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Taking the long way home: Mushing across the state part 2

May 18th, 2012 | Chuck Schaeffer Print this article   Email this article  

We traveled six hours that evening. I really didn't want to travel at night on this leg of the trip as I am brand new to the country. I did make sure that I was headed down river and doubled checked a couple of times. You can do that by looking at the river bank and seeing what direction the willows and trees are facing. The breakup ice in the spring does an excellent job of pointing foliage in the right direction. The weather was pretty awesome — about 20 degrees — overcast and fairly warm even in the late evening. I thought I'd give the dogs an eight-hour break and continue in the morning for Tanana and beyond. I decided that I would just sleep on my sled with my fairly warm gear on since Mother Nature was cooperating so well. I was in for a big surprise.

During the next few hours the temperature steadily dropped. Pretty soon I had my warmest gear on and my sleeping bag draped over me. It ended up being one of the coldest nights I've ever spent outside! My rest was cut about an hour short. The coldest part of the day is about 5 a.m. in the late winter or spring. So by 6, I had hit the trail again. I had to get some movement in to stay warm plus, I ended up being a couple hours out of Tanana. It was miserably cold out by then, probably about 35 below. The first person I ran into was a Discovery Channel photographer.

He and a colleague were catching some shots of the sunrise toward the mouth of the Tanana into the mighty Yukon when I just happened to come along and actually made their morning shoot worthwhile. They were disappointed by all the lathe trail-markers with the orange tops as they were attempting to catch the sunrise until I showed up. Of course I started asking questions about where the village was and John pointed out that it was just down the trail a ways. He said he was limited to information because he had just gotten there a day before I did. I bid them goodbye and headed down to the village and as I came around a corner, there it was. It reminded me of an old western movie scene with the general store, fuel supply depot and of course a liquor store. Pretty cool! I stopped in front of the store to ask which trail I should take down river as there were three or four marked trails headed down river. I ended up on a nice groomed trail that connected with the main Iron Dog trail. I was using Iron Dog markers as reference of being on the right trail.

I decided during my travel over from Manley and spending such a cold night that I would travel another four hours and catch nap in the sun. I stopped around 2 p.m. and set up my Arctic Oven. I wasn't messing around today. I got the dogs fed and bedded down, pulled out the lofty sleeping bag and took a nap. Oh man, that was a sweet, warm nap. It started to cool a bit in the evening around 6 p.m. so I got up and set out to make more water in the cooker. I got that done and fed the dogs and got some stuff ready to hit the trail again. Got the sleeping bag rolled up, used it for a cushion, made myself some hot food and ate a bit. I had a cup of hot cider and started to get sleepy. Aw heck, I unrolled my bag again and took another nice snooze. After all, this trip was supposed to be a leisurely adventure. So I slept until the cold woke me up. It was another very cold night. I had wished that I had brought a thermometer along just to know how cold it had been. Anyways, I cranked up the Coleman and left it on for a few hours. I finally got motivated enough around 9 that morning to break camp. I made more water and fed my animals the younger of which by this time were getting used to camping.

We proceeded down the trail for Ruby. I might point out at this point that I was carrying a GPS tracker but I didn't realize that the tracker had to be pointed face up at all times in order to operate properly. Tracey had made a call or two to find out where I might be. A couple of VHF calls in Tanana confirmed that the guy with the big sled had indeed passed through the village.

We put in another 10 hours and camped below Ruby. I knew my friend Emmitt Peters was probably waiting for me to arrive but it was getting late and I really didn't want to show up at some ungodly hour. I might as well wait for morning and have some breakfast with Emmitt.

It turned out perfect and I got to spend some quality time with the "Yukon Fox.".Myself, Emmitt and his brother Joe swapped stories all through the evening. We also went to the store and Emmitt introduced me to a few fine folks. This was awesome, meeting new people and enjoying the awesome hospitality, checking out the cool villages that are on the route. It was at this point that I began to think about what I was really doing and it took Joe to remind me.

I was doing this trip without any mechanical support and doing it in the traditional way. I also thought that just a hundred years earlier, my Inupiaq people wouldn't even think about attempting to do what I was doing and vise-versa. The Inupiaq were afraid to venture into Athabaskan territory and the Athabaskans were afraid of venturing into Inupiaq territory.

The reception I got in Ruby was pretty doggone neat. I wished I could have stayed longer but decided to hit the trail the next day. Emmitt kept hinting that I stay for the weekend and we enter the spring carnival dog races. I really wanted to get a couple hours out of Galena to camp as the stretch from Galena to Huslia is quite long. So I got prepared to leave the next morning for my trip to Galena.

The trip to Galena was quite uneventful — good trail and fine weather. I am really amazed at this point as to how big the Yukon River is. I look back towards Ruby and mark the hillside that is opposite the village. I go for two-and-a-half hours on this stretch of river and can still see the hillside. That was one long straightaway.

I arrive in Galena in the early evening and I don't know a soul in this village. I was fortunate to come up the bank of the river and end up in front of the local radio station. How convenient, I need to make a couple of phone calls.

George Attla in previous conversations had given me the names of a couple of people to contact, one of which was his brother, Barney, and the other is Gilbert Huntington. I go into the station and the local DJ is kind enough to make some calls for me. Both men are out of town.

Hmm, I remember the year before talking to a person on the telephone from my home at Iviq. I ask the DJ if a person by the name of Jon Korta is still residing here. He says sure, makes a call and Jon comes over with a snowmobile. What a relief! Jon asks me if I would like to spend the night at his house and I almost give in, but Huslia is a long way from here and I still have time to make it a few hours out. Besides, we've only been 50 miles today and the dogs might think that they are on vacation again.

Jon shows me the trail out of Galena. We have to travel through town to get to the Huslia trail. What a beautiful place this is. The houses are so picturesque sitting in the trees and huge yards. I have fallen in love with Galena.

The trail out of Galena is nice. We travel for another three hours and set up camp. What I look for when I camp is a place with some dead wood lying around and possibly some shelter. There must have been a forest fire a long time ago. There are little spruce standing all over the place that have been burned. I have yet to see any traffic on this trip other than a trio of snowmachiners on their way to Ruby a couple of nights before, so I think I can just stop on the trail and camp with relative safety. The burn provides my cooker with fuel and I make some hot water to mix up a batch of grub for the dogs.

While the cooker is doing its thing I set up the arctic oven. It's going to be another very cold night. I think about the possibility of obtaining another sleeping bag somewhere in the near future. My bag is supposed to be good to 40 below, but whoever might have tested it had to have on a layer of insulation already. I'm about 165 lbs. soaking wet and I can't really keep warm enough in the bag I presently have.

I did buy more Coleman fuel in Ruby so I know that if I leave my little one burner on at least I'll be comfortable. We do our thing in automation: Remove booties, start cooker, set up tent, feed the dogs and get ready for a cool nap. If I set up camp about midnight we can be up by 8, do our automated thing in reverse and hit the trail by about 10. I like to put in at least 10 hours of running time.

I am noticing a lot of animal tracks finally. The Yukon River didn't have a whole lot of animal traffic that I could see. Maybe a moose track every once in a while but on this trail there are wolverine, lynx and more wolf tracks. I pass through a couple of small river portages and on one of them is a fresh, still steaming pile of wolf scat and a set of tracks headed in both directions opposite the trail. I am hoping to run into something at some point in my travels.

Next week, the adventure continues as Schaeffer nears Huslia.


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