Thursday, February 14, 2008

Cabin Camping in the White Mountains - The Longest 16 Miles in Alaska.

We just got home from an overnight trip in the White Mountains National Recreation Area that proved to be much more of a challenge than originally anticipated. The terrain just flat kicked our butts - both human and canine.

My friend Janece Rollet is visiting from her home in Kentucky. Janece has been up several time in February and does exceptionally well with the weather conditions and with the dogs. Given the opportunity I think she could be one of the best mushers around. I thought it would be good fun to take Janece on a dog powered camping trip to a public use cabin in the White Mountains. Having a cabin to stay in overnight makes trail life a lot easier, and I haven't camped with my team much so it seemed a great opportunity to add some new skills to my repertoire.

I also thought it would wonderful to share the experience with some other great friends, so I invited Lynn and Rich Orbison. The plan was for Rich to ride a snow-machine pulling a tow-sled to carry the heaviest and bulkiest of our gear and supplies. Lynn and I would drive our dog teams on what should have been a nice trip into the woods and back.

Had the original plan worked out the trip would have been lovely. Unfortunately, things don't always go as planned and when Rich was recalled to his job for an vital meeting we lost our snowmachine support. We had planned to carry the heaviest equipment and supplies on a tow-behind sled with the machine, leaving the dogs lightly loaded. With Rich having to bail out, we did some readjusting. Nice but not necessary stuff was left behind. We put the bulk of our gear and supplies into my freight toboggan, and Janece would travel with Lynn's team and a minimal amount of stuff. It made for a massive load on my toboggan, but with dogs that have been training with extra weight all year I figured it would work out alright.

Lynn and I made up teams. She wanted to bring a malamute x Alaskan husky mix named Kia who has not worked terribly well in harness in the past but has been doing fairly when training with my dog Gump. I loaned Gump to her team to give Kia a "buddy", and borrowed her little yearling Polar to fill in the space on my team. So, my team included:

Dutchess and Torus in lead.
Seamus and Rose in Swing
Nels and Polar in team
Sheenjek and Grace at wheel

With everything and everyone loaded we called up the dogs and headed out. The first 7 miles, up a moderate grade and then down a moderate hill into Lee's Cabin went by quickly as my 8 freighters put their minds and bodies into their work. Lynn's team kept up very nicely as I expected, as most of her team were sprint racing dogs. We hadn't coordinated our plans as well as we should have. We had talked casually about making stopping at Lee's cabin for a meal and to give the dogs a break, but hadn't really made it a plan. My team was running very well and it would have been difficult to settle them in for a break, so I continued on.

When I looked back I missed seeing Lynn and Janece, so hooked down on the trail with 8 screaming maniacs until they popped out of Lee's cabin and fell in behind me. I pulled the hooks and we continued on. We tackled the first of six steep hills we would climb and descend to arrive at our destination. I let my dogs work at their own pace, trusting that Lynn's faster team would keep up. When I didn't the ladies behind me I didn't think much about it. Lynn frequently holds her team back to keep from over-running and distracting my dogs and I just assumed she was doing so that day.

Frankly, I wasn't paying enough attention to what was happening to my companions. They were having some significant trouble with the terrain, and Kia was not only refusing to pull, but was pulling back on her neckline so much that she eventually had to be released to run free rather than drag the team down. While my freighters were just bulling their way up the hills with only short rest breaks to recoup their strength, Lynn and Janece were each on a runner, peddling, running beside the sled, walking beside the sled and having to take many more breaks than my team. Because I didn't know what was going on I ended up far ahead of them.

Meanwhile, I had some difficulties of my own. Coming down one of the hills I flipped the toboggan on a tussock. I hollered "who" as I went down the and dogs stopped very nicely. I'd no sooner righted the sled and got it lined out when we hit a trench cut into the side of the trail and went over again. That really was the only signficant difficulty I faced. It took quite a while for me to get that mess straightened up and I really expected Lynn and Janece to come across me while I was sorting things out, but no sign of them.

I got my team to the bottom of that hill and hooked them down to rearrange gear and waited. And waited. And waited some more but still no sign of Lynn and Janece. Meanwhile snow was falling at an alarming rate and the wind was kicking up. My dogs were getting tired and I was getting worried. I knew the ladies had adequate gear and Janece is an experienced camper, though less experienced in winter conditions. I still wasn't worried enough - I decided to press on to the cabin, unload cargo and then return.

We did two more hills before reaching the cabin, and by the time we got there all thoughts of returning had vanished. My dogs just weren't up for it. They were nearly exhausted, and so was I. I thought maybe with a couple of hours of rest and a good snack I could pick my six strongest dogs, take an empty sled, and head back for Lynn and Janece. My thoughts were of the myriad things that might have gone wrong. I got my team out on picket lines and gave them a meat snack, walked into the cabin, and hauled out my cell phone. It had a strong signal, so I decided to call 9-1-1 to request a search and rescue mission. Just as the dispatcher answered Lynn and Janece and their team came into view. Words can't do justice to the relief I felt at that moment.

As the last of the daylight was fading Janece cooked supper while Lynn and I tended to the dogs. Rich had packed a wonderful menu for us, and I heard the story of the ladies' ordeal as we wrapped our lips around prime rib, asparagus, and mashed sweet potatoes. We joked and chatted into the evening as the weather cleared up and stars danced about. Our tiny little cabin didn't have a lot of room, but it had a view that just wouldn't stop. It was warm and cozy and safe, and that was more than good enough for us.

With the dogs resting nicely in nests of straw, we planned our return. Kia obviously couldn't run on the team, but we needed and wanted to get some actual work out of her, so we decided she could drag a big, slippery bag that Lynn has out for us. She would haul the garbage and miscellaneous small items while following Lynn and Janece's team. I would take Gump back onto my team and let Lynn and Janece have Polar and Grace, adding one more working dog to their team.

After a warm night of sleep and a hearty breakfast of pancakes, bacon, eggs and sausages we stuck to that plan. Today I would follow the ladies to make certain I didn't out run them again. By the time we got everyone lined out and hooked up it was well into the day, but the temperature was warm and warming. Janece said the thermometer on the parka I'd loaned her read -7 when we left Moose Creek Cabin for the trail head.

If anything, the hills are steeper going out than when coming in. It required a lot of stops and human-effort as well as canine effort to get over each and everyone one of them. When we finally reached Lee's cabin, seven miles from the trail head, dogs and humans were all ready to take a break. During our rest it was actually warmer outside than inside the cabin. We had a bit of confusion getting the teams turned around in the area near the cabin, but got back on the trail and climbing the next hill in fairly short order.

By the time we reached the trail head it was 20 degrees above zero, and we were all more than ready for that trip to be over.

This was my first serious camping trip with the team, and I learned a lot of important lessons.

- When plans get changed, regroup and make sure you really do change the plan. We didn't really have much superfluous gear or supplies with us, but we could have lightened the load here and there, and doing so would have made it easier for both the dogs and the humans.

- When planning, pay more attention to the impact of the terrain. I knew this was a hilly route, but I didn't realize how steep or how tall those hills are. My team managed the terrain just fine, with frequent stops to regroup and plenty of help from their musher. Lynn and Janece had the run from hell just getting their dogs up and over the hills. Be sure everyone has enough dogs to manage the terrain comfortably.

- DON'T let your party get separated. That was the biggest and most important lesson to me. I assumed that my freighters would be much slower than Lynn's team, but with two people on the sled and Kia acting up that proved to be a hugely erroneous assumption. It was very frightening to me to have lost my favorite ladies, and I'll not risk doing that again.

One more thing before I post this. This was NOT an easy trip. In fact, it proved to be a very challenging trip. Lynn Orbison and Janece Rollet not only endured it, they did so with grace and good humor and a degree of class that is rarely seen in this day and age. They have always had my undying respect, and that respect has been solidified even more with this trip.

I am also very proud of 13 of our 14 dogs. Kia's performance erased all doubts I may have had about my decision to drop her from the Stardancer line-up last fall, but all the other dogs pulled their hearts out for us. They were just plain awesome. One couldn't ask for dogs with more grit than these guys demonstrated.

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