By 11 pm I was too tired to drive any further. I saw a sign for a hiking trail an hour or so past Jasper and decided to sneak in to park my car and sleep there. It was very dark. No moon that night. I began rummaging around the front seat trying to figure out where on earth I had left my headlamp when a noise became audible and began to grow louder. It was coming closer. It was coming towards me. It almost sounded like a bell. I held my breath and strained my ears. Just as my fingers grasped the band of my headlamp the sound of a thud came from outside the car. Something had rammed into the parked car. I was in grizzly country . . .
It had been a week since I had left home. 3,000 miles down and 2,000 miles to go to Denali Park in Alaska for a winter job. Every inch further north I went, I felt less and less sure about my decision. Leaving family and friends on the east coast is always hard and leaving them for a job that will have me living outside in Alaska’s interior with temperatures down to 50 below to patrol Denali Park by dog team is probably crazy. I noticed the job on a website called sleddogcentral.com. I check the site a couple of times a month – mostly because I have been missing dog mushing. I saw the description for the park job and couldn’t resist applying . . .
Denali Park will turn 100 years old in 2017. The sled-dog patrols are just as old and have changed little since 1917. The rangers still deal with the awful cold, wild winds, navigating river ice and overflow, angry moose and storms. The patrols last from one day up to six weeks, increasing in length throughout the winter as the dogs build up endurance. The dogs help transport scientists doing research in the park as well as supplies for cabin building and restoration projects. The dog trails can be used by winter recreationists to ski and snowshoe on. The winter patrols also help deter illegal activities in the park.
It sounded like a great adventure and I was lucky enough to be accepted into the 4 person team and began driving north a few weeks later.
. . .
Another thud against the car. It’s gotta be a bear. I turned on my head lamp and aimed it out the driver’s window. It only illuminated empty space. Shaken, I put my key back into the ignition and turned on the headlights ready to move forward.
A dog wearing a bear bell sat squarely in front of the car staring back at me. He was maybe 55 pounds and had dark marble coloring and handsome eyes. He was wearing a green backpack. He ran over to the driver’s door and jumped up on the side. I turned off the car and opened the door cautiously and found myself in the company of a very friendly kid.
There was one other car on the far side of the parking lot but no one was there. The dog had no tag on his collar and his backpack contained a water bowl and three bags of kibble. I gave him some of my water and some of the food in his bag and settled in for the night, deciding that I’d take him to the ranger station an hour or so drive down the road the next morning if his owners hadn’t materialized.
As I drifted off to sleep, I became increasingly certain that the dog had been trained as a decoy to lure in unsuspecting travelers as his owner, a clever axe murderer, waited in the trees. Luckily, this turned out not to be the case.
In the morning, my new friend was still looking at me expectantly. I invited him into the passenger seat and drove to the Mt. Robson Visitor Center. He curled up and fell asleep immediately. It was very nice to have company in the car for a few miles. At the visitor center a very nice girl named Sarah took the dog in and recorded the information about where I had found him. I called back to see what happened today. It turned out that his owners had been hiking and the dog had gotten lost in all of his enthusiasm to run around. The owners had continued to look for him out on the trail and camped out there overnight while he ran back to the parking lot. They were very relieved to find him at the visitor center.
. . .
I probably should have researched my route through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory a little more thoroughly than just eye balling it on a terrible map and tracing it with my finger once. I did not realize that I was heading straight for the Cassiar Highway – which apparently has a reputation of being worse than Alaska’s Dalton (ice road truckers) Highway – until I was sitting in a grocery store parking lot in Prince Rupert a few hours’ drive away. Well, this will be an adventure, I thought.
I also didn’t realize that I was driving the “Highway of Tears”- an infamous area where 40 unsolved disappearances and murders of young women have occurred since 1969. I was relieved to leave the Highway of Tears behind and made it to the Cassiar by dark. I feel safer hiking alone in the backcountry than traveling alone in the front country.
The first sign I had seen with the word “Alaska” on it stood right there, so I knew I was heading in the right direction! It was good to see. I continued north for a few more hours. The road was in very good condition. I parked my car by a quiet lake just south of the Bell II River crossing. I organized the back of my car for sleeping. No mysterious creatures of the night jumped up on it this time.
There was a faint green band in the sky when I had parked the car and I was surprised when the color deepened and the lights began to dance around a few minutes later. I could see them out of the car’s front window as I lay on my belly wrapped up in my sleeping bag. There were even some darker pinks in the coloring.
It is good to be back in the north.