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The Travel Episodes

Icy Alaska

Alone in the Wilderness

Dirk Rohr­bach has always been fasci­nated by this kind of life­style: being alone in the Alas­kan wilder­ness. Accom­pa­nied by eleven dogs and illu­mi­na­ted by the Nort­hern Lights, he expe­ri­en­ces the icy winter nights.

This is my second visit to Andy. Last spring I looked after his house and his dogs because he had to travel to White­horse in Canada for a meeting. That’s one of the prices you pay for the free­dom of living in the remote Alaska wilder­ness. You always need someone to look after your animals and make sure the house doesn’t freeze in winter.

And the winter is famously long in Alaska – at least six months.

In Octo­ber, when the deep frost sets in and the first snow stays put, your prepa­ra­ti­ons for the darker season must alre­ady be complete: the salmon caught, hope­fully the moose shot, free­zer bags with porti­ons of meat, dried vege­ta­bles and preser­ved berries stacked up in the storeroom. And the fire­wood outside the cabin needs to last a few weeks. Until the river finally free­zes over, a small bush plane is your only connec­tion to the outside world.

Andy likes the seclu­sion. Years ago he left the Ameri­can East Coast for Alaska, drop­ping out. Since 2008 he has been living in the Yukon on forty acres of land he bought from a First Nati­ons native. There are no connec­tions by road and no running water, apart from the Yukon River itself. Solar panels, a wind­mill and – in winter – a gene­ra­tor provide elec­tri­city. Andy is self-reliant through and through.

I like the fact that all my food pretty much comes from the land around here, except for Nacho chips.‘, he jokes. ‚If I could figure out how to grow Nacho chips, I’d be set. I’d be 100% self-sufficient, I’d have my toma­toes, I’d have my onions and I’d have my peppers. And I’d have my Nacho chips and my beer. And I’d be pretty happy.‘ 

I got to know Andy in 2012, quite by chance. It was July, and I had just landed my birch-bark canoe on his property while on my way to the Bering Sea. I gladly accep­ted his invi­ta­tion to a salmon supper, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. In summer, vege­ta­bles grow in his garden: cabbage, roma­nesco broc­coli, beans and carrots, while in the green­house next to it he culti­va­tes toma­toes and paprika. 80% of his food he gets from here, or from hunting and fishing. He needs salmon not just for hims­elf, but prima­rily for his dogs.

Eleven Alas­kan huskies live behind the wooden house, which he built hims­elf.

In winter Andy takes them across the frozen Yukon River and keeps the trail for the legen­dary Yukon Quest dog-sled race between White­horse and Fair­banks clear.

The iden­tity of Alaska is this way of living. It’s a fron­tier pioneer vision,‘ comments the fifty-seven-year-old, not without a certain pride in his voice. ‚When people think of Alaska, they think about people living out in the wilder­ness envi­ron­ment, hunting, trap­ping, fishing, taking care of them­sel­ves, feeding them­sel­ves. And that iden­tity is gonna be gone when people no longer live in this life-style. We’re kind of an endan­ge­red species now up here.‘ That might sound like a joke, but it’s serious. ‚There are very few young people that have chosen this life­style. And I really have a lot of concerns that this lifestyle’s going to go away, the know­ledge that you need to live this life-style is going away. And the drive that you need to live this life-style is going away in people. And I think society’s gonna lose a lot when we lose the ability for people to flou­rish in this envi­ron­ment.‘

 

I have long been fasci­nated by this way of life, probably since I watched The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams on TV in the late 1970s, about Grizzly Adams and his half-tame brown bear Ben. I was lured by the romance of the log cabin. Back then, at eleven years old, I had no idea how much effort living in the wilder­ness actually was, and what depri­va­tions one had to endure. Nor did I realise how libe­ra­ting it could be.

Now, for a solid two weeks, I have the chance to glim­pse what this way of life entails. Andy has to attend a commit­tee meeting to discuss the regu­la­tion of salmon migra­tion in the Yukon. We don’t get much time to chat, as the very next morning Andy is flying to Eagle with Gary, and from there via Fair­banks furt­her into the Cana­dian terri­tory of the Yukon.

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The almost eighty-year-old pilot, who also took me the brief stretch across the still partly open Yukon to Andy’s property on Calico Bluff, seems spright­lier than his machine, which is half his age. The small blue Piper plane none­theless defies even the coldest tempe­ra­tures, and until the Yukon River free­zes over properly in the winter – at the moment still mild – it and Gary remain the only connec­tion to the outside world.

* * *

Chapter 2

Off Grid

Eight a.m. It’s pitch black. Outside the tempe­ra­ture is minus twenty-three degrees Celsius. I’m making coffee with water from the Yukon. The dogs are ratt­ling their chains in the yard; they’re hungry.

It’s nearly eight a.m. when I wake up. Outside ever­y­thing is still pitch black. Once my eyes adjust to the darkness, I can make out the outline of the firs and moun­tain ridges on the other side of the Yukon through the window, illu­mi­na­ted by the pale light of the moon. I clam­ber out of my slee­ping back, slip into my fleece-lined trou­sers and shuf­fle down­stairs to the ground floor with my head­lamp.

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Andy’s cabin has two rooms on the lower storey: the living room, which was added later, conta­ins a worn two-seater sofa and a batte­red recli­ner in which Andy tends to enjoy his morning coffee and listen to the radio, assuming the recep­tion is half­way decent. In one corner is a round desk, twelve contai­ners with screw-on lids from the hard­ware store stacked beside it, which he has filled with Yukon water – after having knocked a hole in the ice. On the wall hangs a cabi­net he built hims­elf with an exten­sive collec­tion of guns, all diffe­rent cali­bres, for hunting or to drive off the hungry bears who encroach on his cabin in spring. Below it, on the right, are two bott­les of self-brewed beer, which he most looks forward to after a long, hard day’s work in the summer­time. The room is roun­ded off by an enor­mous cast-iron oven. When it gets really cold outside, Andy has to light it – other­wise the main oven in the kitchen next-door is usually enough.

I look at the ther­mo­me­ter in front of the window. It’s minus ten degrees Fahren­heit, which is only minus twenty-three degrees Celsius.

It’s actually quite warm for a region where tempe­ra­tures in the winter regu­larly sink to minus forty degrees or below. Still, I pile a couple of logs on the fire. When I got on the plane in Germany the day before yester­day, my body had got used to tempe­ra­tures in the double digits, so I need a while to adjust. First coffee, I think.

Normally Andy drips hot water through a filter directly into a ther­mos, but for me he has provi­ded an elec­tric coffee maker. I switch on the water pump, drawing enough for eight cups from the bucket under­ne­ath the sink, where there is a hose. It might take a little more effort, but even in the bush you don’t have to go without the comforts of civi­li­sa­tion. Even TV and inter­net are avail­able thanks to satel­lite tech­no­logy, although the connec­tion reaches – at best – anti­qua­ted ISDN speeds and is obscenely expen­sive.

While the coffee perco­la­tes, I pull on my down jacket and trudge the twenty odd metres through the snow to one of Alaska’s legen­dary outhou­ses. Andy has insu­la­ted the seat with a thick layer of Styro­foam, which proves surpri­sin­gly warm. And if you’re taking a little longer, there’s plenty of reading matter to distract you. Or the view over the majes­tic Calico Bluff, which rises abruptly above the Yukon not far from Andy’s property. I have to get out of the habit of thro­wing the toilet paper into the pit, or it would quickly start to fill up. There’s a small bucket nearby for that purpose. When it fills up, its contents – along with all the other rubbish – is burned in a rusty metal drum.

The dogs are ratt­ling their chains in the yard as I make my way back to the house. They know it’s time for me to take one of them into the house, where it’ll be allo­wed to warm up with Solo, the elderly husky. Their eyes glit­ter in the light of my head­lamp as I approach.

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All of them have woken up by now, and they’re trot­ting towards me, wagging their tails in exci­te­ment, until the chains stop them going any furt­her and they try to attract my atten­tion by whining, howling and barking. Today it’s Iceberg’s turn, a snow-white dog and Andy’s best lead dog, even since losing an eye during a tussle last winter.

I remove the cara­bi­ner from his collar, and Iceberg sprints onto the porch in friendly anti­ci­pa­tion of the oven’s warmth and the affec­tion with which he knows he’s about to be spoi­led. Break­fast is granola for me and dog food with a ladle­ful of hot water for the animals. Then it’s poop-scooping time. I pick up my bucket and shovel, gathe­ring up the frozen poop and depo­si­ting it onto an ever-growing heap a little way away from the property. If you want to mush – to explore the wintery expan­ses of Alaska with the huskies – you’ve got to put up with the less glamo­rous bits.

I defi­ni­tely get the impres­sion that as a musher you’re prima­rily a farmer, rather than an adven­tu­rer or sports­man.

Looking after the animals demands simi­lar disci­pline to being a dairy farmer, where the cows gene­rally take prio­rity. Here it’s the dogs. And dealing with ever­y­thing that living off grid entails.

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My next task takes me to the ‚power shack‘, where Andy has hooked up his batte­ries. They gene­rate power for the main house and the elec­tric tools scat­te­red on a work bench in the same shack. Andy uses them to craft river gravel and antlers into orna­ments that he sells every now and then, but mostly gives to his guests. I check the batte­ries‘ charge, which has fallen signi­fi­cantly over the last two days. After a few attempts the small porta­ble gene­ra­tor stut­ters into life. Over the next few hours it will turn unlea­ded gaso­line into kilo­watts. It connects to a mini fan heater that prevents the vege­ta­ble root cellar in Andy’s new house from free­zing. In the pantry are large plastic bags full of pota­toes and turnips.

The new house is about a hund­red metres away from the old one, and it will be comple­ted by next winter, with more space and – most import­antly – an elabo­rate, European-style tiled stove which will use the fire­wood more effi­ci­ently than the cast-iron dino­saur in the old cabin. I relight the fire in the small stove in the shed: the batte­ries mustn’t be expo­sed to the cold for too long, other­wise they lose their capa­city to charge and thus even­tually stop working.

By now the sun has risen. Its rays tinge the snow-covered slopes on the other side of the Yukon with a decep­tively warm-looking shade of orange.

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Here on the south side, it won’t put in an appearance until March. I start up the snow­mo­bile – the wood­pile is dwind­ling rapidly, but in the forest and on the river­bank there’s plenty more.

It takes a while to get used to the chain saw, but by the end I feel like a hunter after every excur­sion, brin­ging his prey back home.

Except it’s not moose, cari­bou or snow grouse but fir, aspen and birch that I bring back, in foot-long pieces that I split and distri­bute between the piles in the house, shed and sauna. There, in the smal­lest log cabin on the property, I’m going to stoke a fire in the stove at the end of the day, heating up the air and water and having an invi­go­ra­ting wash from a bucket. But while it’s still light, the dogs take prio­rity…

 

* * *

Chapter 3

Gee! Haw! Easy! Whoa!

A dozen dogs, a sled, a trail through the forest. ‚Go!‘ It’s anot­her Alas­kan dream. But it’s not got much to do with reality – at least, not with mine.

This is probably down to my pain­fully obvious ‚rookie‘ status. Rookies, newco­mers to dog-sled racing, are called that because it’s their first time rather than because they don’t have a clue what they’re doing. Like me. Turns out it’s not quite as easy as simply getting on and setting off.

This notion is every bit as naive as the idea that I could reach the Bering Sea unsca­thed in a birch-bark canoe. On that trip I narrowly avoided complete disas­ter on the second day, when the boat smas­hed on the rocks during a storm. I mana­ged to get it repai­red, but after that I had to patch over leaks almost every other day. Still, the canoe held, carry­ing me more than 3,000 kilo­metres down the Yukon, through Canada and Alaska. My expe­ri­ence with the dog sled isn’t quite in the same cate­gory – it’s no epic jour­ney through the wilder­ness, though that’s high up on my bucket list.

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I harness five dogs to the sled for my first trai­ning run. White-furred Iceberg and reddish Kuge­ran are the leaders, while black-furred Gambo is in swing posi­tion directly behind them, and the wheel­dogs are the tireless Dickel and Brigus. This first team not only harmo­ni­ses well but is strong and – very import­antly – they’re half­way relia­ble about listen­ing to the commands ‚Gee!‘ for right, ‚Haw!‘ for left, ‚Easy!‘ for slowing down and ‚Whoa!‘ for stop­ping, even when I’m the one giving them. Team 2 consists of Topaz in the lead – small, bust­ling and commu­ni­ca­tive, and the only lady in the kennel – the shy giant Fogo – it’s always an effort to drag him over to the sled, because he so hates being harnes­sed to it – the sneaky Carbo­neer, who takes every oppor­tu­nity to dash off in an attempt to wriggle out of pulling the sled, and the father-son team Shil­ling and Jack, who work away like clock­work as wheel­dogs, right in front of the sled.

None­theless, this team soon descends into chaos.

Because when it comes down to it, they all do whate­ver they want, no matter how many times I yell my commands or even point in the right direc­tion with an outstret­ched arm. Some­ti­mes I’m down­right hoarse with the effort, even after a brief half-hour trip round the lake, convin­ced that the right persua­sion – or possi­bly just very loud persua­sion – will have the desi­red effect sooner or later. Often, howe­ver, I have to get off, disen­tangle the dogs – who by that point have got their tugli­nes hopel­essly twisted toge­ther by randomly and conti­nu­ally chan­ging direc­tion for no reason – and put Topaz back on the right track. When she gives me a ques­tio­n­ing look with her steel-blue eyes, all my rancour melts away like snow in the spring sunlight. The lady’s weapons…

It’s not just control­ling the huskies that has a steep learning curve, but hand­ling the sled as well. Simply holding on tight isn’t enough, as I disco­ve­red after having taking a few tumb­les in the spring. In which case holding on tight is the only guaran­tee you’ll get the dogs to stop. Calling out, no matter how pani­ckedly or impe­riously, won’t make the sligh­test diffe­rence to them so long as they can hear the sled drag­ging along behind them on its runners, with or without anyone on board.

The animals seem to be aware that when they stop of their own accord, the sled rams right into the wheel­dogs‘ legs.

That’s not only pain­ful but can lead to terri­ble inju­ries. So it’s better for them to keep running until the sled tips over and gets stuck some­where. As a musher you can’t just stand there all rela­xed – you have to keep a watch­ful eye on the trail, noti­cing uneven patches, braking in time for curves, bending the knees down and shif­ting your weight. It remin­ded me of skiers in the Alps, who are also constantly shif­ting from ski to ski, lifting or adding pres­sure depen­ding on the direc­tion.

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As the Yukon hasn’t yet properly and evenly frozen over, at first I have to limit the trai­ning run to two lakes behind the house. Alter­na­tively I follow a narrow, curving path that Andy cut through the woods and over a hill­top to Seven­ty­mile River. And this is where it happens. At first I manage to regu­late the speed, using snow and ice brakes, but I don’t notice a bump in the ground and the sled jerks off track. We slam head-on into a ten-centimetre-thick fir tree.

The force crea­ted by the running dogs‘ momen­tum makes the bumper on the sled crack, and the tree actually buries itself half a metre into the plastic foot boards, which is fragile at the best of times. Suddenly we’re at a standstill. My team stares at me, perple­xed, and I at them. None of us is hurt, but the sled’s a lost cause. I have to undo the dogs‘ tugli­nes before I can free the sled. Then I re-harness the huskies and hope the rema­in­der of the foot boards will last anot­her few kilo­metres. Panting heavily, we make the return jour­ney some­what abas­hed and twice as care­ful, as ahead of us lies anot­her hazar­dously steep descent.

Still, the next day I’m back on the same trail with a repla­ce­ment sled, hoping to leave the trauma behind me just as quickly. When I tell Andy about my little acci­dent by email, he reas­su­res me. It’s all part of mushing, and he’s been wanting to get a new sled for a while now anyway. 

As a human being you’ll never be fully in control, and that’s part of the fasci­na­tion of riding through the winter wilder­ness with dogs. 

 

* * *

Chapter 4

A Farewell Aurora

After two weeks alone in the Arctic wilder­ness, I’m nearing the end of my stay. Seeing the Nort­hern Lights dancing in the sky makes saying good­bye even harder. 

Shortly before four o’clock in the after­noon, it’s alre­ady dark outside. I’m typing these lines on my laptop in the light of my head­lamp. If you’re produ­cing elec­tri­city in the dead of winter with a tiny gene­ra­tor, you learn to econo­mise where you can. Outside the dogs are howling. Frankly I’d like to join in. The heavy snow clouds have disper­sed, and the moon – nearly full – is now shining down again over the white land­s­cape. The tempe­ra­ture has fallen by ten degrees in only a few hours. The ther­mo­me­ter is telling me it’s minus twenty degrees Celsius. Today I’ve chop­ped wood, swept corner to corner, done the washing up and tipped the orga­nic waste onto the compost heap; tomor­row I’ll chuck the toilet bucket and the bag with the combus­ti­ble rubbish into the rusty metal drum. When Andy gets back he’ll set its contents alight. That’s waste dispo­sal in Alaska.

Seeing the Nort­hern Lights dancing in the sky that night makes saying good­bye even harder.

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After two weeks alone in the Arctic wilder­ness, I’m nearing the end of my stay. Once again, as when I’m travel­ling by bike or canoe, I feel that paring down my ever­y­day routine to the essen­ti­als is what fasci­na­tes me about this life. You don’t need any ‚simplify‘ slogans to appre­ciate how much simpli­city slows things down, and that although high-tech achie­ve­ments may super­fi­ci­ally have made our lives more comfor­ta­ble, they don’t necessa­rily make us feel more fulfil­led. Maybe that’s why so many people, tired of civi­li­sa­tion, make their way into the wilder­ness, even if just for a brief moment.

So I trudge back into the dark, take five dried chum salmon that Andy caught in the Yukon from the rack and feed them to the dogs. Each gets half, and I get a quar­ter, fried on the gas stove in a cast-iron pan.

The winter’s been mild so far, they’re saying. But tonight the tempe­ra­ture could tumble to below thirty degrees. Too cold for the bush plane that’s suppo­sed to take me from Eagle back to Fair­banks and civi­li­sa­tion tomor­row. I hope …

 

Epilogue

Today is the shor­test day of the year, the longest night. The solstice, although not much can be seen of it here in the Yukon. The snowy peaks on the other side of the river were lit up for a few hours, but from 3pm onwards the icy night unfur­led again over the land.

Then the magi­cal perfor­mance begins.

With green, red and purple veils, the Nort­hern Lights dance noisel­essly across the starry sky, mixing with the garish bright­ness of the half moon. ‚Wow …‘ I stut­ter into the silence, brea­king off imme­dia­tely. It’s inde­scri­bable, I think, and stand there quietly, bewit­ched and awed.

The camera clicks away on the tripod at regu­lar inter­vals – my attempt to capture the magic. But I’m going to fail mise­r­a­bly. The expe­ri­ence of this moment alone in the bitter cold, surroun­ded by nothing but snow, ice and an infi­nity of twin­kling stars, is impos­si­ble to record.

* * *

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An Episode by

Highway Junkie

Dirk Rohrbach

Dirk Rohr­bach is a travel­ler, photo­gra­pher, jour­na­list and doctor. His live travel repor­tage is award-winning, and he also blogs stories of his expe­ri­en­ces around the world, writes books and campai­gns to preserve the languages of indi­ge­nous Ameri­can peop­les. Over the last 25 years he has travel­led inten­si­vely in North America, and is curr­ently navi­ga­ting the Yukon in a canoe. Dirk shut­tles between America and Europe, without resi­ding perman­ently in either.

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  • Sabrina on 22. August 2019

    Toller Bericht! Sehr schön. Sehr hart! Nichts für Weich­eier ;-). Gut gemacht. Was für eine Arbeit da draus­sen in der Kälte.

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Antarctica