Denali Highway

We are privileged to live in the most beautiful place imaginable, with miles upon miles of wilderness unfurling from our back yard. Mountains give way to broad swales of tundra, spruce & birch boughs arch & hang overhead, & serpentine rivers wind their way through it all. It is, in a word, breathtaking. But as we wait for more snow & the ability to break out our sleds, we are relegated to predictable loops & trails. After a certain point, the dogs make it clear that a change of scenery would be greatly appreciated, & we humans are easily convinced. We've been running small teams with the ATV, so we decided to hook up all fifteen race dogs to the truck & take them for a spin on the Denali Highway over the weekend. The DH spreads west to east from Cantwell to Paxson over roughly 135 miles & provides fine training for distance mushers due to its wide trail, solid snow base, & varied topography. More snow underfoot means less risk of injury, & since we use the term "highway" pretty liberally around here, it's good to remind folks that they don't maintain it after October. That means you can run a truck on it just until the snow really dumps, & then you're either on a sled or a snowmachine if you're out there at all. Two lodges stay open year-round & provide incredibly hospitable services to mushers on training runs: the Alpine Creek Lodge & the Maclaren River Lodge. They're spaced out so that during long training runs, while the dogs are bedded down comfortable & warm in beds of straw, their mushers can bed down within warm cabin walls.

Our run was short enough that we'll defer that comfort for another date. In the case of truck training, for those of you who haven't seen it done, we just hook the gangline up to the truck & drive behind the dogs, giving as consistent a control as we can with the gas pedal. We keep the windows down for commands & keep our eyes steadily on the dogs. On Saturday, we passed several other dog teams heading the opposite direction, which is invaluable practice for our guys. It's a great way to see the whole team move together, & a great way to maintain solid braking control while being able to provide all the amenities of a dog truck if necessary. It doesn't hurt to have the heater on or the music playing either, I don't suppose.

Moving along

We had Kitty along in the cab with us as the mascot for the whole run. Miss Kitty did a fine job of sleeping, acting as talent scout, or giving Solo kisses. As for the team, Norton & Littlehead led a focused charge the whole time. We always try to select some all-stars from each run, but in this case, since everyone performed so well, it was easier to just note that Hoss, in spite of his size, is still a puppy & that Tinman was in a mood of easy distraction. All fifteen dogs showed no sign of being tired at the end of the run, with some notable harness-bangers still howling to go.

Kristin, Kitty & Solo

It was, all in all, a lovely run. The skies with pending twilight were various hues of blue, with the soft roseate alpenglow along the ridges & the rare seam in cloud cover where sunlight seemed to shock the snow. The dogs, with an exception or two, settled in to an easy trot & showed genuine joy at the new scenery. A team of happy dogs glancing back at you makes any effort worth the while.

Back home, we harnessed everyone up again for that long 600 yard run into the cabin, where a warm meal & fresh straw in their houses gave way to contented moonlit howls. We humans, tired but thrilled at our dogs' performance, cooked our own dinner & sat down by the fire to start drawing up teams for the next day.