As a child I loved reading the stories of Jack London, and dreamed of one day visiting Alaska. That dream came true for me in April 2014 when I headed out to explore the north side of the 19 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on an Arctic expedition with “Malamute Man” Joe Henderson, and his formidable team of 22 Alaskan Malamutes who pulled two sleds of gear and equipment amounting to a staggering 2,500 lbs.
It was one of the most challenging and amazing experiences of my life.
As someone who is passionate about the breed, and the owner of two wonderful Alaskan Malamutes, this expedition was an amazing opportunity to experience firsthand a taste of the life that this extraordinary breed would have had in their native land.
Arctic traveller and pioneering musher, Joe Henderson has been undertaking Arctic expeditions with his teams of Alaskan Malamutes for thirty years. Each year, Joe and his dogs spend three to four months at a time, exploring this vast and frozen part of the world. Towards the end of his solo expeditions, Joe invites small groups of adventurous souls the opportunity to join him. There were six people in our merry band of explorers, including Joe. I had travelled alone from Scotland, and did not know a soul, but what we all had in common was our love of Malamutes.
Due to his remarkable sled dog team, Joe is able to reach areas which are impassable and inaccessible by any other means. They travel deep into virtually uncharted territory, making notable new discoveries which are reported to the State of Alaska, such as the warm springs discovered in 2013, which were named Malamute River, in honour of Joe’s dogs. As well as providing the state with photographs, coordinates and samples of new finds, Joe also records snowfall and temperatures.
History of the Alaskan Malamute
The Alaskan Malamute is the largest of the five Kennel Club recognised Arctic dog breeds. It is one of the world’s most ancient breeds. The word “Malamute” is derived from the name of the Inuit people, known as the Mahlemut tribe, who settled along the shores of Kotzebue Sound in north-western Alaska, within the Arctic Circle, over 5,000 years ago.
Paul Voelker, one of the early breeders of Kennel Club registered Malamutes, believed the Alaskan Malamute to be the oldest breed on the North American continent and probably the breed longest associated with man. According to Voelker, the Malamute was depicted in bone and ivory carvings dated twelve to twenty thousand years old.
Alaskan Malamutes were prized by the Inupiat people for their strength, endurance and working ability. Being a nomadic people, the Mahlemut fished and hunted inland. In winter, they hunted on the coast. The dogs were vital to the Mahlemut in transporting their supplies between camps, and in stalking, hunting and hauling quarry such as seals and polar bears.
Early European explorers noted the interdependence between the Mahlemut and their dogs. This was a true partnership for survival. They were impressed with how the dogs were incorporated into every aspect of the lives of the tribespeople, who nurtured their dogs, and even entrusted their Malamutes to watch over and protect their young children while they went hunting. To this day, many Malamutes seem to have a very special affinity and bond with children; perhaps this stems from the days when Malamute pups and the Inuit children were raised together. The Europeans were fascinated with these impressive, hardworking dogs, and especially with their kind and affectionate natures.
During the 1890’s Klondike Gold Rush, the Malamute was in extremely high demand by prospectors in need of powerful and hardworking freight dogs. The breed’s unmatched strength, their tireless desire to pull heavy loads, comparatively low calorific requirements, and ability to withstand extreme Arctic conditions made the Malamute the ultimate freighting dog. Due to the low number of true Malamutes available, many were crossbred with various other working breeds, almost to the point of extinction. Fortunately, dedicated enthusiasts ensured the original lineage of the Alaskan Malamute was not lost forever.
The Alaskan Malamute has also played an important role in many historically significant polar expeditions, including the Antarctic expeditions of Peary, Amundsen, and Byrd to the South Pole. It was with a team of Alaskan Malamutes that Ernest Leffingwell first mapped the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Arctic coastline.
It took me two days to travel from Edinburgh to Deadhorse, Alaska, where I met for the first time the four other members of our expedition party; we had never met before, but what we all had in common was our love of Alaskan Malamutes.
We were transported by minivan along the famous Dalton Highway to Joe’s base camp at Happy Valley where we met Joe and his legendary sled dog team. Two hours later, once the sleds had been loaded and we had all selected the necessary Arctic outerwear and spare mukluks, we strapped on our skis and the challenge commenced.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in north-eastern Alaska is one of the last great wildernesses on earth. This remote region spans 19 million acres across the Arctic. It remains virtually untouched by man, and is home to wildlife such as polar bears, grizzlies, caribou, musk oxen and wolves.
Each day, we broke camp, tearing down our tents and packing up all of our belongings; we lashed our gear and equipment onto the sleds, strapped on our skis and set off, travelling further and further into the frozen wilderness on the north side of the Brooks Range. We were on the move for around five to six hours each day, covering a total distance of 120 miles over 12 days. Sometimes we skied in front of the dog team, sometimes behind, and sometimes we got to hitch a ride on the sleds!
The expedition was both physically and mentally demanding. Early each morning we were awoken by the deafening sound of 22 Malamutes howling for their breakfast. The first thing I would see when I opened my eyes each morning was the frost which had collected on the inner lining of my tent and on the outer covers of my sleeping bag. At times, the temperatures dropped to near unbearable levels; everything was frozen solid and had to be thawed out by the heat of our small stoves. I had to carry camera batteries in my inner jacket pockets to try and preserve their energy with my own body heat. The cold was so extreme that not all of my equipment survived the expedition, including a camera I had borrowed from my husband, which froze and permanently expired due to the sub zero temperatures!
We each cooked ourselves a nutritious breakfast on the wood burning stoves inside our tents, dismantled our tents and loaded the sleds before setting off cross-country skiing across the tundra for five or six hours until we reached a suitable spot to set up our next camp.
Each evening, after the day’s exertions, Joe then attended to his dogs and we set up camp; we unloaded the sleds, and carefully unpacked our tents and gear for the night. We slept in heated tents, designed by Joe.
After flattening and packing down the deep snow, we dug out large sinkholes to trap the cold air inside the tent, leaving snow bunkers around the edges, on which to place a groundsheet and a couple of foam mats to sleep on, as well as our gear, and a small wood burning stove, carefully balanced on a flat wooden board.
These little stoves were our only source of heat, the only means by which to prepare meals, which alternated between protein heavy meals of fresh meat and vegetables, or instant meals which had to be rehydrated with melted snow. Melting small amounts of snow in a pan over the stove was the only way we could obtain the water we required both for drinking and washing!
The focus of our evenings was on survival: food and firewood. But we also had a lot of fun, sometimes toasting marshmallows and cooking popcorn on open camp fires, practising shooting targets such as tins or blocks of wood, with the rifles we carried with us in case of close encounters with bears, discussing the day’s experiences and swapping stories from back home.
Firewood was one of our most precious commodities as it was crucial to our survival and yet in extremely limited supply. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is an arctic tundra ecosystem. It is a barren, frozen desert, with perennially frozen ground, called permafrost, up to 740 metres thick. Large expanses of land are almost entirely devoid of trees or shrubs, so whenever we came across frozen creeks, we collected as much wood as we could and carried it with us on top of the sleds.
One evening, Joe presented me with the opportunity to name a mountain, and I picked a striking pyramid, which I named Mount Loki, in memory of my beautiful cat who had passed away the previous year.
There is a natural variation in the weight and size of Alaskan Malamutes. Joe’s team is made up of three distinct sizes: the lighter, smaller dogs who are great leaders on terrain where the snow is “punchy” – where there is crunchy ice on top of the snow; larger leaders are required in conditions where the snow is deeper and they need to open up trenches (breaking trail) for the rest of the team behind them, and the middle size who are ideal as team or swing dogs (who keep the lines tight). The larger, stronger dogs are used as wheel dogs at the back of the team, where the real power is, to pull the heavy loads.
The team is set up so that the first half are breaking the trail, and the second half are the big muscle power, pulling the real weight of the sleds.
Joe also values vocal dogs, and has his most vocal Malamutes strategically placed throughout the team. These dogs will whine and vocalise to keep the team motivated and moving forwards. These vocalisations also help the team to time when to hit the harness in unison, and pull, when to stop, and start.
Day by day, I became increasingly awestruck by Joe’s dog team. These Malamutes are unbelievably powerful, resilient and able to work together as the most impressive team. Over the years, they have learned how to navigate every kind of terrain, and developed impressive techniques to overcome any obstacle in their path. I witnessed firsthand the dogs breaking trail in snow so deep the lead dogs were literally swimming. This would be impressive on its own, but these guys were hauling two sleds weighing over a tonne! I found this mindblowing!
On one occasion in particular, when the sleds got stuck as we tried to cross a ridge, the dogs became entangled in the lines and I watched, enraptured, as Joe calmly untangled the dogs, made some adjustments to the positions of certain dogs within the team’s formation, and lined them out, ready to go. On Joe’s verbal command of “Okay”, the dogs attempted to move forward but the sleds remained stuck. The more vocal Malamutes began whining and rallying the troops. You could say that the vocal dogs are Joe’s “spirit squad”. As the whines carried down the line of dogs, they worked themselves up, and timed it perfectly to all hit the harness with all the power, at the same time. The force of their combined brute strength all at once gave them the momentum they needed, and the sleds broke free of the ridge, moving forward once again.
Whenever the dogs began to stall in more difficult sledding conditions, the team would come to a halt for around 15 seconds, and then as the vocal dogs rallied the troops, all 22 Malamutes would hit the harness in unison, and would be moving forward once again. Throughout the more challenging terrain, the team would move forward for about a minute and a half, pause for 15 seconds to gather their strength, and move forward again. And this would be repeated until they came to easier ground.
Team Malamute are without a shadow of a doubt the most formidable athletes, and the most striking example of teamwork that I have ever witnessed. And yet their temperaments are just as sweet and affectionate as any typical Malamute!
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to a variety of wildlife. We only ever spotted a few ptarmigan but we knew we were being followed closely by a pair of wolves. We never saw the wolves, only their tracks in the snow around our camp. One night when everyone was in their tents dropping off to sleep, I heard a wolf softly howl in the distance, and all the Malamutes answered the call, howling back in chorus. It was an incredible sound to hear, one I shall never forget.
Due to the time of year, the days were long with the night time only lasting around three hours. The vastness of this land is so great that it is almost overwhelming. Everywhere I looked, all I could see was white, and despite visible animal and bird tracks in the snow, all was still and deafeningly silent. The only sounds we heard were those made by the dogs as they pulled the sleds further and further into the great whiteness.
Every second of every day was a moment to be treasured: the shadows and light were constantly changing the scenery in front of our eyes. Some days the visibility was so poor we could barely see six feet ahead, and on other days the skies were cobalt blue, with the snow glinting in the sunlight like trillions of tiny diamonds.
I feel so privileged to have been able to travel through an area so remote, breathtakingly beautiful and so utterly unspoilt; and to have spent time with the Malamute Man and his amazing Malamutes. For an animal lover and nature enthusiast, and particularly as a Malamute owner myself, this expedition truly was the experience of a lifetime; I shall carry with me always the memories of this magical trip. I am so very grateful to have had this opportunity.
If this challenge has taught me anything it is to live life by the Malamute mantra: to never give up. I never gave up on my dream. And on the expedition itself, no matter how hard things got, no matter how tired I was, I never gave up.