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WEEK 8: Caribou Kidneys and Moose Hide Sleds

The Polar Husky Express! Timber in downtown Venetie, enjoying a sunny day next to a traditional moose hide sled. Date Posted: 04.03.06
Location: 67°02'N 146°28'W, Venetie, Alaska
Weather Conditions: Sunny, blue sky 10F / -12C

The Polar Husky Express has landed in Venetie! The Polar Huskies have yet to grow wings but this week they were sure flying down the windy, narrow trail and the sleds went flying through the air more than once! “It was like we were traveling in a fairytale land,” mused Mille. “We crossed creeks and misty, swampy lands from lake to lake through different forests of pure white aspen trees against the blue sky or dark spruce funnels bordering the narrowest of trails, with archways of bent branches creating tunnels through the myriad of willow bushes. It made me feel like the characters in one of my favorite books, Brothers Lionheart, as they travel from forest to forest to get to their destination, encountering lots of adventures along their way and finding rare treats and beautiful crafts.” The GoNorth! team had similar experiences this week - from caribou kidneys to moose hide sleds!

The morning the team set out from Fort Yukon, was also the first day of the winter festival celebrations and seven days of dog races. Mushers were waxing the runners on their little race sleds and you could breathe the excitement. During a five-day stay, the team quickly got to know all of the mushers in town. Despite everyone being busy getting ready for the first race, team GoNorth! had a great crew of people ready to help load the sleds and start hitching the Polar Huskies. Turned out that was a good thing! While the Polar Huskies had arrived in town with style - take-off was complete chaos. Having to navigate a few street corners and a couple of stop signs, the team set out flying over the snow banks with sleds flipping mid-air, pulling one sled after another on its side, and dragging first Paul then Mille on the ground behind each sled while they hung-on to one of the handlebars with the tips of their fingers so as not to lose the teams. Although only pulling on their neck lines, the Polar Huskies seemed determined to show their racing cousins that they to can rack up a tremendous speed. At last, safely down on the Yukon River, Paul and Mille were able to catch their breath and yell last good-byes; waving over their shoulders. The show had just begun!

Less than an hour before taking off from Fort Yukon, Mille is on the computer, sending out a few last files using the Thrane & Thrane M4 communication system.
A narrow trail through a spruce forest.
Watch dogsledding through Aspen Forest.
Watch going through a forest of willow bushes.
Watch Paul and the Polar Huskies going through a creek.

The team knew that there was suppose to be an old, established trail between Fort Yukon and Venetie, and that the trail was actually not down on the river, but instead made its way, weaving through the landscape, following old paths overland between lakes and swamps; across ‘portages’ as it they are called. They had also been told that the trail was very windy - and that it might be difficult to travel with 12-foot dogsleds and big teams of dogs. As it turned out, the trail was a bit of a challenge, especially since it was very well-used, meaning it was solid and hard-packed - sort of like a “Polar Husky highway.” “Have you ever watched the luge competition in the Winter Olympics?” relates Paul. “It is a long, narrow track of pure ice, with lots of curves, and the competitors lay on the sled whirling down this track at dizzying speeds. That's the kind of dogsledding we had from Fort Yukon to Venetie!” Except the team surely were not lying on any sleds; instead, like acrobats, they were jumping around on the sleds, pulling, pushing; down on a side, up to the front, steering them through the sharp corners and tricky bends. That’s when they were not using saw and ax to get a sled back on track after crashing into the trees or a thick brush of willows.

“When on the go through the portages, I hardly ever saw my entire team at once,” recalls Mille. “I rarely saw my lead dog Disko, or Nazca in the point position following him, as they would already be beyond the next bend by the time the wheel dogs, Khan and Jupiter, the sled, and I made it around the corner.” Being such a well used trail, it was also very bumpy; what the locals call a ‘wash-board-trail!’ But it sure kept the team busy - and they made it to Venetie in record time, covering 70 miles in less than two days!

The team had been told that Venetie would pretty much appear all of a sudden right in the middle of the woods. And sure enough, coming around a bend out of the trees, they arrived at the Venetie airport runway! Although the sign reading “no crossing of the runway” was not specific about dogsleds, they still opted to spend some extra time making their way around the runway before dogsledding down Main Street - downhill on a very icy road; going very fast. The Polar Husky Express was in town! Greeted by kind people, they soon had a place to stakeout the dogs, a cabin, firewood, a big barrel of water, electricity, and some moose steaks to cook up for dinner. Arriving in Venetie.
Watch Chef Paul in action!
Something the team had never seen before, most sleds in Venetie have sides made from sturdy moose hide!
Explore downtown Venetie and inside of the team GoNorth! cabin!
Venetie is a small Gwich’in community of about 300 people perched on the bank of the Chandalar River at the northern edge of the Yukon Flats Refuge; less than 40 miles from the borders of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Benjamin, who brought the team water and moose meat that night, explained how this area has been a gathering spot for the Gwich’in and how the community, established in the early 1900s, sat on what use to be a flats area by the river which was then narrow and deep. As the river widened out, becoming broad and shallow, the first couple of cabins were built higher up on the banks in the early 1970s, one of which is where team GoNorth! stayed. It is believed that the name Venetie came from a word in Gwich'in that sounds like "netie" which means “animal trail.” They community was named so because it is located in a place where a trail ran through for the animals to get to the river; making it a great spot for the people of this area to return for hunting while living on the land as nomads.

Today hunting and trapping of animals is still a part of everyday life. Dogsledding from Fort Yukon to Venetie, the team saw traps setup along the trail, especially as they got closer to Venetie. The snow was covered with snow hare tracks and, as is often the case when you see lots of snow hare tracks, there were also lots of fox, marten, and lynx in the area. Sure enough, they saw two trapped lynx. One was dead, but the other one was sitting right off the trail, looking at the team. Lynx are shy and nocturnal (nighttime) animals, rarely seen. “I had actually never seen a live lynx up-close” shared Mille. “With silver coats, black tipped-ears and intense eyes, they are absolutely gorgeous - and although I truly appreciate that hunting and trapping are very important parts of the way of life in the north, admittedly I could not go by there fast enough. So fast I didn't take any pictures…sorry!”

One of the team’s first visitors in Venetie was the owner of the trap-line along the trail, Ernest Erich, who was wondering if they had seen any animals. Paul and Mille asked lots of questions and in return learned how this area is very rich in animal life. On that note make sure to share what you are learning about Arctic animals in the Animal Collaboration Zone 03 and join this week's chat on “Biodiversity,” Wednesday, April 5: 10 AM!

With a sprained wrist, Timber rode the sled halfway from Fort Yukon to Venetie. No worries, now he is all fit to go!
Watch sledding with Timber.
Chief Eddie Frank
Watch the story about the wolverine that tricked the Chief.
Indeed after a good night’s rest they woke up to lots of visitors swinging by the cabin, to welcome team GoNorth! to Venetie, see the Polar Huskies, hear about where the team is heading, and share knowledge of the land. The tribal Chief, Eddie Frank, came to welcome them as well, sitting down with the team's maps to discuss the route ahead and offering to be of help by scouting the land while heading out that way for some caribou hunting. The caribou used to come down the mountain to this area, but in the last ten years they have rarely been seen down this way. To hunt caribou the locals now travel up and over the same mountain which the team will be heading for when leaving town - to lakes 60-70 miles away that small groups of caribou still cross. For team GoNorth! this was good news, meaning they will continue to have a nice trail when they leave town - and the locals were happy to be able to take part in breaking the trail, while having the opportunity to go hunting! After a winter of eating mostly moose and snow hare - or ‘rabbit’ as they say, the thought of caribou meat was greeted with smiles, not least as the community is getting ready to soon have their winter festival with lots of visitors and potlatch (cook-outs).
Invited by Chief Eddie and his wife Sarah to their house that afternoon, it turned out that Paul and Mille were up for treats themselves: a most delicious stew prepared with barley and rice from the fatty stomach strips of a moose; smoked to have the most incredible taste with a smell like smoky bacon! And that was just the beginning. Everyday they learned a great deal from Eddie about traditional life and life in the community today, while Sarah shared new delicacies. Their absolute favorite, the smiling eggs with caribou kidneys, tasted like a very mild liver, fried to crisp perfection in lots of butter. It almost brought tears to Mille's eyes with memories of her mom's liver back in Denmark. Like Mille, Sarah is far from her homeland. She born and raised in Kotzebue, a native Inupiaq Eskimo village on the western coast of Alaska but has lived with Eddie and their children in Venetie since the early 1980s. Like most houses in town, Eddie and Sarah have no running water or plumbing, but live in beautiful log home built by Eddie himself, using trees from around here.
The Frank's built a beautiful log home with the local trees.
Watch Eddie teach us about the art of beaver trapping.
Watch Eddie teach Paul to make a rabbit snare.
Watch Paul make his first rabbit snare!
Sarah's collection of ulu knifes, traditional knifes used by the Inupiaq Eskimos. Large ones are used for skinning, middle sized ones for cutting fish and meats, and small ones are for fine cuts, like sewing skins of a snow hare.
Watch Eddie cutting wood.
This area of Alaska - the Interior Alaska - is known to have some of the coldest temperatures in North America. With actual temperatures dipping to the minus 60s and 70s, one way the Gwich’in have been able to survive is by burning wood. According to the Elders it is very rarely that cold anymore, and never for long stretches of time, but wood primarily is still used for heat. With no roads leading into the community of Venetie and the river of Chandalar being too shallow to allow any barges (nor ships or boats) to come up this way, everything most be flown in - be it mail, food, motors, building materials; fuel or heating oil. So, even today, most people heat their houses with firewood. Before the sun gains any strength, while it is still crisp outside, one wakes up to the sounds of chainsaws cutting wood that is collected on the outskirts of town and brought in by sled and snowmobile.
One afternoon Paul ventured out with Eddie to look at the trail that the team will be traveling on when leaving town and they decided to go collect some wood as well. It turned out to be quite the workout: finding the dried trees, whacking off branches, dragging the tree back, and then loading up the sled. "After an afternoon of doing that, I have no doubt why Eddie seems to be in such good shape!" exclaimed Paul. Paul and Eddie also spent a great deal of time discussing other possible sources that the town could utilize for energy. To get electricity, the town relies on fuel flown in by plane - and it is very expensive. A new load was actually due to arrive, which will last the community for about 40-50 days at a cost of more than $14,000. The plane arrived a day late and as such the community's power was shut off, leaving the town without electricity!
Mille working on washing her hair before the community dinner! As an alternative the tribe has some solar panels. Lately they have also been looking at whether they could possibly use the willow bushes, which have been growing like crazy over the last decade, to produce bio-fuel! The willows are growing so rapidly because with warmer temperatures, lakes and swamps are drying out as the permafrost melts. The climate has actually been getting warmer over the last 30 years. During a very nice community dinner that the town had arranged for the team, several Elders explained how they used to be able to see what they call “Big Lake” from town, but it can no longer been seen because of the growth of willows. Now, with this idea of making bio-fuel, the willows could be used for something useful (besides being a favorite meal for the moose and the snow hares) - the thought being that willow grows very fast and are very sturdy plants.
The team can certainly attest to willows being sturdy plants after many close encounters with the bushes as they traveled here from Fort Yukon. But they are not complaining. They will soon be looking far and wide for a plant or a tree as they set out, up, and over the first mountain making their way to Arctic Village. Though they will have a good trail to follow most of the way, the Polar Huskies are going to shift into “hard pulling” mode from their latest sprinting adventures as the team starts climbing the hills. This week’s two Polar Husky Superstars are definitely up for that. Though Sable can keep a swift pace, she is also one of the hardest pulling workers in the Polar Husky Kennel. She is a real sweetheart who loves to play (as you may have seen in last week’s movie ), however when work time comes, few other Polar Huskies get as serious as Sable. Always alert and on the lookout for what is going on, she does not tolerate playing around and gives no slack! With that attitude she demands respect and makes sure her running partner is always hard at work too. This week's first Polar Husky Superstar, Sable.
Good Thunder - this week's other Polar Husky Superstar. Lately Sable has been running with this week's other Polar Husky Superstar, Good Thunder - or Goodie, as we call him. Just over a year old, this is Good Thunder’s first expedition. Already bigger than Sable, and most other dogs in the Kennel, Goodie is a hard worker to begin with - and, just like Sable, he is almost always in a very good mood. That said, also like Sable, he can stand his own ground. Good Thunder is named after a Chief in the area of Minnesota where Aaron is from - namely the town of Good Thunder! We have our suspicion that Good Thunder might just have the qualities it takes for him to grow up to become Chief of the Polar Husky Kennel, being good-natured, fair, and respectful towards the elder dogs but one who can lead the way when it comes to moving forward. We will see - his initial hurdle ahead is the first mountain on our path, which team GoNorth! - and the Polar Huskies - will set out to climb as soon as those sleds are loaded!