Last updated: April 14, 2015
As I drove the team over the pass, I imagined that this is what it must have been like to plow fields with a workhorse. With a slow and steady pace, the horse and driver working together to accomplish a task. In the summer, I talk with people about the Denali Kennels dogs and compare them to the work animals of (mostly) times past, of a time and era I know nothing about. And every now and then, someone will come up to me with wide eyes and an elated sense of knowing what I was talking about and say, "I remember helping my grandfather plow his fields with a horse!" They understand the connection between the work animal and their driver. Like any relationship between human and animal, it is unique, but a working relationship is particularly highlighted by the goal at hand, the challenges faced along the way, and the accomplishment that comes with completing every step of the process.
I was learning to understand this relationship as we hauled hundreds of pounds of supplies (my best estimate is 3000) to refurbish the roofs of two of our historic wilderness patrol cabins at Upper Windy Creek and Riley Creek. Because the cabins lie within the Wilderness Boundary of the park, a plan was developed to use the dogs to haul in all the building materials- including but not limited to almost 100 ten-foot long pieces of lumber, nails, canvas cloth, stove pipe for the wood stoves, and several 5-gallon buckets of stain. This trip was not only about maintaining the historic cabins, it had a lot to do with maintaining the history of how things used to be done here in the park- using the multiplicative power of the dogs and human collaboration.
Between two to seven people and 18 dogs were working together on this haul at any given time over the course of 8 days (which still ends up being safer and cheaper than using a helicopter for one day!). From hand carrying loads over thin ice bridges to breaking trail on skis through deep snow, to preparing meals and organizing supplies, people from three different divisions (Law Enforcement, Special Projects, and Kennels) dove in to the work with gusto, a strong back and a smile to get the job done. There is a disclaimer here, however. Today we live in a time where it is impossible, if not just plain inefficient, to ignore the power and wonders of the motorized world. Not being purists, we decided to use snowmobiles to haul more than half of the load 4 miles to the edge of the Wilderness Boundary, which is within a half-mile of the Upper Windy Creek Cabin. At that point we switched from motor power support to pure dog and human power to push, pull, and grunt supplies the remaining half-mile to Upper Windy where we would also stage for the second portion of the trip.
1500 hundred pounds of building materials still had to be hauled to the Riley Creek Cabin 16 miles away, up an icy river, over a snowy mountain pass, and down a creek with snow bridges across open holes running with water. The cabin, nestled in a stand of old, thick White Spruce is remote enough that a log book started in the late 1950's is still the one currently used (Rangers typically make it to the cabin about twice a year). With two dog teams, we would each haul loads up and over the pass three times, returning to Upper Windy the next day with an empty sled. The temperatures during the days were getting above freezing, so we were waking up and getting on the trail at first light to take advantage of the cooler temperatures. On the sunny days this meant pleasant late afternoons to enjoy the sunshine we missed all winter, us sitting on stumps conversing, the dogs sprawled out sleeping in the snow.
We talked about how it seemed that all the patrols throughout this winter were leading up to this final patrol hauling materials over Windy Pass. The Kennels staff had learned to work together efficiently, to get along nicely in trying conditions, and to assess the hazards and mitigate them safely. Our systems and communication were smooth and effective. The dogs were in prime shape having run enough miles and broken enough trail. We knew the strengths of individual dogs to utilize them the instant we needed that lead dog that would cross open water, or to choose the dog to guide us across trail-less ice, or recognize the up and coming leader that held the motivation to continue breaking trail over the pass since it had blown in again, for the 5th time.
A piece of getting to know these dogs has been learning how they work, but the relationships we have developed have gone deeper. I owed it to these dogs to take the best care of them as I could- after all, they were my mode of transportation, my motor, my workhorse. When taking a break on the pass, I knew who wanted belly rubs and who wanted their ears scratched, and who just wanted to roll in the snow unimpeded. I learned who gave 110% during the day and deserved to come into the cabin for extra pets and love, a pick-me-up after a hard day travelling in conditions from hot sun to blowing snow. And maybe the part that isn't readily apparent from the outside about that human and working animal relationship is the unconditional love between a dog driver and their dogs. It is a system that functions most effectively if there is mutual respect and a desire on both sides to give it your all simply because there is pleasure in working hard and accomplishing the task at hand.This is maybe the most valuable lesson from the past and using working animals that I am beginning to understand first hand.