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.

The Quest

Pictures taken in Arctic Alaska around 1907

The project began nearly 20 years ago. I remember the conversation with Alaska’s state archeologist Michael Kuntz who discovered the Mesa site.

When I asked him if the first paleoindians had malamutes 12,000 years ago, and if so, whether or not they physically resembled our modern Alaskan malamutes. This he couldn’t confirm, but he did confirm that the paleoindians definitely had dogs.

So, whatever cold weather or arctic traits that were beneficial for dogs to posses back then, should hold true for today especially since the land and climate in those days were similar to what it is now.

So, this brings us to the question of what are suitable Arctic comparable traits for Alaska’s Arctic? And this is what my quest is about.

First, I want to empathize “Alaska’s Arctic” because it is very unique in comparison to other polar regions of the world.

Arctic Alaska consists mostly of the Brooks mountain range where snow is sometimes three to five feet deep. The Brooks Range is the world’s highest range of mountains within the Arctic circle. It extends 600 miles west to east and reaches heights of 8,500-9,000 feet and widths of 200 miles.

So, obviously the indigenous people and their dogs who lived there had to deal with deep snow. And we know for certainty that most indigenous people resided in the mountains during winter.

So this is the reason why the malamutes are larger framed dogs in comparison to Greenland and Inuit dogs.

Secondly, even though we have AKC standards, I believe, they aren’t descriptive enough. (I have written more about this subject in my latest book).

After all, the authors of the standards did not have any sled dog travel with malamutes in Arctic Alaska.

This is what my quest is about: to discover and document exactly what it takes for dogs to live, thrive and travel in Arctic Alaska.

Let’s go back in time:

With new data and DNA testing, we now have proof that markers from Tibetan wolves are in a few Alaskan malamute bloodlines.

We can safely say now, that Alaskan malamutes accompanied the first paleoindians who crossed the land ridge (beringia) from Asia 12,000 to 14,000 years.

When we look into the eyes of our happy-go-lucky malamutes begging for popcorn, we are looking into the eyes of ancient history.

Not only a dog-breed history but also an ancient peoples’ history. By preserving Alaskan malamutes to be as close to original Arctic compatible dogs, we are actually preserving an ancient peoples’ culture and history as well.

For many decades I’ve studied and documented specific Arctic compatible traits in dogs. These documents will be published in my next book, along with the continuation of my training strategy.

I feel it’s pertinent to preserve the Alaskan malamute breed, thereby we also help preserve the culture of the first paleoindians who’s ancestors are spread all over the country from New Mexico, Arizona to Utqiagvik (Barrow) Alaska.

For those interested I’ve posted the study. It was published in 2015 and was the most extensive study at that time. Two of our malamutes were in the study.

https://www.nature.com/articles/hdy201549.pdf

The Call

When I ventured alone deep into the thick and silent forests of Michigan’s countryside, the aroma of fresh soil, pine and cedar trees mixed with campfire smoke sent an inviting fragrance that I could not resist. I felt a calling and decided that in this manner I would live my life.

I questioned back then, but now know, that this simple calling that I have been following for over 52 years is a God-given call. It is still vibrant and alive in my spirit.

Albeit, this calling has taken me to the underwater scuba-diving world in the Atlantic Ocean, to dog sledding on Arctic Sea ice, I’m still following my call.

Though, many wonder and some have asked me “why do you venture into the Arctic wilderness for up to five months at a time without seeing another person?” I want to say, it’s not to make a splash in polar exploration, breaking records or none of this nonsense. These are merely “byproducts” for lack of better words.

It’s all about following my call.

I’m still pursuing that fragrance of nature that I felt as an eight year old boy, sitting by a campfire in Michigan’s forest, and, I’m still in awe and wonder of God’s magnificent creation.

I believe its a hunger and thirst for us all.

Of course, it’s a rare desire for anyone to pursue it at the extent that I have.

However, this creation of nature that surrounds us in everyday life, this gift from God, is for everyone to see, and feel and be awestruck like an eight year old kid, alone, in the dark of night, sitting by a lonely campfire deep in a Michigan’s forest.

Smiles Mean Something:

I know you love your dogs and want the best for them otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this.  But, I also know that as humans we get a little frustrated when sometimes our beloved dog doesn’t behave how we have envisioned. We’ve all experienced this.  It requires a world of patience to remedy.  This is why it’s important to train ourselves FIRST, then our dogs.

When we look inside a dog’s mind we’ll find similar emotional patterns seen in humans, like happiness, sadness, love, hate, trust and mistrust. Unlike humans though, dogs have an incredible sense of smell, about 100,000 times stronger than ours.  But the most fascinating fact about dogs is; they can smell and react to the rise and fall of our hormones, like oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin.  These are our happy or feel-good hormones.  Just keep this in mind when you’re working with your dogs.  Show that you absolutely cherish the time you are with them.  Afterall, just like people,  happy dogs are hard and loyal workers. They will exhibit extraordinary strength when they are happy.

This has been the foundation of my training strategy for a half century. However, it’s not easy.  It requires work, decades of time and a universe of patience.  And there are many other factors involved in keeping your dogs’ happy as well.  But we’ll unveil them in future posts.

Let’s get right to it and begin with puppies. From the time they open their dark little eyes with you holding the whining, grunting fur balls in your arms, until their last day on earth, they will adore you for who you are.  They don’t see you as an alpha male or female-no, they view you as something larger than their own lives-something or someone they will love, trust, follow and mentor.  Or they might learn to view you the opposite or somewhere in between.  Its up to you in how they see you.

To give you an example of how all this works in regards to training: one of the most common questions I am asked is “how do you decide which pups become your leaders?  Is it a physical trait?”  The answer is simply- the pups who are raised inside our home and are with us at the moment we pull the curtains open in the morning until we fall off to sleep at night will be our leaders.  The puppies who grow up in our home with us will learn our body language, facial expressions and how we behave when we are happy and sad. Inside our home is the training grounds for future leaders. 

This goes in-line with my philosophy that training working dogs is mostly psychological training. Their physical prowess is the product of their emotional connection with you. They have learned to trust and adhere to only you. And want to please you above all else. But you have to do your part and learn their body language as well.

The most distinguishing feature that you can learn is their facial expressions.  This is important.  And similar to peoples’ facial expressions, it’s a silent language that requires years to interpret, especially since each dog has his or her distinct individual personality.  This requires tons of patience, yet is the most important to learn.  So, the next time you catch your big malamute on the couch devouring a hamburger he stole off the kitchen counter ask yourself: “who is teaching who?”   Patience is certainly a virtue.

The Art and Science of:

A healthy vibrant horse with rider, perfectly trained, yet wild and free trotting effortlessly across a grassy plain is as pleasant to the eyes as a Rembrandt painting. And similar to most art it’s backed by science.

Rembrandt who is considered the greatest visual artist in history was a scientist in the sense he made and mixed his paint from various materials including; charred animal bones, lamp black and an array of minerals. It’s interesting to note also, Rembrandt was known for his unconventional painting methods which essentially changed the world of visual art.

The art of training animals, particularly sled dogs, is very much associated with science as well.

Similarly to a painter who is attentive to detail and science, living art is composed in the same unique fashion. Myself, I view the team and each individual dog as living art. Each dog, he or she, is shaped and molded into an intricate painting that lives, breathes, works/plays and shows love and adoration”.
-Joe Henderson

For Those Who Love Dogs

  • When I posted this story a few months ago it received an overwhelming response from dog lovers around the world. If you are new to my writings I hope you thoroughly enjoy it!! If you have read this story earlier I hope you enjoy this heartfelt story again. Similarly to a good stew that simmers on the wood-burning stove for a long time its flavors become enhanced. So the same goes with story telling. Thanks for reading.

  • A short story for those who love dogs: When Alaska was young and known for its rugged frontier lifestyle most folks that lived in the bush worked summer jobs as lumberjacks, gold miners, or road construction workers. In winter they lived off the land in subsistence, self reliance lifestyles. During those early Alaskan years we lived in a small log cabin without electricity or running water and our only transportation in winter was a dog team. Life revolved around our dogs and we depended on them as much as they relied on us to survive. It worked both ways. One couldn’t survive without the other.

    There were a few small villages and gold mining communities in our area, and people locally knew me for my knack in training dogs, especially the dogs that were “untrainable.” Mushers from many miles around the region brought me their unwanted dogs that were either too large, slow, mean, or just couldn’t be trained. Of course, I didn’t have the heart to turn the dogs away, knowing that their other options were bleak, so I adopted and rescued the dogs and eventually integrated them into my team.

    I remember one dog that I adopted was named “Man-eater”. He stood eye to eye to me while on his hind legs and voiced a rumbling growl that made the hairs on back of my neck stand up. Man-eater was renamed Bandit and soon he became one of the friendliest, harmless, powerful giant malamute-husky mixes I’ve ever had. And he pulled like an ox, too. Then there was Bruiser. He was another large malamute mix that had the softest brown eyes you’d have ever seen. If you looked closely into them you’d see someone starving for attention. And that’s all it took for the big Bruiser, just lots of attention and he quickly transformed from an outright aggressive, 140 lb. brute, into a cuddly fella that loved nothing more than a belly rub.

    However, there’s one dog that I’ll forever hold and adore deep in my heart as the miracle dog. He came to me unexpectedly while I was away on an enduring cold and strenuous dogsled journey in search of caribou for our family larder. When I arrived home with a heavily loaded sled I noticed a small black pup tethered to a tree next to the cabin door. As I approached him he frantically fought the chain’s hold on his collar and attempted to hide behind the small spruce tree that held the chain. He shook like a leaf as I calmly whispered and talked to him. After a few minutes of coaxing, he allowed a soft pet and stroke on his muzzle and soon I was holding and running my fingers over his bony ribs and hips.

    “You’ve had a tough life little fella. Let’s go inside and I’ll cook you a big, juicy, caribou steak,’ I said as I cradled him in my arms and carried him through the doorway where my wife was waiting inside.

    My wife immediately told the story about the small dog. Apparently, a local dog musher had heard that I was adopting unwanted dogs. He had a disastrous gold mining season and couldn’t afford to keep many of his dogs so he mushed 30 miles, enduring high winds, and -50F temperatures to deliver the pup in hopes that I could give him a better life than he could.

    I was thankful for the dog musher’s care and perseverance in risking his own health for the pup’s sake and promised the little guy he would become a member of our family.

    As time passed, the black puppy with deep brown wanting eyes became handsomely broad shouldered with a deep chest, thick bones, and large feet. All held together with a thick layer of dense muscle. But he had one unique marking that stood out prominently. It was a small white tuft of fur on his chest that resembled the marking of a black bear. So I named him Bear. Bear settled comfortably into our home and became a member of our family. His shyness melted away revealing one of the most unique and intelligent dogs that I’ve ever had. It seemed that he knew our daily routine and what we had planned before we planned it. He studied my body language intensely and anticipated every move I made, whether it was chores inside or outside the cabin, hauling water from the river, or loading my rifle to go hunting. He was there to follow me wherever I went, or whatever I did.

    The following winter it was time for Bear to prove himself in the team. When I slipped a harness on him, attached the neck and tug lines, he dug his claws into the hard packed snow, lunged forward, and snapped that tug line so tight that it sang. He was certainly born to pull and eager to go.

    Instinctively, I knew some day he’d become a great leader and guide me and the team across the continental divide and into territories where few dog teams have ever stood. I also knew his bloodline would flow in my dogs for many, many generations to come. He was certainly a godsend.

    Now, Bear lives in our hearts and memories. And every time I see his off spring take command in lead, or sing an ancient tune to the stars, I’m reminded of my dear old friend Bear.

    However, there is something that I neglected to mention about Bear. Aside from being a tough and enduring Arctic lead dog, additionally Bear had the golden opportunity to play a major role in the 1990 Walt Disney movie White Fang. He was the leader of the dog team in the story. So, in a sense he continues to live for all of us to see.
    -Joe G Henderson