The Polar Husky Breed
Two layers of fur is what sets our sled dogs apart from southern breeds. The majority of our present stock are from a special breed I started 30 years ago. It has been called the Polar Husky since our North Pole expedition in 1986. At that time, I had a good stock of northern breeds, mostly from the Indian dogs of the Yukon River and Siberian Huskies. These dogs were great in wooded areas and temperatures down to minus 50. But in the open barrens or on the Arctic pack ice, out in the wind, their coats would fall short in keeping them warm and preserving their energy.
In the early 80’s I introduced the Canadian Eskimo dog and the Mackenzie Husky to my breed. In the late 80’s for the Trans-Antarctica expedition, I also introduced the Greenland Eskimo dog. The Mackenzie Husky lengthen the legs, making them longer paced runners, for expeditions involving thousands of miles. The Greenland Eskimo, by far the toughest dog in the world, brought many positive physical traits. This included the best coat for cold, windy conditions.
The coat is two layers. The inner layer is fine, insulating hair, similar to the down on a duck. This is shed in the summer in enormous quantities. I used to collect it, and have it spun for socks and mitts, creating some of the warmest hand and footwear I have ever had. The second layer is thick, long haired protection called guard hair. The guard hair keeps wind and snow out. It is so thick, that if these dogs are immersed in water, the insulating layer does not get wet. The guard hair allows our dogs to sleep on the ice without allowing their body heat to melt the ice. All other common dogs lack this layer. Plus, the insulation would melt the ice if they slept on it.
Our dogs optimum temperature is minus 30 to minus 40. Their problem is the opposite to what you might expect. It is overheating. When temperatures get above zero, we have to be careful so as to not overheat the dogs. On warm, sunny days, we take cooling off breaks.
The dogs also don’t like summer. They live for winter and its cold.
We are in the middle of a heat wave. It was minus five when we exited the tent. The catch, however, was that the wind was blowing 20-25 mph, but it still felt balmy. We moved with slower steps, and could afford the luxury of slight hesitation. Our faces did not freeze up instantly as they had during the past two weeks, with the wind blowing and the temperatures at minus 45 and 50.
This morning we could expose our fingers for up to half a minute, provided it was in the sheltered side of the sled. But even in the open it was possible to bare skin to quickly untie a knot or adjust a ski binding.
Even before we came out of the tents, we were roasting in our sleeping bags. And a low flame on the cookstove gave ample heat. And the frost on the interior of the tent significantly diminished. Butter was again easy to cut, and the Coleman fuel we use for the stove again accepted the match, rather than putting it out on contact.
Life is easy for us at minus five. The dogs also appreciated the break. There was a remarkable difference on the friction of the sled runners on the ice. In this heat our skis and runners slid like they are supposed to, rather than grind in the powdered snow of the subzero.
This made a big difference in the day. It was like taking 300 pounds off the sled. We couldn’t stop the dogs; they did not obey our commands to “WHOA!” This is a nice problem to have.
It is remarkable how well the human body can adapt. Minus five, with a 30 mph wind, would be cold wave in most cities. It would be quite miserable, rather than the heat wave we perceive it to be. The prerequisite for adaptation is a mental one. It is being in the present and accepting the cold. The cold is the teacher of common sense and simplicity. It quickly separates that which does not work from that which does, fine tuning the way you eat and sleep and dress and how you organize your gear. Our environment becomes mindless, for the mind is free.
It is difficult to clear the mind of its clutter. The best way I have found, for myself, are these long cold weather expeditions. The month of January was the adaptation month for me. I did well in the first few days, but after a month I am now truly in a nomadic cold state.
The other balance in this equation are your other team members. I am not alone; we have a small society of people, all interacting in harmony. This is necessary to achieve this level of cold peace. It really struck me yesterday just how well we had all adapted to the winter here on the Barrens. The heat wave showed us that. It was a significant rise in temperature, 40-45 degrees. It would be equivalent of a temperature rise from 45 to 90 degrees on a spring day in the States. We are all familiar with the temperature fluctuations of the climate we live in, but few experience the subzero. It most of our minds, subzero is just one block of temperature, all unimaginable cold. But there are vast chemical and physical changes that happen within this range. And we are now approaching zero degrees Fahrenheit, the warm side of subzero.
Great Day in the Barrens
It was a glorious day. When I crawled out of the tent the temperature was minus 2, and it was calm. I stood up and stretched like you would getting off the plane in Miami Beach. There was no need to move to keep warm. The surroundings were mine to contemplate. We did our morning chores of taking down the camp and packing the sleds in leisure. The dogs were happy, big tail wags greeted us all as we approached them for the walk to the sled to be harnessed. They dragged us to their positions, impatient to pull for the day.
The travel surface was slick, the sleds light, and we zipped to the east, each of the two back sleds playing a game of catch up with the lead sled. The dogs were totally disobedient to the the command “WHOA!” The scenery was splendid, we slipped up and down the undulating landscape, all amazed at how pleasant life was.
Lunch, my least favorite time of the day, was a leisurely affair. This was the first lunch when I was able to sit for the entire half hour, not the ordeal that would usually have me up and running within 15 minutes in order to get warm blood circulating.
My mind was free for the whole day, free to go wherever it wanted. I chose the optimistic avenues of spring and light and hope. We all take that route when the times are pleasant. There is an old saying that we don’t know how long this weather will last, but because we live in the present, it is infinite. This is the rebound of energy you receive after traveling through the cold, dark Arctic night.
Today was glimpse that the cold would return for sure, but the light was starting to seep in. Slowly for now, but within weeks in leaps and bounds. It will be a great spring this year. Today was my most favorite day in the Barrens so far in my four expeditions across this land. The low light cast a warm mood under a blue sky of optimism. We each remarked at one time or another that this looked just like the moon, covered with snow. But is wasn’t foreign. It was the earth, and the Barrens appeared friendly. It trusted this place, and know the gentle side of life here.
I never trusted Antarctica. It would lull us with its beauty, and then it would try to kill us. No life lived there where we went, it was not an earthly place. But here the spring exists, it was awake. Places so splendid surrounded us, if only we could see everything through the lens that was present today.
In the afternoon, purple shadows lengthened and the snow turned pink, the white moon winked above at us. Our train of dogs and people traveled up and down, to and fro, over hills and across emerald ice of small Barrenlands’ lakes. It was magic, it was like a painted illustration in a children’s book.
The dogs were most affected by the spirit of the day, wild creatures with mischief in their faces. The sun set, and our surroundings turned hush in the cold light. The reds in the west gave way to yellows, and then green. Later, as we staked and fed the dogs, the northern lights danced.
The evening was warm in the tent. I went out to wash in the snow. Standing naked, heart pumping, I looked up at this arctic universe, feeling alive. Impressions of the day still awoke in me, keeping me from sleeping peacefully late.
It was another perfect day. Minus 17, clear and calm when we exited the tent. Later in the day, it must have warmed up to minus 10. In the early morning, mirages appeared in our direction of travel to the east. It takes a perfectly still day for the sun to refract off billions of tiny ice crystals to lift distant objects into the sky. Terrain that we could otherwise not see rose like a ghost above a grave in the horizon, and was stretched like a rubber band. Sharp buttes, like Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, arose from small, insignificant hills. The mirages held for about half an hour, until the air began to mix, causing them to silently disappear.
Mirages are uncommon in the Barrens during this season when winds rule. We had the most perfect halo around the moon the night before, and this indicated the presence of tine ice crystals. In the morning, I saw what appeared to be a green flash around the sun. I’ve never seen this before, so it was a day of sky phenomenon.
On the Arctic Ocean, mirages were common in the spring. They would lift 20-30 foot ridges along our path, making them appear as insurmountable walls. At first sight, it send panic into the team, until we figured out what was going on. At times, the distant objects will become truncated, and will float above the horizon.
On the Antarctic peninsula, we one had a rare clear, still, calm morning. It was very cold, and the air was awash with ice crystals. Mirages lifted distant mountain previously invisible to us into the air. It helped us navigate that day, this was before the days of GPS.
During the morning, we were traveling up an down very gently undulating glaciers. I was in the back sled, watching the others. Four others were with the two sleds ahead, skiing on either side. As they disappeared into a depression, their bodies truncated, and their torsos suspended in the air, as the sled and their lower bodies disappeared. The remained in midair like a spirit, until the sled rose back up again and reattached their torsos.
I watched this happen several times. I once saw their heads float in midair, just like the suspended mountains. Another phenomenon that was quite practical was the reflection of open water on the Arctic Ocean, under overcast skies. The ice on the Arctic Ocean is often sliced with large cracks called leads. These can be anywhere from a couple of feet to a quarter of a mile wide, and miles long. They present a major obstacle when they cross our route. We could spend hours looking for a way around one only to hit another. Often, when the sky is covered with high, overcast clouds, the light reflecting off the ice make the clouds appear whitish-gray. The light reflecting the open water will reflect back a light black. In this situation, the sky is literally a roadmap of the ice. We could often see seven to ten miles ahead, and see where the leads pinched together, making for a good crossing.
On some clear, cold days, where there were lots of ice crystals present, we could tell when open water was ahead by the ominous, light black color in the sky. On clear days, we might be able to tell a couple of miles ahead, but by far the best days on the arctic ice are bright days, with high, overcast clouds.
Later in the day, a bank of low clouds crept in, after lunch, dulling our surroundings. At 3:30, the low sun again appeared, breaking out of the cloud bank, dramatically casting orange shadows. It was as if we were on a theatrical stage, a choreographed movement of three sleds and dogs, dancing and prancing into the infinite horizon.
It was minus 34, clear and calm upon exiting the tent. Our camp was near the rim of the shallow Thelon River valley. The Thelon is one of the largest rivers of the Barrens, basically a large, gentle flowing of water. Most other Barrenland rivers drop quite a bit, and can be a real challenge for paddlers. But this is a beginners river. It flows through a series of lakes which connect to Baker Lake, the next village on our expedition, some 300 miles away.
The valley is lightly forested in places with small spruce. The river is a potential route to Baker Lake, but the valley has deep snow and the route is longer than our cross country plan.
By 10 o’clock, we saw the full extent of the valley as it dropped in stages. With spruce patches paralleling its distant banks. The bank on the other side didn’t look to steep, but it was 15 miles away, which bled out any detail. I had always wanted to see the Thelon since I was a kid, and here I was on a gorgeous winter day, scouting it with binoculars.
As we descended, the temperature dropped noticeably. This is typical in depressions in the Arctic, where cool air pools up. The giant Mackenzie valley, surrounded by mountains on each side, is the coldest sink I have ever experienced. I soloed its upper valley twice at 60 below. It is clear and calm there, the birthplace of the giant Canadian high pressure system, which gets its strength there, and then flows south in January to freeze orange blossoms in Florida.
The Thelon valley is just a minor depression compared to the Mackenzie, but it was still stinging cold when we removed our gloves to untangle dog lines. In the stillness, we had lunch with our sleds facing the sun. There was a hint of warmth from the sun, and the break was unusually quite, almost like a gathering in church. The we moved on again, around slices of spruce that protected gullies with deep snow, and finally to the Thelon itself. Our destination was the three mile long Eyeberry Lake that the river washes through. There the travel was perfect.
Some of the most peaceful moments of my life have been skiing along a sled on afternoons like this. Fortunately for me, I’ve had hundreds of days like this. I traveled with Mille that afternoon, and she loves dogs and the Arctic as I do. We talked about being in heaven right then, with no cares about society or our culture even on the radar screen of our minds.
As the sun got lower, the play of colors began. The pastel limes and emeralds reflected from the ice, the land creamy and soft. The temperature dropped, and the dogs picked up the pace, excited about the prospect of camp and dinner. We rose out of Eyeberry to the east on gentle slopes that lifted into the purple of the earth’s shadow. The front sled was silhouetted by open sky. The west was now green, the color of purity after an arctic sunset.
After a mile, we topped a knoll, and then a small, even decent was followed by a short, wild ride down to another lake. We followed its shoreline until the moon turned bright by the fading light, then chose a campsite near the shore with deep snow for the dogs. It was another great day, a day we never expected on the Barrens. Morale is high, the outlook optimistic, the hard month of January behind us.
We all, of course, hope the weather holds. But in this land its best not to have expectations.
At 8 a.m. our four day silence was momentarily broken by a slight puff that shook the tent, and woke me. I listened with suspicion, but it remained calm, the inside of the tent illuminated by the full moon. It was minus 20 and calm at the exit time. I stretched out after exiting our confined quarters, and checked the sky out. Low on the horizon in a small valley of a depression there was what looked like gray fog. This was the wind, kicking up loose snow. Within half an hour we were enveloped in it, and by lunch it was blowing between 25-30 mph. The temperature, however, remained pleasant - minus 10 at noon. What is important is that it remained clear.
In the morning we had good travel as we rose up the valley of the Thelon. There, we crossed a few snowy “hill-lets” and some scattered lakes, which made for good travel surfaces. The visibility was a couple of miles, but the blowing snow made the terrain deceiving. We navigated by GPS to a predetermined lake where the resupply would come in the next day, weather permitting.
I was not able to get information for the present country we are traveling in, a 60 mile stretch with the Thelon to the east and the giant Dubawnt lake to the west. I asked natives and white trappers whose traplines were east of the Great Slave Lake, and they said they knew nothing about this area. They all added they thought it was rocky and difficult travel.
The Indian territory extends no further than the Thelon. Isolated spruce and larger clumps of the trees totally fade away, as you move east into the are that we are now in. Nearing lunch, the dogs got excited about what appeared to be a gasoline drum on a near rise, in the low blowing snow. They got very excited, looking at each other as if to confirm what they were seeing. It looked to out of place to be just a rock, and as we got closer we made out the shape of an Innuksuk. A deliberately stacked pile of rocks used by the Inuit to mark direction or specific places. It consisted of four or five flatish, round, heavy rocks placed on each other, with a few smaller rocks placed in between to maintain its levelness. It was sturdily made, and could have been there for hundreds of years. I wondered when the last human had passed through here.
We stopped for lunch there, and I spent half an hour exploring the Innukshuk with blowing snow all around and sundogs on either side of the sun. Three stones deliberately placed on one another is always a sign of human hands. This Innukshuk was squat and square and sturdy, a deliberate sign of someone passing by, on the hunt, at home in this featureless moonscape. It marked on of the western edges of the Eskimo caribou territory. These people lived exclusively in the Barrens, and had no memory or history or spiritual belief of the open oceans, and its life, particularly the seal, from where they had migrated from. Their home was these barren lands where they existed, sometimes flourishing, but often suffering deadly famine.
The people now live predominantly in the village of Baker Lake, our next destination. But the work of their ancient hands still lives in these Innukshuk markers.
After lunch we moved east to the lake that was to be the landing strip for the plane, a Twin Otter on skis that would resupply us. We spent the afternoon outside, organizing our gear, determining any excess weight that could be sent out.
It was our resupply today. It sounds like an easy task, just calling a plane with supplies and having it dropped off. But I actually laid out plans for this resupply months ago. We used the standard dual prop Twin Otter on skis. This plane is the workhorse of the Arctic. I’ve used it on expeditions to the North Pole, Greenland, and Antarctica. It is extremely durable, has a long range, and a capacity of around 2,700 pounds. Fortunately, there was a Twin Otter on skis based in Yellowknife, and this made the transportation part a piece of cake.
Months ago, in Ely, we debated the amount of supplies that would be sent in on this resupply. This would be broken down into people food, dog food, fuel, and miscellaneous gear. We needed a payload that would give us 26-30 days of supplies. Everything is figured in weight, and when the payload limit on the plane is reached, then real discussion begins. Do we reduce our food and give the dogs more? Do we go with less fuel? It is not an easy discussion, but the reality of the low limit imposed discipline.
One reason that I like expeditions is the strategy involved. Few people see the intricate strategy, and how plans are laid out and constantly modified to meet changing conditions. Success or failure is determined by a practical strategy. Basically, most of the expeditions I’ve been involved in during that last 20 years have been in unknown areas or routes that had never been traveled. A great deal of study is involved. I read original journals, study maps, and satellite photos for the polar expeditions. After gathering as much information as possible, I lay out a plan based on past experience and intuition.
This expedition is quite simple. There are several legs along the 2,700 mile route that are very challenging, and probably have never been done. Crossing the Barrens in mid-winter is one such leg. Basically, I used the 250 mile Great Slave Lake, a known route which I have been on before, as our training. It was smooth travel, and over half of it was on trails. This was safe going, and accommodated the extra weight of clothing, food and gear that was packed along.