My three co-workers and I stood at the edge of the frozen Savage River hesitantly.
I didn’t have much experience with river ice travel. In the three other places I’ve run dogs up in Alaska, the only river crossings that I had to deal with were pretty inconsequential. The kind that, if you happened to break through, you might be up to your big toe in water.
The Savage River certainly is no Yukon, but it is big enough and the angled ice covering it only made it look bigger. We stared across the gray sheet and I tried to read signs that meant nothing to me yet. Why is the ice lighter there? Why does it rise like a hill over there? It is open upstream in the center, what does that mean for the ice downstream? Is that safe?
It has been my goal this winter to learn everything that I can while running dogs in Denali Park, which has meant throwing myself into every new situation that comes my way, actively learning instead of sitting back and watching.
“I will.” I said forcing myself to step forward as my gut dropped to my ankles. I come from the east coast where nothing seems to be freezing very solidly anymore and stories of kids skating over frozen ponds usually end with someone falling through. I don’t understand ice so I’m afraid of it.
Even in Alaska ice has become a big question mark with increasingly warm winters. Climate change is something that dog mushers have to deal with every day when they are traveling in the backcountry. The old-timer knowledge of river ice and what is safe no longer applies. Everything is new.
Jen and I armed ourselves with axes, trekking poles and micro spikes. The poles were used to tap the river ice to listen. The axes were to chop through to check its thickness. The micro spikes were so that we didn’t fall on our butts on the slick glare.
We had skied a handful of miles from Savage cabin to get to the River. The six puppies were along for the scouting lesson and my co-workers had to hold them all back on the bank as they would have happily come bounding out after us not understanding the potential danger.
Tap. Tap. Tap. We walked out not too far before hearing a different sound through the ice. A definitely hollow sound. Jen hacked through with the axe to reveal several inches of air with another layer of solid ice beneath it. Still safe.
When you don’t know squat, you sometimes have to decide to put your complete trust in someone else. And I definitely trust Jen, the kennels’ manager, who has run dogs in Kotzebue, who has camped in 50 below without an Arctic oven up the Squirrel River, and who has run the Yukon Quest. She wasn’t afraid so I shouldn’t be afraid.
We continued out. Tap. Tap. Tap.
There was questionable ice in the middle of the river so we diverted our route a little north where we found good going and made it across, learning a few more lessons along the way. By the end of the day I felt good about the Savage. While it was a good learning experience, the Savage is nothing compared to the miles and miles we’d be following the Tek and Toklat and Denali Bar. I still have a lot to learn. How do you know when there is good ice under overflow? How do you know that jellow-y overflow isn’t going to be up to your neck? Do the dogs really have a sense of what ice is good ice? What if your dogs get wet? What if you get wet? What if you fall in and it’s 40 below out? I’m still figuring these things out, but we do travel with an “oh sh#$%t bag” in which we carry a dry change of clothes in case something goes wrong. We also keep BIG parkas in our sleds that we never end up wearing because of the rigorous work- running up mountains, yanking the sleds onto a single runner to get them around tight turns, chopping away at surprise downed trees across out route and so on.
A week or two later we climbed over Primrose Pass on my first longer trip into the park. Denali was out in the distance towering over everything. The sky was pink and cheery and the Alaska Range looked wild but not unwelcoming.
“This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever run dogs,” I said.
Jen smiled, “Just you wait.”
“Just you wait.”
We continued west towards the Mountain.