December and January are known as the cold, dark months. Periodically, high-pressure systems flow east from Siberia and stall here in Interior Alaska. The barometer readings are stubbornly high. These systems won’t budge without a hearty low-pressure system to shoulder them aside. Therefore, we will experience "cold snaps" that last for 4 or 5 days. These snaps bring extreme cold temperatures: 40, 50 even 60 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
Luckily the Alaskan Husky is a superb cold weather animal. While training and racing in such extreme temperatures they exert a tremendous amount of energy and burn a huge number of calories (up to 12000 each day during a long distance race). When training at these temperatures, our dogs eat 2 large meals and numerous snacks daily. During races we feed them large meals at every checkpoint. On the race trail we frequently give them high fat snacks, such as beaver, poultry fat and turkey skins.
Dogs do not sweat like humans. Therefore, even in very cold temperatures you will see our dogs panting in order to cool their internal furnaces. Their only sweat glands are in their footpads. This is one of the reasons that we protect their feet with booties during races and longer training runs.
A musher can often estimate the temperature by looking at her dog team. As the mercury drops the dogs start to frost up from the moisture they exhale. At 20 below zero F, a layer of frost coats their shoulders and sides. At 30 below, the frost accumulates on their muzzles and chins. When it is bitter cold, 40 or 50 below, a musher must stop and clean icicles from the dogs’ whiskers and eyelashes. When the team stops for a face cleaning or a snack, "ice fog" will envelop them as the moisture from their panting vaporizes and freezes.
"Another day in Paradise", says a bearded Blossom.
Mushers, by contrast, are not superb cold weather animals. Humans also exert tremendous amounts of energy during sled dog races. We muscle the sled along the trail, run up hills, clamor down embankments and hustle around in checkpoints, caring for our dogs and ourselves. Unlike our dogs, we sweat profusely. For this reason, it is critical for us to stay nourished and hydrated throughout the race. Dehydration from perspiration can quickly put an end to a musher’s race. Allen has designed an insulated bottle for our sleds that gives us easy access to water. We also hydrate continuously before each race and at every checkpoint. It is imperative that a musher wears quality clothing that wicks perspiration away from the skin. If perspiration is allowed to remain in contact with the skin immediate frostbite can occur at these extreme temperatures.
A musher can also estimate temperatures by scanning their own body and clothing. At 20 below, a musher might start to feel their clothes tighten. This is because any perspiration that exists in the outer layers has frozen and the ice constricts the fabric. At 30 degrees below zero F, a musher’s breath begins to frost heavily. Neck gaiters freeze. (We have learned to position the gaiters above our noses before they freeze solid!) Men’s mustaches and beards build up impressive icicles, if not covered by a mask or gaiter. When it reaches 40 or 50 degrees below zero F, we must worry about our eyelashes freezing together. One technique to avoid this is to periodically blow air upwards. This warm exhale will get trapped in the sub environment of the hooded ruff and defrost your lashes.
"Can there be Paradise at 30 below?" asks Aliy
"I think so!", replies Allen
Yes, our extreme arctic environment presents us with challenges. It requires us to prepare properly and to stay vigilant. We must always be in tune with our dogs, with ourselves and with our environment, especially during the cold, dark months. Years spent outdoors in Interior Alaska, experiencing December and January first hand, have provided us with a firm understanding of these conditions. We practice and prepare and always strive to improve our extreme weather techniques. Amazingly enough, the dogs are genetically programmed to thrive in these conditions........and they do!