Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Alaska is Still the Wilderness

We take for granted the luxuries of civilization here at SP Kennel. We simply expect the running water and electricity when we awake each morning. Powerful lights brighten the dog yard at any hour. We have a heated garage and workshop for gear preparation and sled repair. The conveniences of town are really not too far away in a warm dog truck. Sometimes, it seems our life here is not so different from Suburbia, USA.

Then something happens that brings us back to reality and we realize … our corner of Alaska is still the wilderness!!

For the past few weeks SP Kennel has been the target of a wolf hunt. A wolf hunt, not as in: "we are hunting for wolves", but as in: "we are being hunted by wolves". Our dogs have become prey for the largest canine predator in North America.

Wolves are not uncommon in the Arctic. We see them several times a year on training runs and adventure trips, far from civilization. Wolves are known to be shy but clever hunters. In general wolves avoid human interaction. Why deal with the threat of man when they can go about their business in isolation, preying on moose, caribou and the occasional sheep?

Aliy and Allen have great respect for the wolves of the arctic. I (Aliy) spent a few years working as a Biology Technician for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the early 1990’s. I surveyed migration patterns and population trends of moose, caribou and wolves. Wolves appeared to be the noblest animal of them all. They chose to remain secretive and totally removed from human interaction, the epitome of independence. The wolves stayed aloof and in a world of their own.

Aliy tags a sedated wolf during her days as a US Fish and Wildlife employee.

But the wolf pack stalking SP Kennel is an anomaly. The wolves are not shy. The smell, sight or sound of humans does not threaten them. They have become acclimated to humans and their world. This creates huge problems for both the wolves and the kennel. Despite the fact that natural food sources are abundant in the area, the wolves are becoming accustomed to ‘civilized’ food sources. The kennel’s biggest problem, of course, is that our dogs are not happy to be the wolves’ prey. We are not happy either.

The wolf pack has been coming near the kennel at around 3 AM. A lone black wolf walks down the driveway and up to our house while the others wait near the field. The wolf comes as close as 20 feet from the garage door. It is stalking the closest dogs, at their houses on either side of that garage door, "Stella", "Girlfriend" and "Tyson".

Tyson's hiding place, behind the big birch.

Our dogs smell the wolves as they approach SP Kennel from a distance. The dogs start barking - a panicked, fearful bark - which, fortunately, awakens Aliy and Allen. However, in the short time that it takes for us to run downstairs and flick on the lights, the wolf is standing only 5 feet from its prey. When the lights come on the wolf slowly slinks down the driveway, turning to watch us watching him.

On several nights Aliy and Allen followed the wolf. We saw the rest of the pack at the end of the drive, waiting. Sensing a threat, the other wolves trotted off down the well-used dog mushing trail. Every 50 feet or so they stopped and looked back.

Allen even got a shot off at the wolves one night as they left the driveway. The wolves scattered and ran off through the brush. In only a minute they stopped and began to howl…separately. They called to each other. As this continued, the individual howls became one choir. It was obvious that the pack had regrouped.

Wolves are awesome creatures. They are magnificent canines with stealth and courage. But, they are more than a nuisance right now. SP Kennel has been lucky because we have lights in the dog yard, and Allen and Aliy are light sleepers. In the past month this pack of wolves has killed and eaten several pet dogs in the neighborhood.

One good thing about these "city wolves" is that they seem to take the easy route to their prey. They have approached SP Kennel only using the driveway and the trails. Since this is their pattern, Allen has rigged the driveway with an array of motion detectors. Some set off alarms. Others set off lights.

The alarms have not been activated for several nights. Neither have the lights. There have been no reports of wolf activity nearby for a few days. All of this is good for us and good for the wolves. But it doesn’t mean that this wolf pack has gone. And if they have, it doesn’t mean that they won’t return. The dog yard may be a bit more relaxed now, but that doesn’t mean that we can ignore the daily potential dangers that exist here at our little civilized oasis. Our corner of Alaska is definitely still the wilderness!!

For more info on the Two Rivers wolf stories link to:

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Alaska in December

People often ask, ‘What is Alaska really like in the thick of winter?’

SP Kennel is located in the heart of this great state – right in the center! We are 350 miles from an ocean to the south, 450 miles from an ocean to the north and nestled between two mountain ranges. On a clear day, we can see the huge mountain peaks to the south: Denali is the centerpiece. The "Interior" of Alaska is made up of endless rolling hills, wild valleys with little civilization and small pockets of humanity. So, why are so few people in this vast and limitless country?

It is the winter weather that keeps the human population to a minimum. The hearty souls who choose to reside in this winter wonderland make their homes here despite some chilly obstacles. It is the very existence of these cold weather complications that define our winter lifestyle and create our daily winter routines.


How cold does it get in December? We expect 40°F or 50°F below zero several times each year. (On Thanksgiving Day 2006, it was 46°F below.) On a day to day basis, however, the mercury sits at about 20°F below zero. That first cold snap of the winter is often rough on the fingers and toes. A stiff breeze at 20°F below is a sharp reminder to thoroughly cover up. Frost nip can easily result when skin is accidentally exposed. And once you "nip" an area it will always be sensitive.

We at SP Kennel must bundle up for even the quickest outdoor chores. When we spend a full day outside training a dog team, we bundle up even more. We all have different layering methods to ward off the cold and they change as the mercury rises and falls. Suffice it to say, the layers involve wicking undergarments, fleece mid weight garments, arctic outerwear and chemical heat warmers. During the coldest of cold days, you will find us scurrying around the dog yard with speed and efficiency, totally unrecognizable under the layers.

Aliy bundles up for December chores.

We do not train the dogs in the extreme cold. Our temperature cut off varies depending on wind, precipitation and other factors, but it is usually about 30°F below zero. We feed the dogs twice the regular amount during a cold snap. The typical Alaskan husky burns those extra calories to stay warm. We also have kennels in the basement for some of the shorter coated dogs or dogs with a high metabolism. We have had over 20 dogs in our 500 ft² basement.

As the month continues, we all (humans and dogs) get acclimated to the cold. The funny thing is, when a Chinook storm brings in warm breezes from the South, it seems like t-shirt weather at 10°F above. But, when this happens, you smile because you are confident that you are now weathered and really ready for winter.


How dark does it get in December? During daylight hours, the sun is never far above the horizon. It seems to hover just above the mountains to our south. The views are spectacular for any avid "sunrise" or "sunset" photographer and gorgeous snapshots are commonplace. But, the delineation between sunrise and sunset is a bit blurred at times.

Interior Alaska - Sunrise or Sunset in December

Today, December 6, 2007, the sunrise was at 10:31 AM and the sunset was at 2:48 PM - 4 hours and 17 minutes of daytime. We have 15 days until December 22, the Winter Solstice and the shortest day of the year. On December 23, the length of daylight hours begins to increase.

The lack of sun does not always mean total darkness! For a couple hours before sunrise and after sunset, the sky is often a silver glow, since the sun is not very far below the horizon. But regardless of the light, most December days are spent outside. Photos typically show dog mushers walking around with a headlight affixed to their brows. Many people do use headlights while mushing or doing chores around the kennel. But, we try to avoid dependence on them. A headlight creates "tunnel" vision and limits the focus of our attention to the small, lighted area. Although this apparatus is a constant companion in the winter, it is not the only solution. Our eyes and brains get accustomed to seeing in dim light and exceptional "night" vision develops. This is similar to the temperature acclimation: our eyes and brains just adapt to the darkness.

Allen models his headlight, a critical winter tool.

Training runs in darkness are the norm. When the winter sky is clear and the stars are bright there is enough light to drive a dog team down a wintry trail and still be able to recognize all of the team members. Trails, through the rolling hills and wild valleys and past the occasional lighted cabin, provide an serene experience. Neither darkness nor cold diminishes that feeling.

Sometimes our trail is lighted by the Northern Lights, pulsing overhead in shades of green, red and purple, creating a spectacular vision characteristic of Interior Alaska. These are the times we realize how fortunate we are. We may be bundled against the 20°F below temperatures, but we are surely living in God’s Country.