Though we might be lucky to see polar bears on the expedition – hopefully none quite this close!
Date Posted: 03.20.06 Location: 66°10'N 144°39'W, Circle, USA Weather Conditions: Partly cloudy, breezy and sunny -25F / -32C
Expedition take-off, open water, earthquakes, and a polar bear …“I sure hope I never see a live polar bear up-close like that!” exclaimed Mille. But, standing face-to-face with a stuffed example of this magnificent species, at the airport terminal in Fairbanks, she realized that she was really on her way, about to finally set out on this year’s expedition. Twenty-six hours later, along with Paul and the Polar Huskies, she was roaring down the trail – the GoNorth! Arctic National Wildlife 2006 expedition is now 100% reliant on raw Polar Husky power!
Though Mille has the utmost respect for polar bears, they are something she knows how to deal with. Heights (especially in little airplanes), tornados, and earthquakes are a different story; she is downright scared of these. As Mille set out from the University of Minnesota on Monday afternoon to fly to the expedition starting point in Circle City, Alaska, the Minneapolis airport was in complete chaos as a result of a major snowstorm that morning. Fifteen inches of snow had fallen in four hours in front of Aaron’s doorstep! This was the same storm that caused very violent weather and unseasonal tornadoes farther south. Mille braced herself for the flight, relieved to be dealing with snow rather than these other situations. She finally got on a plane and, after a few difficulties – including a night spent on a chair in the Anchorage airport – twenty-some hours later she landed in Fairbanks, Alaska. There she admits, for a split second, she considered just jumping on the next plane back!
She explains, “First I was told that Circle had been hit by a most unusual earthquake in the early morning hours and, to make matters worse, the nice lady at the little airport counter then pointed to the smallest plane on the entire lot with a big grin, stating: ‘... and that is your plane heading for Circle City; we just switched and are now flying there in a small four-seater Cessna 270. This is our second flight with it.’ Aargh ... I just about passed out!” Mille goes on, “However, when the smiling pilot, Joel, and his wife, Kelly, told me to jump in, I did. Fears or no fears, I was on my way, since Paul and the Polar Huskies were waiting for me in Circle City with an expedition to get underway!"
Mille and pilot Joel in front of the tiny four-seater airplane.
Explore the Cessna plane, bringing mail and Mille to the community of Circle City on the ground and in the air!
The cool part about a small plane is that you can see how it all works! The GPS is a bit fancier than the one we use on the expedition, but the concept is the same.
Mille working to set up her computer so it will operate in the field.
Located beyond the mountains – on the banks of the Yukon River, at the edge of the marshy lands of the Yukon Flats – no one expects to experience an earthquake in Circle, and neither the Polar Huskies nor Paul seemed to have noticed it (Actually, sleeping next to the big red firetruck inside the firehouse, Paul seemed to not notice anything!). We can truthfully say that it would take more than an earthquake to get Paul’s mind off the job at hand: getting this expedition out into the field! Within minutes of Mille’s arrival, the final tasks were outlined and the countdown began. The goal was to leave Wednesday morning – come earthquake or ?
With almost the entire community of Circle City away at the Science & Engineering Fair and festivities in Anchorage this week, it was a very quiet expedition takeoff – except for the crazed Polar Huskies! These veterans know the routine of Arctic exploration very well, so as soon as Mille arrived and they observed increased commotion – bags going in and out, sleds being pushed into position – they made it clear, on a continuing basis, that they were ready to go. Shortly after lunch, the sleds were packed and lashed – each loaded with about 800-900 pounds of food and supplies. Paul and Mille are each running a sled with 12 Polar Huskies. Paul explains, “When we run two teams like this, Mille and I enjoy great teamwork. We work together to travel the fastest and keep the dogs happy. We are not set on the team line-ups, but shift the dogs around between us as we see fit on any given day. However, there are some dogs that we most always run – just because they are our buddies and work well for us. My choices are typically Peto and Beacon, while Timber and Sable are almost always found on Mille’s team.”
Peto making noise and looking wild, ready to go!.
Listen to how the two teams of Polar Huskies are set up.
Crowd or no crowd, it was a magnificent take off for the GoNorth! Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 2006 expedition. In true Polar Husky style – just raring to go – the Polar Huskies were launching into the air, attempting to be louder than the siren on that fancy red firetruck. To be honest – even though we have set out on many expeditions with the Polar Huskies for the last thirteen years – hooking up the team to a loaded sled never stops being intimidating. “You sort of get the feeling that you had better hang on for dear life,” says Mille. “And so, we did! Paul took off out of the firehouse, across Main Street; passing cars and houses. Local dogs running loose were soon ducking for cover as they saw one then two teams of mighty Polar Huskies coming at them full-blast.”
The trail going out of town was narrow but hard-packed, making the sleds glide like giant ships. Both Paul and Mille just hung on to their sleds, enjoying the ride – it was a blast! Two steep hillsides dropped the teams onto a small water channel leading to the Yukon River. This is as far as Paul had been running the teams the previous week – and soon thereafter it all changed. Approaching a small island, Mille fell behind and her sled tipped on its side as she came up and over an ice shelf covered in deep snow. She managed to maneuver the Polar Huskies to drag the sled while leveraging her weight, pulling it back upright and moving on, to catch up with Paul. However, it turned out that this was just the beginning. Sinking into the deep snow and sliding on the sloping banks of the river channels, the sleds must have spilled over twenty-some times. Combined with trying to prevent this from happening by pushing and jerking the front and then the back-end of the sled, the first days of sledding turned out to be full workouts for two- and four-legged team members alike. It did get a lot better once they finally came out of the side-channels to run on the Yukon River itself. They now have to be constantly watching for thin ice and open water caused by the force of the running water.
The solar panel powering most of the equipment used to beam out text, images, movies, and sounds from the expedition.
On that note, consider that this exact power of the river – which makes it trickier for the team to travel on it because of pushed up ice ledges and open water – is also what makes it a source of alternative energy. The river's powerful flow generates electricity that is dammed on the Canadian side running through the city of Whitehorse (which the team went through a couple of weeks ago).
Speaking of alternative energy, Aaron is also trying to make a difference at home with some “carbon curbing.” Aaron and his wife have installed a corn burning stove and are using corn from his father’s farm to heat their house in St. Paul, MN. Have you considered ideas for some carbon curbing? What are your thoughts on solutions and realities of climate change? Make sure to submit your stuff to the Climate Zone!
Dogsledding on the riverbed, the team is traveling on a surface that is lower than the ground around it, which means colder temperatures. The last few mornings have been very cold with temperatures dipping to minus 40-45 Fahrenheit below zero. Running down the river with the dogs enveloped in a vapor trail of ice crystals, reflecting the many colors of light from the rays of the sun, the worry of climate change seems very remote – just like at times it can seem remote as we live our daily lives at home! To discuss this and making climate-related issues real, join atmospheric science professor Cecil Keen for this week’s chat on Climate Chaos, Friday, March 24 at 10:00 am CST.
Watch the Polar Huskies passing lots of tracks from a pack of wolves also running alongside the banks of the Yukon River.
Though traveling on the Yukon River is often colder and, at times, can be a rough route to travel – it is still far better than forcing a way through the surrounding marshes. The Yukon is the longest river in Alaska, flowing 1,400 miles, all the way from the Canadian border to the Bering Sea in the Arctic Ocean. Frozen from October to May, the river has been – and continues to be – a “major highway” of transportation year-round. In the summer, barges bring food and supplies up and down to the communities along the river. During the winter, people travel by snowmobile from community to community. This time of the year, it's really busy on the river as the sun is gaining strength making for warmer travels, once it gets higher in the sky later in the day. The team sees lots of tracks from animals running alongside the banks, as well as from hunters going out on their trap lines and locals just traveling to visit the next community. This weekend is the Winter Fest, celebrating the season in the community of Fort Yukon, where Paul and Mille hope to arrive on Sunday. They have heard that there might even be a community feast for them on Monday! So, they had better power up those Polar Huskies to get there ...
Speaking of power, not even the Polar Huskies go forward without the power of teamwork, and this week’s two Polar Husky Superstars earn their titles because they have shown great team spirit, resulting in some awesome power. This week’s first Polar Husky Superstar, Lipton, is the largest Polar Husky in the Kennel. Though Lipton is a sweetheart and very gentle with people of all sizes, he can be quite a brut and intimidating in his behavior towards other Polar Huskies. Lipton’s awesome power is often wasted when he gets busy showing off and being a bully rather than moving the sled forward. Running in wheel, right in front of the sled, once Lipton does focus his powers – leaning into the harness with all his might – the sled usually bounces forward. On this expedition, Lipton is paired with Baffin – and what a team they make.
This week’s first Polar Husky Superstar is Lipton.
Baffin earns the title of this week’s second Polar Husky Superstar.
Being that this is his first expedition (and that he just turned a year old this winter), this week’s other Polar Husky superstar, Baffin, is still considered a puppy. But running with his new buddy, Lipton, he's already pulling like a veteran! Sometimes being a bit of a brut himself, Baffin is already about as big as Lipton. Very sweet-natured despite his rough edges, Baffin obviously really admires Lipton, making sure to let him know all day long just how much he likes him – and making tremendous efforts to lean into the harness and learn the tricks of moving that sled forward, pulling us to the many adventures ahead, looking for festivities celebrating the seasons, mountains to cross and ... polar bears!