ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog Arctic & Northern Books About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth



Retracing Leffingwell

A 5-Month Journey in the Alaskan Arctic by Dog Sled

by Joe Henderson of Alaskan Arctic Expeditions


As the last plane lifts slowly off the airstrip I wave a final farewell to the pilot and my wife as they head back to Deadhorse. It will be another seven months before he comes again to bring me supplies and another five months before I see another person.

The History


Joe Henderson uses purebred Mals in an unusual gangline setup. This modified fan hitch starts with 2 lead dogs, and builds incrementally to 7 wheel dogs. Joe says this formation gives his team the most power to pull his sleds of supplies

    I am heading into the extremely remote mountain regions of the Alaskan Arctic to commemorate the “forgotten explorer” Ernest de Koven Leffingwell (1875-1971). Leffingwell was a member of the Anglo-American Polar Expedition of 1906-1908, which looked to explore the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska. The expedition ran afoul of trouble when their ship, the Duchess of Bedford, became ice-bound and had to be abandoned in 1906. Two of the members, Leffingwell and Mikkelson, stayed on, and using the supplies and wood from the ship built a cabin on the Alaskan Arctic coast. Mikkelson stayed on one more year then returned to publish his journals, while Leffingwell, geologist and scientist, stayed on for nine summers and six winters to continue mapping and identifying the Alaskan Arctic coast and parts of the rugged Brooks Range. He was also prophetic enough to realize the oil potential in the region, yet admittedly wise enough to know the current technologies of that era would not allow mining it to be feasible.

    Over the next three winters (2005-2008) we hope to follow the roughly 4,500 sled miles Leffingwell may have used, and to re-shoot some of the same geographic/geologic photographs thereby sampling a “then and now” look at what Leffingwell saw and recorded. I will be using some of the same maps he did and will share many of the same terrain, hardships and logistical difficulties that he must have experienced. The so-called “forgotten explorer” was a brilliant geologist and scientist, his contributions still leave in awe the scope of his findings and studies.

The Dogs

    I will be using a large team of mostly pure bred Alaskan Malamutes to pull the four month supply needed for the expedition. The powerful team is necessary for climbing the many mountain passes which we will be facing in winter conditions where snow is minimal and many times hardly any snow at all; pulling a ton of supplies over gravel and bare tundra will take extraordinary strength and stamina from the team. I will snowshoe in front of the dogs for the first two and a half months of traveling, not so much to break trail but to ease some weight off the dogs and to guide the team through the thick brush on the tundra. I wear the snowshoes because the tussocks are easier to walk on top of where there is little snow.


Shorty

    The Alaskan Malamute originated, it is believed, in Alaska’s Arctic around 10,000- 20,000 years ago. They are a dog like no other, being the oldest domesticated breed in the world, and have evolved into an intelligent, tough and friendly animal that displays an array of emotions. They have a strong hierarchal order which they follow and the team is their “pack”. As in wolf packs, the leader, or the most dominant member, is a female. I have found over the years a large team becomes more comfortable or at ease following female lead dogs rather than males.

    The Malamute also have certain peculiarities that are seldom found in some of the sled dog breeds. They seem to be happier pulling hard on heavy loads than running fast, and they have a tendency to show it by raising their tails high and ever so sharply over their backs. They communicate with whines, growls and howls; rarely will they bark, and that’s only when they feel threatened by a bear or something of that nature. The bigger dominant males will let out low growling noises as they come into hard pulls, and I think they really enjoy letting the others know how tough they are. The Malamutes are slow to mature, usually anywhere from 3-5 years before they are completely developed, and they can range in size from 60 to 185 pounds or more. They are naturally people friendly from birth and love to play. Companions for life and very loyal animals, my best leaders are always the “house dogs”. They are very smart dogs also, and if you are not careful they will be riding in the sled while you are pulling. They display a lot of emotions amongst themselves, and I sometimes feel like a dog psychologist dealing with a team as large as the one I have. Their stamina and toughness goes unmatched, but they are a very conservative animal and will pace themselves, always leaving themselves that extra energy at the end of the day to frolic and play.

    The Eskimos used the Malamutes as their only means of transportation both in winter sledding and in summer as pack animals. In the 1950s the snow machine arrived and the Malamutes slowly faded away. Some of the Inupiat who I have spoken to about their early experiences with the family’s dog teams had many fascinating stories to tell. As they spoke I noticed these memories were very close to their hearts. As one individual told me: “they were our buddies, they got us through the blizzards, they were part of the family”.

    Its the first week of October - the rivers are frozen and the snow is falling lightly on the tundra, with a brisk breeze blowing from the Arctic Ocean, a reminder to me that it's time to get ready for winter. My team can also sense the upcoming season as the snow is falling. They start their harmonious howl as always when they know its time to “hit the trail”.

The Gear

    I tan the caribou hides that I have harvested, making them into parkas, mukluks, and mitts. I like to make two parkas; one made of August fur for everyday winter travels and one of the thick October fur for extremely cold temperatures. My mukluks are made of August hides. I wear two pairs, the first I put on with the fur on the inside and the second pair slips over the first with the fur facing out. I will always have another two to three sets of mukluks in the sled with me in case the ones I am wearing become wet. The mitts I make are with the fur facing in and are tanned soft. I will wear out several pairs in a winter so I usually have material I take with me and make them on the trail.

    The dog’s harnesses are commercially made. I use the standard siwash (x-back) harness for the team with exception for the wheel dogs which will use the freight pulling harnesses. I’ve found the wooden spreader bar behind their hind legs helps them tremendously when going into a hard pull.

    My tent is of the old Eskimo design, very simple and can easily be put up in 60 mph winds. It is an insulated fabric (Eskimos used caribou hides) draped over a half oval frame of either willow sticks or fiberglass poles. Inside the tent it’s important to dig down several feet, or as far as possible when there is little snow, leaving a “cold hole” for the frigid air to seep into and it is squeezed out the door by the warmer air which will stay above on the sleeping platform which covers about two thirds of the inside tent space. The higher the sleeping platform the better. Inside, caribou fur mats are placed next to a small wood stove for cooking and heating. I burn dry willows which can sometimes be found along side rivers and creeks.

    I use the toboggan type sled which is 10 to 12 feet in length and 28 inches wide. The runners are one and a half inches wide by two inches tall. I prefer the narrow width for side hills so they dig in rather than “fishtail” like the wider runners do. On the top of the plastic toboggan bed lays a half inch thick plywood board which covers most of the length of the sled. This plywood prevents any rocks from breaking through the bed and once the sled is loaded it becomes almost indestructible. The back of the runners where I stand is only 14 inches long, just enough room for my mukluks; this short length prevents any runner breakage behind the back stanchion. The handle bars are built very low. I have found that my hands stay warmer when they are hanging below my waist rather than held high. The width is a good width for me, but I rarely will stand on the runners for any length of time. If it’s good going I sit on top of the load on the third sled.

    The sleds trail behind the team in caravan, tied to each other in an X pattern or criss-crossed, the right back stanchion is tied to the front of the left runner of the trailing sled and vice versa. The sleds then will steer themselves amazingly well, freeing me up to snowshoe in front of the team or ride on the sled. This is the same method the old mail carriers used almost 100 years ago as they delivered mail throughout Alaska, and some of them also used up to 20 dogs. The old postmen hooked their dogs up by two’s whereas I run them side by side, up to seven to eight abreast. I have found for efficiency and power that this works best for me on the Arctic slope with these snow conditions, but this would never work on the south side of the Divide where the snows are always very deep and soft. My gangline is made of 2 heavy cables, and the tugs can be snapped on and off since I use the gangline for a picket line also. With this setup I can add dogs to any width in all positions.

    I prefer the Alaskan Trail style snowshoe, the longer the better, 12 inches by 60 inches is a good size for me. The long tail of this shoe is important in making those long strides and keeping up a good clip. When you are in front of 22 eager and energetic dogs its a good idea to keep things moving along steady. I also wear the Objiwa style snowshoes for busting through heavy brushy areas; the pointed toe of this shoe is perfect for this and the shoe also has the long tail that is necessary for keeping a good pace. Iverson Snow Shoes build most of mine and I’ll go through a pair about every two years.

Training 22 Mals

    As November comes around the temperature is dropping well below 0 degrees and the dogs are looking pretty strong. It’s time to combine all 22 Mals into one team and start the training process. All the dogs in the team must learn to stop, go, and stay on command since no brake or snow-hook would ever hold a team of Mals as big as this, especially on the Arctic slope where there are no trees or trails, just wide open tundra and rolling hills. And being there are no trails I am able to hitch the dogs side by side to any width. I will use seven or eight wheel dogs, two rows of 3-4 team dogs and 2-3 swing dogs with 2-4 leaders. This combination provides incredible power to the three large sleds we will be pulling, all of which will be loaded with approximately 1,300 pounds apiece, a total of around 4,000+ pounds of supplies. This load will be split in half going over the mountain passes and rough terrain until February when the load is lighter.

In a Blizzard...
An excerpt from Joe's Diary

There it is on the horizon. See it? Feel it? A hundred-foot tidal wave of snow. It's calm here now with the sun shining, judging the distance we have no more than 30 minutes to get to those willows.

She’s knocking now, damn! We’re moving too slow guys, just a little further. Have to do it, committed now. Put your damn heads down boys, here she comes, just put one foot in front of the other.

Working fast as hell, I untied the sled bag, pulled the tent frame poles out and pushed them in the snow next to the sleds. Leaving only two feet of the poles above the surface, I took my snow shovel and dug down another 2 feet inside the tent frame, leaving a higher area for a sleeping bench. I then pulled the tent out of the sled, hanging on tightly as the wind was trying like hell to get it from me. I swung it over the tent frame, putting 50# dogfood bags on the outer edges to hold it until I could bury the tent in snow with my shovel.

Afterwards, I tossed my mats, sleeping bag, and stove in the tent. Then I went to work taking care of the dogs. I stretched a picket line alongside the gangline a few feet away, attached to willows. I put 10 dogs on the picket line, leaving the rest on the gangline. Afterwards, I cut snow blocks out with a carpenter's cross-cut saw for a wind block, and placed them on the downwind side of the tent for my dog food cooker.

As each dog finished eating they dug into the snow, put their tails over their muzzles and curled up, protecting themselves against the wind and blowing snow.

After the dogs were taken care of, I crawled inside the tent, taking off my fur parka and beating it with a stick until all the snow was off. I then placed it on the sleeping mat for extra insulation between my sleeping bag and the snow. Then I set the stove up, pushed the pipe through the hole in the roof, and fired up the stove. Then scooping a pot of snow off the side of the tent wall, I placed the pot on the stove for coffee water.

After the coffee boiled I added snow to the pot so the grounds would settle. I can’t remember when something ever tasted so good as I sat back on my furs, took a sip, and thanked God for hot coffee.

As I sat drinking my coffee, the steam from the cup shifted from one side of the tent to the other as wind gusts blew, sounding like semi-trucks blasting over at 60 mph.

After a few more cups of coffee, I boiled some caribou meat, fat, and frozen blueberries for desert, spending the rest of the evening sewing, drying mukluks and mitts while the gusts continued to shake the tent.

Awakened one night by the silence, I opened the vent and looked out. Stars were shining, and the dim glow of the moon was illuminating the area where the dogs lay under their warm blankets of snow. I could feel the temperature had dropped but I knew it wasn’t over yet. Before morning, the winds picked, up blowing her last breath, her “Grande Finale”, blasting 70 mph winds and scouring the land of its cover of new snow.

    The “go” commands for the leaders as well as the rest of the dogs is one of the most important. In order to pull the sleds up river banks, over gravel bars and through thick brush the entire team has to “hit” their harnesses exactly at the same time. As we head into an obstacle that I see may give us a bit of trouble I give the “stop” command and the whole team stops instantly. When I then give the “go” command, all 22 dogs are immediately “digging in” and we usually get through without even noticing the problem. In using this method we have climbed many mountain passes, riverbanks and have been able to get out a lot of jams. The “stay” command is another important one the entire team must learn, and is especially important on rivers and lakes where a lot of times I have to walk down a river aways to check ice conditions. With little snow on the ice a hook is of no use. The dogs will usually just sit down once I am out of sight. Its important to teach them this command when they are young, but they will naturally learn from the veterans in the team in time. Even when we hitch up they will sit quietly and watch my every move intently. Many of them will never take their eyes off me and some only start paying attention as I hook up the last few dogs, which is about the time they lay their heads back and muzzles to the sky and start howling. Sometimes I wait a few minutes before giving the command to go so I can listen to the howling. It seems like music to me at times.

    The leaders will be trained with the other dogs. I like to use 3 leaders beside each other, each one eventually learning the commands “gee” for right and “haw” for left. As they grow in experience they will learn how to negotiate the terrain on their own, knowing where the good hard-pack snow is and avoiding the soft deep snow pockets on the tundra. In time they will learn how to navigate by watching the direction of the snowdrifts under their feet. Since the prevailing winds on the north slope are from the east to the west, or vice versa, small drifts are formed on the tundra called “finger drifts” which lay pointing either of these two directions. Once I choose a course I will verbally command the leaders one way or another until we are crossing the angle of the drifts desired. Usually after a few minor corrections the lead dogs will pick up the angle of the drifts and run that course. Which really helps in whiteout blizzard conditions; the leaders can still navigate as long as they can see the drifts at their feet.

Hitting the trail

    By the third week of November there is 3-4 inches of snow on the tundra, the Mals are in top shape, and it's time to “hit the trail”. For the next five months we will be living on the trail, setting up camp where we find willow brush for shelter and firewood, traveling the rivers and climbing mountain passes to the many valleys on the Arctic slope. As November disappears so does the sun, and the overflow on the rivers starts to flow in earnest. Since the rivers are frozen to the bottom by the -30 to -40 degree temperatures in late November, the water which is still seeping from the natural springs along the rivers is forced to flow on top of the ice. This causes one of the worst conditions for any team and musher. Getting wet in these temperatures can be very dangerous. Many times in making river crossings we are forced to camp to allow the overflow to freeze before continuing on.

    December is a dark month with blizzards that come and go. Some last only 12 hours, occasionally they will last 3 days, and once in awhile they will go up to 6 days. These are the times when a person learns great patience with Mother Nature. The dogs take it well; they burrow into the willows and allow the snow to cover themselves. I am normally busy keeping up on melting snow for dog food, sewing harnesses, lines, and gear. I like to feed the team 3 times a day during these times since the wind chills can reach to -70 to -80 degrees.

    The dogs' diet consists of National Competition X-TRA dog food, Champaine meat products and lard. For myself, my main platter is caribou meat and fat, frozen fruits or drinks, fish, cheddar cheese, vitamin c and mineral packets, and of course lots of coffee and tea. I catch the fish locally in the rivers and lakes under the ice, usually lake trout, Arctic char and some grayling. The caribou meat I either fry, boil or roast over an open fire, always served with a few chunks of fat taken from the August bulls. For some this sounds like a very bland diet but I have a condition called Celiac or gluten intolerance (no bread, sugar, wheat products), and I have grown very accustomed to the diet. I look forward to and enjoy every meal.

    January was another month of many blizzards, with extremely dry and abrasive snow conditions making traveling a real chore; the team and I struggled for every mile. The sound of the runners grinding on the greyish-white sand-mixed snow and the hardships for both the team and I traversing over miles of brush filled tundra and boulder-strewn rivers, glare ice and -50 degree temperatures became exhausting. Little wildlife is seen at this time of the year; an occasional fox wandering into camp or a wolf howling on the hillside trying and successfully getting an answer from the Malamutes. But the Aurora Borealis was unusually spectacular this month; as it lit up the sky it seemed as if the dogs even took special notice of its intense brightness.

    By the end of January, after a 6 day blizzard with 70 mph gusts the sun broke the horizon. Only for a few minutes, but I think it lifted all of our spirits, helping us to forget all about the past 6 days and nights. But it didn’t last long. I had split the load in half to go over a pass and on the return trip we camped on the bottom of the mountain in order to get a good start on it the following day. In the morning the east winds started “knocking” as I call it, sudden strong gusts, a sure sign of an approaching blizzard. We had enough supplies for maybe 4 days or so but I would rather get over the pass where there’s some shelter in the willows along a creek. We hurriedly broke camp, but no sooner had I loaded the tent on the sled than it hit full force and the mountain and the pass disappeared under a whiteout. “Sorry fellas, we’ll have to wait another day”. As the dogs curled up again in their beds I set up camp.

    The winds blew all night and finally died down in the morning. Again we started to break camp and again the winds picked up (only from the opposite direction), the temperature rose and a light snow started falling. I knew this was going to be a big one! I hastily broke camp, hitched up the dogs and headed straight up the mountainside, leaving my third sled behind with a few supplies in order to speed us along. This was it, all or nothing. Half way up the pass the blizzard hit hard with unbelievable fury. I no longer could lead the team as the winds blew me around like a rag doll. It was in the lead dogs' hands as I walked behind the sled holding onto the handle bars, easing up the mountain, only catching occasional glimpses of the leaders. My eyelids were starting to freeze and my furs were getting heavy with snow. Finally feeling we were on level ground I stopped and took the time to snack all the dogs, knowing it was going to be a very long day and night, and to thank those three leaders for pulling us through.

    At 2:00 a.m. the following morning I was setting up camp and the dogs were curled up in the willows, catching up on some well deserved rest. The winds blew another 3 days after that, changed direction and blew for 2 more days, scouring the mountain pass we had just gone over, wiping it clear of snow, making sledding nearly impossible. Well, Mother Nature teaches patience and mine was surely being tested! I decided to wait another 3 days for snow; if it didn’t snow by then we would find another way. On the second night the snow was falling and then stopped by morning of the third day, giving us just enough snow to get over and down the pass.

    As February comes around, the daylight increases and the landscape begins to change. The canyons and creeks are now filled with good hardpack snow, making traveling a real pleasure. Most of the brush is beginning to be covered and the rocks and gravel bars are finally starting to disappear under snow. The overflow in the rivers has now stabilized, and we find ourselves traveling every day, exploring many of the creeks, canyons and climbing the mountain sides that Leffingwell had on his expedition. We are starting to see a lot more wildlife: Dall sheep, caribou, wolverines, foxes and wolves. The dogs become excited as we round every bend of the rivers, spotting flocks of ptarmigan in the willows. The whole country seemed to have opened up for us and the Malamutes were in their element, having the time of their lives.

    It's now March. We have been on the trail since November 23rd and have covered close to 2,000 miles. We have had our times of hardships; the many blizzards we traveled into, the 60-70 mph winds we endured night after night, the sleds tipping and rolling on the mountain sides, close calls with mountain crevasses that certainly would have been fatal, the miles of tundra and brush so thick that cutting our way through was the only way, and breaking through the overflow ice at 42 below. But we have seen many incredible valleys, creeks and canyons, have watched the northern lights unfold for us on many a long night, have seen the Arctic’s rich wildlife and enjoyed its openness, freedom, and the pure silence that only the Arctic can provide. I have had the opportunity to watch some of the young Malamutes mature and grow into powerful majestic dogs, and enjoyed the many hours hearing the sounds of all 22 Mals' paws “clicking” on the soft dry snow in unison and seeing their proud tails all waving high as they are trotting across the tundra, being in their true element where their ancestors originated from thousands of years ago. All the Malamutes seem just as fresh as they were in November, and still let out that harmonious howl as always when hitched up. “Music to my ears”.

    In mid-March we find ourselves going to the village of Kaktovik on the Arctic coast for supplies. It is a long ride traveling the shore line; the winds are blowing and we encounter near whiteout conditions, but I set my GPS for coordinates for the village (another luxury Leffingwell did without) and the lead dogs pick up the course. I am able to sit on top of the sled now since the loads are light and the dogs are doing fine. As we come within “smelling distance” of the town the dogs pick up the pace, nearly jolting me off the sled. We haven’t seen anyone for over 5 months and the team is excited about the new smells and sounds. Arriving in Kaktovik I am welcomed into the home of Robert and Jane Thompson who are the most gracious and generous hosts a person could ever meet. Both are Inupiat, and Robert is a wilderness guide and subsistence hunter. There I enjoyed the local menu of whitefish, caribou, whale meat and muktuk which is outright delicious! From there I visited Daniel and his wife Lillian Akootchook and had sheep meat for dinner; I gave them some lake trout and Arctic char in return for their generous hospitality.

    After picking up dog food and other supplies, we start working our way back to Kavik River, traveling at our leisure, enjoying the long hours of sunlight and camping where we may with no schedule or time limit. The dogs seem to really enjoy that life. Spring is definitely in the air although the temperatures are staying around -10, but the days are long with only a few hours of darkness or dusk. The caribou are coming north by the hundreds and the birds are starting to arrive now, and I start to notice how big and rounded my leader Angel is getting. Springtime means puppies! We have one more mountain pass to go over and we will be back at Kavik river where she can relax and have her litter.

    On April 19th we arrive back at Kavik. The following day I start to offload the sleds and putting the harnesses away as the dogs watch me very intently, then they start that long harmonious howl that only means one thing, I have to give in. “Alright fellas, let's go”.




More about Ernest de Koven Leffingwell