Stampede Air Strip. It had taken us three and a half hours to get there from Lower Toklat cabin, and with the limited daylight of winter, we planned for the sound station setup to take three hours tops. We best get to work right away, we thought. And so we parsed out our duties and two of us helped set up the sound station while the other took care of the dogs lined out on the air strip.
The work was going along better than anyone expected, and sunlight crested the surrounding hills and poured onto us and lit the cold crystals in the air as
they showered down onto the resting dogs. But then the dogs were howling pointedly, insistently toward the south. "Do you hear them?" Michael shouted. "The wolves?"
The dogs fell so silent that, if they had been hidden from view, nobody would have ever guessed at their presence, even from a few feet away. And then the forlorn and haunting howls echoed down the river narrows and into our ears from a mile away, and before we had a chance to look at each other in disbelief the dogs answered the pack joyously. "We're over here!" they seemed to say. "And we're over here!" the wolves howled back. And so they communicated back and forth, back and forth for several more minutes. And so we humans awed and marveled and removed ourselves respectfully from that scene just to watch and wonder.
The sound station's initiate recordings will be dogs barking excitedly, then falling silent as they lunge into their harnesses. Then it will be sled runners soughing in deep snow. And then the happenings of some wild and remote place will be heard by electronic ears and recorded and catalogued in a digital language of waves. Crests and troughs carrying the muted hooos of owls, the lonesome calls of wolves, the wind raking through spruce boughs, or a kind of purity and peacefulness beyond description, glabrous as glare ice and just as condensed.
Back on the runners, the dogs and the landscape and I are morphed into one flowing movement. We are traveling, the dogs and I, and we respond to dips and turns and rises in the terrain as instinctively as a person would shield the aureate sun from their eyes or pull their hand away from a hot flame. Suddenly, I realize I have been smiling nonstop under my balaclava for hours. Humans being naturally social, our first instinct, I think, is to tell someone when our happiness is all-consuming. To share it with somebody else. But by now, this far into winter, I am more of a dog. And so I smile to myself, and I smile silently, and I smile constantly. And in front of me the dogs run into the sunrise, tongues lolling to one side, eyes shining, mouths open, their happiness radiating warmer than the sunlight.