The Right Dogs for the Trail

January 04, 2011 Posted by: Kristin Knight

"Take the right number of dogs, but more importantly take the "right" dogs"…..was advice passed onto me early in my dog mushing career. Those words resonate in the back of my mind every time I'm selecting a team to head out on the trail.

The last patrol of 2010, found myself, Jessica and two teams of dogs negotiating less than ideal conditions on the Windy Creek trail, just inside the southern boundary of Denali National Park. Local residents of Cantwell have done a fantastic job creating well packed trails that mushers live for. Heavily loaded sleds, excited dogs and a well worn trail down the gorge onto Windy Creek made for a "two-handed" handlebar gripping ride full of bumps, slides, and a few wrecks. We made it safely onto the creek only to find a skeleton of a trail full of paw prints, old sled tracks, and the occasional snow covered dog bootie. Local Cantwell mushers had put the trail in early in the season, providing a great map for the lead team to follow. Windy Creek itself was full of caving shelf ice and failed ice bridges. The lead dogs of my team, Chinook and Muddy, had their noses to the trail and their ears up listening for any signs of bad ice. The distinct smell of sulphur signified the nearness of the wilderness boundary and the dogs picked up speed knowing the cabin was near. After an open water crossing of a small tributary feeding Windy Creek and removal of wet booties, the dogs came to rest at the Upper Windy Cabin and settled in for the night.

Being new to the Park's kennel and the trails that cris-cross Denali National Park, my mind is continually filled with questions; what is the name of that peak, what drainage am I in, where the trail "should" go, and even "am I at the right cabin?" One of the treasures held inside the cabins are the old log books of past dog patrols and summer happenings that answer many of my questions. The smells of sulphur near the end of the trail lead me to believe that hot springs may be hidden in some drainage close by. An evening of perusing the many years of log book entries, found many people asking the same question and searching out the elusive pools of warm water, with little luck.

One thing that can always be found on the park trail is the comfort of a warm cabin, a cache of good food, and continually changing weather. The temperature at the start of the patrol was holding around 25 degrees below zero, perfect conditions for the dogs and perfect conditions for creating a strong desire to get the cabin warm. As the afternoon progressed and daylight faded, clouds began to move in covering the surrounding mountain peaks, an indication of a potential shift in weather.

The next morning brought warmer temperatures and a light dusting of snow on the sleeping dogs. The near zero temperatures signified the beginning of the break of the coldest December seen in the interior in 30 years. The timing could not have been better! The task for the morning was for Jessica and I to ski to the juncture of the Foggy Pass and Riley Pass trails. The continuing creek conditions sent us into the brush looking for alternatives to the trail. After a few hours of connecting sloughs and wildlife trails we felt we had a suitable trail for a team to follow. Turning toward the Foggy Pass drainage revealed a creek bed full of overflow. Previous dog tracks on the trail surfaced every 50 yards or so before being covered by water creeping up through the pressure cracks in the ice. It was at this point that Jessica continued toward Foggy Pass and I turned around to pick up a team and travel back over the fresh ski tracks to better establish the trail.

My return to the cabin greatly excited the dogs, and the preparations of the sled sent them into their usual convincing manner of "take me today; I'll do the best job". A radio call from Jessica warned that even more overflow and ice was ahead on the trail……"Take the right number of dogs". Having the dogs follow a ski trail can be challenging something that I have never done in my brief time as a musher. I knew that I would have to take dogs that I trusted in both lead and in team….."Take the right dogs". Chinook, Muddy, Swift, Pyro, Fin and Sultana, six dogs, my leaders from yesterday that did so well and some pretty powerful and well trusted boys and girls to drive through the fresh snow and provide control with a light sled on the way out and enough power to accommodate a passenger on the way home.

The team exceeded all my expectations! Muddy quickly learned to read the ski tracks and Chinook responded to my every gee and haw to make sure the team stayed on the right trail. The remainder of the team traveled through the tight sloughs and game trails effortlessly, barely missing a step. We caught up with Jessica about 6 miles up the Foggy Pass drainage. Her scouting found several open leads and further deteriorating trail. It was decided the team should turn around and head back to the cabin. Before calling it quits for the day we ran the team back to the wilderness boundary to pick up some cached supplies dropped by some of our Law Enforcement rangers.

The next day brought even warmer temps, allowing for minimal musher gear being worn for the short trip out. The dogs moved with ease along the trail, with short stops, allowing the dogs to roll around in the snow and cool off from the sudden rise in temp. We were met in the parking lot by Kristin and a few other NPS staff. My first question when I stepped of the runners was "how warm is it?" "25 degrees above zero, a 50 degree temperature swing!" replied Kristin!

The last patrol of 2010 provided a fun weekend for the dogs and mushers and some new trail to restore and enhance the dog's enthusiasm for the start of the 2011 and the next patrol to the Northern boundary of the park.

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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