Last updated: April 14, 2015
The gust struck hard from the south, packing some of the three feet of newly accumulated snow into every crinkle of my bibs, parka and overmitts. The dogs had been breaking trail through it anyway, heading due west onto the wide open tundra between Sushana and Lower East Fork. How they could know of any remnant of the trail seemed magical, but these dogs do amazing things. Even when trails blow away, dogs can still feel the pack beneath their paws; can smell the scent of an old dog track, even if it's a few feet off.
I woah'd my team to a stop to wait for my patrol partner, wanting to keep in sight of each other in the whiteout. Through curtains of sweeping snow I watched her team advance, and then it blew so hard they disappeared. I turned to face my dogs and couldn't even see their curved tails battling the wind. My view cleared for about two seconds - enough time to see the masked face of my lead dog Muddy confidently trotting in the wrong direction, splitting my team right down the middle so she could return to the sled. It was such a mess I had to laugh. Dogs tangled in their lines and big males who'd normally fight instead huddled against one another in the storm. They knew to be still and that I would fix everything. I had proved that to them by this late in the season.
The dogs were right, of course. The smartest thing for us to do was turn around, and that we did. Back down the Sushana Steps whose vertical drops were so packed and slick last time that I felt my stomach drop as though on a roller coaster. This time it was a slow-motion slide through deep, fluffy powder. The wind swirled around us on the Sushana River as we returned to the cabin, anxiously awaiting the next day's sunrise to survey the damage.
Tor was excited. He was eagerly proceeding forward without a trail to follow. He had patrolled the North Boundary before and knew that big herds of caribou lived just out of sight, and that he needed to get to their exact location ASAP. Tor doesn't necessarily know commands, and if he does he obeys them rather selectively. But Tor will, in most instances, proceed forward with spirit and fire up the rest of the team. This was a godsend, considering the fact that our trail had completely disappeared in the previous day's big storm. Things went swimmingly until the first big wall of wind-drifted cornice arched 15 feet over Tor's head, emerging like a frozen wave from a treed drainage splicing open tundra. Tor's look of panic was a sure indicator of his next action, which was to turn the team around. I nipped that in the bud by running ahead of my team and kicking steps into the wall of snow, climbing on top of it and calling the dogs. Pyro hates stopping, so with or without Tor's consent he was bound to follow. Sure enough, the barking stopped and the dogs pulled themselves up and over, onto a flat expanse of tundra as far as the eye can see.
It was obvious what the wind had done, scouring the giant tundra plain of all its new snow and dumping it into the handful of drainages strewn across the next 20 miles. Equally obvious was the fact that the snowmachine highway that used to exist here, traversing just outside the northern wilderness boundary of Denali National Park, was obliterated. Simply erased.
A handy thing to know about dogs is that wide open blank spaces mess with their heads. They want a creek to follow, a trail to sniff, footprints in which to step. They have no problem breaking trail if there are familiar landmarks around to guide them. But here, on the north boundary, there lies one gargantuan horizon that is flat as a pancake. They refused to break trail, and there stood Jess and I, 20 miles from Lower Toklat cabin.
We reached Lower Toklat two days later, having broken the trail through sometimes waist-deep drifts on snowshoes. One of us would walk out ahead while the other waited with the dogs, then followed. Wait, then follow. Hours on end proceeded this way until Pyro and Spur decided they'd had enough. They came to the end of our snowshoe track and just kept going, snow spilling away from their shoulders as they weaved through taiga forest toward a steep embankment.
"They're going in the opposite direction of where the GPS says the cabin is," Jess said. "What should we do?"
I thought, if anyone has an honest-to-goodness clue about where exactly we are, it's the dogs.
"Let's just trust them," I said over the radio. "They've been here before."
The dogs made a sharp left onto an old cat-track slicing through a steep, densely forested drop and brought us straight to the cabin door.
The howl was unforgettable - a chorus of 56 dogs singing in unison, starting at one end of the dogyard and rippling through like a wave. We and our 19 dogs had company. Eric Jayne, the musher who runs the gear hauling concession, had been traveling behind us on his way to Wonder Lake with a load. Then three more teams showed up - Mike Schieber and his two Swiss clients on a scenic dogmushing tour of the park. All had followed our trail, and all had wound up in the same place.
As we gathered around the radio that night, the news was unsettling. Another storm was on its way, the voice said through the static. Winter travel was not recommended as the storm could be "fatal". Wind gusts of up to 60 miles per hour were forecast through the Alaska Range, and in our area the storm was forecast to dump 3 feet of snow by the end of its two-day reign, providing for dangerous whiteout conditions. The six of us laughed and laughed, trying not to believe the voice, while on the front porch the firewood stash dwindled.
"Wake up," I said to Jess. "We have to get the snow off, or the tent will collapse."
We sleepily shook the walls of our four-season tent and watched slabs of heavy, wet snow slide off to the side. Though the other mushers had offered us floor space in the tiny, one-room cabin, we had opted to sleep in the tent at night. After all, we were the only women in the bunch and thought it'd be nice to have some space to ourselves.
Outside the wind raged, even in our protected little cove by the Toklat River. We could not imagine what it must be like on the river itself, or out on the tundra for that matter. It was clear nobody was going anywhere. We decided to snowshoe out onto the river and see if we could put in a trail for the next day. Fin-dog came along with us, since he had crossed the river before and knew the way to the Clearwater Fork and Stampede Air Strip. We went a mile or so before the storm really hit, stringing sheets of white across the Toklat and blanching out all detail. We turned around to discover our snowshoed trail was gone. Fin led us home by his nose.
It had been three days since we snowshoed across the Toklat, and now we were approaching Stampede Air Strip, 16 miles roundtrip from Lower Toklat cabin. In those three days we saw the temperatures plummet to 35 below, we saw Pyro plummet into a ten-foot-deep crevasse in the Clearwater River, and we saw new leaders emerge and succeed in trying conditions. Our spirits had fluctuated from decidedly devastated to utterly exhausted to downright joyous once our maintenance of the sound monitoring station was finished. The snow was so deep it hid dangers in the river, sucked our snowshoes down into wet overflow and froze them to our boots and swamped the airstrip with a concrete-like accumulation similar to that of the Pacific Northwest. When we took off our snowshoes and began hauling the 50-pound batteries to the sound station, we fell in up to our waists. We moved, on average, one mile per hour. For three days.
You couldn't ask for better dogs. They had to run in single-lead because of the extremely deep snow, and everyone had a chance to prove themselves. Even Lava, who ran in lead with Aliqsi and did a fantastic job! Not only did they work tirelessly, they also were extremely patient while we put in the trail on foot, navigating around river hazards with the help of a couple experienced dogs.
It had taken us eight days to do what our itinerary said we'd have done by day three. Before we knew it, it was time to turn around and go home. We would not be making it up the Toklat and over to Wonder Lake as we had planned. It helped to know we would have had to snowshoe the whole way there and we would have had to do it all in less than a week to meet the airplane in time. (The park pilot was scheduled to fly out two new mushers and fly us back in.) As anyone who's traveled in Alaska's backcountry in the winter can tell you, plans change.
Despite the hardships of the patrol, one thing was voiced resoundingly in my mind. And it's that running dogs is a privilege. It can be such a difficult activity, and a frustrating one, and an uncomfortable one, and even, at times, a miserable one. Changing out of wet clothes in -35 as the sun sets and knowing you're still hours away from the cabin. Watching a strong, stoic dog pull himself out of a hole in river ice and then shiver in fear for minutes. Realizing afterward that the rest of your trip, in its entirety, involves traveling on giant rivers now hidden under three feet of snow. And what are you going to do?
What we did was learn from the dogs. They showed us where to go and where not to go. They showed us what we as a team are capable of doing. They thanked us for taking care of them, and in turn they pulled us home over the ice in the dark while stars twinkled over the Toklat and we shivered on the runners. They strode brilliantly through the deepest snow the park has seen in 12 years and kissed our faces when we were tired and bounded over each other like goofballs when we needed a laugh. Running dogs is a privilege because of the hardship involved and because of the ineffable sweetness of the reward sieved from it.
And now the sun melts down the snow inch by inch. And the moose tread our trails to pieces. And the plows take their blades to the road. Already I think of the first stars of September and the beginning of darkness, the dogs' coats thickening…