Of Dogs & Wilderness: Changing Pace

A snowy winter camp with a bright yellow tent and two snowmachines

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

There is an unfortunate correlation to staying well-hydrated; one finds the need to leave the warmth of the tent to answer the call of nature. I resist the urge for as long as possible but finally unzip my bag and struggle into outerwear and step out into the cold that has spent the night sitting on the doorstep like a faithful pet. Though I purposefully shut the cold out for the night, when it jumps in my lap, I instantly remember that I love it deeply and am glad for its presence. There is a second reward as well. The sun has just risen above the horizon, glowing golden behind a thin bank of clouds, but the moon still shares the horizon and it silvers its share of the clouds.

A ranger pours hot water for another ranger in a tent

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

Days start slowly on winter patrols in the arctic. Breakfast is lazy and blends into lunch as we wait for the temperature to rise to a comfortable level before setting out on today's journey into designated wilderness. Each day in camp is filled with its own set of tasks and challenges that must be met, and chores like shaving take much longer to accomplish in a tent than back home. Space in the 8'x8' tent is limited and each task requires a careful choreography of maneuvering between us all to accomplish it smoothly. Gary and Nick have worked together for years and their easy camaraderie is obvious. They make the work look effortless.

Two rangers sit and relax on a snowmachine on a sunny winter day

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

Shortly after noon, we load up the snow machines with all the gear we think we might need: snowshoes, skis, GPS, first aid, cameras. This is my first real ride on a snow machine and I immediately see its appeal. It is a wonderfully exhilarating way to travel! But I am glad to stop at the wilderness boundary and exchange machine for snowshoes.

Before long, we come across a set of wolf tracks stretching from horizon to horizon and I think about John McPhee's writing about seeing a bear. It wasn't the bear that that was so stirring for him, but rather what the bear implied. These wolf tracks implied that there was more country like this in every direction and more of the same kind of country all around that. They implied a world!

A snowshoer ascending a snow slope with a blue sky background

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

The land rises and falls in gentle swales and knolls that go on for mile after featureless mile. Luckily, we have GPS coordinates to guide us to the approximate location of the barrels. Our goal is to pack a trail to the barrels for the dogs to follow once they arrive. The sun shines fiercely on the snow from a flawless blue sky and soon I am panting with heat. I strip off outerwear and leave it beside our tracks to pick up on the way back. The irony is not lost on me since I had worried so much about being cold. We have a general idea of where the barrels are, but it proves to be very difficult to spot them under their blanket of snow. After an hour or so of searching, Nick spots something that looks slightly out of place. After examining the thing with a monocular, we are satisfied that we know where at least one of the barrels is. When we come back with the dogs, we will bring a metal detector with us to aid in the search.
A lone snowshoer in a vast snow-covered arctic tundra landscape with mountains in background

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

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Last updated: April 14, 2015

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