-96 Below

How are the dogs in the -96°F windchill?” A friend asked me on the satellite phone.

“Heck, they’re fine. Humans are the wimps out here. I wish I were as tough as those dogs,” I replied.

When you think about it, we humans are as vulnerable as babies in cold weather unless we cover our naked bodies with multiple layers of fleece and caribou skin boots, goose down parkas, wool hats, scarves and mitts. Living in extreme cold temperatures is deadly business, but the human body is a remarkable creation.

I’ll admit, 35 years ago it was tough for me to handle -40°F. I remember wearing heavy insulated mukluks, coveralls and parka with large beaver skin mitts that were the size of baseball mitts. Heck, I haven’t dressed like that in a very long time, except I wore a parka for a while when it was -99°F windchill last year. Now, -40°F feels mild. Maybe it’s not ideal weather for wearing shorts and t-shirt, but relatively speaking, it’s not too bad. Nowadays, I’m comfortable with fleece jackets and light insulated coveralls and gloves, although I still wear heavy caribou mukluks most of the time. They’re just comfortable as can be in any temperature, warm or cold.

Over the past four decades I have acclimated to the arctic environment and I’m sure there’s some genetics involved which helps the acclimation process, but if I can acclimate then so should the dogs. My point is, since the Alaskan malamute roots are from the Arctic then a malamute that is living in, let’s say Arizona, can acclimate to the arctic environment as well. So, if you think your malamute is a couch potato, cream puff sissy, think again. I bet he or she would become as comfortable in the Arctic as a polar bear, given the chance.

Now, for those folks that do not know what it feels like to live, sleep, camp and work in blistering cold weather, let me give you a peek into the frozen world of an Arctic winter. First, if you’ve ever watched my dogs in cold weather, you’d see their energy increases tenfold, and the same with me. Your energy increases the colder it gets outside. I believe it’s more of a survival instinct than anything else. The faster and harder you work, the warmer you are.

After you awake in the morning and crawl out of the tent to meet the new frozen day, you feel the cold slap you in the face like a steel plate. Nonetheless you march outside to check on your furry friends, which will not give you so much as a second glance until you start serving them breakfast. They’re toasty warm and snuggled up tight and conserving energy. They’d prefer to stay there until it’s time to eat and hit the trail.

You’re going to be surprised how your lungs feel when you take that first deep invigorating breath of -65°F air. It’s the cleanest air on earth. If you are not a runner or are not into cardiovascular exercising you will most likely cough when you suck in the cold air. And if you exert yourself, either run, ski or snowshoe, you might cough like you have the flu. But don’t worry this is normal for folks that aren’t in shape. What happens is the cold air expands in your lungs and stretches you’re a capillary, and no, you aren’t freezing your lungs. That is just an old wives tale. I mean, if you could freeze your lungs, I’d have done it years ago, as well as every living creature and human being in the Arctic, including the Inuit.

Many folks will certainly get frostbite on their faces in those temperatures the moment they step outside their tent. So, you might feel like bees are stinging your nose and cheeks. This stinging feeling, my friend, is frostbite. Small blotches on your face are turning white while the skin is crystallizing. If you do not warm the frozen areas immediately by placing the palm of your hand on the frozen patches they will eventually blister and peel and some may scar a little. It’s nothing to worry too much about, at least you’re still alive and the dogs are doing fine. Luckily, my facial skin has acclimated so I don’t wear any kind of face covering whatsoever.  The only tme I pull my hood up is when it’s real windy. But the process of becoming acclimated over a period of 40n years hasn’t been a painless experience. To say the least. 

While you are feeding the happy-go-lucky, howling dogs you’ll notice everything is seemingly louder than normal. Like your steps in the dry snow, the dogs rustling about and your breath as it vaporizes when it hits the cold air.

Your eyelashes will certainly freeze together occasionally so you might be walking around with one eye open and the other frozen shut. Again, this is normal, just don’t blink!!

Now, you are occupied thawing your frostbitten face, prying your eyelids open, stomping your foot to get the blood flowing to your frozen big toe, and cussing all the while trying to feed the dogs. Then, a glimpse of sunshine crests the mountain peak. You throw back your hood to absorb the five minutes of winter sun before it falls again behind the mountain, only to get attacked by those “bees” on your cheeks. You’re at the mercy of Mature Nature and there’s no escape. Then, a hint of envy comes over you. If only you were an Alaskan malamute!! But you’re not.  Now, you pack your bags, and prepare to hit the trail.  You just gotta grit your teeth, work fast as hell and get through it.  Then, in 30-40 years of traveling in the frozen Arctic you will begin to feel somewhat comfortable at -96°F.

To be continued…

 Joe Henderson is an author, and veteran Arctic explorer, and a pioneer in dog sledding in the sense that he has perfected a method of travel which allows him to travel solo for up to 5 months at a time without resupply or even so much as seeing another human being.  It was only within the past 12 years that Joe even began to travel with an Iridium satellite phone.  Prior to that, he had absolutely no contact with civilization for months on end.  Joe continues his multi-month expeditions every winter in an extremely remote region of the Arctic..  For more information about Joe Henderson and his expeditions please check out his website www.alaskanarcticexpeditions.com  or follow on Facebook; Alaskan Arctic Expeditions

Inspire

It had been three long winters exploring the “trails” of the great and forgotten Arctic explorer Ernest de Koven Leffingwell.

Armed with his personal journals and maps I followed Leffingwell’s route up the same mountains he climbed, camped in the same willow patches he did, and once, I had broken through thin ice where he had 100 years prior. But I never ever thought I’d find his cabin that he built in 1907 from shipwrecked timber.

This expedition was specifically conducted to commemorate a very humble and hardworking man, Ernest de Koven Leffingwell 1876-1971.

Leffingwell dedicated eight years of his life and personal finances to the exploration and mapping of Alaska’s Arctic. My goal for the expedition was to highlight Leffingwell’s historical achievements and because, frankly, I’m partial to “underdogs”.

Leffingwell’s expedition was downplayed while other Arctic “explorers” at the time were glorified. In truth, Leffingwell accomplished more in eight years of Arctic exploration than most explorers did during their entire careers. In Leffingwell’s own words he considered himself “the forgotten explorer”.

I consider Leffingwell the silent worker and the definition of a cheerful warrior. I know firsthand what’s involved in Arctic exploration, especially multi-month and multi-year expeditions.

I believe there are a few reasons why Leffingwell was “forgotten”. First he never became seriously injured or suffered severe frostbite. Have you noticed how when a person makes a mistake, or is unprepared and freezes a piece of their butt off, or fingers, or toes, that they suddenly become heroes? Without suffering, the news media doesn’t have a story.

Secondly, he unapologetically wrote the facts without drama, opinions and theories. Basically, he was not an entertainer.

Thirdly, during that time there were other Arctic explorations going on including the north and south poles that captured the world attention. And certainly, there were probably sediments of jealousy toward Leffingwell from other explorers since he so “easily” accomplished what he had.

What were Leffingwell’s secrets? He simply followed and adhered to the Inupiat customs regarding his apparel and traveling methods. And he worked his butt-off

I’m happy to say since I conducted the Leffingwell expedition many people are beginning to discover his amazing accomplishments. In fact, I noticed recently there has been a biography written about him.

The Leffingwell expedition had taken four winters to complete. The first winter I had spent 5 months of winter alone with my dogs in training.

 During which time I never saw another human being. The second winter, I again went 5 months without seeing another person while following Leffingwell’s maps throughout the Brooks Range.

The following two winters were multi-month expeditions as well. Finally at the end of the final year, Animal planet filmed my arrival to Barter Island or Kaktovik.

Someday I will write about the expedition. But for now, I will continue to conduct expeditions with my Alaskan malamutes. I will also share what I have discovered about this majestic breed. And I will share as many stories as I can with you.

I believe if i can inspire just one of you, similarly to how I have been inspired, then I feel the sacrifices I have made for nearly 40 years have been worth it.

Thank you for reading! God Bless!!

The Mysterious Goal

Recently a friend, who is in the movie industry, said to me: “you gotta have a reason, a purpose a mission for your expeditions.” This vanity is so much ingrained into our society’s psych and culture.

This photo is one of my all-time favorites. It’s so symbolic of life isn’t it? We journey in this life, not knowing what awaits us into the mist. Life is a mystery.

No one knows what tomorrow, next year, or even the next moment will bring us.

It’s a mystery.

No one, including those who don’t believe, can explain where the substance of matter comes from, or how biological matter formed the train of thought, like, intelligence and human emotions.

We need not a purpose, just a goal. And our goal, we ought not to ever give up. Just keep moving forward toward the goal and into mist and mystery. And have faith, hope and believe.


Photo taken by Christine Meerman-Cooper

Expedition Training

When I was six, I used to run beside my brother on a bicycle. I remember thinking “why ride a bike when I can run instead”. The weird stuff we thought and did when we were kids!

Actually, I just loved to run… and I’ve never quite running. Little did I know that over a half century later, I’d still be running.

Life is strange, but the fact is: if I wasn’t a runner there’s no way in heck I’d ever be capable of conducting expeditions in Arctic Alaska to the extent I have. Our creator has a plan for each of us.

Aside from traveling on sea ice, which is the easiest sledding/traveling in the world, plus a few wind-blown valleys in the Brooks Range, running, skiing and snowshoeing is the only means of travel on multi month expeditions.

The dogs have enough weight to haul and they don’t need me for extra baggage. Besides, the idea of sitting on my posterior or standing on the tuners while my dogs are working their butts off doesn’t fit me well.

The Alaskan malamute dog-breed has been pulling sleds across the frozen tundra for thousands of years. Pulling is what they love and live for. I’ve never had a malamute that didn’t pull with everything they got from the first time harnessed to the last time when they’re too old. These guys and gals love to pull, climb steep terrain and break-trail.

However, we humans haven’t been pulling sleds across the Arctic for millennia like our malamute comrades have. So, for us to keep-up with our naturally athletic canine friends we gotta train.

Running, bicycling, skiing and weight training is my ritual for expedition training.

By the time we’re ready to hit the trail for another expedition, I had better be capable of running a marathon everyday.

If I’m not, my 22 canine teammates will literally run me over and leave me face-planted in the snow while their wagging tails disappear over the horizon.

A Gift That Never Grows Old

For the nearly 40 years our team has criss-crossed Alaska’s Arctic numerous times. It never gets tiring and the malamutes never ever give up their smiles and wagging tails.

They love doing what they’re born to do.

Just in the last decade and half, these guys and gals have spent over 1,500 nights camped under the arctic sky, battling brutal blizzards and breaking trail in regions of the arctic so rugged and laden with deep snow that it was considered impossible for any dog team to travel there.

They have smashed the longest unsupported, solo, arctic expedition on record a dozen times, and have inspired folks from around the world with their cheerful warrior demeanor.

Since the winter season is over and we are laying down plans for yet another expedition for 2022, I thought it would be appropriate to commemorate Alaskan malamutes and all northern breed dogs.

They are special animals and I am thankful to the One above for these amazing creatures.

I believe we have much to learn from them. If we only mimicked and admired their cheerful warrior demeanor when facing challenges we could, and would, accomplish the impossible.

The Blessed and Cursed Trail

“The Trail lies deep and narrow in the powdery snow. From a distance it resembles a lazy line drawn across the white.

It twists and turns around willow brush, across wide sweeping valleys and over gentle hills until it disappears on the horizon.

It’s a bitter sweet Trail that is cussed and cursed, blessed and cherished. It’s a lone trail that is never seen by others.

Mostly though, it’s a silent trail except for the crackling sounds of my breath in the cold crisp air and the crunching snow under my snowshoes as I walk in rhythm to my team’s heartbeat.

But it’s not just an ordinary trail. It’s the signature on the landscape of an Arctic traveler and a team of malamutes doing what they were born to do.” Joe G Henderson

Alaska’s Badlands

Notes from my journal during the six-week solo arctic expedition in 2021. The place I was camped when writing this journal entry is a desolate and remote region that was noted by late-1800s’ explorers to be off-limits by Alaskan Arctic natives because of its brutally cold and dangerous winter climate.

…it’s a place that doesn’t have spiraled peaks that stretch to the heavens for the eyes to rest on, nor does it have endless miles of beautiful green and blue bergs of sea ice that glisten in the low February sun. Instead, it’s a place where the land and sky is joined as one fluid white.

Except for a few stunted willows alongside frozen ponds and creeks it’s difficult to see where the horizon begins.

One might call it a wasteland, the badlands, or, a land that God forgot.
The essence of its allure to me however is not in its eye appeal because its beauty cannot be seen.

The beauty is hidden in the deafening silence that stirs the soul and the vast expanse that stretches hundreds of miles in every direction which gives us an unimaginable sense of freedom.

But whoa to those who travel here!

The fierce winds that tear the tundra apart has no mercy for human flesh. There are not words in our vocabulary that describes the brutality of its coldness. I’m telling you it’s beyond human comprehension.

Nonetheless, when the flurry of snow and clouds clear from the crystalline stars and peace settles once again onto the living, and the malamutes lift their muzzles with a tranquil song, it’s a glimpse of heaven.

The faraway and difficult journeys in life are necessary challenges to cleanse our souls.

It reminds us that our strengths, skills and talents cannot and will not save us because our souls are in the hands and mercy of God.

What’s it like?

Cell phones, texts, emails, social media, politics, jobs and businesses and the world of entertainment have literally consumed our lives.

What would it be like it we took all these distractions, stuffed them into a heavy steel container, locked it and ventured for one, two, three or five months to a faraway land. A place where nature dictates our daily lives, a place where we live with the environment rather than against it, a place that demands respect and humbleness yet teaches us to be brave and bold, a place that is cruelly unforgiving, yet is graciously merciful, a place that hasn’t any tolerance for the impatient soul, yet teaches us to have persevering patience, a place that is so far away that the chance of being rescued if an accident occurs is nil.

And most importantly, venturing to a place where Alaskan malamutes’ harmonious howls break the deafening silence every night. What would it be like…?

Words cannot describe what it’s like, in fact, words belittle the experience. However, those who seek to go beyond themselves, abandoning their fears, egos and the vane sense of self-worth, or skills that we think will save us, but rather, rely on our Good Lord’s guidance and accept our trail wherever it leads us-knows what it’s like.

Whether we’re helplessly lost on the Iditarod trail, trekking across the Mohave desert or exploring the far reaches of the Arctic, it’s the same sense and acceptance of self-abandonment that gets us through tough and life-threatening situations.

However, traveling with dogs there’s a peculiar twist in all this. We will realize that our dogs’ survival depends solely on our survival. And that our dogs physical and mental health, and their survival, is directly linked to our survival. This knowledge and realization gives us an extra “kick in the butt” or incentive, since we are naturally and inherently weak willed creatures, to do whatever it takes to keep our dogs happy and healthy and to survive.

We soon become one being; like a living organism with each part perfectly tuned to do its job for the good and welfare for the entire being. If one part fails so does the being. The result is that we learn about our dogs intimately insomuch that we feel they are truly part of us. We learn everything about their personalities, weaknesses, strengths, desires and quirks. And likewise, they learn about our deficiencies, strengths and what pleases us.

Although I didn’t tell you “what it was like” and I apologize for that, but frankly, it’s not possible. But I will say this: sometimes one might wonder if it’s what heaven will be like.

Ancient Malamutes

This drawing was created by Simon Paneak from Anaktuvuk Pass Alaska 1968. It shows how the mastodon arrived to their Arctic homeland. This is fascinating because the mastodon has been extinct for 10,000 years!

Let’s step back in time to about 15,000 years ago when Paleoindians migrated from Asia and Siberia and across the ancient subcontinent of Beringia that is now the floor Beaufort, Chukchi and Bering Seas.

Eventually they found themselves at a desolate windswept and uninhabited region, which is now Alaska.

Beringia existed during the glacial episodes of the Pleistocene when world-wide sea level was as much as 300 feet lower than today. Beringia included most of northeastern Siberia, Alaska as far south as the Alaska Peninsula, and the land bridge that connected them.

This was a vast, mostly unglaciated land mass of nearly two million square miles with an extreme continental climate.

The Paleoindians probably hunted mostly bison and caribou, but there were large Ice Age mammals as well: mammoth, horse, muskox and large cat similar to the African lion.

During that time the environment was similar as of today with brutally cold and windy winters and hot arid summers. There were plenty of lush grasses for bison and caribou to graze on that flourished among the low lying hills and wide valleys.

Alaska’s arctic landscape hasn’t changed much since the Pleistocene, except there are more tussocks on the tundra yet it still remains mostly a treeless with many different types of willow.

The Paleoindians probably wore caribou fur clothing since it’s one of the warmest furs to wear and there was an ample supply of it. Also, they used spears, bows and arrows with tips crafted of chert, that is common in the area.

They were nomadic people who hunted caribou and bison spring through fall and evidently lived in Brooks Range during winter where the wind isn’t as brutally harsh. But the Paleoindians were accompanied with help in their endeavors to survive. They had dogs.

Their dogs lessened their burdens by packing meat and supplies for them and there isn’t any evidence suggesting the dogsled had been invented yet.

It’s also thought that dogs were used to protect their children from lions while the adults were hunting. This might explain why malamutes are so friendly and personable around children as well as adults. Because of the heavy burdens the dogs were required to pack, most likely they were large framed with wide hips and chests, thick bones, heavily furred to endure cold temperatures and they were efficient eaters.

As the climate and vegetational regime began to change at the end of Pleistocene, and the large Ice Age mammals such as bison disappeared, the Paleoindians vanished from arctic Alaska’s archeological record.

From roughly 9700 until 7500 years BP there is no solid evidence for human occupation in arctic Alaska (Kuntz et al 2000,) However there is evidence of Paleo-Arctic tradition, that must be as ancient as the Paleoindian tradition is found nearby on the south side to the continental divide

Now this next point is important and it might provide an explanation why there are Inuit dog markers in our malamutes DNA.

Roughly 5,000 years BP the Eskimo appeared in Alaska’s arctic. Eventually they dominated and were more numerous than any other groups that had previously inhabited the area.

Since Alaskan malamutes have both Asian and Inuit dog DNA markers it’s quite possible the Inuit dogs mixed with the Asian type which probably were living inland with the Nunamiut and other ancient tribes.

But what is the most fascinating point and ties everything together is that some Alaskan malamute lines have markers from Tibetan wolves.

This point strongly suggests that originally malamutes
migrated across the land bridge most likely with the first paleoindians.

After 1900 whalers and explorers brought many other dog-breed types onto the scene. It’s important to note; Alaskan malamutes do not have European dog-breed DNA. So, the present day malamute is as close as we can get to the ancient malamute.