The New Dog Speeding to get more time in solitude.
[by Nick Jans]
I PAUSED ON A RIDGE NEAR MIDAS CREEK, overlooking the serpentine curves of the frozen Noatak River. On the slope above, a band of Dall sheep grazed; in every direction, the peaks of the western Brooks Range scrolled to the horizon. I’d come here alone, breaking trail a hundred miles in sub-zero cold, dragging a 300-pound sled over mountain passes, through deep canyons, across glare ice and windblown tussocks. Before I returned to my cabin in the tiny Eskimo village of Ambler, I’d cover another 250 miles without encountering another person.
My journey hadn’t taken weeks, or even days. I’d covered that stretch of country, far off the village trail network, in just eight hours. I sat on my magic carpet: a battered mid-1990’s Arctic Cat snowmobile, towing a freight toboggan fashioned of space-age UHMW plastic, laden with gas and gear.
The Inupiat of centuries past couldn’t have dreamed of such a thing. They were masters of the winter landscape, ranging far and wide over this same country with teams of tough, wolfish dogs pulling sleds fashioned of lashed-together wood and caribou antler. They’d developed the technology in the 1600’s, and it had been embraced and tweaked by the waves of explorers, missionaries, traders, and miners that appeared in the 19th century.
“It’s a question I’ve been asked many times over the years: Why travel on those noisy, soulless hunks of metal? Why not dogs?”
I’m a dog lover, always have been. Over my years in Alaska, I’ve known many mushers and watched them work with an admiring eye. I’ve driven borrowed dogs as well, from steady work animals to the Iditarod team of a top musher. I understand the bond of human and dogs working together, the land’s silence broken only by breathing, the creak of paws on snow, and the hiss of sled runners. So, why was I not standing on a sled’s runners, with my loyal team of huskies panting in the snow? It’s a question I’ve been asked many times over the years: Why travel on those noisy, soulless hunks of metal?
Why not dogs?
You’d think I would have gone the other way. When I first arrived in the upper Kobuk in 1979, sled dogs still outnumbered people nearly two to one in Ambler, population roughly 225. On a still night, the mingled cacophony of howls and barks carried for miles. The village was a hotbed of dog racing, which was both a popular local and statewide competitive sport; others kept dogs as a matter of choice, and ran them for pleasure. But only a dwindling handful, most of them homesteaders deliberately living a traditional lifestyle, still used work dogs as their go-to winter transportation. Sled dogs were fading into the rearview mirrors of what some called iron dogs.
The first mass-produced snowmobiles had appeared in the 1960’s. Though early models were clunky and breakdown-prone, the technology improved at full-throttle pace. Inupiat and settlers alike saw the obvious advantage: the ability to travel much farther, much faster, pulling much more weight with much less effort. In exchange, people harnessed themselves to a cash economy—trading time spent fishing and hunting for dog food, and taking care of teams, for time spent working for the money to buy machines, gas, and parts. Few looked back. A decade after their introduction, every family owned at least one “sno-go” that they used for travel and chores; and over the following years, the number of dog teams continued to dwindle as the mechanical roar of the new dog swelled across bush Alaska.
From those early days, I had my eye not on the means, but the ends: as much time as possible deep in the Brooks Range, places where even few Inupiat ventured. With dogs, a 350-mile round trip like mine might take three weeks—but on a good machine, as little as three days. As it had been for the Inupiat, my choice was a pragmatic no-brainer. I hitched my sled to an iron dog—and traveled far, beyond the edge of dreams.