There are lots of memes circulating social media, joking about how Alaska has been social distancing since 1959 (when it first became a state). And while in some ways, our day-to-day life hasn’t changed (we still don’t socialize often and continue playing with dogs in the wilderness), we certainly feel the stressors. Oil (one of our biggest industries) is struggling. The $2.00 gas is great for the individual fueling their vehicle but not so great for the state that receives much of its income in oil and gas revenue. Tourism, another major industry in Alaska, has ceased completely. Many dog mushers are hunkering down, speculating about the future of tourism and racing. Will either happen next winter? So rather than sit at home and let my mind get stuck on a loop of uncertainties and questions, we loaded up the dogs and headed north to embrace the social distancing and live in the moment, at least for a short while. As May put it, we “recharged from the Mother Battery.” And wow, did it work. Upon returning home, I’ve been able to approach issues and uncertainties with new resolve and optimism. We’ll make it through these tough times. We will all have to be creative and supportive...
There are lots of memes circulating social media, joking about how Alaska has been social distancing since 1959 (when it first became a state). And while in some ways, our day-to-day life hasn’t changed (we still don’t socialize often and continue playing with dogs in the wilderness), we certainly feel the stressors. Oil (one of our biggest industries) is struggling. The $2.00 gas is great for the individual fueling their vehicle but not so great for the state that receives much of its income in oil and gas revenue. Tourism, another major industry in Alaska, has ceased completely. Many dog mushers are hunkering down, speculating about the future of tourism and racing. Will either happen next winter? So rather than sit at home and let my mind get stuck on a loop of uncertainties and questions, we loaded up the dogs and headed north to embrace the social distancing and live in the moment, at least for a short while. As May put it, we “recharged from the Mother Battery.” And wow, did it work. Upon returning home, I’ve been able to approach issues and uncertainties with new resolve and optimism. We’ll make it through these tough times. We will all have to be creative and supportive of one another, but I truly believe the future isn’t as dire as our minds can sometimes believe. We just have to be patient (which those who know me best, know that patience isn’t my strong suit). But now I’m just rambling and digressing from the main point of this blog post- entertainment for you all during this troubling time. Stories from the North.
All spring we’ve been poised to head to the Brooks Range for a final adventure. I kept a close eye on the weather forecast, looking for the perfect week of sun, cooler temps, and little wind. Finally, there was a break in the weather, and we jumped to action. We loaded the truck with dog food, human food, duralogs (there isn’t firewood to burn in the Arctic), Arctic Oven tent, small wood stove, harnesses, ganglines, hunting gear, snacks, warm clothes, and sleds. Since we can’t drive into the kennel, we mushed the dogs by ATV out to the truck. Their excitement level was borderline chaos. After a few trips back and forth between the truck and the kennel, the faithful dog truck was loaded up with Oryx, King Louie, Dolly, Badger, Etta, Cooke, Vanessa, Ernie, Bert, Elmer, Bull, Otis, Smoky, Thresher, Faff, Bowser, Mario, Petzl, Scarpa, Wombat, Avie (May’s dog), May, Kalyn, and myself. And we hit the road.
The drive to the Arctic is long and slow. The Dalton Highway is used primarily by truckers commuting back and forth along the pipeline and to Prudhoe Bay. Stretches of the infamous road are potholey pavement. Others are mud. Others are rock. Others are some combination that miraculously passes as a road. While I was eager to speed north, going 50 miles per hour, I’d have to be ready to quickly slam on the brakes and decelerate to 10 mph to gently navigate the truck through a minefield of potholes. I’d proudly exclaim “I threaded the needle!” Then about five minutes later we wouldn’t be so lucky, jostling everyone around and apologizing to the front end of the faithful dog truck. (Good thing Derek doesn’t read my blog posts… don’t tell him). Finally after about 10 hours, we arrived at the pull off.
Upon arrival, we discovered that we weren’t the only ones headed into the Sagavanirktok Valley. Another truck was parked at the pullout. It was only my second time down the Atigun Gorge to the Sag Valley, and I know it’s a popular access point, but we were still a little disappointed to discover that our 10 hour drive and 7-mile mush would put us camping in the same area as other adventurers. Little did we know, we were soon to be thrilled to have Robin and Chris as our new, backwoods neighbors!
26-Second Time Lapse through the Gorge. Grab your Dramamine!
Originally we planned on camping at the pullout and mushing in the next morning, but the sky was clear and we just couldn’t wait. We loaded up the sleds and hit the trail at about 9 PM at night. As we mushed up the Atigun Gorge, we were pleased to see the trail in perfect condition. Last year, the majority of the Gorge was covered in frozen overflow, sheets of ice, rocks protruding from the surface, and holes of water. This year, it was a glorious snowy ribbon with almost no obstacles, allowing us to look around and take in the grandeur of the steep hillsides forming the Gorge. About an hour later, we’d arrived at our campsite. We set up the Arctic Oven, bedded down the dogs, and settled in for the evening.
The next morning we awoke to cloudy, snowy weather. WHAT?! This wasn’t in the forecast! That was my initial response; however, the cloud ceiling was just high enough that we could see the base of the mountains across the valley. We decided we might as well go for a mush and see if we could find any groups of caribou. At the very least, the dogs would enjoy getting out for a leg stretcher. Not ten minutes later, we spotted a small group of caribou on a mountainside. We mushed as close as we dared, secured the teams against the shelter of a bluff, and May and I slowly began creeping our way up the mountainside. Kalyn remained with the dogs to make sure they didn’t get into mischief while we were away. Fast forward a few hours, and May harvested her first caribou. We were ecstatic (and that’s probably an understatement). While I love hunting with Derek, there’s something about hunting with a group of ladies that forces us out of our comfort zone. It was invigorating to be with May as she stalked and harvested her first caribou.
The above photo shows Warbles, or larvae of the Warble Fly. The fly lays eggs on the caribou’s hair, then when the eggs hatch, the larvae go under the caribou’s skin and travel to their back. The larvae grow until early summer, when they exit the skin. You can often see where a larvae is located, even without skinning the animal, by a tuft of fur protruding at a strange angle along the caribou’s back. Warbles do not effect the meat and are in fact edible (although I haven’t been able to do that just yet). Our reindeer can get Warbles as well, so we worm them with Ivermectin to prevent the larvae from surviving. The larvae can grow to about 1 inch long….can you imagine that living under your skin? If you’d like to learn more, check out the Alaska Fish and Game Page : http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=disease.skin5
As we mushed back to camp, we met our wilderness neighbors Chris and Robin. They had a five-dog team of burly, fluffy Alaskan Huskies. They, too, had initially been disappointed to realize they were sharing the valley with another group, until they realized we were also mushers. And just like that, mutual camaraderie. Chris had already harvested one caribou and that day, had been on the hunt for his second (or limit). We briefly chatted, keeping distance between us per quarantine regulations, then May, Kalyn, and I continued back to our camp.
Even though we had copious amounts of food, May wanted to prepare the tongue and show Kalyn and I why it’s considered a delicacy. You can see Kalyn’s reaction in the adjacent video.
Cooking the Tongue
The next morning, the weather was once again cloudy and snowing. I was convinced that the weather forecast was completely wrong at this point. We decided to have a leisurely morning, and May would skijor up the Gorge to make sure the trail conditions were still favorable. Overflow can quickly appear and make travel through the Gorge a nightmare, so we wanted to keep tabs on the conditions during our stay in the Sag Valley. As May skijored up the Gorge, the sun finally appeared, and Kalyn and I hiked to the top of a knoll to glass across the Sag Valley looking for caribou. We spotted a group several miles away. We also saw Chris and Robin butchering a caribou down the Valley, meaning they were early morning hunters and had harvested their limit. Knowing that we wouldn’t be interfering with their hunting, we decided to head out that afternoon in search of caribou.
That afternoon was SPECTACULAR. We mushed the dogs high up into saddles, down rivers, across the tundra. We saw several small herds of caribou. Many times, May and I attempted to get within range but were unsuccessful. The farther down the Sag River we traveled, the more and more caribou we encountered. When we decided to call it a day, we glassed down the valley and spotted hundreds, if not thousands, of caribou milling about. Even though our hunt was unsuccessful that day, the views made up for it.
On our return to camp, we once again ran into Robin and Chris. Derek often jokes about how when hunting caribou, you’ll travel several miles in pursuit only to find caribou hanging out at your camp upon your return. This time was no exception. As we mushed back, Chris was standing on top of a small rise pointing out across the tundra as a group of 5-10 caribou browsed along. The caribou spooked when they saw the dog teams, and magically appearing in the middle of the herd was Robin, wearing an all white suit. The dogs barked in alarm, startled that a creature had appeared out of nowhere. Chris asked if I’d gotten a caribou, and upon learning that I had not, offered to lend us his white suit. At first I declined, but he insisted, saying that Robin just walked her way up to the herd, undetected. Chris said I could give the suit back to him in Fairbanks some day. Well, it did sound pretty amazing, so I wrapped up the suit, secured it in the sled, and mushed back to camp.
Otis preferred dinner in bed.
That night, we learned a winter camping lesson. Never point your stove pipe into the wind. As we soundly slept, the wind was blowing down the Gorge and directly into our stove pipe, forcing the smoke back into our little Arctic Oven tent. Intermittently, the stove would cough, sending dark, toxic Duralog smoke into our cozy tent. Cocooned in my sleeping bag, I buried my head deeper and continued sleeping until I heard Kalyn shout “Ryne get UP!” I pulled my head out from the sleeping bag and immediately began coughing. Throwing my torso out of the tent, I looked over at Kalyn and May doing the same, and we all began to laugh. Not sure why. Perhaps at the absurdity of us all hanging out of the tent, gasping and coughing, underneath a clear, beautiful Arctic sky. Well, whatever the reason, I was very thankful that Kalyn is a light sleeper. We readjusted the stove pipe and returned to bed.
The next day was stunning. Bluebird skies. No wind. We hiked up to a nearby knoll and glassed the valley. Immediately, we spotted caribou. Two herds were sprinting across the valley floor. As I scanned behind them, I spotted a grey wolf in close pursuit. For the next thirty minutes, we just watched the saga of the wolf and the caribou. The wolf would single out a caribou, chase it across the valley, yet never actually catch one or really even get close. We later thought perhaps the wolf was trying to tire a caribou and chase it into the waiting packmates. During this whole dance, there was a group of caribou remaining relatively stationary next to a bluff. We made a plan- May and I would go hunt, and Kalyn would explore a new drainage.
May and I mushed down the Atigun to the Sag, then along the Sag until we reached the base of the bluff that we believed was the approximate area where the caribou were located. May waited with the teams, I donned the white suit, and crept up the bluff. Sure enough, the small herd was browsing not far away. Well.. actually… that’s not true. As I crawled on my hands and knees in the white suit, I’m pretty sure the herd was about 10 miles away. And the white suit worked wonders. I was able to crawl practically in the midst of the herd and pick out a bull.
As I stood up after firing my rifle and turned around to look back toward May and the dogs, I was surprised to see a large herd of caribou rocketing up from the riverbed. I was completely surrounded. The tundra had come alive, and there were caribou swirling everywhere. The amount of life not just surviving, but thriving, in the Arctic is astounding. In the harsh winter environment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we saw more wildlife than I had all winter. Hundreds of caribou, wolf, Dall sheep, fox, ptarmigan, eagles, porcupine… I felt honored and thankful to be there.
May later shared her story from the hunt, saying that as I was stalking, she was watching the grey wolf trot across the tundra, spooking caribou and occasionally gnawing on bones. After the gunshot, she walked up to look at me through her binoculars, only to be startled by caribou rocketing through her vision, much closer. When we returned to camp, Kalyn had her own stories of mushing through hundreds of spiraling ptarmigan and climbing higher and higher into the mountains. It was a magical day for all of us, and we never wanted to leave.
We returned the white suit to Chris and Robin, expressing our delight at how stealthy the suit allowed us to be and thanking them. The next morning we mushed out the Gorge to the truck to resupply the dog food. As we mushed through the Gorge, spotting Dall Sheep on either side, we were planning the other places we wanted to explore in the Sag Valley. However, as we got close to the truck, we were met by a wall of overflow. Rolling waves of slush and water were creeping out of Galbraith lake and visibly marching into the Gorge. Remembering our experience from last year when the Gorge was one long stretch of overflow, we knew it was time to call it. And while we wanted to stay forever, we were so appreciative of the few days we did get in that incredible valley. We returned to camp, packed up everything within fifteen minutes, and mushed back to the truck.
As we drove home, we were sad that our trip was coming to a close but also had a new outlook on the upcoming months. We are energized and ready to tackle upcoming challenges. And we’re so thankful to have experienced even just a few days in the spectacular Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.