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Taking the long way home: Mushing across the state Part 1

May 11th, 2012 | Chuck Schaeffer Print this article   Email this article  

On Friday, the 16th of March, my wife Tracey, my daughter Bailey and I loaded 13 sled dogs in the trailer and headed for Nenana. I was on a mission: Trek from somewhere near Fairbanks to Iviq, which is 28 miles northeast of Kotzebue.

This all started months ago when we decided to move from Iviq to Willow. The move was prompted by severe weather conditions and the cost of operating a kennel in the Arctic. The bitterly low temperatures and winds can, and will, put a halt to days of training. Your training capabilities are extremely limited. If in fact you exceed in training in these conditions, you pay the price. Extra straw, extra food, extra booties ... not to mention the constant shoveling and cleaning of dog houses, tending to dogs being frostbitten in various parts of the body and a lot of extra maintenance of the dogs and kennel.

We also had to haul water for the dogs and ourselves. We need to haul and split wood for the house and the dog food cooker. We need to maintain and check the shii fish nets that are set earlier in the winter under the ice.This in turn pretty much requires a snow machine. The weather and wind also play a big part in whether that snow machine is going to run for the day. When the temperature is 40 below and the wind is howling, the snowmachines just do not like to cooperate. In fact, nothing really likes to cooperate. We use about two tons of fish a year as snacks for the dogs. This comes in very handy because we would not be able to afford meat for snacks. Freight costs to Kotzebue are over a dollar a pound. So can you imagine what it cost just to get a ton of dog food up there? You would pay approximately $2500 for the ton and add on $1500 for postage or $2000 for freight. By the time a bag of commercial dog food gets to Kotzebue the cost doubles. Multiply that by four and you'll have an idea of what you need to pay for a kennel of 30 animals annually. We did utilize the mail service which is much cheaper than the air carriers but, still very expensive.

So the move to Willow put the training and racing schedule on hold for a while. The middle of winter is not the right time to move anywhere unless you are set up for it. The dogs had a month off and I had a month of work ahead of me as Willow received an immense amount of snow. There was a lot of shoveling and a lot of snowshoeing for the next couple of weeks. I needed to get a training trail in, out of the yard and to the main dog-mushing trail-system a few miles away. A lot of trips to the land fill facility as the people we bought the house from had left a lot of stuff behind.

One day Tracey says "Why don't you drive the dogs up to Kotzebue and run the Kobuk 440?"

I like says "Huh?"

Of course we must have had similar thoughts because of the change in schedule for the winter. Also because we are tapped out financially, there is no way we would be able to fly the dogs and ourselves up for the race and back to Anchorage. It would cost about $3,500 to do that.

OK, we'll do it.

So the planning process begins, or what planning I'm capable of doing. I had to make some contacts, pick a route, pack food and gear etc. I did start with some phone calls, one to Emmitt Peters in Ruby and another to George Attla in Huslia. They referred me to a few more people in different villages for trail reports and they graciously agreed that I could send dog food to their mailing addresses as I had decided to run from Ruby, Galena and up to Huslia rather than down to Kaltag and over to Unalakleet.

The big worry for me was wondering if there would be a trail from Huslia to Shungnak via the hot springs. I was going to take my time on this trip and enjoy it as much as possible so I quit worrying about that section of trail. I sent 100 pounds of commercial dog food through the mail to Ruby, Huslia and Kobuk.

The sled I have is capable of hauling as much food, gear, tent and whatever else I need to sustain myself for a couple of weeks. So three villages for sending supplies was enough. It also made the whole logistics of doing this trip much easier. I also ended up cutting fish and meat for snacks and shipping those out to Ruby and Huslia via local commuter airlines. Everything else went into the sled, three bags of Redpaw, 3 bags of fish and meat snacks, the Arctic oven, a cooker modified to use wood and Isopropyl, sleeping bag, rifle, a caribou hide sleeping pad, booties, dog food pans, a one burner Coleman stove, a gallon of fuel, a case of Isopropyl and some trail food for myself as well as eating and cooking utensils.

We are ready to hit the road.

Our initial intent was to start from Nenana but it had snowed heavily right after the Iron dog snowmobile race had ended and so there wasn't much of a trail — if any — out of Nenana. The next stop would be Manley as my trail report references suggested. We could see why friends warned us about the road to Manley, it ain't exactly a highway. Despite a lot of slippery, winding, windblown areas on that stretch of road, we did make it over unscathed. Upon arrival we unloaded everything at the end of the airfield, hooked up the dogs, said my goodbyes and headed down the trail. This all transpired about 5p.m.

We are on our journey!

Next week, Part II: Schaeffer makes it to the villages and battles brutally cold weather.

 

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