An overland journey in the arctic

#1
Though this trip wasn’t a vehicle-based expedition per se, I’m posting this in the ‘Overland Trip Reports’ section because it is indicative of how explorers and indigenous peoples used to travel and explore in the arctic areas of North America (and other continents) before the advent of motorized vehicles. It’s the original form of arctic overlanding, and, arguably, it is still a relevant and effective form of overland transport in the frozen north.

Some background on this artic overland team and how they work: There is a fellow by the name of Joe Henderson who lives in Alaska. He is known in the mushing circles up there. He has spent many years exploring the arctic tundra of northern Alaska with a team of sled dogs pulling heavy cargo sleds. For many years, he has conducted solo, self-sufficient winter expeditions in the Alaskan wilderness for weeks, sometimes months, without resupply or encountering another soul. The reason he is able to do these kinds of trips is due in part to his extensive survival skills and also due to his choice of dogs: Alaskan Malamutes.



The arctic musher’s vehicle of choice:

When a lot of people think of sled dogs, they think of small, agile Siberian Husky’s. And when people think of mushing they think of those Husky’s pulling racing sleds in a well-known event like the Iditarod or Yukon Quest. But reality is quite divorced from perception on this subject. Those racing events are now dominated by what’s known as an Alaskan Husky, which is basically a genetic mix of Siberian Husky, Eurohound and various other dogs that have been used to breed a smaller, but fast and long-winded dog. Siberian Husky’s are still used by some, but are no longer considered the preferred dog for racing events. And both breeds have lighter builds, smaller stature and often times lighter fur coats, which makes them suited for fast and short term mushing events. They are the ‘sportscar’ of the mushing world. Back before there were snowmobiles and motorized vehicles, people relied primarily on a different sort of dog to hunt, explore, and move supplies; it was a bigger dog with a sturdier bone structure, thicker fur coat, and an inherent drive to pull heavy sleds for long distances. In Alaska, that dog was known as the Alaskan Malamute (‘Malamute’ refers to a tribe of Innuit that was known to employ those dogs). Other areas of the world had dogs of a similar type and function: the Canadian Eskimo dog in northern Canada; and the Greenland dog in Greenland. If the Siberian and Alaskan Husky’s are ‘sportscars,’ these heavier freight dogs should be considered ‘SUV’s’ by comparison. Speaking about the Malamute in particular, it is a dog that is better suited to pushing through heavy and deep snow in subzero temperatures. These dogs are built for arctic life: their paws are big and oval-like; their thick, double coat of fur provides effective protection against the cold wind; their legs are long and muscular and their chests are broad and powerful. Their metabolism is highly efficient, despite their size and energy levels; this means that they can survive and work with very little food. Joe gave each of his dogs a few scoops of food, once in the morning and once in the evening and such quantity seemed more than sufficient for them.

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But physical dimensions and characteristics only describe half the equation when it comes to these dogs. Malamutes, at least working Malamutes, love to pull and thrive when working as part of a team. It is hard to describe to the uninitiated, but these dogs’ energy levels and enthusiasm increases drastically when they were preparing for and actually engaged in sled pulling. They jump, bark and feed off each other’s energy when working, in the same manner that a squad of grunts might yell and sing cadence when they go for a unit run. And like a squad of grunts, they test each other and form a hierarchy. Some might interpret this as dog aggression, but it seems more accurate to describe it as an ebb and flow of cohesive teamwork and growling disagreements that is inherent to any close-knit group. And every day, without exception, they howled together. These are the dogs that Joe uses to pull his sleds.

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His sled setup is a topic unto itself. Joe uses a two-sled system, one in front of the other and connected to each other via criss-crossed ropes (Joe states that this assists in turning the sleds and keeping them aligned with the path formed by the dogs). The sleds are custom-built, made of wood and metal framing. They are heavy and sturdy and can easily accommodate a few tons of supplies between the two of them. This logistical setup of these sleds is simple but brilliant. Joe positions the heaviest gear and supplies at the bottom of the sleds, to form packing base. On top of that gear, Joe puts the lighter gear (tents, sleeping pads and bags, clothing bags). This lighter gear is not only easier to pack and compact, but also serves as cushion of sorts for anyone who might be riding the sled. All of this is secured to the sleds via tarps and a system of rope netting which is tightened and tied off using simple hitch knots. The ski’s, snowshoes, poles and other tools can be weaved through this netting for easy access. The dogs wear specially-made harnesses which are attached to a central cable connected to the front sled. Unlike most other race-oriented mushers who run their dogs in pairs, Joe runs several dogs deep in each row (the exact number will vary depending on the snow conditions and terrain). Whereas most other mushers are focused on speedy movement across a semi-groomed mushing trail, Joe’s entire setup is geared towards pulling heavy payloads over a variety of conditions (ranging from snow that is several feet deep to arctic ice). There is a musher’s position at the end of the rear sled; it has a simple brake system (a metal crossmember that will put two metal stakes into the ground when stepped on) but nothing else. Whereas other mushers may rely on a system of cables and or leaning to help steer the sleds, the counteracting weight of Joe’s 2-sled system largely steers itself and the dogs rely on verbal commands for direction (more details on that later).

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#2
Gear for the arctic:

The gear required for this type of travel was, like Joe’s sled, simple but brilliant. At Joe’s recommendation, all of the travelers brought an arctic-style of boot known as a Mukluk. It is a simple design with a canvas upper and a rubber-soled lower and an insert liner of some sort (usually made of wool). Canvas material may sound like a bad idea for arctic travel, as it isn’t waterproof. But in true artic conditions, these boots function very well, certainly much better than traditional leather or rubber snow boots. When the temperatures are well below-freezing, this is no risk of melting snow soaking through the canvas. The canvas material, coupled with the liner and socks, keeps the biting cold at bay but is designed to breathe and allow foot sweat (yes, your feet will sweat even in subzero temperatures) to dissipate. However, when temperatures begin to rise and hover around the melting point (32F), which is what happened on this trip, your boots and feet tend to get wet during travel and camp setup. As a general rule of thumb, the musher and travelers relied upon one pair of Mukluk’s for work and travel use and always kept a dry pair of boots to slip into for hanging around at camp. These boots, coupled with very good, wool socks, were a basic, but very important, piece of gear for our travels.

The shelter system was also simple and one designed by Joe himself. It consisted of metal poles and frame pieces which formed a skeleton structure that was roughly 6’x12’. A foundation was built into the snow, consisting of a hole (for the cold air to sink into), a place for the wood stove and a sleeping platform. The poles were planted into the snow/ice around this foundation and a special waterproof tarp was laid over the skeleton structure. The tarp had a preformed hole to allow the stove pipe to pass through and had a zipper opening at the front end; it was secured to the ground by throwing some snow onto the edges that lay along the ground. The whole shelter system was relatively simple and easy to setup (Joe designed it specifically so that it could quickly be thrown up in the middle of a blizzard). The hardest part was establishing a foundation in the punchy/melting snow (at times, we had to use snowshoes to compact the snow enough to prevent the snow floor from collapsing in our shelters).

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Most of the rest of the gear was relatively obvious and straight forward: multiple warming layers (no cotton); multiple glove layers; hats and balaclavas; goggles and sunglasses; gortex layers; heavy down jackets; down sleeping bags (a 2-bag system where one was place into the other); cross-country skis and snow shoes; daypacks; waterproof duffle bags (storing gear and clothing). General gear required for group use consisted of: saws, axes and shovels; small sleds for gathering wood; a small, pop-up ice-fishing tent for going to the bathroom (it was nice to be able to do that business out of the elements); camp stoves and fuel; wood stoves (heated up the tents very well and were essential for cooking, making water, and drying wet clothes and boots); GPS; satellite phone; first aid kits; ice chests for holding the frozen meats and vegetables and regular containers for the freeze-dried stuff.
 
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#3
The nature of travel:

Travel by dog sled, at least for a long term expedition, is not what most people would likely imagine. Yes, people can and do ride on the sled. Given the right conditions (well-frozen snow, temperatures that are single digits or below) these dogs can pull fully-loaded sleds as well as several people riding atop of those sleds. However, the dogs and sleds are generally intended to pull the supplies and gear, while people ski or snow-shoe ahead of or behind the dogs. Joe would normally ski or snowshoe immediately in front of the dogs, physically leading the dogs and providing verbal commands for specific guidance. His commands are basic: ‘Whoa’ means stop; ‘okay’ means go; ‘left’ means left; ‘right’ means right; and ‘stay’ means stay. On this particular trip, Joe led the sled team, some people skied behind the sled while others rode the sled. The only exception to this routine was starting the dogs. The trip-goers started each leg of the journey and moved ahead of the sleds while Joe finished hitching up the dogs. Once the trip-goers were out of sight, Joe would start his team (this had something to do with the dogs getting confused or anxious when they see people other than Joe in front of them). Joe would either lead his team from the front or ride the musher’s position at the rear sled and catch up with the trip-goers, at which point people either got atop of the sleds or fell in behind them for the day’s journey. With some good skiing technique and good pulling conditions for the dogs (low temperatures and good, solid snow), a group could easily cover 10-11 miles a day. According to Joe, a well-conditioned team, and well-conditioned mushers and skiers could cover as much as 20 miles per day. These distances may not sound like a lot to the motorized overlander who is used to covering as much as several hundred miles in a single day. But for non-motorized movement in roadless arctic wilderness, anything ranging from 10-20 miles per day is indicative a good progress.

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Environmental factors:

This particular trip occurred in late April. The temperatures can be quite fickle and arguably more dangerous at this time of year compared to earlier in the winter. In the winter, temperatures get well below zero; staying dry and warm at this time of year is relatively easy with proper layer management and access to firewood for heating up the tent and drying clothes. However, later winter/early spring presents some unique challenges. As mentioned previously, the weather can, and in fact did, go above 32F; this actually makes for somewhat warm travel weather, especially when the sun is out. In fact, during some of these days, with the sun reflecting off the snow, it almost felt like t-shirt weather and the dogs needed frequent breaks to keep from overheating during the pulls. The problem with these temperatures is that everything (to include socks and base layers) gets wet from the melting snow. The snow was actually quite “punchy” (meaning our feet frequently post-holed through it) which made movement and camp setup quite strenuous at times. Keeping dry in these conditions is a challenge, sometimes impossible. And while there was little risk of hypothermia when it was sunny and 32F, that risk grew exponentially if the weather shifted, which it did at one point, to its colder range. So, drying out boots and clothing was an ongoing routine throughout this trip.

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#4
The terrain:

From a starting point along the Dalton Highway, about 100 miles south of Prudhoe Bay, the group headed west, at times following old winter trails that were once used by snowmobiles (now prohibited in this particular area) and dog sleds. The actual trail the group followed had been pre-scouted and laid out by Joe and his dog team some weeks in advance. So, despite the melting snow, the trail itself was packed down somewhat and the group was able to make half-decent progress on each day of travel, ranging anywhere from 6-12 miles depending on the day’s conditions. We were well north of the Brooks Range of mountains, which we could see off to our south throughout our travels. The terrain in this area was mostly flat, with some rolling hills and high ground. Due to the melting snow, the tundra’s underlying tussock (grassy vegetation) was visible in some areas. That aside, the terrain of this area was mostly featureless. In some areas, it was a vast expanse of white. Joe referred to it as an arctic desert. With the water still frozen, wood was our true lifeline on this trip. It was the means by which we warmed our tents, cooked our food, dried our clothing and made water (melting snow). For this purpose, we relied on clumps of dried-out dwarf willow and birch which were found around some of the frozen water bodies. Wood gathering, like drying, was an ongoing chore throughout this trip.

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#5
Final Thoughts:

This particular trip lasted 10 days. The warmer weather hampered travel at times, though it did not detract from the overall experience. The warmer temperatures meant the dogs needed more frequent breaks; these dogs really thrive in the sub-zero temperatures; anything warmer than that is considered mild for them, and anything at or above 32F can be taxing on them, especially if the sun is out. As mentioned before, the warm temperatures also made the snow punchy; travel (for the dogs and the humans) was slow-going at times and camp setup was physically-demanding since the foundation had to be packed down before we could set up the tents. We covered approximately 40 miles in total. In that same amount of time, a well-seasoned team of skiers, mushers and dogs could perhaps cover three times that amount if the conditions are good (colder weather with a solid snow pack). We never got more than 10-15 miles away from the Dalton, but we were very isolated and alone nonetheless. The road itself was out of sight after day one, and the terrain and snow were such that considerable effort would’ve been required if we had decided to cut straight back to the road. The traffic along the road was sparse too, so even getting back to the road wasn’t necessarily a guarantee of safety. In a true reflection of the uncertainty associated with arctic weather, the temperatures did drop to the single digits (likely below 0F with the wind chill) during the last two days of our journey. Thankfully, we all had dry clothes on hand and warm tents to dry out our boots. While we began to shiver and curse our fingers as they cracked from the dry cold, the dogs seemed to truly be at home in such conditions. The trips they go on with Joe during the dead of winter see far lower temperatures (-60F), so this 0 degree weather was a walk in the park for them.

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I was thankful for the opportunity to travel with Joe and his dogs. The travel and camp setup and chores made for long days (I slept very well most nights). But as the trip progressed I became more accustomed to the rhythm of living and moving in this environment. With the summer approaching, the daylight persisted far longer into the evenings. Time had some meaning, but just as important as when was the where and how:

  • Where are we moving next?
  • How are we getting there? What route? Snowshoes or skis?
  • How are the sleds getting packed?
  • How are the dogs faring?
  • How are your feet faring?
  • How is the weather going to affect our plans? Is the snow condition conducive to travel?
  • Where is the next source of wood?
These were several of the unfamiliar intricacies inherent to life in the arctic, but once understood, the methods of surviving and moving in this type of environment become relatively straight-forward, especially when reflecting on them in hindsight. But it takes a person with years of experience and hard-earned wisdom to understand these simple methods and why they work. Joe has many years of experience under his belt. His team of dogs are well-bred and well-trained; they are one of the very few sled teams of working Malamutes left in the world, and they are arguably the most experienced team out there due to the nature of Joe's travels. Anyone who has the opportunity to travel into the arctic wilderness with this team should consider themselves fortunate.

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