Springtime in Alaska

April 06, 2011 Posted by: Jenn Raffaeli

It is hard to readjust your rhythm after several weeks on the trail. Michael and I had everything perfectly figured out for our days with the dogs. We knew when to wake up, exactly what to wear, how much water we needed for us and the dogs for the day, what we were going to eat had been carefully planned out and packed months in advance. The big unknown each day was what we would encounter along the trail, but we were well braced to expect the unexpected. What is always the big struggle for us is readjusting to life at home after a big trip. Huh, what do I do in the morning when I get up for work if I don't have to heat up dog water? What should I make for lunch today since I can't eat a Snickers bar at the office and call it lunch?

We were feeling giddy and guilty when we left the kennels on a bluebird spring day on March 5th. The poor patrol before us had slogged through snowstorm after snowstorm on the north boundary and now we were putting on sunblock! We were lucky to have a VIP skier with us to reestablish the trail after all those snows. When things got deep we would call, "Send in the skier!" and away Kevin would go powering through the drifts on his skis setting a path to inspire the dogs to continue the trail breaking work. In no time we made it to Sanctuary cabin.

As darkness fell the first night we were reminded of the value of our trail work. Jen was outside petting the dogs before bed when everyone started barking and she looked up to see a tall and a short set of reflecting eyes fast approaching the cabin! Her confused brain said, "What?! A moose chasing a wolf down the trail?" No, a headlamp soon informed her that it was a skijorer hoping to travel through the park and out the north boundary over the next five days. Fantastic! Alaskans are emerging from winter and feeling inspired to come explore the magic that is Denali in springtime.

The next day we finally had to give up on our trail on the road to Teklanika campground as it had pretty much blown away down to bare gravel - not good conditions for sled runner plastic. It was time to put the trail in on the river. The conditions changed around every bend. If there is one thing we have learned about weather and conditions in Alaska it is that there is no normal and nothing stays the same for long. One minute we were snowshoeing through thigh deep powder, the next we were flying along on glare ice. It is hard to adequately describe the "trail" conditions for park visitors as our version of a trail is very different from most peoples. Our trails remain unmarked - you need to follow scratch marks of claw brakes on ice, the faint lines of old runner tracks or pawprints on the windpacked snow, or maybe even learn to feel the packed trail with your own feet after it has been buried under inches of new snow and you can't see it with your eyes anymore. Our trails run straight through willow forests, deep overflow, across narrow ice bridges. Our trails have no stakes or tripods or reflectors or flagging - this is wilderness and we expect our travelers to have strong routefinding skills. Our dogs are amazing with where they are willing and able to travel.

As we continued our journey we crossed paths with several groups of intrepid skiers who had flown in to Wonder Lake and were skiing back out through the park to Headquarters. We heard reports from and shared trail updates with other mushing parties traveling throughout the park. We followed the tracks of the freight hauling concessioner gratefully acknowledging that he had snowshoed for days in front of his dog team to put in the now well packed trail that we were able to run swiftly in a few hours with our dogs.

We repaid the favor to him and broadened our own horizons as we broke in the trail to McGonnagall Pass - the traditional access route for climbers attempting to summit Denali from the north side. We mushed for several glorious days in the foothills of the Alaska Range feeling humbled by the beauty that engulfed us.

We met up with some of the park management team to support their ski trip back from Wonder Lake to Headquarters. It is good to have our park managers and key decision makers out on the ground in the park getting a first hand perspective on what the park wilderness is like in winter and spring as they see and interact with the visitors who are out and enjoying a unique and little known season in Denali. We arrived back at Headquarters on the afternoon of March 24th. We were warmly welcomed by many park staff and happily munched on fresh fruit and homemade lasagna - things we missed while on the trail. The dogs were happy to be back in their straw filled dog houses and howled in the joy of the reunion of the whole pack. We sorted through and hung up gear to dry and clean and deal with over the next several days and then it was time to go home. A shower and a soft bed is nice, don't get me wrong. But still, I struggle when people ask me how it feels to be back because a large part of my heart would always rather be out there on the trail with the dogs just exploring and discovering and learning something new each moment of the day.

I love it every time someone calls to inquire about current "trail" conditions in the park. I know they are a kindred spirit heading out into the wilderness that is the heart of Alaska. I try to prepare them adequately for the adventure of the daily unknown, the beauty in the inevitable chaos of ice, open water, willow thickets, rocks, gravel roads. This is not your average ski or mushing trip, but then again, I don't think anyone comes here seeking the average.

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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