Bright and early on the morning of May 1st, Sarah and I loaded up most of the ATAO team: Rey, Rebel, Rogue, Sundance, Cassidy, Furiosa, Egret, Aurora, Belle, Nala, and Sarah’s Mad Max, and Misty. We had a long trip ahead of us: about 18 hours all told to get to Skagway, Alaska, where the dogs would be flown in helicopters up to the Denver Glacier to be tour dogs for the summer.
Little did we know the adventures we had ahead of us.
Our first stop was to a neighboring kennel down the road, where we picked up a rickety dog trailer and 13 more dogs from that kennel. Loading up went fine, though Sarah and I both felt a bit dubious about the dog trailer. It looked a bit worn down. The owner/musher had replaced a few pieces, but the trailer looked like it could use a good workover. Regardless, we took the trailer and her dogs to Home Depot, where we met the final musher, who gave us 5 of her dogs. The goal was to have 30 dogs on the way to Skagway. But when we tried to load the 5 dogs, we were stumped. We didn’t have 13 of the first musher’s dogs… we had 14! She had accidentally miscounted and sent an extra dog with us. We called the musher up and she rushed to the store to meet us and grab the extra dog. I took the downtime to go get a small tool set, because already we had to fix one of the doors on the trailer.
With the dog numbers all lined out, we got on the road. We were making good time, but my dogs, who had been loaded first, had been in the box for a few hours already with all the stops, and I wanted to give everyone a break earlier rather than later. I stopped before we got to Delta Junction and we let all the dogs down. Right away we saw we had to fix another door. This would become a theme along the way! It got to the point, after one door came completely off, where we decided we better have another safety measure in place. When we got to Tok, we found a hardware store and bought a few ratchet straps. Sarah figured out a smart way to wrap the straps around the trailer so that the dogs couldn’t get out even if a door came loose. This obviously added to the time it took to drop dogs. With all 30 dogs and the goofy configuration, it took us about 45 minutes at our fastest to drop, water, and scoop the dogs.
I was super proud of the ATAO team. They were acting like pros in the box. Unlike our first big truck adventure, to the Copper Basin, these guys were used to getting in and out of the boxes, and even were eager to get back into their little cubbies. Next winter I’m hoping to do a lot of truck training with these guys so that they feel totally comfortable with it.
We moved from gas station to gas station. Todd the Truck had started having some troubles– nothing huge but somewhat concerning for an old truck. Most likely the issue stemmed from towing the trailer. It was drivable but stressing to me. Meanwhile, Todd was getting a solid 7 miles per gallon. So I dumped about $100 + at each gas station we stopped at. I realized the trip down was going to ultimately cost more than the lease fee I’d get for the dogs (which is not why I send them, but one would hope it would cover fuel to get them there!).
With all these wrenches, I was– I will admit– pretty crabby and stressed for the first part of the trip. As we neared the border, I realized I needed to change my attitude. Just like in a dog race, my frustration with the circumstances would only serve to make the dogs, myself, and Sarah more anxious and uncomfortable (though Sarah seems immune to crabbiness, so…). I worked on thinking over what I was grateful for and focused on completing each step of the still very long journey ahead. Gradually my attitude adjusted and soon Sarah and I were chatting companionably.
We met up with the musher who would be taking care of the dogs on the glacier, Kristen Flowers. Kristen is perpetually cheerful, and it was nice to see her at a few of the stops. We tended to leap frog back and forth since Kristen’s truck could go a bit faster than us, but she also was taking bigger breaks along the way.
When we got to Whitehorse around 10:30 pm, Kristen called us and asked if we knew that the border would be closing at midnight. I had suspected this, but wasn’t 100% sure. Google maps said we had a 2 hr drive to get to the border. Kristen had to make a stop along the way– there was no way she’d make the crossing. We agreed that if neither of our rigs crossed, we’d camp together– but we also told Kristen we’d try our best to cross, and would see her on the other side if we didn’t meet up beforehand.
Sarah and I looked at each other and zoomed down the road. I drove fast but carefully– we had precious cargo of course. Unfortunately, we were 2 minutes late. The gate closed more or less just as we pulled up to the Canadian exit. I pulled into the wide gravel parking lot and we set up “camp.” Our camp wasn’t exactly what we had originally envisioned– Sarah had brought all kinds of camp fixings, like cookware, s’more supplies, and stuff to make grilled cheese. Instead, here we were in a dirty gravel lot surrounded by heavy equipment. We let the dogs out of their boxes and fed them all dinner. It took about an hour to get everyone fed, scooped, and cuddled. We finished up some odds and ends chores– I wrote my name on all my harnesses, we checked that everyone had their names on their collars. We checked to make sure none of the girls were in heat. Sometime during our chores, Kristen pulled up next to us and began her own camp routine. It was kind of like a race but not really as… picturesque.
Finally the dogs were all tucked away, the needed prep was finished, and we could go to bed. Sarah stretched out in the front seats of the truck and I took the back. It was pretty cozy, all told! I was grateful for Todd. We set an alarm for 5 hours from then, knowing we’d have a lot to do to get across the border in time to get to the tour company at 8 am.
One thing that was confusing was that we were switching back and forth between time zones. The Yukon hangs out in Pacific Time, and most of Alaska (including Skagway) is in “Alaska” time. So first we had to switch our watches to Pacific then back to Alaska. By the time we got to our border crossing campground, I set my watch back to AK time even though we were technically still in Canada, because we were basing our timeframe off of when the US Customs would be opening, at 7 am the next day Alaska time. So, we got up at 5am Alaska time and got to our chores. We were able to complete all of our chores with some time to spare, so Sarah started whipping up some coffee– but before she could finish, the gates opened! We gathered all the things and rushed to drive through.
If you’ve ever driven through a border up here, you’ll know there is a weird no-man’s land between the two checkpoints. We’d camped at Canadian customs but since we were leaving Canada and heading back into the US to get to Skagway, we didn’t have to check through there. Instead we drove about another 10-15 miles to the US Customs post. The customs agent there had already seen lots of dog trucks, so he let us through without much comment, other than to say the truck smelled like brakes, BAD. And he was right. Something was up. It was like the truck had the parking brake engaged– which it definitely didn’t. We were traveling steep hills, but I try to go easy on the brakes, just going slow and easing up on gas when we head downhill. So, that was concerning, but we had a date with destiny! Only a few more miles to Skagway and the helicopter terminal where the dogs would head to the ice!
We got to the dock / landing platforms and could see, with the bad weather, that the helicopters probably couldn’t get up to the glacier at the moment. This was confirmed. We had dropped dogs not long ago, so with orders to stand by, Sarah, Kristen and I headed to my favorite breakfast place ever, the Sweet Tooth Cafe. I got the breakfast I had gotten every weekend when I worked on the glacier– a ham and onion omelette with American cheese. MWAH! Perfection.
We headed back to the truck and dropped the dogs, letting them pee, and play, and gulp down some water. Since we had plenty of time, we spent a lot of time cuddling with all the buddies. Knowing they could be heading up at any moment, I gave each of my ATAO pals some close one-on-one time and a hug. I was getting weirdly choked up. It was very bizarre to imagine being parted from these friends for such a long time. Since they’d come to ATAO as pups, I’d never been away from them for more than a couple weeks at most. Four months was sounding daunting, suddenly.
At last the weather cleared and we began the hectic process of loading ten dogs at a time onto a specially fitted helicopter. The dogs were nervous about the weird and loud “bird” but VERY excited to be getting into a new box. Boxes are exciting! When my crew went up, Nala, Rebel, and Cassidy had to go on the next round, and they were seriously offended they didn’t get to go right away. WE WANT TO GO! They were barking.
Watching the helicopters precariously take off with my friends, a thousand worried thoughts were surging through my brain. What if, what if, what if…? I tamped down the panic and choked back the weird feeling in my throat.
There was still one more musher to help out loading dogs. Sarah and I were possibly going to get to fly up to the glacier for a quick look. I was hoping to see how my team was arranged and make sure, at least visually, they were settled. However, the plot thickened considerably when I inexplicably slammed my wrist onto a high, extruding piece of fence, and neatly skewered myself. I looked at my arm and saw the bright white of a tendon. “Oops.” I turned to the nearest AIE official and said… “I need first aid, I think…” But with the helicopter noise, he didn’t hear me. So I turned to the next guy and said the same thing. He turned to me questioningly and I proudly showed off my tendon, which I discovered you could see moving up and down when I flexed my wrist.
“Oh my god!” he said. The tour folks rushed me to a clinic (as I showed off my innards to anyone who would look), where I received excellent medical care and a good stitch, as well as a tetanus shot and a big shot of antibiotics in the butt. Nice. Obviously I did not get to fly up to the ice, but Sarah did, and I think had a cool experience.
At this point, my hands were both kind of messed up. I had ripped a callous off on my right hand a few days earlier and it was raw and sore. Now my left hand and wrist was equally disaster-fied. Well, perhaps more so. Regardless, I couldn’t really reach into my pockets. Or grab and hold much of anything. I was somewhat useless. Sarah and I had been invited to stay at the tour company staff dorm-style housing, which was awesome because it involved beds and showers. However, all the bottom bunks were spoken for and so I got a top bunk. I perfected the art of climbing the bunk with my right hand fingers and my left elbow. I determined that an elbow is a good hand in a pinch.
While I was getting stitches, Sarah had taken care of some final chores, specifically dropping the trailer off at the tour headquarters where it would stay for the summer. I was glad to not have to tow it back– if nothing else because it seemed to be stressing my truck. Sarah reported, though, that the truck was acting even more funny. I drove it myself and discovered that the power steering was basically gone. That was not good. The power steering had been totally done over last fall. Why was it so messed up again? So there was a brake problem, maybe, a transmission problem, and now this? I threw my aching hands up and we decided to get dinner. I’d deal with the truck in the morning.
We each took a shower, which was a revolution in itself. I was so sweaty and stinky and dirt-covered, a shower actually sounded nice. I had to hold my stitched arm up out of the water, but was able to clean up with one hand. Then we got dinner and attempted to go out and have some drinks, but we were both so tired we were not very exciting, on whole. We headed back to housing and crashed, hard. I wanted to get up at 8 am to deal with the truck– when 8 came along I felt like I could have slept another 10 hours, but I knew I needed to get after things. We walked to the Sweet Tooth Cafe (no use in problem solving empty-stomached) and then found the hardware store and in the hardware store, power steering fluid. I had gone through the manual at some point, figured out how to check the power steering fluid, and determined it was either low or out. I was crossing my fingers a little liquid assistance would get Todd and I back home.
In fact, once I properly filled the power steering fluid reservoir, Todd shaped right up. The brake smell and issue seemed to be gone. The transmission light was still blinking at me, and Todd was shifting erratically, but he was drivable and that was all I needed. Sarah figured out her ferry ticket to Juneau– she had other adventures to get to– and I packed my stuff and at noon hit the road.
My left arm was spectacularly painful and swollen now, but luckily with power steering fluid, I could drive easily enough. I got a coffee, dropped off a last few needed items, and headed north.
The drive back home was mercifully unremarkable. I listened to podcasts and audiobooks, enjoyed the scenery, and made great time. I got all the way to Tok that night, and stayed at a campground there, stretched out again in the back seat of Todd. It was strange not having any dogs. I kept thinking I saw some sitting in the cab or the back seat as I drove, and I found myself missing Hooch. It would be good to see her and the other home-bound dogs again… and most of all to get back to Ophelia, who is super pregnant and could pop any day. If not for that, I may have stayed in Skagway longer, since I could work from cafe’s, and Skagway is beautiful.
On Saturday, I pulled up to Padee’s house where I met Padee, Shawn, Jesse, and R2. We stood in the spring sun, watched R2 play with a tennis ball, and chatted about our weekends. Shawn would endure me telling this story on repeat to anyone who would listen.
Once I got home, Ophelia went wild barking with demands and joy (which was nice). I snuggled her hard, and that night, dreamed of mushing all my ATAO friends who were at summer camp. It was truly a bizarre journey getting them there, but it sounds like they are already having a great time and doing well. Now we’re getting ready for puppies, and preparing all the things we’ll need to make the ATAO crew’s return the best it can be.