PARADISE FOUND IN THE ARCTIC
The ingredients for a luxurious spring mushing trip are numerous, varied, and – in our decadent opinion – all critical. First, take thirty amped sled dogs, add some experienced mushers, clear skies, and a Brazilian bikini model (this last ingredient is optional, but based on our experience, highly recommended). To this hearty stew, add the full spectrum of “necessities” for an extended arctic trip, and simmer in the April sun for four weeks. Indeed, for the month of April, the North Slope became our backyard, our dog yard, our hunting grounds, and our playground. The dogs’ enthusiasm was contagious, as they sensed that the long days cruising the spring crust would soon be the endless days of summer.The trip was borne out of the revelation that spring snow and light conditions in the arctic (and a lead dog named Silver) would allow for extensive off-trail exploration and late season training. Shallow snow, containing hard wind slabs capped by forthcoming melt crusts, made trail-breaking easier than in the Interior. The additional light made it possible to start runs late in the afternoon, or even during the brief “night.” Without any trees to hit, novices could ride the runners without having a life-threatening experience. This was important, as part of the function of the camp was to offer the wilderness mushing experience to supporters of Brent Sass and the Wild and Free Mushing kennel.Brent Sass, Thom Walker, and Mariana Pertel spent the first five days running dogs, shuttling massive cargo loads twelve miles from the road to camp. Once the gear was moved to the camp, Sass and Walker built dog shelters out of snow slabs, created a solarium out of ice blocks, constructed an outhouse throne with a staggering Brooks Range view, and erected four wall tents with woodstoves. Thirty cases of duralogs made the effective latitude inside the tents down around tropical. Mariana (the Brazilian) felt right at home. A flagpole made of ski poles and duct tape hoisted the Alaska flag over the newborn arctic base camp. That was the scene greeting me when I arrived at camp on skis in mid-April. But in fitting with the luxury mode, instead of making the distance from the Haul Road under my own power, I was pulled behind Sass and a 14-dog team, connected to them by 2 skijoring bungees and a harness. It was skijoring on steroids! It had been a couple years since we’d tried “ski-mushing,” as we called it. Back then, Sass and the dogs and I were pretty green (I had never even skijored), but we managed forty-plus miles per day in the White Mountains and off-trail in Denali. Behind 7 dogs and a musher that were just starting their careers, I got my share of exercise, and was thankful that the team wasn’t any stronger. Let’s just say that there were a few dramatic yard sales in my wake, particularly before the quick-release was standard equipment. Open stream crossings and steeply inclined frozen seepages come to mind.The improvement from the old dogteam and musher to the new was like the difference between March and April on the North Slope: night and day. The 14-dog team was seasoned from a winter of running recreationally and competitively, followed by several weeks of lengthy forays across the Slope. Being pulled behind the powerful team and musher, following caribou and mirages across an endless lunar landscape, it occurred to me that perhaps this event should be considered “The Real Arctic Man.”Back at camp, despite having the matriarch (Willow), 4 puppies, and a cat loose amongst 25 chained dogs, the general sense of order was astonishing. As spring marched on, caribou antlers slowly accumulated to decorate the solarium, and radiant warming soared during the day. Reclining beach chairs and suntan lotion appeared, dogs and humans turned lazy, and our skin – fish white from a Fairbanks winter – met the sun en force. Everyone in camp started to look like our token Brazilian, at least in skin color. It was no Rio de Janeiro; it was our Rio de Gelo (River of Ice). The snowy paradise – the beach vacation of the arctic – had been realized. Visitors to camp who braved the unpredictability of the Slope were rewarded with a choice between long runs behind the dogs and snoozing in the solarium covered in a blanket of puppies. Brent mushed almost every day of the trip, and his caribou harvests kept caribou stir fry, stroganoff, and fajitas on the cook-tent table, while dogs feasted on the bones. Thom’s assortment of homemade baked goods (augmented by bagels and bread from Lu Lu’s Bakery in Fairbanks) was truly astounding, to the point that typical wilderness food fantasies became a thing of the past. For those of us who don’t regularly use dogs to access the wilderness, it is always a surprise to be replete.And so, let’s not forget the dogs. “Of the dogs, for the dogs, and by the dogs” is an appropriate phrase to describe our appreciation of their contribution. The camp was ultimately an opportunity for the dogs and mushers to maintain focus and fitness. A welcomed consequence was that the dogs transformed an otherwise bleak and cold trip into our comfortable home. Nestled in our warm tents, or basking in the solarium, we often raised our glasses to the dogs who made it all possible.An old girlfriend of mine gravitated toward the generic beach vacation, and on that point we actually agreed: beach vacations are easy and relaxing. But she wasn’t so interested in the psychological adventure – or patchwork hygiene – offered by the wilderness. This spring, the arctic bore witness to an excursion she would’ve enjoyed: A fusion of wilderness inspiration and beach decadence, at the Rio de Gelo headquarters. Next year, instead of your annual cruise in the Caribbean (because so many Mushing readers take Caribbean cruises), cruise the arctic in April…and don’t forget the Brazilian, or the quick release!