Two Capetonians go mushing in Alaska

Story by Alta Wessels & photos by Emile Wessels

Emile and his teamAlta and her team

After much excitement and even more planning we were ready to go mushing in Alaska. We flew to Anchorage, where we caught a flight out to Nome. Nome is a frontier town on the Bering Sea and can only be reached by air or boat in Summer and dogsled in Winter. There are no roads between Nome and the rest of Alaska.

From Nome a 10-seater bush plane took us to St Michael. We were quite surprised to see that the runway had steep embankments and I even worried that the plane would fall off the runway. The pilot told us that it was built up like this in order for the wind to keep the runway clear of snow.

Jerry and Clara Austin, of Austin's Alaska Adventures, came to pick us up and take us to their home in St Michael. Our sleeping quarters were in a cabin across the road from their home. The only ablutions available was a 'honey-bucket' toilet. No running water as the pipes are frozen solid, therefor no flush toilets and no showers.

We were introduced to the rest of our group, which consisted of Jerry (outfitter), Clara his wife (cook), Glen their son in law (general dogsbody) and Kate (guide). Both Clara and Glen are Yup'ik Eskimos. [Note: Although the term "Eskimo" is supposedly not politically correct, this is what they call themselves. "Inuit" refers to a specific tribe, like Yup'ik.] The rest of the guests were Mick from Los Angeles, Stephanie from North Carolina, Elaine and Allan from New Hampshire and Roy from Australia. Emile and I were their first ever South African visitors.

Huge Boots

That afternoon we had a lecture in mushing in Jerry's garage and were issued with our gear. We were taught how to harness the dogs, what the commands were and most importantly to "ride the brake". We were each provided with a pair of boots (huge!), bib-pants, a parka and mitts. Protective headgear (our own) and sunglasses are also very important. Once you are kitted-up in this gear, you are 'as snug as a bug in a rug'. The parka has a hood with a ruff of wolf or seal fur. Even in a blizzard one can stay reasonably comfortable in this.

We had to help feed the dogs. They get a mixture of dog pellets that had been soaked in hot water and fish oil. It has the consistency of a thick soup. The reason for soaking their food, is because they do not drink any water in winter - water bowls freeze! Apart from scooping snow this is the only fluids they get. Here we learnt the true meaning of 'feeding frenzy'. Imagine 40 - 50 dogs going ballistic!

Feeding time in St Michael

That evening was spent packing and re-packing our gear. What shall we take and what must be left behind? Every person is allowed to take one duffel bag and that is it. The next morning we were up at 7am and still at it.

We had breakfast at around 10am and then it was time for the action to begin. Our sleds were packed: 1 duffel bag, 1 sleeping bag, packet of snacks, salmon snacks for the dogs and an insulated water bottle. (The water bottles are insulated to keep the water from freezing on the way, but we were warned to bring them into our tents at night otherwise they would be frozen by morning!) Our teams were harnessed, amidst much excitement and even more noise! Each team consisted of 5 dogs: 2 lead dogs, a swing dog and 2 wheel dogs.

The snow hooks were pulled and we were off! We would be following a thousands year old Eskimo trail and started out straight across the frozen solid Bering Sea. The instruction to “ride your brakes” became immediately clear. Five fresh and rested sled dogs are more powerful than one expects. Once the snow hooks are pulled, they take off as fast as they possibly can. Fortunately the crossing of the Bering Sea was flat and straight, so we had time to adjust to the new sensation of the sled.

Stopped on the Bering Strait

As we came off the Bering Sea there was a short uphill and here Elaine had the first crash of the trip. The procedure in the event of a crash is that the person in front of you must catch your team if you become separated from them. As soon as the dogs realize that the weight of the person is gone and that nobody is riding the brake, they take off at full speed. As it was uphill they were not going too fast and Roy was able to catch them in time.

The terrain was not too rough and we soon settled to an easy pace. There was ample time to relax and enjoy the scenery. Jerry, Clara and Glen were on snowmobiles to be able to travel ahead and scout the route and to get the camp ready for our arrival. Jerry came across some fresh wolf tracks, which he marked with orange flags, but the tracks were all we saw of the wolves. He did however have to shoot a wolf just two weeks prior to our trip as it was hanging around one night wanting to catch a sled dog for dinner.

We arrived at Klikitarik, an old Eskimo camp, at about 4pm. Here they have a semi-permanent tent camp. We had double walled, heated tents to sleep in. A tent with a chimney remains a strange sight to a South African! The stove was doing such a good job of heating the tent that we had to open the door from time to time to cool it down a bit.

Camp at Klikitarik

That night we had a campfire in the snow! A definite first for us. We were very surprised to see a neighbour of Jerry's and his wife come into our camp on snowmobiles. They had traveled many miles to the nearest town to collect a pizza for their dinner! He had a lynx in a sled behind his snowmobile that he had shot.

We kept a constant look-out for the northern lights, but they eluded us throughout our trip.

A routine was set of sleeping late, having a big breakfast at 10am and then mushing until about 4pm. As we set out the next morning we had a couple of difficult turns to negotiate and everybody had a few tense moments. Poor Elaine had her second crash and this time her team got well away. She had to catch a ride with Jerry on his snowmobile to be reunited with them. Later that same day Stephanie would be parted with her team and would give a demonstration of how to ski behind your sled by grabbing hold of the snow hook! She had us all in fits of laughter.

Halfway through our second day the wind started to pick up. Soon we were zipping up our parkas and pulling up the hoods. It wasn't exactly a walk in the park, but we were reasonably comfortable with such great gear.

Blizzard coming

We had quite a few portages (gullies) to negotiate and had to concentrate a bit more than the first day.

When going down into a gully the dogs would pull their tails under them and keep glancing back. They were making sure that you ride that brake and keep that sled from ramming up their backsides! Going up on the other side you would get dirty glances if you were not doing your bit to help the sled up the incline! On a gradual incline you can just kick with one foot, but if it gets really steep you must jump off and run behind, pushing the sled. You must be quick to jump back on once you are on even ground again.

The dogs were all very well behaved and well taught. Only three of the commands were really ever used. "All right!" to start and "Whoa!" to stop and then "Get up there + dog's name" when not pulling as they should, e.g. not "pooping on the run" or hesitating through portages. It is interesting to note that a true sled dog must be able to go to the toilet ( both jobs!) on the run.

When stopping for any length of time, one must set your snow hooks. You have two snow hooks at the back and one on a lead line at the front. The two at the back anchors the sled and the one in front keeps the team strung out in a line and ensures that they do not double back towards each other and get entangled or start fighting. It is also very important to ride your brake every time you pull your snow hooks.

At about lunchtime the dogs are given a rest and are "snacked" on frozen pieces of salmon. This keeps their energy levels up.

Stopped for snacking

At the end of the second day we arrived at Golsolvia Lodge, a hunting cabin of Jerry's on the Golsolvia river. The wind was still blowing and we were quite relieved to be able to tether the dogs and find shelter inside. The lodge is very comfortable with a huge woodstove in the living area. Two huge pots were set on the stove to melt some snow and heat the resulting water for a shower. The shower was of the camp shower variety - a bag with a shower head that was filled with warm water. You then go outside to a tent with a slatted floor. Fortunately the tent is heated by a gas heater. It is quite an experience having a shower in a tent while outside the temperatures are well below 0°C and a blizzard is howling! After everybody had taken a shower, we sat down to a hearty meal of King Crab legs, salmon and salmon eggs. What a pleasure!

Fortunately we planned to stand over at Golsolvia Lodge the next day, because when we woke up that morning the blizzard had really picked up speed. Wind speeds of up to 56 miles/h and temperatures with a wind chill of -26°C were recorded. With the toilets situated outside the lodge you can bet that we waited till our eyes watered before we made the dash.

Feeding in the Blizzard

The poor dogs were staked out on their tetherlines in this! They however did not seem to mind the lack of shelter too much. They merely rolled themselves into tight balls with their noses tucked under their tails and let the snow cover them.

Dogs in blizzard

By late afternoon we just had to go outside. We kitted up in our gear and Glen took us with 3 snowmobiles and sleds to where they fetch water from the river through a hole in the ice. We had great fun playing around with the snowmobiles and sleds. You can get the sled to skid out quite dramatically without even trying to.

When we got back to the lodge the wind had blessedly died down and we could take a bit of a walk. Emile was also able to get some good photographs. The next morning was nice and calm again and we could start heading back.

Morning after blizzard

By now we mushed like old hands! We would take the same route back and again stayed at Klikitarik that night. The weather was quite mild and on both our last two days we had to stop regularly to allow the dogs to cool down a bit. On the last day I did not even zip up my parka!

It really was the experience of a lifetime and my only complaint about the whole trip is that they consider it a "soft adventure"!

On the way back to Klikitarik

Text and photos © Alta & Emile Wessels