Of Dogs & Wilderness: Working Dogs

A musher and dog team approach the camera in a snowy scene

NPS Photo/Laurie Smith

The next morning the sun shines through the yellow cloth of the tent creating a golden glow inside that is very pleasant. I spend the morning reading, writing and dozing, but when the tent door is lifted, a bright blue triangular wedge of sky reminds me that there is big, vibrant winter wilderness to explore outside. I gear up with parka and snowshoes but before I get very far, I hear Gary shouting. He has climbed the embankment behind the tent and is looking off into the distance. Far-off barking alerts us that the dogs are arriving. Or so we think. For close to an hour, we stay in pause mode, listening to dogs barking but without ever getting closer. I'm hoping that I am in the best position to photograph the teams as they arrive, but am not at all sure if I am. The snowmachines have left a tangle of tracks that wind in and out of the willows. Which is the one the dogs are following? All I can do is stay in the spot I have chosen and hope. I wait impatiently, stamping my feet to keep them warm. Suddenly, with a swoosh of excitement that scares up a flock of ptarmigan, the teams arrive. The air is suddenly filled with the joy of winter travel!
A sled dog team traveling towards the camera in winter

NPS Photo/Laurie Smith

The dogs are quickly all in a joyous, frolicking jumble of tangled leads and are rolling in the snow, trying to cool off in the hot, arctic sun. Eyes are bright and tails are wagging. It is evident that they are not tired at all by their 15 mile run this morning so once camp is set up, and everyone has had a lunch, we make plans to set off for May Lake to retrieve the barrels.
A sled dog left in camp for the day howls in disagreement

NPS Photo/Laurie Smith

Nick leads the way to the wilderness boundary with his snowmachine, playing 'hare' for the dogs to follow. And even though the dogs have just pulled heavy sleds for half a day, they strain eagerly in their harnesses to give chase. In a lovely, silvery spreading light, they pull out of camp. One of the dogs, Lava, has been left behind due to a sore wrist. He howls mournfully, protesting his apparent abandonment.
A musher on a dog sled pulls a skier with a long tow rope in winter

NPS Photo/Laurie Smith

Gary and I wait awhile to give them a chance to get a good head start and then leave on his snowmachine and catch up with them right at the wilderness boundary. Nick has loaded one of the sleds with a metal detector, crow bars, and shovels in preparation for digging out the barrels from beneath the snow. He puts on his skis and prepares to skijor behind one of the sleds. Then, Nick and the 3 dog teams head out into the wilderness along the trail we tramped for them yesterday. Watching them pull away into the distance, the words 'gaunt beauty' that historian William Brown used to describe the area, come to mind. It is a beauty that has been scoured and honed by the winds and is now burnished by the sun.
A musher & dog team head off into the vast snowy tundra towards distant mountains

NPS Photo/Laurie Smith

Since we don't have skis and we can't match the speed of the dogs on snowshoes, Gary and I head back to camp. The mushers have asked us to do them a favor: we are cooking dinner for 30 dogs! We had no idea that it would take 3 hours to melt and heat enough snow to ensure that all 30 of them will have a warm, brothy meal when they return. I have a whole new level of respect for the work ethic of dog mushers! When I go to bed, Gary is still tending the cooker under the light of a full moon. Not until after midnight do I hear the dog teams return.
A musher in a distant and vast snowy tundra landscape with mountains and sunlight shining down into the valley in the distance

NPS Photo/Laurie Smith

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Last updated: December 2, 2021

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