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Taking the long way home: Mushing across the state Part 4

June 1st, 2012 | Chuck Schaeffer Print this article   Email this article  

We skedaddle out of the hot springs about noon and the trail is much better as it has a bottom on it. We cross a stretch of tundra about five miles long that is snow-free. This looks like a real blow hole and I am fortunate to be crossing it with no wind. It's amazing, there is hardly any snow in this particular stretch. We soon enter a mountain valley heading north and as we get closer to the Kobuk side I'm amazed at the wolf traffic. In one area I count 16 sets of wolf tracks that have passed during the night, while in another area, there are eight sets. Aw, man, it was then that I wished for a snowmobile so that I could track some of these critters. But of course I am very satisfied with my mode of transportation: traditional. I keep thinking about that and realize that I'm probably the only Inupiaq that has done this for a long time. Maybe it hasn't been done before by my people. The trail gets much better as we are progressing towards Shungnak and we eventually pass through the village and head up to Kobuk for our next supply of dog food.

Kobuk is one of my favorite places. It is a beautiful little village and is the last inhabited village on the Kobuk River. I am greeted by Corrine Lundell and Erin Meeham and will stay at their house while in Kobuk. They are school teachers and have been in Kobuk for the past seven or eight years. These two gals are great supporters of the Kobuk 440 which is a middle-distance race and happens in a couple of weeks. They give out little homemade bags of goodies, made by the elementary class for mushers during the Kobuk 440. This bag contains a reflective cloth tag with Kobuk 440 embroidered on it, a neckline, an apple, a small bag of cookies and a greeting note from one of the kids. What a treat that is during the race! I recall one year during the race that I was getting quite thirsty between Ambler and Selawik. My juice was frozen so I was looking for something in my sled bag to quench my thirst and maybe ease my hunger pangs at the same time. I ran across the little cloth bag and discovered the apple. The apple was frozen solid but I commenced to gnawing on it anyways. Oh my, that was the finest apple I had ever eaten! And it did both jobs of thirst and hunger. The girls had dinner waiting for me after I had fed and bedded the dogs down. The dogs also had straw in Kobuk as my friends Mike Oliver and Liz Moore had a bail of straw sent up the day before. The dogs loved it. I stayed in Kobuk for a couple of days to rest the dogs, heal a couple of their sore wrists and get a bit more weight on a couple of my picky eaters. So far the dogs looked very healthy for the amount of tough trail that we had the past 100 miles. We then prepared for the final 200 miles that would bring us to Iviq. I am also getting restless just sitting there in Kobuk even though I am in very good company.

We depart Kobuk and head for Shungnak then Ambler. I stop in Ambler for some fish snacks that were waiting for us and we were greeted by some friends that were at the potluck for a gentleman that had passed away. This was being held at the ITC building which I needed to go by on my way through Ambler. I wanted to make it a few hours down the river before we camped for the evening so my stay in Ambler was very short. I decided that we would camp somewhere near or past the Hunt River. We found a nice little bend in the river near some dead wood up on the bank. I snacked the dogs and bedded them down and then took my little bow saw and walked up the bank to look for a couple of dry sticks for the cooker. As I was coming back down to the dogs, one of them did the 'I-see-or-smell-something bark.' I kindly told him to shut his trap and got back to the sled to fire up the cooker. We got that going, put up the arctic oven and got my possibles inside. I then mixed up a batch of food for the dogs and fed them. Ah, time to hit the hay. It was quite dark by then. The dogs started barking again and pretty soon wolves were howling all over behind the bank of the river. It was a pretty eerie feeling for a few minutes. We must have camped right where they had a kill. I had thought about my dog Chance barking a few minutes earlier as I was walking back down the bank of the river. He had definitely seen or heard something that I didn't. Anyways, after a few minutes it was very quiet and we were all able to get the much-needed rest.

The trip down to Kiana the next morning was beautiful and very hot. I ended up stopping for a couple of hours on the river because it had gotten so hot. I was fortunate that a northerly breeze had kicked up for the remainder of the trip. I overnighted in Kiana and did the last leg of my journey to Iviq the next day. It was pretty awesome to be in my old stomping grounds again and I still had a couple of weeks before the Kobuk 440 began. This would give my limpers and gimpers some time to heal and plenty of time for myself to get food drops and other things ready also.

I will do this trip again as now I realize that it can be done without too much difficulty. It is a very good training trip for the dogs — especially the young dogs. They get to experience the rigors and conditions of all types of trail. Most importantly, they learn how to rest when they need to. Therefore, they also learn to eat and drink when they have to. I also would like to target young people and have them gain perhaps a little bit of interest in what someone like myself is able to do with a team of dogs. It's not all about racing but about what our forefathers did with these animals and how important it was then and how important it is now to keep this part of our tradition alive. The meeting of new people and seeing old friends was probably the highlight of this trip. I was also very inspired by a couple of young people on the Yukon River that had trekked on snow shoes from Tanana to Galena for Suicide Prevention. Our native people have the highest suicide rate in the nation. We must overcome this and attempt to approach a solution. One method is feeling good about oneself — finding that inner spirit and hanging on to it. Not forgetting where you came from and hanging on to some of the traditional means that might help guide and keep you pointed in the right direction. What better way to do that than a dog mushing trip to wherever you might want to go. It's only the tip of the iceberg, but it's a start.


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