TO ALASKA AGAIN: MY JOURNALDAY ONE
By 10 AM on April 30th, 2010, I had the dogs all loaded, the snaps in the dog yard sprayed with WD-40 to prevent rust, the dog yard itself sprayed with herbicide to prevent weed growth, the refrigerator cleaned out, and the dog yard scooped. But before leaving for our 13th trip across the Alaska Highway, I have to go back in the house and change clothes because I got soaked while loading dogs in the rain. The rain was a good thing though; it was very badly needed after an extremely dry spring.
Twenty-eight dogs have their own little dog box in the over-sized truck while Sosa and Colby share the back seat of my 1992 modified F-350 Crew Cab. We make it to Grand Forks, North Dakota, and stop again for fuel. After re-fueling and considering the almost steady rain, I decided to push straight through to Roger & Nancy Johnson’s home near Devils Lake, North Dakota, before dropping the dogs. We pulled into Johnson’s about 3:15 PM, logging 257 miles for our first day of travel. A short day by my standards, but I like to ease into the travel routine. Plus, Roger & Nancy are good friends and fellow mushers who make me feel so at home in their house that it is pretty hard to pass through Devils Lake with out stopping in.
My dogs are so accustomed to traveling in my dog truck that it is kind-of like a second home to them. This makes the process of dropping dogs much easier. When I drop the dogs I have outriggers that extend out from the front and back of the truck on both sides. On both sides of the truck a cable with 15 short drop cables is attached to the front and back outrigger. When I take a dog out of their box I simply clip them to one of the short drop cables to keep them from running free and getting into trouble. My dogs know this routine about as well as I do, and when it is time to load them back in the truck some of them load themselves. If I am in a hurry, I can drop 30 dogs and have them loaded back up in half an hour. It’s a well tuned system!
After a wonderful breakfast served by Nancy the next morning, we hit the road again at 8:30. This year, I have an extended trip planned. It is a long trip to Alaska, and I don’t normally like to make it any longer than it already is, but good friends like Jenny, Shay and Sammy have convinced me to go a little out of the way this year and make a stop in Polsen, Montana. We stopped to fuel again in Stanley, ND, and then dropped dogs in Culberton, MT. By now the rain was turning to snow, and as it turned out we would be driving in a lot of snow the next few days. We fuel the truck again in Glasgow, MT, and then stop at a restaurant in Havre. After feeding myself I drop and feed the dogs and then drive to a wayside rest at the site of the Baker Massacre near Shelby, MT, where I stop for the night about 12:15 PM. I slept in the truck, just like the dogs.
These times are all in Central Time zone. At this time I suspect I was probably in the Mountain Time zone, but I don’t pay any attention to time zones until I get to Alaska. Then I set my watch 3 hours back, and I’m set for the summer.
This year I decided to try something new: dropping the dogs only three times a day instead of four. In years past I would always drop the dogs first thing in the morning, drive about 6 hours and stop for a second drop. Then I would drive until about 2 hours before I planned to stop for the night, and then stop and drop, water and feed. After this I would drive about 2 hours and make one more dog drop before climbing into the back of the truck and sleeping for the night. In the morning the process would start all over again.
The theory here was that the dogs would need to be dropped about 2 hours after being fed and watered. But, I noticed quite often that on that last drop, the dogs never really did anything and it was usually the next morning when they needed to answer nature’s call. So, this year I experimented with skipping that last drop. It meant I dropped first thing in the morning, drove about half a day, dropped again and drove until I was ready to quit for the day. Then I would drop water and feed and put them up for the night. I’m happy to say it worked great!
I drop dogs at 7:15 AM and am on the road by 8:00. I stop for fuel and breakfast in Shelby, MT. After a couple of hours of driving I arrive at Jenny and Shay’s house near Polsen about 11:00 AM.
I met Jenny the first year I worked in Alaska. She was working as a dog handler. Shay was working there as a helicopter pilot and often took us to work after our day in town. Jenny is one of the most cheerful and kind people I know. Their daughter Sam, I am happy to say, has inherited Jenny’s beautiful smile.
Jenny, Shay and Sam live in a beautiful little house on a 10,000 acre ranch just outside of Polsen. Their landlord raises several thousand acres of grain, rents out a few thousand acres of pasture, runs a pheasant hunting preserve, and one of the top sporting clay ranges in the country. During my visit, Jenny got me in to shoot a few sporting clays for free. It was a lot of fun even though I am a horrible shot.
After Jenny serves me breakfast, I hit the road again about 9:20 AM. I fuel up in Whitefish, MT, and then cross the border into Canada. I stop and drop dogs shortly after entering the Kootenay Provincial Park about 4:30 PM. I fuel the truck again at Lake Louise.
Most of the day, I travel though Kootenay, Banff, and Jasper Provincial parks. The scenery is stunning and the wildlife abundant. Today I’ve seen bighorn sheep, one moose and a lot of elk. Earlier on this trip I’ve seen a lot of waterfowl, some turkeys, lots of deer (mostly Whitetail but a few Mule deer) and quite a few pheasants. I‘ve driven in snow every day except the first day I left, but today before I stop it actually gets the roads a little slippery. I stop and drop, water and feed the dogs and fall asleep around midnight, about 15 miles before reaching Grand Cache, Alberta.
I drop dogs at 7:30 AM. In Grand Cache I stop for fuel and breakfast. At Dawson Creek, British Columbia, we get on the Alaska Highway which we will be following for about 850 miles. In Fort St. John I stop to feed myself and my truck again. About 30 miles past Fort St. John I stop and drop dogs. I fuel the truck again in Fort Nelson and then drive to Summit Lake where I stop for the night. After dropping, watering, and feeding the dogs I crawl into the sleeping bag about 10:50 PM Minnesota time. It’s only 8:50 BC time, and though it is still light, the sun is dropping behind the mountains. I could have driven further but this next section of road is too beautiful and too technical to drive at night. I want to see it in the daylight.
At 8:00 in the morning when I get up to drop dogs, my boots are literally frozen to the floor in the back seat. The snaps that I picket the dogs to are frozen hard into the slush and ice around the truck. It appears if I had been here 24 hours earlier I would have been caught up in about two feet of new snow. Now the roads are in good condition. It is so cold though I begin to wonder how my truck will start. It takes a little cranking but it starts pretty well. After driving for a little while I have to stop and warm up my feet and boots. The boots that were froze to the floor take a little while to thaw out.
At 10:45 I stop at Captain Jack’s in Muncho Lake for breakfast. If you ever drive the Alaska Highway, I recommend you stop here. Jack has been here almost as long as the highway. He can tell you whatever it is you want to know about this area. His place is the one where all of the trucks stop. The service is kind-of a serve yourself style. Jack is usually the only person working there. Help yourself to coffee, if it’s empty you might have to make some, and then try to get Jack’s attention and tell him what it is you want. I ordered two eggs, bacon, potatoes and wheat toast. It isn’t everywhere you get to watch the cook peel your potato and then grate it up in to little slivers and fry on the griddle. The bacon is close to ¼ inch thick and oh so delicious, and the toast is close to two inches thick and of course homemade. I watched Jack working on the next batch of bread. It must have been about 30 loaves. After visiting with Jack and some of the truckers, I hit the road again about 11:45.
At 12:35 I stop at the Laird Hot Springs Provincial Park and hiked down to the hot springs for a good soak. There are always other travelers that stop here for a soak also, so I can usually find someone from some other part of the country to talk to. This time I talked to a couple of guys that were wildlife students from South Dakota heading to Alaska for summer employment. They sounded really excited about their coming summer and it sounded exciting to me too. I leave the hot springs about 2:30 and head on down the road.
After dropping dogs somewhere along the way I arrive in Watson Lake about 5:40 PM. I fuel the truck and get something for myself to eat before continuing down the road. Between Watson Lake and Teslin I have a close encounter with a moose. The moose was partially hid by some brush right on the side of the road and somewhat harder to see because I was driving into the sun that was getting low to the horizon.
So far, on this trip I had been thinking that Minnesota whitetails must be some of the stupidest animals to live along the highways. In Minnesota I always brake instinctively and automatically and assume any whitetail I see is going to try to get in front of my car. If I did that on this trip I would still be back in Alberta. So far most of the large game I have seen on this trip has acted oblivious to me. If they were on the road, they stayed there. If they were in the ditch, they stayed there.
This moose was just off the road on my side of the highway. As soon as I saw it I let off the throttle and for a split second considered whether I should brake or not. In that split second the moose decided he was on the wrong side of the road and he had better get back were he belonged. Now, I hit the brakes! But, will I be able to stop? Should I swerve into the left lane to get around him? No! He’s coming too fast, even if I would manage to get in front of him the way he’s coming he’d just run into the side of the truck. I swerve back to the right and step on the brakes harder. Normally I pride myself on being easy on my brakes, coasting up to stop signs and only lightly touching the brakes to come to a complete stop. This is not the time to be easy on the brakes! The moose lumbers past in front of me. His body is windshield height, his head above the cab, his legs moving in that locomotive type gait. If you’ve ever seen a moose move fast you know what I mean. They look rather awkward but still move very fast. He kicked up a cloud of dust when he hit the shoulder of the road. He went across the ditch but stopped without going into the woods. Our eyes met when I looked back after realizing we had avoided each other. He seemed to be glaring at me, questioning where I had learned to drive, while I was wondering why his mother had never taught him not to run in front of cars.
About 10:30 PM I stop for the night and drop, water and feed the dogs. I notice the same old couple with an RV parked here as I saw parked where I had stopped the night before. A lot of people are doing the same thing I am, driving the Alaska Highway and stopping at these wayside rests at night. This rest stop has three semis, two pick-ups pulling campers, that couple with the RV, and me.
I drop dogs and then start driving about 10:00. Twenty minutes later I stop at Jakes Corner for breakfast. Later I kill a little time at a rest stop along the Yukon River before heading into Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. I fuel up the truck and do a little bumming around Whitehorse, then drop, water and feed the dogs and check into a motel at about 4:30 PM. I eat and then drop the dogs once more about 11:00 before calling it a night.
After dropping dogs about 9:30 AM I check out of the motel. While checking out of the motel, I meet Dee Dee coming in for breakfast. Dee Dee is one of my co-workers. She has just spent the winter in Washington State and now is heading for Juneau the same as me for another the summer of work. I talk her into eating some place else since I wasn’t that impressed with the meal I had here the night before. I thought for sure there would be another restaurant before we got out of Whitehorse. We drove all the way to Carcross (60 miles) without finding a place to eat where we pulled into a restaurant I have eaten at several times in the past, only to find that they were remodeling and temporarily closed. They directed us back a couple miles toward Whitehorse to a place they said was open. When we pulled in we saw the closed sign get turned over to open, so we were in luck. It was a beautiful place, and we caught up on each other’s winter during breakfast.
By 12:30 PM I was camped at Tutshi Lake where I would spend the night before entering into Alaska to catch the Skagway ferry to Juneau. Dee Dee spent a little time here but then chose to go into Skagway for the night. Before she left we agreed to meet at the Corner Cafe in Skagway for breakfast in the morning.
I spent the rest of the day relaxing with the dogs on the beautiful shores of Tutshi Lake. The dogs got to spend a lot of time out of the truck to make up for all of the drive time the last few days. I fed and watered them twice. When I loaded them for the night at about 11:00 PM they wanted up.
I drop dogs and am on the road by 9:30 AM. I meet Dee Dee at the cafe at 8:00. Now that I am in Alaska, I reset my watch to Alaska Time. After breakfast, we hangout at the Temsco helicopter base and visit with a lot of my old co-workers from Alaska Icefield Expeditions. About 10:00 we get in line to board the ferry for Juneau. The ferry leaves Skagway at noon and stops in Haines. Since this is an extended stop in Haines, we leave our trucks and dogs on the ferry and go meet up with some more fellow mushers that are boarding the ferry in Haines and also heading for Juneau for summer employment. Those boarding in Haines include Molly, who I have worked with for the last 6 years, and Tonya, who will be new to our camp this year. We take over one of the nice restaurants on the waterfront in Haines and talk dogs until it is time to get back on the ferry. The ferry makes it into Juneau about 6:15 PM, and we get up to our camp in the Sheep Creek Valley about 7:00. Molly, Dee Dee, Tonya and myself will be the four mushers at the Sheep Creek Camp this summer. When we arrive we meet up with the rest of our crew. Ron will be our cook/photographer, and Jeremy, Ryan and Austin will be our dog handlers.
So ends another successful trip across the Alaska Highway, and so begins another busy summer of the sled dog tour business in Juneau. Total miles traveled: 2,940.