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Week 14: The Finale

Week 13: Quyanapak!

Week 12: ANWR's Colors

Week 11: A Piece of Heaven

Week 10: Caribou People

Week 9: It's a... Bear!!!

Week 8: Caribou Kidneys...

Week 7: A Way of Life

Week 6: Polar Husky Power!

Week 5: End of the Road!

Week 4: Celebration Times!

Week 3: 80 Pounds of Butter?

Week 2: Check. Check. Done!

Week 1: Preparing

 


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WEEK 11: A PIECE OF HEAVEN

 
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Watch Henry’s sense of ANWR.
Date Posted: 04.24.06
Location: 68°53'N 144°19'W Chandalar River Campsite, Alaska
Weather Conditions: Sunny, blue sky 10F / -12C

Black mountaintops dressed in white blankets of snow, feathered willow bushes budding; the frog-like croaking sound of ptarmigan birds waking us. To make our tea, a small stream with running water across glistening stones; Polar Huskies howling and being answered by wolves from a distance…such moments come together to make a grand landscape, filling each of us with awe for what are some of the most spectacular surroundings any one of us has ever experienced. With mountain peaks that reach for the sky and turquoise river-ice colored by waters from glaciers to our east - the east fork of the Chandalar Valley, where we have been traveling for the past week since leaving Arctic Village, is like a peace of heaven; every day is another day in paradise…


Charlie shows Paul where he and Albert traveled ahead for us.

Well, really it is another day in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge! And like with most experiences, there are two sides of the story to tell. While the settings have been spectacular this week, the travel has not been all that easy. Setting out from Arctic Village the Polar Huskies were more than rested, taking us down a hard-packed trail in 'flying-out-of-town' style. Carrying the supplies of four team members instead of two, plus food and fuel for three weeks, the sleds were loaded. That same morning hunter Charlie Swaney and Elder Albert James set out on their snowmobiles, traveling in the direction we were heading to hunt for caribou, break trail, and bring some of our dog food out ahead for us. We are always happy to be on a trail and we soon came to really appreciate this trail!


Henry with an axe in hand as he and Paul had to take down a tree to move their sled forward.
Watch Paul's team running through the woods.
Explore how the ground is covered with caribou tracks where the Polar Huskies enjoy a break!

Whether we were running in wide, open spaces or through wooded areas, twisting and turning to avoid the trees, the ground was covered with ‘hummocks.’ If you have ever seen a mogul slope of a ski hill, this is sort of what hummock-covered ground looks like. It is basically a swampy area were the ground is pushed up into moguls with long grasses and small twined bushes. “Hummocks make me think of heads sticking out of the ground with long hair that catches skis, paws, and sled runners going over them!” describes Mille. Deeper snow can actually be helpful when traveling in hummock areas because it fills in the spaces, especially if the sled can then sort of float on top of the moguls. Unfortunately that was not the case here. We did have deep snow, but we also were traveling in the path of thousands of porcupine caribou. Everywhere, as far as you could see, there were tracks, diggings, beds, and droppings from the caribou that had passed through ahead of us. This, combined with hummocks, made for some very uneven ground that caused the sleds to tip, tilt, and plow into hummocks ‘heads’ or piles of deep snow. Traveling with two people on each sled, one would try to steer the sled from the back, while yipping and hopping the dogs. The other person, on skies, would hang-on to a small rope at the front of the sled, pushing and pulling, trying to avoid trees and caribou holes.


Caribou running through the woods alongside of us.

We still made great time, not least because we encountered several smaller groups of caribou that made the Polar Huskies fly with sled and people behind them - hummocks or no hummocks. Then the trail ended! Late afternoon, within minutes of the time when we would normally start looking for a campsite, the trail made a small loop and in the middle was our supply of another 500 lbs. of dog food to take us up and over this mountain range. The next morning, Mille put on her skies and set out to find a way to the river - with a very heavy sled being pulled behind her. In a straight-line our campsite was just about a couple of miles from the river but we quickly decided that we needed to find a better way there - out of the willow, woods, and hummocks; not least hoping to escape the deep snow.


The team standing on green ice created by overflow.
Watch a large open hole in the ice!
Watch Paul explain about overflow.
Listen as Jens chops frozen slush.

If you look at the map or fly through the valley via the movie developed with Google Earth that Paul used to scout the route before we set out on the expedition , you might wonder why we did not travel more on the flat ice of the Chandalar River to begin with!? Several large creeks flow from the mountains on each side of the valley into this river. For one, that means that the ice is very tricky, often thin with substantial open water. Especially this time of the year, as the snow starts melting on the mountaintops, it means lots of slush and overflow. As the water level rises in the river below the ice, cracks form and the water starts flowing on top of the ice and snow. Overflow is not that dangerous in itself, beyond the fact that it leaves you with wet feet if you break through the top crust of ice, but it does make it very difficult to check whether or not the ice is actually safe to travel on. Slush is just like a ‘slush ice cream!’ If there is a quantity of snow on top of the ice, then the overflowing water mixes with the snow, creating a thick slush of water and snow. Not only do we get wet feet - and possibly wet gear if the sled tips over - but the slush builds up on the bottom of the sled, making it almost impossible to pull once back on normal snow. We then have to tip the sled over and clean-off the bottom to make it glide again.


Crossing open water.
Watch the crossing!

Though we feared the overflow, we were still very happy to reach the river. As it turned out, there sure was a lot of overflow, with thin ice and even an open water stream we had to cross. The Polar Huskies did great! Jens, who was the first to put on his rubber boots, actually carried Paul and Henry on his back from shore to shore, keeping their boots dry. Mille’s boots however, did not stay dry because she had to launch into the first overflow we encountered to get the dogs through it as they were a bit surprised. That quickly changed and soon Disko and the rest of the crew ran through slush, overflow, cracking ice, and open water as if it was something they encountered every day!


Traveling in deep snow with Jens and Freja out front breaking trail.
Watch Henry and Mille work the front sled in deep snow.
Watch Mille’s team of Polar Huskies working the deep snow.

Unfortunately it turned out that the river was really more like a delta, with many smaller streams woven between willow bushes and lots of very deep snow. The Polar Huskies plowed through snow above their bellies, while we pushed and pulled to keep the sleds going as straight as possible behind them. To ease the work for the dog leading the first team, we sent a skier out ahead of the dogs, making a ski trail for Disko to follow as he leaped through the snow. At times we shifted to snowshoes because the snow was just too deep for skiing. For a short time, to see if it would be easier, we even tried putting Freja out front with Jens ski-joring behind her to break the trail ahead.


As no motors are allowed in ANWR, we are using only our solar panels to power computers, cameras, and all other electronics.
Watch ice check!
Watch Polar Huskies on fast, then cracking ice.
Explore the river-ice.

Every day the sun is getting more intense, to the point where we will have to start changing our schedule so we travel earlier in the day and stop by the time the temperature peaks in mid-afternoon. It is still light out at 11 PM and the sun is making its way high in the sky by 9 AM, when we have been coming out of the tent to start the day so far. Every day we have seen the river change too, with the snow getting softer and more open water. While we have been traveling further north each day, we have also been traveling up - literally up the river! By the time we made it towards the end of the valley the trees were getting smaller, the willows were getting thinner, and finally the deep snow disappeared from the ice, replaced by a fast, smooth surface on which the Polar Husky crew could sprint - through splashes of water. The dogs soon handled that with style as well while we two-legged have all been wearing our rubber boots - and lots of sunscreen.


The little dots in the back are caribou grazing behind our camp.
Explore our spectacular campsite and click the tent to look inside as Paul and Henry are charging a gel cell battery with the solar panel.
Watch Paul’s sense of this place.

Camped at the entry to the Guilbeau Pass valley, we are less than six miles from the crux of this expedition. Perched on a gravel beach, our two tents are surrounded by mountain slopes covered with tracks of caribou heading for the very same pass as the one we will use to cross the Brooks Mountain Range. Less than a quarter-mile from our campsite is a herd of several hundred caribou. Yesterday they traveled next to us for most of the afternoon with their leaders closely watching us and the dogs closely watching them! By the end of the day we passed the herd and encountered miles of glare-ice, making for some high-speed dogsledding down the middle of the river to the end of the valley. We think the caribou are, more than likely, waiting for us to move ahead so they can enter the valley behind us. Considering we will have to climb 1,500 feet in less than a mile, it would be nice if they decide to go ahead and be right in front of the Polar Huskies. That would sure power us up and over that mountaintop!


This week's first Polar Husky Superstar: Beacon - ready to play!

Not that the Polar Huskies need to be powered. If one could actually power things (beyond a dogsled) with some Polar Husky power, this week’s two Polar Husky Superstars would be first picks for the job! Not only is Beacon a large, strong, and very bright Polar Husky, he is also one with a huge personality. Beacon makes a lot of noise, growling and sounding like he is quite the brute - but he is really just up for some fun. A very friendly guy, he can pretty much run with anyone and anywhere in the team. Since he was a pup Beacon has been very close to Paul and is extremely playful and loving with people. At less than a year old, Beacon has already started going out to schools and events to meet and greet people with his big grin and playful nature. That said Beacon also has a big chest and an awesome style to move the sled forward. But be assured - he is doing it with a grin on his face.


Xena, this week’s second Polar Husky Superstar - jumping with joy.

The same goes for this week's other Polar Husky Superstar, Xena. Xena is completely hyper! A very sweet and always happy dog, all she really wants to do is pull, run, and pull some more. When not on an expedition, in front of a sled pulling, Xena can actually seem a bit over-powering but she is the smallest dog in the Kennel, loves attention, and lots of loving. She rarely lays, sits or stands still being extremely athletic, and very fast like her mother, Nazca. Always alert, though she has a hard time listening for too long, she is an excellent point dog, simply because she has so much energy that it just ripples down through the team. One day when she slows down, Xena will probably become a great lead dog. But for now, what we need more than anything is all of that energy and happy thoughts as we head into the steep cliffs and boulders of the Gilbeau Pass…crossing over to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - another piece of heaven!