I am sitting in the little Bering Air offices in a back corner of the already tiny Nome airport. It’s dank, dark, grey, and cold outside. 8:30 am and the sun won’t poke its head above the horizon for another hour or so. I am waiting to catch my flight from Nome to St. Michael via Unalakleet. I am flying through some daylight hours so I will be able to see part of this corner of Alaska from the air. The flight to Nome from Anchorage was dark with nothing to see. It took what seemed forever just to get through security in Anchorage. The highlight of the airport was flirting with a tall, sexy Russian girl who was working at the Starbucks. However, now that I am here, in Nome, I am in full swing adventure mode, preparing to live in the Yupi’q Eskimo village of St. Michael for the next several months of my life, training sled dogs and running dog-sledding trips into the Northwestern Arctic of Alaska and into the Russian Kamchadal region.
Sitting here in the Nome airport, surrounded by the goings-on, I realize that I am a minority out here, and that this will be the first time I have ever lived as such. There are not many Viking looking white-boys out here. This is Yupi’q country, and I am the outsider. At 6-feet 1-inches, and blonde, I “stand out” in the crowd, pun intended.
Flying out of Nome and into St. Michael is a white-knuckle affair, and one that leaves a lasting impression of the isolation and austere vastness of the arctic. White, wind-whipped seas, and low rolling volcanic cones covered in arctic tundra are the only things you see as the plane makes its way across the lonely part of the world.
After landing, my new boss takes me directly to a fuel tank farm where he immediately gets me to work, pumping out mud and water from around the tank perimeters. The first look at the village brings one word to mind, squalor. There is no doubt that while this is technically part of the United States, the village and area is essentially a third world country.
Village life is filled with mud, garbage, human waste and more mud. It is generous to call the village ugly, yet the region surrounding it is somehow mystical. There is an intangible quality that hangs over the land, making it seem almost prehistoric. The only other place in the world I have experienced anything similar is in the remote regions of Iceland, another tundra covered northern land.
There is no doubt that this is frontier living. Even in the 21st century, being here strikes a feeling of being on the edge. One Yupi’q elder describes this land by saying “it is not the end of the world, but you can see it from here.” Regarding the human interactions, this is the frontier as well, as disagreements are more often solved with fists or bullets than mediation.
Beyond the thought that a mere disagreement may be met with fists, the biggest obstacle here as best I can figure is mud. Nasty, gross, filthy, dog-shit filled mud. It is everywhere and it is a part of life here before the snow and ice arrives. No outdoor gear purchased from fancy gear stores survives this stuff. This is the land where Carhartt, and industrial work clothes are essential. Wear a fancy-boy piece of Patagonia and it gets shredded in days.
This is especially noticed when working the dog lot. This is my second day in, and I have started working the dogs and dog yard. The dogs get fed a mix of seal fat, high protein kibble and water twice a day. To get the seal fat, raw flippers and blubber get placed into a large outdoor double-boiler where it gets rendered down into a liquid tallow that gets poured over the kibble. Consider this high-octane fuel for the dogs as the calorie return on it is incredible. In addition to the seal fat, Tom Cod also get boiled down, into a soupy fish-broth given to the dogs.
Don’t think that the seal and cod magically appear either; Glen, a Yupi’q, routinely goes out on seal hunts, and the cod is retrieved from nets dropped into the frigid Norton Sound. About every third day, I make a run out to the nets to pull up the fish, place them into large plastic tubs, then bring them back for boiling and rendering.
If this all sounds grimy and gross, I can tell you, it is. However, I am fortunate because my house is one of the only houses in the village that has its own shower. I am very lucky that after a day spent scooping dog waste, boiling seal fat and handling dogs I get to come home and take a hot shower. Most of the Yupi’q are not so lucky, as indoor plumbing is a rarity in these parts. For toilet needs, this is the land of the “honeypot”. Outhouses have holding pots called “honeypots” that are used for waste. As they fill up, you carry them out to the side of the muddy streets where they are collected by a weekly “poop-patrol” and they are then brought out to be dumped into a huge lagoon of human waste. Hepatitis runs rampant out here.
Before you begin thinking it is all bad, let me tell you that the rewards out here truly help erase the bad. I was invited to go on seal hunts with the Yupi’q which is an honor and spectacle. As a “Gussiq” – white guy – I am not allowed to hunt the seals, and I don’t want to; but being invited to go out in the boats and observe the hunt, as well as be there on the beach when they return is an experience that is worth the hardship.
I was taken out on my first seal hunt with Glen. He told me to “go dress like you’ve never dressed before” and to prepare for the nastiest conditions I could imagine. I put on two layers of long-underwear, an expedition weight top, primaloft pants, Gore-Tex bibs, arctic boots, a down jacket, glacier glasses, a parka mushing-overcoat, fur trapper hat, gloves, hat and seal furred mittens. Barely able to move, I waddled down to the beach where we all loaded into the boat and made our way out into the minus 10 degree weather. Even with all this, I was astonished at how fast my feet and fingers cooled down, and I am a seasoned high-altitude mountaineer. I can honestly say this was one of the most uncomfortable excursions I have participated in.
Once out in the boat and floating through the pack ice, I was amazed at how astute, observant and aware the Yupi’q men are when hunting seal. Glen could spot a spotted seal head from at least a mile away. I have no idea how he pulls this off, but it is truly an amazing thing to see. Glen’s brother in law, Paul, came along and he shot two spotted seals. As we pulled up to the beach of St. Michael, many of the locals turned out for the butchering. The Yupi’q once hunted spotted seals using harpoons and hand-thrown “atlatls” – a combination slingshot and spear. Today, they use .22 caliber rifles to take the seals. Even so, the fact they can spot the seal out in the ice and land a shot is testimony to their skill and heritage of living with what the surroundings give them. When they hit a seal, it naturally floats due to the blubber and fat, making retrieval a matter of keeping an eye on the dead animal and navigating through the pack ice.
This was where things really got interesting. Paul and Glen cut the seals up and handed out choice cuts and the ribs to the elders of the village. Everyone got some of the seal, but according to a “pecking order”. The elders got the best cuts while the village n’er do wells got the fat and entrails. It was something, watching this take place, knowing that it has been done this way for hundreds of years prior. This is not like going into a Safeway and buying a steak.
After the beach-side butcher house antics, I retired to the house where I tried in vain to thaw out and heat my core and body back to normal levels. Once I recovered I bundled back up and went out to feed the dogs, which takes about an hour of time to prepare, dish out, and clean.
Spending time in the village, you fall into a pattern of work, sleep, and waiting for the weather to cooperate. Finally, snow hit us, and the dogs can get run. The dogs themselves know when the time is prime for sledding. They bark and howl and twitch with giddy anticipation with the thought of harnessing up and hitting the trails. I love each and every one of these dogs, but make no mistake, these dogs are not pets. The reality of dog-mushing is that the dogs are working dogs, born and bred to break trail and pull weight. When they know the time has come to run, they come alive.
The lot consists of 48 dogs, each with a distinct personality and build. Dogs are selected for various positions on the team based on these characteristics. Leaders must be sharp, and tempered with a keen edge, without being aggressive or mean to the other dogs. Wheel dogs go right in front of the sled and are the bruisers. Big, strong and hardy dogs make the grade for the wheel positions. Swing dogs go directly behind the leader. Swing dogs are the “second bench” leaders and must show lean bodies, and have mild temperaments until they are called on to switch into the lead position. Between the swing and wheel dogs are the “team dogs”. These are the blue collar heroes of the canine world. They clock in, run and pull the sled, and ask for some ear scratches and good meals in return.
Getting the team harnessed, clipped in, and ready to go is pure work. You wrangle the dogs into the harness as they quiver with glee, then bring them to the sled where the leader line, snow-hooks and brakes are set. If there are dogs that don’t like each other in the yard, you have to zig-zag through to keep them from tearing each other apart. Then, once the dogs are on line, you need to keep them from doubling back on the team, tangling all the cords and harness clips.
The process of actually getting the dog into the harness is one-part animal wrangling, one-part “weaving” and one-part timing. You bring the dog between your kegs, with the head facing forward and then close you legs much like a stanchion, locking the dog into position. The dog is pulling, tugging and trying to jump up and down out of sheer excitement over the prospect of running. Now, you have to bring the three loops of webbing that comprise the harness up and over the dog’s head and neck. This is the easy part. Now you need to lift one front leg of the dog and slide it through the front webbing loop. Once done, you need to do the second front leg. Then, the harness needs to be pulled back to the haunches, where you then grab the rear loop, keep the dog from bolting like a rocket, and then clip it into the team line coming out of the center of the sled. More often than not, you end up with a tangle of dogs, line and harness knots, requiring a surgeon’s precision to undo. Even after the harnessing, you need to keep the dogs on the leader line, and make sure they do not “come back” to the rear of the line, causing chaos. If this sounds like a controlled emergency, it is.
Finally, when every dog is on line, you pull up the parka, get the fur hat on, put on gloves and mitts, and step onto the runners on the back of the sled. When ready, you give the call “Mush”, quickly pull the snowhook, and prepare to get yanked across the tundra out from the yard. The first few moments of the run are critical. You must maintain control over the excited dogs and stay balanced on the runners. You also have to find the right balance between riding the brake and keeping the dogs in motion. Once this is accomplished, and the dogs calm down, they settle into a pace that lets you concentrate on the amazing arctic scenery that is flying by.
On one training run, I was in the sweep position of three teams. We were about seven miles out of the village, and as we crested the top of a small tundra cone, there was a herd of around 40 caribou. As we mushed past them, the herd began to move like one solid unit, and ran alongside of us, nearly oblivious to the dogs. As the caribou ran along with us, you could see their breath crystallizing in the frigid arctic air, out of their nostrils. These are the images and experiences that stay with you, and make the hardships of life in the bush worth it.
On this same run, as we made our way out to the frozen Norton Sound, the sun was beginning to set (at 1:45 in the afternoon mind you) and the shades of purple, red, pink and orange glowed over the dormant volcanoes and snow, giving an almost otherworldly feel to the land.
With the dogs getting tired and ready to “head for the barn”, we turned around and began the trip home. The final gift of the day was seeing two wolves running along the beach on the sound, moving toward the caribou herd. You dream of seeing these things, and long for them, and when they occur it is hard to believe you are fortunate enough to be there.
Life in the bush is difficult and filled with hardship, but the reward is seeing things that most only see in movies or TV shows. The adventure is hard, but what good adventure isn’t?
For more of Anders’ stories, click here!