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.

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 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

Traditions Old and New

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 traveling methods and use traditional gear, it’s just these old methods and equipment were naturally created in my traveling strategy because it 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 dogs.

And I never ever rode on the sled. 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 and snowshoe or ski rather than ride on the sled. Which coincidentally is similar to traveling methods a century ago.

That said, I have modified much of the old methods like, the sleds: 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 or weight I haul. Actually there is science/physics behind this that we’ll discuss in later posts. 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 as well.

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 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.