THE BROOKS RANGE - I thought for sure one of them would poop in the plane.
Or worse yet, mate.
But as soon as the Beaver's engine began to whir and the vibrations took over, all 10 dogs froze. They stayed that way - completely still, eyes wide - for the duration of the 40-minute flight from Coldfoot to Iniakuk Lake, deep in the heart of the Brooks Range. Nestled between giant, craggy mountains at the far end of the five-mile-long lake is Iniakuk Lake Lodge, a luxurious getaway plopped in the middle of vast wilderness.
That flight was the first of two and held 10 dogs, three dog sleds and several bags of gear. The second flight was packed with eight more dogs, my husband/handler Sam Harrel, and clients, Christine and Peter Knuckey from Newnan, Ga.
The Knuckeys were paying clients there for a taste of Alaska in the winter. Of course, with gourmet meals, comfy beds and even a makeshift shower in the sauna it wasn't exactly roughing it, but for two city slickers, it was a fine balance of wilderness and luxury. We were there to introduce them to dog mushing.
I first heard about the plan to incorporate more dog mushing into the winter season at Iniakuk over a casual beer many months ago. As the winter stretched on, I didn't give it much thought until a couple months later, John e-mailed me to tell me the trip was on.
We landed on the lake near the lodge and I let all but two of the dogs loose. They immediately went from terrified to ecstatic, bounding like a herd of deer through the deep snow.
Immediately, the beautifully handcrafted log buildings struck me - they begged to be photographed. I was to see the rustic, tidy interiors later on.
My host, owner/guide John Gaedeke, and his mother, Pat, run the lodge, which was built 30 years ago by Pat's late husband Bernard, who died in 1991 in a plane crash. Before his death, Bernard offered hunting trips out of the lodge, but now the establishment is geared toward eco-tourism.
John grew up at Iniakuk and has been taking clients out in the area since he was very young.
The dog-mushing aspect is fairly new, but John and Pat hope the idea of "roughing it" in a comfortable environment will catch on.
"People from the Lower 48 find winter in Alaska extreme even without the dog mushing," John said.
That's the reason for day trips based out of the lodge. It's exciting for tourists, but not extreme.
The property is dotted with log cabins, saunas and other buildings, all built on site with trees harvested from the area. They recycle, compost, collect water from the pristine Iniakuk Lake and get their electricity from an eight-panel solar array.
Gaedeke had dug out a deep trench for the dogs to stay in for the week. We set up an 18-dog picket line and lined the bottom with spruce bows and straw to keep them comfortable. By the time the plane arrived again, we were ready. The second load included my remaining dogs and three of the four I borrowed from Iditarod and Quest champ Lance Mackey. Having the Mackey dogs around was a highlight for the guests. His dogs are exceptionally strong and, er, quite randy. I worked constantly to keep them away from my females. (All my males are neutered to avoid accidental breedings.)
By early afternoon, all 18 dogs were sniffing in, and peeing on, their new temporary home while us two-legged adventurers retired to the lodge for lunch.
We had no idea what we were in for.
Philip Peterson, a substitute teacher and ski bum from Girdwood, was our chef for the week. He's cooked for various outfits around the state but apparently has no formal training.
Let's just say that working that hard for five days, I should have shed at least a couple pounds - instead I gained two-and-a-half. I have to say, and you might not believe me, but it was the best food I've ever had the pleasure of shoveling down my gullet. The "entrees de Peterson" included Spanakopita, to filet mignon, bacon-wrapped scallops, caribou soup, king salmon fillets, smoked salmon and Chevre sandwiches, pasta with homemade pesto sauce and, my personal favorite, king crab legs.
Each day over breakfast we would discuss the day's plan. Though the mushing excursions weren't very long distance-wise, we managed to stretch out the sunny days with trail lunches and frequent stops to soak in the scenery. John and Sam would bookend our three dog teams on snowmachines to assure help would be there if the need arose.
Needless to say, Peter and Christine had never been on a dog sled and it was my job to teach them how to stay upright on those skinny sled runners.
The first rule of dog mushing: Don't let go of the sled.
I went over basic braking procedures, steering and harnessing, but I knew from guiding tourists in Northern Finland for a winter in 2005 that they wouldn't really get it until they pulled the snowhook for themselves. So a few minutes later, on that first mushing morning, I pulled my hook, whizzed down the gentle slope from the dogyard onto the shore of Iniakuk Lake, stopped my team and waited. And waited.
Finally I saw a team come barreling around the corner. Capiche, the leader I gave to Peter to use, was grinning from ear to ear as she loped toward me. She was smiling because she and rest of the team had managed to buck Peter off in the first 50 feet. I grabbed Capiche and waited for Peter, who soon enough came hoofing it down the trail. I didn't say anything except to ask if he was OK. He was shaken but jumped back on the sled with gusto.
OK, I thought to myself, everybody gets one.
Christine came skidding around the corner seconds later. She had managed to stay on and with a thumbs-up signal, we were on our way up Tobuk Creek.
Each day for the next four, Christine and Peter got more confident in their sled-driving abilities and despite a couple falls, they mastered mushing like champs. The feeling of freedom you get while mushing behind a team of huskies is unparalleled for me. But running dogs up creeks and over lakes in the middle of these ancient, majestic mountains really took my breath away.
In the days that followed, besides the mushing, we tried skijoring and even hooked up 17 dogs for some double-sledding down the lake. On that trip, we traveled down the shoreline, past the resident herd of caribou, to Paul Shanahan's place. A bush pilot and the lake's only year-round resident, Shanahan has lived there for more than 20 years. We parked the team and went up to his cabin for some fresh cookies and stories of the wild from this friendly pioneer.
The afternoons were filled with skiing, snowshoeing and relaxing by the fire after the dog chores were done.
Inside the lodge, comfy chairs and sofas were set up in the sitting area near the fire with shelves of books and magazines. The quiet drone of classical music and the smell of fresh baked goods wafted from the kitchen in the corner, while a family-style table (long with bench seats) sat in front huge windows with a view of the lake and mountains.
In a word, it was paradise.
The clients agreed wholeheartedly.
"The dog sledding, the food, the picturesque scenery, the people; it was outstanding," said Peter from Georgia a week after the trip.
But paradise doesn't come cheap, costing tens of thousands of dollars for a couple. Even though it's a little pricey for the average Joe, the expense doesn't matter to those who are looking for a lifetime of memories.
"It was well worth the money," said Christine, adding that she'd definitely consider going back again.