By Jessica Toubman
(Note: Trail conditions change rapidly in Denali National Park and there is likely significant differences from the below report and current conditions; especially involving river crossings, overflow and weather.Call for the most current updates before attempting a trip into the park)
Everything takes longer in the winter.From needing to run your car for 15 minutes before you drive it, to walking slowly around in oversized boots and coats, to the extra feeding and care the dogs require in the sub-zero temperatures.And when you are breaking a trail through snow with a dog team - what normally is a 1 hour bus ride in the summer takes 2 days to go the same distance.
On December 6, three Park dog teams headed west along the usual winter trail that parallels the Denali Park Road.It was smooth sailing to the Savage River, with the previously packed trail in good shape.We were pleased the ice crossing over the river had not opened up any more, and when I tried to direct the dogs to my old snowshoe tracks across the Savage, the experienced leaders, Keta and Esker, looked at me like I was crazy and showed me a much better path up the bank.
The goal the first day was to get over the pass just south of Primrose Ridge that connects Hogan Creek to the Savage drainage and stay at the patrol cabin on the Sanctuary River (Mile 22 on Park Road).However, with limited hours of light and the deepness of the snow, it was obvious we would not get to Sanctuary in the daylight.We turned our teams around about a mile from the pass and headed back on our fresh tracks to Savage Cabin at Mile 13.
The next day we were ready at first light to get the trail-breaking team out.My team seemed as energized as me to see new terrain, and the leaders bounded through the snowpack with tails held high. There was a little bit of confusion at the top of the pass, where we left the brush and there was no clear path to follow.Spur, the younger lead dog, kept trying to direct us to unidentifiable dead things rather than the trail. Fortunately, the GPS was not as easily distracted and we were soon heading downhill with Mt. Wright glowing in front of us (Photo).
Much to the dogs' dismay, we kept running past the Sanctuary Cabin, and they lost their drive to break trail. The second team took over the lead, giving the first a well deserved break. We got our teams as far as Mile 28 on the Park Road, just before the Teklanika Campground, before it was time to get back to Sanctuary Cabin before dark.
Sanctuary is one of my favorite winter cabins for many reasons - the views, the solitude, the propane heater - but mostly it comes back to its "easy" access to water. Not "easy" in a sense that it flows out of a faucet, but you could find water if you walked 200 ft and then hacked at the river ice with an axe.No snow to melt, so the dinner was much quicker for both dogs and humans.A good situation for all.
The next morning we made it back to HQ in about 2.5 hours, passing a fellow employee who was pulling three mattresses behind her sled to Savage Cabin. Even though the days are long and full of hard work for kennels staff, the variety of work to be done coupled with the unwavering enthusiasm of the dog teams makes for a satisfying job indeed.