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.

The Hidden Mystery

It was March 1st 2014 when record breaking cold temperatures eased its grip from Arctic Alaska.

For two months prior, my team of 23 malamutes and I endured a relentless onslaught of blizzards and wind-chills that exceeded minus -95F.

Additionally, the snow was the deepest I’ve ever experienced.

There were many days that we traveled an excruciating 1 1/2 mph through 4-5ft deep snow.

I was ready for a break!

Then, one morning, after the winter’s dawn shed its orange glow across the white barren landscape and the malamutes sang their morning howl, I heard a strange sound-like a distant waterfall of rushing water. Yet, the temperature was minus -38F.

Later that day, I hitched up the team, lashed on my snowshoes and headed towards the mysterious sounds of rushing water.

When the setting sun shaved the mountainous landscape I found the source of the mysterious sounds.

As I stood in awe of the crystalline river that rushed by, I wondered how such a large warm-springs could have went unnoticed.

I had traveled by this region many times over a time span of several years yet, I had never heard it’s rushing water call.

Naturally, I was compelled to follow the river to its source. I am amazed and awestruck how this large fast flowing river is born of a dozen warm springs that flow from beneath giant boulders on the side of a steep mountain.

It’s interesting: you will never see this warm-springs on maps of any kind. The river is unnamed as well.

Until now that is.

This mysterious and hidden warm river that flows from the frozen earth, i have named Malamute Warm Springs.

And it will stay mysterious and hidden until the next lone Arctic traveler hears its rushing call begging to be explored.

Curiosity, wonder and mysteries are the driving forces of some whose lifestyles are founded in exploring the far wildernesses on earth.

We are literally surrounded with mysteries. In fact life would be boring without mysteries!

It’s believed there are more stars in the universe than all the grains of sea sand on earth. One must wonder about how many other galaxies, planets, suns and moons there are. These are questions that we will never know the answers to. This is mysterious.

Aristotle, Plato and Einstein understood life itself is a mystery. They, in fact, were religious. I find it interesting how these three great minds believed there was one God who created it all.

The written word of God is full of mystery. We don’t have to dogsled to the far polar regions or explore the unexplored to find it. Wonders and mysteries are before us everyday and in everything.

The Environment Which Shapes Us

To some extent the environment in which we live shapes us into who we are. Ive been asked several times if I am a traditionalist?

Apparently, because I travel by dogs in a very “traditional” way. Even though I didn’t try to mimic older equipment and traveling methods, it’s just these old methods were naturally created in my traveling strategy because it’s the only method that works in the arctic and deep snow backcountry.

Basically, I started dog mushing without any knowledge of it whatsoever.

No one had given me advice or tips on how to get started or dogmushing in general. I just “dove into it.”

I had sewn my first dog harness from moose and bear skin, built the first sled out of spruce poles while living in a cabin I built with an axe and my first team was three to five dogs. And I never ever rode on the sled because the thought of riding on the sled never crossed my mind. It didn’t make sense to me because I was fully capable of running, trotting, snowshoeing or skiing ahead or behind the team.

I just couldn’t wrap my head around this concept of standing on the runners and asking the dogs to exert their energy to haul my ass around.

Of course, after my team grew in size there were and are times when it isn’t an option. But this is a necessity rather than a demand.

And as my team continually grows in strength I still adhere to the basics. Which coincidentally is similar to traveling methods a century ago.

That said, I have modified much of the old methods like, the sleds: my sleds are built of different material and are over 3ft wide and 12ft long which are wider but similar length to the old sleds. And I never travel with a single sled regardless of the duration of my trip.

Aside from the US mail teams, single sleds were and are still the norm. And my hitch system is totally different than the old-timers’ hitches.

Interestingly my harnesses, except for a few modifications, are exact same design of a century ago. These old harnesses are still called the single tree harness. Nowadays I’m seeing them described in a different name but they are still the basic design that were used for at least 100 years.

Even my tent design is similar design the Inupiat used for many centuries. I actually designed the tent without any knowledge of the Inupiat design. I harvest, tan, sew and wear caribou fur clothing like the old-timers wore and my snowshoes are the classic design with a length of six feet long.

Its interesting how the environment shapes people whether it’s in modern times or a century ago.

I find it most interesting however that our Good Lord provides all we need to survive in one of the most brutal environments on earth.