Mushing 101-Feb. 1989

 

“You’re going where? At what time of year?” was the response of most of my Atlanta friends when I told them of my plans to spend my 38th birthday dog sledding in the interior of Alaska. Two years previously, I had the good fortune to meet Norman Vaughan and his wife-to-be, Carolyn Muggae at an Explorers Club meeting. Their tales of dog sledding in the Alaska winter intrigued me and when Carolyn invited me to visit their Trapper Creek cabin during Iditarod training season, I eagerly accepted.

 

Norman Vaughan was a famed explorer participating in Admiral Byrd’s Antarctica Expedition of 1928-30. He even has a mountain in Antarctica named after him which he climbed at age 89. I teased him that he was the only person I knew with a two-volume autobiography. He died in 2005 a few days after his 100th birthday which he celebrated with champagne. (He honored his promise to his mother to not drink until he was 100.)

 

When I arrived at the Anchorage airport after a few days of skiing at Whistler Mountain near Vancouver, I discovered that Alaska had been experiencing record -65 degree temperatures. In fact the front page of the local paper featured a photo of a balmy Piedmont Park in Atlanta. However, neither snow, nor record cold stopped Carolyn and Norman from meeting me at the airport.

 

After a quick stop at a friend’s home in Anchorage where Carolyn instructed me to put on all of the clothes I brought, stash my luggage and bring only a small daypack, we were off to Trapper Creek. We parked the truck about 10 miles from the cabin (where the plowed road ended), pulled the sleds off of the top and harnessed the dogs for an exciting midnight ride to their one-room cabin.

 

I spent the next four days learning to dog sled. We mushed about 35 to 60 miles a day through creek beds, frozen lakes and unplowed roads. Although most of the time I drove a second sled behind the sleds of Carolyn or Norman to provide additional weight (I replaced bags of dog food usually used for that purpose), I did get to mush my own sled about 30 miles, an experience I especially enjoyed. The exhilarating feeling of sailing down a narrow wooded trail in the cold, bright sunshine with a rooster tail of snow flying up from the sled brake is a memory which sustained me in the Atlanta heat.

 

The art of mushing can be difficult to master, especially when you are using “rent-a-dogs” as were Norman and Carolyn. The driver has no control over the dogs except by oral commands and a brake which consists of a rubber pad which you jump on to provide additional drag. And some Alaska canines did not seem to understand a Georgia accent.

To turn the team, one yells “Gee” or “Haw” for left or right. But if the dogs are ready to go home, they may about-face and run directly towards the sled, creating a hopeless tangle of harness, traces and dogs.

 

The driver can fall out of the sled if it tips over rounding a steep corner which I learned the hard way. I found it very embarrassing when the dogs ignored my cries of “whoa” leaving me to walk back to the cabin. Not to mention how dangerous it could be to get stuck in the wilderness without your transportation.

 

Once when Carolyn was attempting to get her team to go straight (the command is “go ahead”), the dogs insisted on first geeing and hawing. When the dogs finally straightened up and took off, Carolyn discovered that the dogs’ gyrations had unhooked the carabiner on the gangline. I would give anything for a photo of Carolyn’s surprised faces as she stood unmoving on the sled helplessly watching twenty harnessed dogs trot off down the trail, free of their cumbersome load. I would have especially liked to see the face of the kind musher who encountered the sledless team and tied them to a tree until the driver could find them.

 

A 35-mile night-time run was especially thrilling. The night was perfectly still with no sound other than the jingle of the dog harnesses and the glide of the sled runners on the crisp snow. The stars and an amazing show of northern lights illuminated the snowy outlines of Mt. McKinley in the distance.

 

In addition to the adventure of dog sledding, I found daily winter Alaskan living to be a unique experience. Carolyn and Norman live simply but comfortably in a rustic cabin heated by woodstove, without the conveniences (interference?) of civilization such as phone, TV, Internet, electricity or running water. They do have a well under the house which provides pump water at the kitchen sink and a “cold spot” in the cabinets which serves as a refrigerator. The freezer is a shed outside.

 

There is a local roadhouse that has a phone or radio. When someone wants to get a message to them, they contact the roadhouse. As we passed someone from the roadhouse on the sled, they held out their hand signaling a message. We would hold out our hand and the roadhouse contact would pass a message to one of us. Fairly primitive but it seemed to work. Luckily no one seemed in a hurry to get in touch with anyone.

 

One of the most memorable buildings was a 3-hole outhouse which features a large picture window view of the Talkeetna Mountains and styrofoam seats. One of the holes is designated as the ‘house hole’ and the other two are ‘guest holes’. Although the facility was quite serviceable, I found that putting on Bunny boots and a down jacket to make the trek into the -20 degree night could be almost as much of an adventure as mushing dogs.

 

 

 

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