Jens and Freja happily greeting one another as we arrive in Arctic Village.Date Posted: 04.10.06
Watch the arrival!
Location: 68°07'N 145°32'W Arctic Village, Alaska
Weather Conditions: Sunny, blue sky -16F / -26C
In a small, twelve-passenger plane, Jens and Henry were both glued to the window looking for their teammates and the two teams of Polar Huskies who were working their way across the snow-covered rounded tops and long slopes of the old mountains below. They didn't see us, but if they had been able to crack open a window a bit, or had a microphone on the outside of the plane, we are sure they would have heard our continuous hollers flying through the air as Mille pushed her team forward ... Up the mountainsides and across the lakes and woods, “It’s a biiiiiiiiiird! It’s a mooooooooose! Caribou! Caribou! Caribou! Go get’em!” And, to everyone’s tremendous surprise, even, “It’s a … BEAR!!!”
Paul and Polar Huskies coming down the slopes.
On Tuesday, 38 hours after his departure from Copenhagen, Denmark, Jens flew into Arctic Village to meet-up with the expedition. At that time, our Team was still climbing, muscling the sleds up the mountainsides. The following day, when Henry flew in from his home in Eagle River, Alaska, the dog teams were going down, down, down accompanied by long calls of “slooooooow” often followed by cries of “wooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaav,” in an attempt to slow or stop the loaded sleds from crashing down the mountainsides. It was that Wednesday morning that we had all made our minds up to pull into the community of Arctic Village sometime on Friday. Instead – and despite the fact that we had to climb more than 4,700 feet of elevation – the frisky pace with which the Polar Huskies had set out with when departing from Venetie five days earlier saw us blasting into town on Thursday morning, dogs' ears laid flat against their heads and tongues hanging out, and peoples' grins on their faces .... this just twenty-five minutes after departing the campsite. No, that is not a typo!
A huge wildfire referred to as the “Pingo Burn” came within three miles of the community of Venetie in the summer of 2004, the record year for wildfires in Alaska. The land still seems empty with very few animal tracks. Local hunters in Arctic Village also believe that this fire’s smoke caused the caribou to stay away from the area that year.
Watch the Polar Huskies run through the burned woods.
The people of the two Gwich’in communities of Venetie and Arctic Village are very closely bonded and are considered the same tribal band, separate from the other Yukon Flats Gwich’in communities. Beyond the people of Venetie traveling north to get to the edge of moose country to hunt where the caribou still roam (which is at about the halfway point between the two communities) – or vice-versa, as the people of Arctic Village travel south to hunt moose –there isn't much travel from one community to the other by land anymore. However breathtakingly beautiful the mountainous terrain may be, it is by no means an easy or smooth ride by snowmobile – or dogsled. Early Saturday morning, just as we had our sleds packed to depart Venetie, Chief Eddie and his older daughter arrived – already back from scouting the route, breaking trail, and hunting for caribou a day earlier. Returning with two caribou loaded in their sled behind the snowmobile, it had been a successful trip. However, he reported that, contrary to what one would expect, it seemed to be “hotter” up on the mountain.
Watch Paul and his team approach the plateau of a slope going up the mountain.
Explore the view at the top!
Considering that we had sweat running down our foreheads as we loaded the sleds – wearing just long johns on our upper bodies and no hats or gloves – we turned with concerned looks to face the mountain ahead while looking at the melting snow surrounding us. There was not a moment to waste in getting the Polar Huskies heading north, across the mountains to where the temperatures still dip way below zero. As Paul cruised out of town in style, Mille – with Disko in the lead – headed down several wrong (ninety-degree) turns, causing some bruises and much amusement to the crowd of onlookers. But very soon, up the first mountain we went. With temperatures well into the teens and the sun baking on our backs, the Polar Huskies showed their stuff, working hard but easily moving us forward and up, up, up. Before camp-time, we were at the top, enjoying the most spectacular view with the Yukon Flats Refuge spread out below us as far as our eyes could span to the south and east, and the tall, rugged mountains of ANWR to our west. The going had been much smoother than we had ever hoped for. We were thrilled and, so, decided to push through, traveling late to reach the lake at the bottom to our north (as we had been told of a hunting cabin there where we could stay). This way, we would avoid being at the top of the mountain the following morning since, after the dogs rested all night, we would have been in for a treacherous, high-speed downhill experience.
Our friends and trail breakers from the community of Venetie brought out two of our dog food bags and stored them for us in a large truck with an oil rig on its back which has been left parked in the middle of the woods; Paul jumped in to see if he could get it started!
Watch Clyde and Dennis take off on their snowmobiles late at night from the cabin.
With the deep, fluffy snow we quickly realized that going downhill on these mountains was far more work than going uphill. Well, far more work for us humans ... and far more dangerous for two- and four-legged team members alike. Unfortunately, Mille caught her hand between two trees as she tried to hold back her bouncing team, bending her finger oddly out of shape. Late that night when we made it to the cabin, perched beautifully on a cliff above the lake, we were all tired, having covered about 35 miles in a day while also gaining more than 1,500 feet in elevation. Not long after we arrived, Dennis and Clyde – who had gone to break the last end of the trail for us earlier that morning – returned on their snowmobiles with a caribou in the sled that they had hunted. We set to getting the stove going in the cabin for heat and putting on tea water while Dennis and Clyde made their way back to Venetie for the night. Early the next morning, the silence was broken as Chief Eddie pulled up on his snowmobile, having decided to see us to the trail and make it back up to the northerly lakes by the time the caribou would start moving again in the morning hours.
On his second day of hunting, Chief Eddie Frank got six caribou. The meat will be distributed to family and Elders in the community and to those who need it, plus it will be used for the upcoming Venetie Spring Carnival. Eddie could not carry it all with him, so he left some behind to be picked up later, offering that we take pieces when we passed by the pile of meat.
Watch Hunting with Chief Eddie.
Watch Paul skin some caribou for us to eat on the trail.
Explore the site of the caribou meat.
With what looked like a much steeper descent ahead, we opted to stop as we reached a mountaintop that evening. The next morning, within 50 yards of the takeoff, it was starkly clear that we simply had to work together, getting just one sled down the steep mountainside at a time. We released the four or five Polar Huskies closest to the sled and, except for the lead dog, the remaining five or six dogs were unclipped from their harness tuglines so they would only be pulling by the necklines attached to their collars. This was our basic mode of travel for the following couple of days. Going uphill, the Polar Huskies pulled with all of their might; going downhill, half of each team ran behind their sled to stay out of its way (they became really good at this) while we worked – jumping, pulling, and lifting up the sleds as they would crash off the path, tipping and being buried in the deep snow. It surely did get a lot colder again as we made our way across the mountaintops. Yet, even as the temperature dropped, we were drenched in sweat within minutes of departure every morning and utterly exhausted each night. Every muscle in our bodies was getting used to maneuvering the sleds; if not down the slope, then on the windy, twisty trails in-between. As you might imagine, the four or five Polar Huskies running downhill behind the sled of each team were frisky and ready to go when we reached more level ground; they would run up to their respective spots and wait to be hooked back up. Now, thoroughly enthused as they had plenty time going downhill to check out the many, many animal tracks, trails, and droppings, they were eager to go do some “hunting!”
We think this bird is a “red poll.”
Watch the mysterious little red and yellow birds ...
Ears perked, heads up looking around, dogs sniffing in the air and, even once in a while, jumping to the side into tracks to check things out, the Polar Huskies boogied down the trail. Seeing birds swooping by, caribou tracks, and moose turds, their pace picked up. Encouraging yells from us mushers resulted in short sprints and long loping actions whenever one of the dogs sensed there was something on the move nearby! On Wednesday, we seemed to have finally woven our way back down to the plateau on which we would be running all the way to the community of Arctic Village. Although the trail was blown-over with snow and too old for our eyes to see, Disko – leading Mille’s team – did a magnificent job of sticking to it. Actually, he had quite a bit of fun up front – since groups of caribou or other animals frequently use the same trail, they leave lots of exciting tracks and smells to follow.
For the longest time we were following a moose’s tracks that ran down the trail perfectly, making every bend and corner just right. We were a bit bewildered by how it seemed to dig these big holes every so often, and it even seemed to have a particular interest in the traps for martens (similar to weasels) or other animals that were set out along the path. Our moose-track-maker was also making big beds for itself surprisingly close to the trail – which is not very moose-like. Mille recalls, “I started thinking that maybe I couldn't see the tracks quite right from the back of the sled. By the time the dog team runs over them, I can no longer see the track; what I do see is ahead of Disko in the lead, some 50 feet or more ahead of me. I starting thinking that my assumption that we were following a moose might be wrong. Maybe it was a small pack of wolves running in each others' tracks, making the tracks look large from a distance. Considering these strange, large beds, maybe it was some sort of big cat – maybe a lynx or some other animal I didn't know about. But then I kept thinking, it had to be a moose, based on how those large tracks looked from the back of the sled ... and that could explain what sometimes looked like scrapings on larger trees ... All this, though we seemed to be leaving moose country as we continued our travels.”
On the trail of a grizzly bear!
Mille continued: “We came to a sort of fork in the trail where there was a visible snowmobile track going up to a trap set some 30-to-40 feet away. The "moose" had taken that trail and, from a distance, it looked like it had been messing with that trap, too. I called to Disko to go “on-by”– to continue moving forward. As we passed the tracks, I glanced down, and then yelled, "WOAV!" to get the dogs to come to a screeching stop. That was no moose track!? I walked back, completely puzzled, realizing that I was actually looking at a bear track ... and it was no small bear! Soon, Paul and his team came up behind me. I waved for him to come up and take a look, telling him what I thought I was seeing. He just laughed at me.” Says Paul, “I was so sure it was not a bear because, although there are grizzly bears around here, they are not supposed to come out until towards the end of April – at the very earliest, mid-April. So, I teasingly told Mille it was more likely to be Big Foot before it would be a bear.” Grinning, Paul went to take a look for himself; quickly turning back towards Mille, he said, “It is ...a BEAR!!!”
Grizzly bear tracks about the size of Mille’s foot print! Alerted, Disko is on watch, looking around.
Watch the Polar Huskies of Mille’s team on bear alert.
Traveling with a close distance between the sleds, we continued following the tracks out onto an open meadow where, shortly after the discovery, we stopped for lunch – not that we felt particularly hungry at that very moment. Considering how familiar we are with traveling in polar bear country – and that we have Timber, the "polar bear champion" with us – you might wonder why we were so frightened by this. Well, grizzly bears are very different from polar bears ... and we were in a very different kind of terrain. The trail was winding up and down, around tight corners; we were surrounded by trees, so we did not have particularly good sightlines, and there was a lot of cover (places to hide) for a bear. The Polar Huskies have encountered many polar bears, but they have never encountered an ornery, hungry grizzly that just woke up! And no matter what kind of bear you're following, being on its track is never a good thing – especially when one is “Polar Husky hunting!”
The grizzly bear tore apart several traps, eating what was in them.
Disko never did lie down during lunch. He sat erect, ears pointed, looking intensely around, seemingly very tense, and not in any way playful. Lying right behind him, Nazca would often stare in the opposite direction, but mostly they were both intensely focused on the small woods of trees to our west, about a couple of hundred yards away. Right when Mille was pouring hot water on her Ramen noodles, the entire team jumped to attention, woofing short warning barks – all with pointed ears and keen eyes facing the woods. Mille’s water – along with her noodle soup mix – went everywhere but in the bowl. That’s when we decided it was time for Paul to unlash his sled and get out the shotgun, which was at the bottom of the sled-load since we had not anticipated the need for bear protection for hundreds of miles (and weeks) to go!
Caribou on the move – make for fast Polar Husky travels.
Watch tracks of caribou and learn how they dig to feed on lichen and moss.
Paul did get a little bit nervous when he spilled salmon oil all over his bivy bag while making dinner that night ... Mille moved their small trash bag outside of the tent instead of where it's normally kept, at the end of the tent where she has her head when sleeping. That said, we were pretty sure the bear was not going to come quite this close to town but, then again, this bear did not seem to follow the rules of what is "normal." On the other hand, we didn't realize just how close we were to town ... Thinking we were probably half a day’s travel away, we made camp at the end of a nice, protected meadow and got situated instead of heading back into the more heavily-wooded area with deeper snow, where it would have been harder work to set up camp. It had been a great day of really fast travel – much better than we had imagined. We knew we had definitely covered some ground but, when the reading on our GPS gave us a position of maybe four or five miles from town – meaning the Polar Huskies had run some 34 miles that day – we were momentarily speechless for the second time in one day!
We were welcomed to the community of Arctic Village with such delicious delicacies as caribou kidneys, hearts, hamburger, and what Mille is digging into here: red Jell-o with fresh fruit!
So, lead by this week’s first Polar Husky Superstar, Disko, we traveled in less time than it took us to hitch the teams when we found ourselves in the community of Arctic Village, being greeted by Henry and Jens! En route, Disko and crew finally got to see not just the caribou tracks, but actual caribou as they crossed a large lake on the outskirts of town. Then, with the sounds of the many ‘town dogs’ barking and howling in the morning sun, the Polar Huskies found yet another gear of momentum.
This week’s first Polar Husky Superstar: Disko
Disko has always loved attention and getting loved. As a tiny puppy, he would squeal with happiness, twisting himself in a knot for more when getting his little body rubbed. Today, with his very happy and sweet nature, he's eager to please and works hard for the team. A great "hunter," he always loves to explore. Disko’s hard-core pulling technique comes from running his first year on a 2,000+ mile expedition in second wheel, pulling monster loads up mountains and through pack-ice. He can truly rack up the speed, pulling his team forward when he wants to get on the move to "hunt." Just like his sweet nature, Disko has, no doubt, inherited his speed from this week’s second Polar Husky Superstar (and his mother), the "sprint queen," Nazca.
Nazca – This week’s other Polar Husky Superstar
Built like a racing horse, Nazca is by far the fastest Polar Husky in the Kennel. She is also known as the Kennel's master escape artist, constantly running off for adventures in the communities (even though she is very shy with new people)! A bit of a brain – but not one who likes a lot of pressure – Nazca can be a lead dog, but prefers to run in point most of the time. Disko and Nazca are still very close and, running in point when he is in lead, she offers great support and actually ends up doing a lot of his grunt work, keeping the lines tight, making turns, and making decisions regarding the better trails to run on. Running without a neckline much of the time, Nazca has the freedom to make decisions like a lead dog, and you will often see Disko look to his mother for her choice – which he then follows. In this way, she teaches him while he, being by nature very confident, is happy to then lead the way ...