Running your own dog team in the Arctic doesn't make it onto normal wish lists of winter travel. Most folks daydream of wiggling their toes in tropical sands and have trouble understanding why anyone in his or her right mind would pay good money to head into such a hostile environment.
Still, the option is there, and perhaps its lure is the fact that dogsledding -- the classic means of Arctic transportation -- has vanished as a way of life.
Like riding horses in the American West, mushing your own team of dogs across the frozen tundra strikes a chord far deeper than merely traveling across the land. Days on the trail take you back to a time when people formed bonds with the domestic animals they depended on for transportation -- for their very survival -- in the roadless wilds.
I'd been on day trips by dog team in the past, but the level of my participation had been more like a sack of dog food tied to the sled than like Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.
So the idea of a 100-mile trek above the Arctic Circle, driving my own team of dogs, filled me with apprehension. My experience with dogs in the cold was limited to my golden retriever, Khumbu, who seeks out a spot in the California sun as soon as the temperature drops below 60.
I began to feel more comfortable with the idea when I learned that Sourdough Outfitters of Bettles, Alaska, had been taking rookies on such trips since the '70s with such success that they now offered 14 six- and eight-day trips between February and April. Both versions include hundred-plus-mile journeys through the roadless Brooks Range into Gates of the Arctic National Park, camping in heated tents with wood stoves along the trail.
The wilds of Alaska north of the Arctic Circle in winter seemed as starkly frozen as a distant planet. Perhaps it took an unusual kind of individual to handle a team of feisty dogs in this environment. The adjectives that came to mind were not models of political correctness: young, male, rugged.
My first meeting with my teammates set me at ease. Our self-introductions reminded me of the scene in the movie "City Slickers" where urban tourists who have just arrived in the West to join a cattle drive scramble to hide their surprise as they shake hands with folks much like themselves.
We were four men and two women, all from cities in the Lower 48, all in our late 40s to mid-50s, all knowing next to nothing about running dogs, all here for different reasons. Jean Tarabek, a nurse from Modesto, Calif., had seen a slide lecture about a dogsled expedition to the North Pole. Richard Walton, a dentist from Iowa, had decided to take a break and sample exotic adventures for a couple of years.
Our trail guide was Bill Mackey, whose brother, Rick, was on the front page of every Alaskan newspaper the morning we flew to Bettles. He was leading the annual 1,100-mile Iditarod race, which offered a $50,000 first prize. Rick had previously won this Super Bowl of dog sledding and in 1993 had placed second.
The Mackey family lives and breathes a frontier lifestyle that virtually overnight became an anachronism. Thousands of years ago, Alaskan Eskimos imported dogsledding across the Bering Strait from their kin in Siberia, but gave it up almost entirely as soon as reliable snowmobiles were introduced in the '60s. Their decision was a practical one.
A dog team is a living machine that you can't just turn off or even casually park with the motor running. When you park your snowmobile in the spring, you don't have to feed it until the next winter. Bill Mackey's 60 dogs eat $15,000 of dry food each year plus huge amounts of fish and meat scrounged from every source, including roadkill.
It is no coincidence that multiday dogsled races such as the Iditarod leapt into prominence and dogsled racing became Alaska's state sport within the decade after Eskimo dog mushing for transportation began to vanish. To preserve the lifestyle they love, the last of the dog mushers -- native and non-native alike -- began to turn toward the sponsorship and big purses of competition or the rapidly expanding tourism industry.
No, the dogs would not be abused. They always lived outside in the cold and were not going to be stressed near their limits. Even the great majority of Iditarod race dogs do just fine, although the media has a habit of focusing on the rare exceptions. Two of Bill's old Iditarod dogs, going on 12, pulled 25 miles a day for us with far greater vitality and spirit than most of their urban counterparts of a similar age.
Brandon Benson, the son of the owners of Sourdough Outfitters, met our plane and introduced us to Bill Mackey, who spends the rest of the year in and around the bush town of Wiseman about 50 miles away. Bill and Brandon held an indoor orientation session for a couple of hours before we headed out on a 10-mile practice run.
Since Frontier Bill rarely embellished conversation, we listened up real good when he looked us in the eye and spoke. When one man asked why Iditarod teams had up to 20 dogs and ours had only six, Bill drawled, "Take my word. You can't handle more than six."
When he pointed to a blackboard sketch of how to harness our dogs and hitch them to the sled, he added that a sense of control would only come to us out on the trail, not from talking about it beforehand. As he described how to use the foot brake and the fact that it wouldn't hold in soft snow or ice, he said everyone should expect white knuckles at first.
I didn't believe him until I stood on the back of the sled with my dogs pulling wildly minutes before we were ready to go. My hands tightened into a death grip on the handlebar as it became all too clear that I was taking off alone on a vehicle with a throttle stuck wide-open, no steering wheel, and brakes that had already failed to hold at a stop. The parking brake -- a grappling hook optimistically kicked into soft snow -- pulled out from the jerks of the dogs before I was ready. We were off like a runaway truck.
What were those words Bill had taught us in the classroom? "Haw!" Was that a turn to the left or the right? Left, because the other direction, "Gee," I'd plugged into memory with my initials, GR, to recall it meant "right."
The word "mush" is never a command except in old B-movies. It originally meant any foot journey over snow, but soon included dogs, because that's how people in the North traveled in winter.
I was supposed to start by yelling "All right" only after catching the eye of my lead dog, Friday, and pulling out the ice hook, but the lure of the other sleds starting to move made my team lurch into a 12-mph pace that felt like 50. Per Bill's instructions, I constantly held my foot on the brake to slow the dogs for the first mile.
Dogs running on a winter trail are as thoroughly happy as any creatures I've ever seen, including humans on tropical beaches. Until it gets around 30 below, many sled dogs don't bother to sleep inside their kennels. During rest stops on the trail they roll in the snow to cool off.
The dogs became quite easy to stop as soon as they'd run long enough to get hot and tired. As I began to feel in control of my team, my grip on the handlebar eased enough to hold on with one hand and take pictures of the teams in front heading into the peaks of the Brooks Range. .
After we had traveled about five miles on our practice run, we rested and seemed to have a much more civilized start of slower dogs and smarter mushers. Every once in a while, however, a much faster team of dogs would pull alongside, and as the musher behind me yelled "Sled! Sled!" the team would pass me at full speed without a driver. Turning around, I would see a writhing bundle of fury far behind in the snow.
Brandon would appear out of nowhere on a snowmobile to chase down the runaway team. When he caught the runaway team, he would hold them and wait for the fallen driver to catch up, or stake them to the ground and go back to get the driver.
Jim Swearingen, a local trapper, also accompanied the group with a snowmobile far behind, hauling a sled with tents and kitchen gear.
The morning after our practice run we hit the trail with the personal and camp gear we needed for the next week divided between our sleds and the snowmobile. Just beyond Bettles we braked our sleds into a dip and crossed the broad and frozen John River, feeling like old hands as the dogs slowed to an even trot. Five and a half hours of mellow mushing through rolling boreal forest in the bottom of a valley brought us 26 miles to an exquisite campsite on a raised knoll surrounded by spruce trees beneath Mount Gilroy. We were near the edge of Gates of the Arctic National Park.
Everyone pitched in to feed and care for the dogs and set up the tents as Brandon prepared a frontier stew. By the time camp was up, the sun was down. When we came out of the tent after dinner, a strange green banner was dancing across the starry sky. A 30-second time exposure on a tripod with 100-speed film caught the gold-fringed northern lights that have fascinated Arctic natives for thousands of years.
The lights put on one of their better performances. The temperature dropped from a daytime high of around 15 degrees Fahrenheit to slightly below zero as I stayed up to see if the lights would erupt into something even more unusual. A clear night in the Brooks Range is not something to take for granted, and it proved to be the only time on the trail that we saw a fine display.
The tent was so warm from a fire in a small wood stove that I left my minus-40-degree sleeping bag unzipped all night. The trial of Arctic travel in winter is being hot too much of the time. The well-prepared traveler is far more often too warm, rather than too cold. A heated tent, a run up a hill behind the dogs, or a still, sunny day can quickly turn the tables on the legendary winter cold.
On a windless morning under a cloudy sky we headed up Michigan Creek toward the true Gates of the Arctic, two peaks named Boreal Mountain and Frigid Crags by the explorer Robert Marshall in the '30s. Deep, soft snow slowed our pace, and we called it a day after only four hours: The dogs were tired.
At Michigan Pass, we dropped our gear at a campsite and continued on unladen for a good view of the Gates. After we returned to camp in the late afternoon, snow flurries began and went on into the night. Before sunrise there was a display of alpenglow on the peaks just below the clouds. Half an hour later, the warm sunlight was gone.
As we began retracing our path, the dogs grew as excited as horses heading for the barn. I expected my dogs to try to break free when I harnessed them each morning, but they were far more interested in being hooked up to pull with their buddies than in going off by themselves. Each dog, however, remained very much an individual with a characteristic gait and other unique behavior that made clear the difference between a pack and a herd.
By the time we returned to Bettles, most of us had learned how to solve basic dog problems on the trail. We could stop and untangle harnesses or quarreling dogs, as well as help the dogs through rugged terrain by steering the sled or running behind it on the steeps.
Bill told us that one of his clients, a Seattle surgeon, had become so enamored with dogsledding that he kept it up and became an Iditarod racer. When I checked the Fairbanks paper at the end of our trip, there was the doctor's name as a 1994 finisher. Bill's brother, Rick, had come in second, winning $39,000, good for at least a few more years of dog food.
When I returned home to my golden retriever, lying in his spot of California winter sun, I had a new appreciation for dogsledding in the Arctic. I sometimes wake up in the morning in California with the primeval landscape of the Brooks Range spread out before my eyes as if I were still gliding across its snows. In years to come I will always remember, not the cold of the Arctic night, but the northern lights dancing across the sky.
IF YOU GO
Here is a list of outfitters offering trips where clients run their own dog teams:
* Sourdough Outfitters, P.O. Box 90, Bettles, Alaska 99726; phone: (907) 692-5252; fax: (907) 692-5612. Cost for a six-day trip is $1,530; for an eight-day trip it's $1,800. The price includes guide, food, tent, sleeping bag, parka, boots, mittens and use of your own dog team.
* Bomhoff's Alaskan Sled Dog Kennel, HC-89, P.O. Box 256, Willow, Alaska; phone: (907) 495-6470; fax: (907) 495-6471. Cost for a 4 1/2 -day trip is $1,995; for a 9-day trip it's $3,695. The price includes guide, meals, lodging, airfare between Anchorage and Skwentna, insurance and use of your own
* Boundary Country Trekking, 590 Gunflint Trail, Grand Marais, Minn. 55604; (800) 322-8327 or (218) 388-4487. Cost for a three-day trek is $690. Included are guide, meals, sleeping bag, accommodations in cabins and yurts and use of your own dog team.
* Wintergreen Dogsledding Lodge, Ring Rock Road, Ely, Minn. 55731; (800) 584-9425 or (218) 365-6022. Cost for a three-day lodge-to-lodge trek is $425 to $465, for four days it's $550 to $625. Included are guide, meals, equipment, lodging in cabins ,, ranging from full service to rustic, and use of your own dog team.
Galen Rowell is the photographer and author of several books on the outdoors.