Of Dogs & Wilderness: The Return

Mushers tend to the sled dogs and prepare their meal

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

Next morning, I am up early, but in spite of their late night, Scott, Jen, and Jamie, the mushers, are up even earlier in order to tend to the dogs. The dogs are quiet and sleepy and they hardly stir as the 3 mushers weave through the tie-outs to check up on them before breakfast. Something about the way the dogs are laying seems to imply that they know they have accomplished something fine and good. Each team has brought back several barrels and old cans that lie in rusty contrast to the pure white of the snow. Jamie, Scott and Jen fill in the gaps of the story and tell of the hours-long struggle to dig up and pry the barrels from their icy beds.
 
Sled dogs curled up resting on the snow

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

The dogs have earned a good long rest, but Gary, Nick and I are ready to begin the next leg of the trip. We will lay tracks to Anaktuvuk Pass where the barrels will be taken when the dogs are ready. Gary and Nick strike camp quickly and before I am ready to say 'goodbye' to this beautiful spot, it is time to leave.

 
A musher pets a sled dog in winter

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

We zoom across a wide expanse of land in an exaltation of white and blue mountains. The land seems to be featureless for miles, but from time to time, in the, far distance, great slabs of mountains rise up with the sudden fierceness of a wolverine and great canyons open up before us with regularity. The light fades gradually, the bright blues giving way to paler shades tinged with pink and we begin the descent into Anaktuvuk Pass as the alpenglow fades from the sky, caribou streaming down the slope.
 
An expansive snowy winter scene on the arctic tundra with mountains in the distance

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

We spend the next couple of days in the school doing education outreach while waiting for the dogs to catch up. We do programs on caribou research in the park, and talk about ecological concepts, like trophic levels and predator/prey relationships while dissecting owl pellets. Nick shares some snow science and avalanche safety, but I have trouble concentrating on what is happening in the classroom. I find my mind going back to the trail that we zoomed across by snowmachine and I wondered what the dog teams were experiencing. How does that landscape look at 3 mph? What do their toenails clicking on the ice sound like? I imagine the dogs' feet in direct contact with the varied textures of snow and ice, feeling each tussock and I'm a little jealous of them knowing the land in such an intimate way.
 
A Ranger and students conduct an outdoor activity in winter

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

Caribou culture is strong here in Anaktuvuk Pass. There are hides draped over the rails of many porches, antlers entwined with Christmas tree lights adorn the rooftops of homes and dogs around town tussle over scrap leg bones. Many villagers are out hunting the caribou that are passing through and the school kids are almost as distracted as I am. Their eyes are constantly drawn to the hillsides surrounding the school and at any given moment, all of them seem to know exactly how many caribou are present!
 
A ranger and students conduct an activity outdoors in winter

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

The dogs arrive mid-week to great excitement. The dogs in town seem to recognize their own link to this proud tradition of working dogs that is their heritage and begin a wonderful ruckus of barking and leaping by way of a welcome. The dog mushers from Denali, Jen and Jamie also spend some time in the school with the kids, talking about wilderness, dog mushing, and why Denali maintains a working kennel in a time when snowmachines are the preferred method of long distance winter transportation for most modern Alaskans.
 
Anaktuvuk Pass kids pull a dogsled on the snowy roads through town

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

Our dog teams seem to stir deep memories among the residents of the town. Elders' eyes grow misty with thoughts of former teams. They look at the Denali dogs and say, 'Those are some fine dogs.' At a community meeting, while the northern lights stream overhead, many proud stories are told of dog teams and journeys. Everyone has stories of how dogs have been involved in their lives in important ways.
 
Anaktuvuk Pass kids pull a dogsled on the snowy roads through town

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

Our mission of cleaning up a wilderness area has been accomplished and in the process we found an opportunity to make a connection with the long history of people and dogs working together joyously in wild places to achieve a goal.
 
Aerial view of the Brooks Range in winter covered in snow

NPS Photo by Laurie Smith

Back in Fairbanks, my mind often goes to that beautiful wild landscape and I am so grateful for the passion and drive of those who fought so hard for the preservation of wild places. In the early 1930s, Bob Marshall, dreaming of Wilderness protected by law said, 'It is the last stand for that glorious adventure into the physically unknown that was commonplace in the lives of our ancestors and has always constituted a major factor in the happiness of many exploratory souls.' He was so right. This is what makes me profoundly happy!

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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