Dogsledding in Canada, April 2013

Blizzard Camp

The dogs were well rested and ready to go. Time to get them dressed for the road.

Well rested dog, ready to go Well rested dog, ready to go Well rested dog, ready to go

The sky was still overcast, but there was enough sunshine coming through that the structures on the ground had highlights and shadows, so the trail could be seen.

Shingle Point hut, snowmobiles and dogs

There was some minor problem when starting, since some of the dogs decided that they didn't want to follow the team in front of them, but rather turn towards the hut to take a look, but that was quickly sorted out and the dogs were pointed the right way.

Redirecting the dogs Redirecting the dogs Redirecting the dogs

My dogs clearly found that more interesting to watch than, for example, a helicopter landing. But then, the helicopter didn't involve any dogs.

Dogs looking on

After a short while all the dog teams were lined up properly and we were ready to go.

Dog teams lined up Dog teams lined up

There had been some minor modification and exchanges of dogs between teams, but my team stayed unchanged for the whole trip. But I had changed the running order a bit, putting Ravel in lead and Shelby in wheel position, since Shelby hadn't been a good lead dog and was distracted by almost everything along the way. Shelby also tended to look back during short breaks and then was suprised when the 'go' signal came and the other lead dog started to pull forward. Ravel did a better job in lead.

Even though Chuck had been flown out, we still travelled with four dog teams. (Distributing his dogs among the other teams, giving each of us nine dogs didn't seem to be an option.) Chuck's team was now driven by Alan, who, so far, had been riding as a passenger on one of the snow mobiles.

While the weather conditions were ok (not great, but quite reasonable) when we started out, it got worse during the day.

At first, clouds started to thicken, so the light got increasingly diffuse, but at least there was good visibility. It was still possible to see the coastline some distance away. But then it got more foggy and visibility went down to a couple of hundred meters at best.

Still some visibility Visibility decreasing

So far, we had been going back on the trail that we came out on, but it became increasingly difficult for those on the snowmobiles in front to make out the trail. At some point they even lost the trail, went in a half-circle and started to go westwards again, before they realized that something was wrong.

Losing the way

So after some deliberation, it was decided to stop trying to follow the physical trail in the snow, but use a GPS and follow the virtual trail on the GPS instead.

The wind had been getting stronger all day and it became increasingly clear that we were not going to 'outrun' the storm.

Time to make camp.

Usually we had the snowmobiles and the dogs set up in one long line, but this time we set up two lines. One of the reasons was that the distance to the most remote dogs was shorter, but the main reason was that the snowmobiles gave us something to attach the tent to.

The tent was set-up and a rope was cut in sections to tie corners of the tent to snowmobiles and toboggans, as these were the heaviest things around. (At least that gave me a chance to use the knife I bought in Inuvik. I'm not sure whether the reason for having me cut the rope was specifically to teach me a lesson - you'd better have a knife with you on such trips. But, given the situation, I think everyone was more concerned with getting the tent secured than with making statements about outdoor equipment. Anyway, the only lesson learned was that pocket knifes are next to useless for cutting stuff. Most of the dogs would have bitten faster through the rope than the knife was cutting it.)

Securing the tent

There wasn't much space between the snowmobiles, so we only put up one tent.

Obviously we put up the big one. Unfortunately, that was the one with the outer fly missing. The outer fly that has the main purpose to shield the inner tent from the wind. Which is a useful feature if, for example, you're stuck in a blizzard.

At least the timing for setting up camp was good. It was getting increasingly windy, but conditions weren't that bad.

So we had the camp set up and the dogs fed (though this time on frozen snacks only) and were well inside the tent when the blizzard reached us.

And pretty soon it became uncomfortable outside.

Tent in blizzard

At least for humans. The dogs didn't seem to mind much, although some started to look like stange mutants.

Dogs in blizzard Dog in blizzard Dog in blizzard Dog in blizzard

Inside the tent the conditions were - interesting.

While I have been going on about the outer fly being missing, that wasn't as much of a problem as I thought it would be. At least not the expected type of problem.

Unlike 'summer tents', where the inner tent is mostly a glorified mesh net, the inner tent was made of fairly heavy polypropylene, so there wasn't any wind blowing through the tent. The only air movement (and that could clearly be seen by our breaths being hanging in the air) was from the tent walls being battered by the wind, so the air moved back and forth, but there was no steady breeze in the tent.

Officially, the tent is rated for up to eight people, but even the manufacturer coyly amends this with "according to industry standards". (Which are probably similar to the standards specifying maximum capacity for elevators, i.e. based on compressed midgets.) More realistically, the manufacturer states that tent " a great size for ... six people in the warmer months".

In winter time, with people being in big double sleeping bags, five seems to be a more reasonable number.

We were seven.

So space was at a premium and sleeping arrangements were getting a bit complicated.

In tent during blizzard In tent during blizzard In tent during blizzard

After some experimenting and people using other people's feet as pillows, it sort of worked out, but it was never really comfortable and we were quite 'lucky' (for a low value of 'luck') that Chuck was already somewhere in Whitehorse. With eight people, there would have been no way that everyone could lie down at the same time. And we were also lucky (this time with a high value for 'luck') that we didn't have Chuck with his frozen toes with us, since there was nothing that we could have done to help and there was no chance of an emergency evacuation now. So, in hindsight, it was a good thing that he got out early.

Sleeping conditions in the tent weren't that good and probably nobody got a proper night's sleep, but that didn't matter much, since there wasn't much to do during the day either.

So most of the time was spent just lying around and dozing. (And, admittedly, spending some time wondering why we were where we were. We were in a nice and reasonable comfortable hut when we got the warning about the bad weather and it never became quite clear why we didn't wait out the blizzard there. "Trying to run away from the storm." seemed like a weak reason to leave the safety of a hut, especially when you're heading to an area that offers no shelter at all and you're trying to outrun a 70 km/h wind with 10 km/h dogs. But then, it's always easy to know better in retrospect. And it wasn't my call to make, anyway.)

Conditions outside had become worse and nobody went outside unless really, really necessary.

Tent in blizzard Tent in blizzard View of blizzard from tent

Sometimes a heater was turned on to dry some stuff that really needed it, but that didn't make any difference to the temperature in the tent. (You only felt the heater when you were getting quite close to it.)

Drying stuff in the tent

Rations were also limited to one meal a day. Not really because any lack of food or opportunites for preparation, but more to reduce the need to go outside and be exposed to the weather.

It probably would be nice to tell about the camaraderie, camp spirit and story telling during the blizzard, but that didn't really happen. (As far as I can find, it rarely happens in real life - it's more of a movie and television convention that people stuck in one place spend their time talking. Realistically, a situation like that is more like a waiting room somewhere. Everyone sort of idles and just waits for time to pass.)

And while it would be more dramatic to talk about us making it through an Arctic storm, but available weather data implies that technically we were just sitting through a 'strong gale'. ('Storm' is the next higher classification.) And it was also completely lost on us that wind speeds are measured according to the Beaufort scale and we were sitting with our tent right at the edge of the Beaufort sea.

After two days of lying around and doing very little, there blizzard had died down a bit, which gave us a chance to go out and do some work.

At least once we got out.

The real downside of not having an outer fly for the tent was that out entrance directly connected to the outside. And since the 'door' is set up that it faces away from the wind, that meant that a lot of snow gets blown around the tent and settles on the side that is away from the tent, i.e. right in front of our door.

So, at the morning of the third day, with some heavy winds during the night, the snow outside the 'door' was more than a meter high. Which is a problem, since you basically need to get out of the tent to shovel the snow away, but you can't get out due to the snow that needs to be shovelled.

It's less critical when you have an outer fly, mostly because it's (unlike the inner tent) not a closed 'sack'. So in the worst case, you can crawl around between inner and outer tents and crawl out on the side facing the wind. Or just unhook the outer fly and pull it off. If the snow piles up against the inner tent, things are more complicated.

(Another issue with not having an outer fly is that the zipper becomes a possible single point of failure. So if the zipper had broken or ripped, it would have been very difficult to seal the tent sufficiently to avoid snow getting blown in. The zipper didn't cause any problems, but two layers between you and the weather outside provide some additional safety.)

But in the end, enough snow could be pushed away that someone could crawl out and start shovelling. And then we could all get out and start shovelling.

And shovelling was needed to give the dogs some chance to move.

When we stopped, the sleds were standing on the snow (obviously) and we strung out our cables between them. Attached to that cable are shorter neck cables (about 50 centimeter long) to which the dog collars are attached.

Which is fine in normal conditions. But if a blizzard blows in, let's say, half a meter of snow, the cable between the sleds gets buried as well, so instead of giving half a meter radius of movement, the necklines go straight down, pinning the dogs heads to the ground and, if more snow falls, leaving them unable to get their heads out.

So we needed at least to dig a trench between the sleds, loosen the cable a bit and get it to the top of the snow again. (The picture below was taken on the next day, when the weather was fine again, but it's the one that best illustrates this.)

Digging out the cable

As you don't want to dig right next to a dog (especially as they could hardly move aside), and there are more neck cables than there are dogs, we dug until we found an unused neck line, cleared the area around it and then took one of the dogs, attached it to the free neck line and then continued digging at the place the dog had been.

That worked well until...

...the worst minute of the trip.

Which came when I had an neckline almost dug out, I could already see the end of the snap at the end of the line, tried to pull it out, so I could move one of the dogs to it and found I couldn't pull it out.

At first I thought it had frozen in and used my fingers to push some snow away, only to notice that I couldn't move it because it was still attached to a dog collar.

So, half a meter under the snow, there still was a dog!

It was a pretty bad moment, since I assumed that the next thing to do would be to dig out a dead dog from under the snow,

Luckily, it was just a short moment of digging with my hands until a dog nose came poking out through the snow like a chicken picking its way through an egg shell and after widening the opening a bit, Gimli came out of its hole, shook his fur and was none the worse for the wear.

Gimli and the snow hole he emerged from

So we had a bit of a lucky break there.

Especially since the blizzard picked up again a short time later and piled up some more snow and it's likely that he would have suffocated below the snow the next night.

This also highlights the problems of shared responsibilities - while we were in theory responsible for 'our' dog teams, Alan (the dog handler) was responsible for caring for all of them. So sometimes he would move dogs if it looked like they might be picking a fight or for other reasons. So when we started digging on the cable connecting the sleds, I had noticed that there were only six dogs instead of seven. But I also noticed that Kake was tied next to my sled (where he wasn't when the blizzard started, so I assumed that Alan had moved Gimli as well and he'd probably be with one or the other teams or next to one of the other sleds.

A short time later the wind picked up again and we went back to the tent.

Due to the experience that morning, having a lot of snow piled in front of our tent door, Frank insisted on shovel shifts. Frankie and Alan (who had their sleeping bags closest to the door anyway) needed to go out every two hours and shovel snow away from the entrance. (Luckily, both of them are smokers, so they went out into the blizzard from time to time anyway, so they didnn' need to go out just for the hard work.)

Frankie, who did a lot of snow shovelling during and after the blizzard really started to dislike that activity, but he did an excellent job.

The rest of the day was spent, again, lying around in the tent and waiting for time to pass.

Then around midnight the wind stopped and within a fairly short time we went from gale to calm.

So what was it like spending three days during a blizzard in a (half-completed) tent on an exposed spot in the middle of nowhere? In a word: boring. In two words: Mindnumbingly dull. There wasn't any real drama to it, no sense of making it through a tough time and emerging as a wiser person with a new look at the priorities of life. No bonding experience that brought the group closer together. Just the experience of sitting around with nothing to do. Which seems to be a good thing. As Peter remarked (who is active in search and rescue work in Australia and probably knows more about survival situations than anyone else in the group), it was a 'good' emergency situation, since everyone just kept calm. As we didn't have any real crisis going on, the important thing was that nobody panicked and thus created one. If somebody freaks out and starts getting nervous about the tent ripping, the tent poles breaking, being buried under the snow or similar things, then the situation could have gotten bad. But if the worst thing is that people are bored, the situation is well under control. (Of course, it's useful to think about what could be done if a pole breaks or the tent rips - it's only critical if someone gets too emotionally attached to the ideas of disaster scenarios.) So, at least sometimes, dull is good. Which probably means I should do some holidays in the Mediterranean some time, lie at the beach, do nothing and assume that this builds useful survival skills...

Towards Shallow Bay

As weather tends to change quit abruptly in that area and there doesn't seem to be any 'intermediate weather' (like just a bit of wind and the sky half-filled with clouds), the next morning greeted us like this.

Sunset after blizzard Sunset after blizzard Sunset after blizzard

After three cramped days in the tent, it was time to get ready to move again and to spend some time outside.

The wind of the previous day had brought a lot more snow, so the first thing to do was to have a big breakfast. It felt good to be outside again and get some real food and lots of hot drinks.

Breakfast time Enjoying the return of good weather Morning coffee with dogs

After that it was time to get some work done. There was a lot of snow to be moved and snow mobiles and sleds to be dug out and moved on top of the snow again.

Digging out the sled Snow shovelling time Snow shovelling time

It took us a couple of hours to get everything ready to move, but nobody really minded that.

Then we were moving again.

It was the best day of dog sledding that we had during the trip. Good weather, not much wind, good snow conditions. While any kind of dog sledding would have felt great after three days stuck in the tent, it would have been a great dog sledding day even on a normal trip.

Dog sledding on Beaufort Sea Frozen landscape Alan, Frank and dog, relaxed

And while it was not quite t-shirt weather yet, at least the parka could go back into the sled bag and the leather jacket was sufficient again.

Time for snacking the dogs Dog sledding on Beaufort Sea Dog sledding on Beaufort Sea

It was strongly encouraged (to put it mildly) not to idly stand on the sled during any stop lasting more than a couple of seconds, but to attend to the dogs - checking their booties, putting on new ones where needed, looking for unusual behaviour and movements, giving shoulder and leg massages to the dogs and making sure that they weren't up to anything they shouldn't do. Which, in my case, meant that I always had one eye on David, since he would be trying to pull his front booties off and needed to be told off. (Though this wasn't too bad, given the number of times I heard Peter shout "No, Jacob, no!" behind me.)

Attending to the dogs

This is an example of what to watch for. The dog on the lower left is not really trying to lick its paw, but is trying to loosen the end of the velcro strip to be able to pull it off. (Though, in this case, it's not Jacob (who is the larger dog next to him), but some other dogs, whose name I don't know.)

Dog trying to take off booties

If everything is sorted out with the dogs, some more dog sledding...

Checking on dogs Dog sledding on Beaufort Sea Dog sledding on Beaufort Sea Dog sledding on Beaufort Sea

And while the dogs like running in any case, they also seemed particularily happy that day

Happy dogs Happy dog Happy dogs

But it was still necessary to put new front booties on David from time to time...

Not again - new dog booties

Conditions were favourable and we made good progress.

Dog sledding on Beaufort Sea Dog sledding on Beaufort Sea Dog sledding on Beaufort Sea Dog sledding on Beaufort Sea
Dog sledding on Beaufort Sea Dog sledding on Beaufort Sea Dog sledding on Beaufort Sea Dog sledding on Beaufort Sea

Our destination for the day was the place at Shallow Bay where we had spent the first night outside, though this time the weather was a lot nicer and it was about 15°C warmer than just a week ago.

Arriving at Shallow Bay

Usually the dogs got a bed of straw to spend the night on. We didn't put straw out during the blizzard (where it probably wouldn't have helped much), but now that the conditions were normal again and we pretty much had straw to spare, the dogs got nice straw nests that sometimes made them look like a flock of chickens.

Dog on straw bed at Shallow Bay Dogs on straw bed at Shallow Bay Dog on straw bed at Shallow Bay Dog on straw bed at Shallow Bay
Dog on straw bed at Shallow Bay Dog on straw bed at Shallow Bay Dog on straw bed at Shallow Bay Dogs on straw bed at Shallow Bay
Dogs on straw bed at Shallow Bay Dog on straw bed at Shallow Bay Dog on straw bed at Shallow Bay Dog on straw bed at Shallow Bay

The evening was the most relaxed and enjoyable of the trip. It was our last evening 'out there' (we were heading back to Edward's cabin he next day) and the day had been just perfect, so everyone was in a great mood.

Whether they were making bootie daisy-chains...

Peter with bootie chain

...preparing dinner...

Frank getting dinner ready

...or just enjoying the day.

Gerry enjoying the evening

And no, there isn't any particular Inuit tradition of war paint. It's just that Gerry had a bit of frost bite on his cheeks and decided that if you put on thick skin ointment anyway, you might as well do it with style...

Gerry with 'war paint'

Earlier on, Gerry had been gathering some driftwood, so we had a nice fire going on all evening. Dinner was along the same lines of the dinner we had at the same spot a week earlier - steaks. Massive steaks. But this time it was warm enough that they could be eaten at leisure (and didn't need to be eaten at speed before they got cold).

Bonfire at Shallow Bay Dinner preparation at Shallow Bay Dinner preparation at Shallow Bay

It was also a good time for some chatting. And some post card writing.

Dinner at Shallow Bay Dinner conversation at Shallow Bay Me writing postcard at Shallow Bay

There was a bit of snowfall that evening, but that consisted of just a few individual flakes.

Which I found unexpectedly interesting. I've hardly ever seen 'snowflake shaped' snowflakes. When it's snowing, I usually only see snowflakes falling that are already clustered, but not individual ones. So they look more like small fluffy balls than the iconic snowflake look. Here the snow was light enough that individual, six-armed snowflakes could be seen.


As I was looking at and thinking about patterns in frozen water anyway, I decided to take a little walk to look for some spots where the wind had blown the snow away and it was possible to see the frozen ocean/lake/pond below. (We were at the edge of the Beaufort Sea and the Mackenzie River, with our camp side on a little frozen pond, so it's hard to say exactly what body of water the ice belonged to.)

Patterns in the ice Patterns in the ice Patterns in the ice
Patterns in the ice Patterns in the ice Patterns in the ice

And, even though it looks on the photos more like a forest fire, the day ended with an appropriately nice sunset. Which also signalled that it was time to get some sleep, as the days had been getting longer and sunset was around 11 pm.

Shallow Bay Sunset Shallow Bay Sunset

Onwards to the next part - Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk.

Or back to other travels