Saturday, August 2, 2008

Yukon River Lodge: Part II

Part II of a 3 part piece. Part I

They have cradled you in custom, they have primed you with their preaching,
They have soaked you in convention through and through;
They have put you in a showcase; you're a credit to their teaching --
But can't you hear the Wild? -- it's calling you.
Let us probe the silent places, let us seek what luck betide us;
Let us journey to a lonely land I know.
There's a whisper on the night-wind, there's a star agleam to guide us,
And the Wild is calling, calling . . . let us go.

From "The Call of the Wild" by Robert Service, 1907

Trumpeter Swans
Five days later, there is a cloud of mosquitoes trumpeting around my head and face. They sound a single, unison note that is almost loud enough to compete with speech. They aren’t landing: unlike your typical Maine mosquito, which laughs at OFF and scoffs at DEET, these bugs seem to respect the spray. But my god! How they swarm. They land on my shoulder and I crush them, wiping away a dozen per swipe, only to see them instantly replaced.

A sharp breath would result in a snack.

If it weren’t for the fact that I don’t want to look like a pansy in front of Sam, I’d be running my butt back to the boat. But even Sam is impressed: “I’ve seen them worse but this is pretty good. Let’s get out of here.” We’re standing on the verge of a meadow, several miles up Twin Slough. Twin Slough is a stream about 18 miles east of the town of Ruby on the Yukon River. The water of the slough is dark with tannins, leached out of a small part of the vast sub-tundra wetlands that make up much of the Yukon River Valley.

Like the mother river, Twin Slough winds its way through graceful ox-bows and switch-backs. As we retreated from the Yukon, the banks had gradually fallen back, the land softening and flattening, the trees fading from spruce and aspen to “Alaskan willow” and alder and even, perhaps, a tamarack or two. We passed a field of high-bush blueberries. The banks were dotted here and there with arctic poppy, lupine, monk’s hood, even some joe-pye weed. After 6 miles or so, the slough ended. It didn’t reduce to a trickle or fade into a network of runs and rills—it simply ended in a small pond in the middle of grassy wetland. “Moosey,” Sam rightly said: it is perfect moose habitat.

And where there are moose, there are bear. Early in spring Sam took a black bear on the bank by a broad curve in the slough. We had eaten some of him last night and it was damn good: flavorful and rich without being gamey. “He was a spring bear, too,” Sam marveled. The bear had been relatively thin and, perhaps, a little unwary or over-hungry from his long hibernation. But the meat had been good, and would hold the Clarks – Sam and Tamara – until fall, when moose season officially opens.

Black bear are not a favored species in Alaska. Everyone is entitled to take three of them. Sam and Tamara are entitled to six between them. Moose, on the other hand, are a different matter. There is both a season and a limit. Taking a cow is prohibited. Often, even in taking a bull the “trophy value,” that is, the antlers, must be destroyed. This is to discourage trophy hunting. Deep in the interior, however, there are few wardens watching. Sam is scrupulous. A conscientious subsistence hunter, he holds his fire on bears with cubs—at least early in the fall. A winter without meat is not a welcome option. But not everyone is so punctilious with their bullets—be the game bear, moose, or anything else.

We have nosed the boat into the bank of the slough and followed a game trail through a narrow break of trees and under-story to put eyes on a meadow, betrayed from the slough by open sky where dark forest should have been. Meadows, ponds and potholes off the slough like this are fine places to find game—to see or to hunt—and Sam wanted to check it out. No big animals in the meadow today, but plenty of mosquitoes. We head back to the boat.

It is getting late for dinner, though it is as light as mid-afternoon. The sky is grey, undecided. Perhaps it will rain, perhaps not. Interior Alaska gets little rain, though the ground is as wet as a sponge—12 to 15 inches per year. Though it has been spitting at us all day, it won’t amount to much in the end. Sam puts the boat “on step,” that is, on plane: gathering enough speed so that the shallow “v” of the hull no longer plows through the water but skims across the surface like a perpetually skipped stone.

We wind our way down the slough toward the Yukon, the Kokrine Hills playing hide-and-seek behind the trees. The banks of Twin Slough gradually rise from low berms to abrupt cuts and the flora show more spruce. Their needle-like profiles don’t “cone” like a dunce-cap, but shoot straight up like narrow silos. On one bank, a tree leans at a crazy angle over the slough, its roots grasping desperately, patiently, at the silty soil of riverbank. Its equilateral reflection is a perfect copy on the glassy surface of the slough until we race by, headed to the cabin for a late dinner.

We have seen two pairs of moose, both a cow with a calf. Two, maybe three red-tailed hawks. Three trumpeter swans, the pair with 5 cygnets in tow. Two pacific loons, a family of Shoveller ducks (Micione for the Cajuns in the audience), and a tree-full of what I think are probably white-wing crossbills that burst into the air as we and the hawk that was pacing us passed their roost. The crossbills are having quite a summer: A bumper crop of cones in the spruce hangs like bunches of grapes all along the river.

An owl swooped, ghost-like across our path, too quick for eyes to pick its traits and pin its ethereal glide to earth by naming it.

The shoveller ducks swam away as we slid up to them on the way in. First casually, then with increasing urgency until suddenly the ducklings dove to the bottom and the adults took off in front of us. Behind, hiding beneath the surface, the babies clung by their bills to the roots of grasses or stray sticks. Ahead, the adults led us warily on, landing from time to time then flying, drawing us away from their offspring.

At the mouth of the slough, where it joins the Yukon behind an island, a narrow channel communicates with the main river. Accordingly, Sam slowed the four-stroke Honda and made his course deliberately. As we idled through the turns and made our way into the river, the strong tea color of the slough mixed into the coffee-with-cream glacial till of the Yukon in a gradually vanishing rivulet.
(continued below)
Kokrines, mouth of Twin Slough

Kokrines from the Yukon. These hills are in the neighborhood of 5000 feet.

Motoring out of Deep Creek

Juvenile female, Deep Creek; raining.

Kokrines from Twin Slough.

Trumpeter swans, Twin Slough
We approach the creek and the bluff that braces Yukon River Lodge against the river from up-stream, and Jackson stands on the precipice, waiting for his master. Old Jackson is retired — a stout-hearted sled dog, an Alaskan husky, Jackson is the apotheosis of the breed: No pure-breeding nonsense here, no papers, no evaluation of carriage or brow-line. Alaskan huskies are selected for a simple, singular trait: their need and capacity to pull. Fastened in the traces of the sled, Sam and Tamara’s dogs turn themselves inside-out with eagerness. There can be no mistaking it: I challenge any human heart to witness a sled-dog as she waits to be let on the trail and deny the joy you see. Fulfillment at that pitch will forever be denied human kind.

Sam, though he might not wish me to say it, has deep tenderness for Jackson. Jackson hurt his back in the traces of the sled a winter or so ago, pulling at the head of the team. Pride and want made him beg for the harness again, but it was beyond him. There is a small peal of guilt that rings softly in Sam's voice when he talks of Jackson—you can see he feels fault. “That dog has done enough work,” he says. “That dog has done more for me than you could ever ask.”

Jackson, for his part, has as his birthright a dog’s sublime forgiveness for his master. And Tamara and Sam stand by their workers—neurotic Dillon, barking at every new face; Red Dog, policing the dog run; Daisy, shedding now and sitting in a divan of fur—as any devoted leader would look after his men. They have nearly 30 dogs in their charge, including one or two who, like Jackson, are more pets than employees.

Dogs are no longer necessary for Alaskan winter travel. Snow machines are faster, and they eat less. But many people, both native and setters from outside, keep and mush sled dogs. Every summer, the Tanana Chiefs Council (with a little help from Bob Barker!) sends around a team of veterinary students to administer rabies vaccine to the dogs of the Yukon. They pay a visit while I’m there, complimenting Tamara on the cleanliness of the dog-yard and the health of the dogs. The truth is that dogs have been mere workers in Alaska for generations. Competitive mushers and wilderness guides have a strong interest in the health of their animals, but as snow machines have supplanted dogs as a means of transportation, poverty and neglect have made it hard on many animals.

The dog run.
Larry on poop patrol. Keeping the dog run neat is a shared daily task.


Sled Dog Action Coalition said...

Sled dogs in Alaska have terrible lives, especially those that run in the Iditarod. For the facts, visit the Sled Dog Action Coalition website,

Here's a short list of what happens to the dogs during the race: death, paralysis, frostbite of the penis and scrotum, bleeding ulcers, bloody diarrhea, lung damage, pneumonia, ruptured discs, viral diseases, broken bones, torn muscles and tendons, vomiting, hypothermia, sprains, fur loss, broken teeth, torn footpads and anemia.

At least 136 dogs have died in the Iditarod. There is no official count of dog deaths available for the race's early years. In "WinterDance: the Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod," a nonfiction book, Gary Paulsen describes witnessing an Iditarod musher brutally kicking a dog to death during the race. He wrote, "All the time he was kicking the dog. Not with the imprecision of anger, the kicks, not kicks to match his rage but aimed, clinical vicious kicks. Kicks meant to hurt deeply, to cause serious injury. Kicks meant to kill."

Causes of death have also included strangulation in towlines, internal hemorrhaging after being gouged by a sled, liver injury, heart failure, and pneumonia. "Sudden death" and "external myopathy," a fatal condition in which a dog's muscles and organs deteriorate during extreme or prolonged exercise, have also occurred. The 1976 Iditarod winner, Jerry Riley, was accused of striking his dog with a snow hook (a large, sharp and heavy metal claw). In 1996, one of Rick Swenson's dogs died while he mushed his team through waist-deep water and ice. The Iditarod Trail Committee banned both mushers from the race but later reinstated them. In many states these incidents would be considered animal cruelty. Swenson is now on the Iditarod Board of Directors.

In the 2001 Iditarod, a sick dog was sent to a prison to be cared for by inmates and received no veterinary care. He was chained up in the cold and died. Another dog died by suffocating on his own vomit.

No one knows how many dogs die in training or after the race each year.

On average, 53 percent of the dogs who start the race do not make it across the finish line. According to a report published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, of those who do cross, 81 percent have lung damage. A report published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine said that 61 percent of the dogs who finish the Iditarod have ulcers versus zero percent pre-race.

Tom Classen, retired Air Force colonel and Alaskan resident for over 40 years, tells us that the dogs are beaten into submission:

"They've had the hell beaten out of them." "You don't just whisper into their ears, ‘OK, stand there until I tell you to run like the devil.' They understand one thing: a beating. These dogs are beaten into submission the same way elephants are trained for a circus. The mushers will deny it. And you know what? They are all lying." -USA Today, March 3, 2000 in Jon Saraceno's column

Beatings and whippings are common. Jim Welch says in his book Speed Mushing Manual, "I heard one highly respected [sled dog] driver once state that "‘Alaskans like the kind of dog they can beat on.'" "Nagging a dog team is cruel and ineffective...A training device such as a whip is not cruel at all but is effective." "It is a common training device in use among dog mushers...A whip is a very humane training tool."

During the 2007 Iditarod, eyewitnesses reported that musher Ramy Brooks kicked, punched and beat his dogs with a ski pole and a chain. Brooks admitted to hitting his dogs with a wooden trail marker when they refused to run. The Iditarod Trail Committee suspended Brooks for two years, but only for the actions he admitted. By ignoring eyewitness accounts, the Iditarod encouraged animal abuse. When mushers know that eyewitness accounts will be disregarded, they are more likely to hurt their dogs and lie about it later.

Mushers believe in "culling" or killing unwanted dogs, including puppies. Many dogs who are permanently disabled in the Iditarod, or who are unwanted for any reason, are killed with a shot to the head, dragged or clubbed to death. "On-going cruelty is the law of many dog lots. Dogs are clubbed with baseball bats and if they don't pull are dragged to death in harnesses....." wrote Alaskan Mike Cranford in an article for Alaska's Bush Blade Newspaper (March, 2000).

Jon Saraceno wrote in his March 3, 2000 column in USA Today, "He [Colonel Tom Classen] confirmed dog beatings and far worse. Like starving dogs to maintain their most advantageous racing weight. Skinning them to make mittens. Or dragging them to their death."

The Iditarod, with its history of abuse, could not be legally held in many states, because doing so would violate animal cruelty laws.

Iditarod administrators promote the race as a commemoration of sled dogs saving the children of Nome by bringing diphtheria serum from Anchorage in 1925. However, the co-founder of the Iditarod, Dorothy Page, said the race was not established to honor the sled drivers and dogs who carried the serum. In fact, 600 miles of this serum delivery was done by train and the other half was done by dogs running in relays, with no dog running over 100 miles. This isn't anything like the Iditarod.

The race has led to the proliferation of horrific dog kennels in which the dogs are treated very cruelly. Many kennels have over 100 dogs and some have as many as 200. It is standard for the dogs to spend their entire lives outside tethered to metal chains that can be as short as four feet long. In 1997 the United States Department of Agriculture determined that the tethering of dogs was inhumane and not in the animals' best interests. The chaining of dogs as a primary means of enclosure is prohibited in all cases where federal law applies. A dog who is permanently tethered is forced to urinate and defecate where he sleeps, which conflicts with his natural instinct to eliminate away from his living area.

Iditarod dogs are prisoners of abuse.

Margery Glickman
Sled Dog Action Coalition,

Jim said...


If nothing else, your promptitude and thoroughness are commendable. Of my readers, I think you might be the latest, at #6.

Since there is nothing offensive in your post, I'll leave it. But I'd like my other 5 readers to know that none of what you describe is experienced by the dogs owned by Sam and Tamara.

Everything I've seen bears out my claims in the paragraph describing the dogs' eagerness to run. I won't deny, however, that all mushers are not created equally.

Pop Argot said...

Wow, do people scan the blogsphere daily for keywords? God help me if I'm ever that devoted to anything.

Eileen said...

I actually signed up for a Gmail account just so I could reply to Marjorie's rant. I live in Ruby, my partner is Native as are our kids. Reliance on subsistence and Alaska traditional outdoor life are still part of our life. As a 15year former vegetarian and community activist, I can understand your pent up howl of protest. Wrong blog to rant on. I followed links about Kokrines and found Jim's about folks who are my hardworking and sweet neighbors.Race dogs vs Sled dogs- and each individual musher-all horses of another color in this big wide world of ours. I suggest you post on forums etc for real action and exchange of ideas. This was a beautiful blog before.I plan to show my kids about our homestead neighbors whom we had the privelege to visit once when floating down a raft of logs.Carry on Jim.