Blog Four - Big Lake
1 May 2019
|Blog Four – Big Lake
Sunday 28 April 2019
Back down to brekkie and exactly the same order as yesterday. We soon had the Jeep loaded and we were off – to Fred Meyer! This time not just for Thera Tears, but yes we cleaned this one out as well. With our supplies for the next few days and our SIM card from AT&T we headed to Starbucks in the store to try and work out the SIM card. This hit a snag straight away. We didn’t have a little hole pokey think to eject the current SIM card and the 80 plus year lady behind the counter was as good as the proverbial and I may as well have been asking for the nuclear codes. However Fred came up trumps (not the Donald kind) in the form of their in store Jewellery section. They had a little watch repair tool that did the trick and we were on way to having phone service, although not totally. We had a few issues and ended up ringing the (not so helpful) support line but seemed to muddle through ourselves and not too long after had our new Styrofoam esky and cold food stuffs and other groceries in the car and we were off up north to Alaska, although technically we were already there!
We were ahead of time for check in so we stopped in at Wasilla, which is a medium town, and you guessed it, with a Fred Meyer! Yep we cleaned them out as well. We now have 15 packs and Shania is using another one. We also grabbed a spot of lunch from there as well as they have great wraps, rolls and the like. We have also been hunting the Milepost travel guide which is like the Alaska Tourist Bible with heaps of info and tips for the state and even into BC and the Yukon.
Fred didn’t have one so we tried the local Walmart and they were sold out (but Shania did manage to purchase some clothing in the short time we were there) so we tried another supermarket called Carrs but no luck there either. It was a bit disappointing that we didn’t see any bum cracks or weirdly dressed locals at Walmart that you so often see posted on social media. So we headed back out onto the Parks Highway and arrived a little before 4:00pm at Happy Trails B&B and sled dog kennel. It is a house which has four ensuite bedrooms and a large living area downstairs. Fortunately as it is late in the season we have the place to ourselves and unloaded the car and spread ourselves over the downstairs area like we owned it! It’s in the middle of nowhere but is considered to be in the Big Lake area. It’s surrounded by poplars and has a great deck at the back. In fact the weather was so good that it was actually hot inside, a combination of internal heating (we think) and the sun belting in through the full glass rear of the living area. It was so warm (12 degrees and sunny) we sat outside on the deck and had a couple of vodkas we purchased from duty free at Vancouver Airport. Nice.
A meal of pork stir fry courtesy of Fred was had and a great meal it was too! We chilled for the rest of the evening and caught some TV before calling it a night after another full day on the road.
Monday 29 April 2019
We set the alarm early to ensure we were organised for the long awaited day where we get to mush! So we had brekkie and organised ourselves and left about 8:30 or so headed back out to the 3 north and up to the township and area of Willow. The drive was an easy one and also had the bonus of a coffee stop for a couple of PSLs (pumpkin spiced lattes) at the Raven Lunatic roadside shack. And very good they were too! Even with the stop we navigated our way to the Anchorage Mushing School HQ where we were met by Michael and Casey a tad early and also included Shania spotting a light coloured wolf just outside a thicket of poplars, but it soon headed back in.
Michael and Casey were both great and showed a real interest in showing a couple of Aussies all about the dogs and mushing and we started by being shown around the kennel and introduced to the dogs. To say that they are enthusiastic is an understatement but we are in mixed minds about how they are kennelled and live. It’s hard to comment as they are definitely healthy and we have no doubt that they get the best of care, still it’s not to our liking. Seeing Michael and Casey with the dogs does make it easier to be at peace with their circumstances. We were also allowed to play with the 10 pups (single litter) who were eight weeks old and full of energy, fun and mischief, of which we were warned. So cute and you could feel the strength in them even at that early age.
As the truck was being loaded and the dogs were being selected to go on the run the dogs went crazy - all wanting to be chosen. The noise was deafening with squealing and barking from about 30 dogs. Eventually about 15 of them were loaded along with two sleds as there was another couple also along for the mush. We then all drove our vehicles up to Hatcher Pass with the mushing truck in the lead and us at the end. The road soon went from bitumen to dirt but we had the trusty Jeep and it didn’t falter.
It was about a 40 minute drive to our destination with the road continually ascending and snow becoming more and more prominent the further and higher we went. We had been following the snow depth of the pass on the Alaskan weather website for about four months and the end of April can be too thin for mushing, but a big dump of snow about four weeks ago and continual snowfall since, meant that we were good to go.
We really didn’t know how the mushing was going to work and were happy when it was explained. The sleds are designed for three with a seated person at the front, the driver (Casey was ours) who stands behind the person sitting and then another person standing behind the driver. Shania was a bit worried about the cold so she chose to rug up in some wonderful blue attire that really bought out the colour in her eyes! And so with us both kitted up including gloves/mittens, beanies, scarves etc we arranged ourselves with Shania at the front and Billy Bob at the back with the “anchor” firmly in place as the dogs were harnessed and attached to the rope and screaming with enthusiasm and jumping on the harness ready to go.
After a final check with us Casey pulled up the anchor and we were off. It was different to what we expected and the ride wasn’t at all smooth and we went over little dips and bumps on the track and swayed left and right. There was a lot more movement up and down and left and right than we expected. Another thing we didn’t expect was to discover that the dogs can crap on the run. It’s a funny sight and another reason why it’s always best to be lead dog!
We stopped three times along the way – pretty much every mile. It was more for our benefit so we could get off and take a few photos and stretch the legs. During this time the dogs then dropped straight down to the snow to cool off and also to eat the snow, which they seem to be able to eat for moisture, whereas it does the opposite for humans. However this doesn’t last long and within a few minutes they’re up and starting to bark and pull at the rope to start moving again – they seem indefatigable. At the halfway point at mile three we hoped off and the drivers took the dogs on their own to do a loop so that we could then return on the same route back which was the same with another two stops before the stop to finish the mush.
It was a great experience and one we had been trying to do for a while. The weather was good with a bit of sun but mostly cloudy and about zero degrees Celcius, with little or no wind and we were surrounded by snow on the ground and the snow-capped mountains all around us. We also had a couple of snow mobiles come past us and while they would be great to ride, we were both really happy that we were mushing instead of the machines. And while it’s very noisy before we are moving, as soon as dogs start running it’s instantly quiet and they settle into their rhythm.
But like anything it comes to end and we finished by having a chat to both drivers and also our other mushers who were from Little Rock Arkansas and had spent a year in Oz 15 years ago, so were familiar with the Aussie quirks and speech. We said our goodbyes and thanks and Shania shrank 10 sizes by removing the stunning blue outfit she was wearing and hoped back in the Jeep and made our way at a very leisurely 20 miles per hour down the mountain, stopping along the way a few times for photos and a quick pit stop for a small lunch and then drive the 40 minutes back to our base in Big Lake.
As we arrived the dogs were being fed by none other than the owner, Martin Buser, four time Iditarod winner! A former Swiss native he now proudly calls Alaska home with his Happy Trail Kennel and bed and breakfast and he still competes in dog sled races. He’s an interesting bloke to have a chat to and it was good to meet him. The rest of the afternoon and evening (they blur into one being so much daylight) were spent attending to normal duties including looking at our photos and videos and a bit of TV.
Today was another one ticked off the bucket list and it was a great day for us after trying to mush at a few locations over the past decade.
Tuesday 30 April 2019
We had a spare day with nothing really organised so we decided to go to Talkeetna, the location of the hit TV show, Northern Exposure from the 90s. We had been here 19 years ago on a tour and thought that it was interesting enough for another visit.
After a leisurely start we headed north again on the Parks Highway and again stopped at the Raven Lunatic for a PSL – even bigger versions for both us than yesterday! As you would know Shania is not a coffee drinker – except when it is cold and Pumpkin Spice is involved. Part of the reason she also gets a coffee is to keep her hands warm! We reached the outskirts of town and stopped at a view point and under sunny blue skies had a fantastic view of Denali and its similarly snow-capped brethren. Great view and one we could take in all day. Still Talkeetna awaited and another ten minutes had us through the town and parking on a side street. Funnily all the main street is a no parking zone with a pedestrian signed walkway and no parking signs that was clearly just for looks as it wasn’t adhered to at all, but we still did the right thing just in case.
We walked back to where we saw a market type stall called the Mexican Moose, which we suspect was a Mexican who married a local. They had stuff from both cultures and both made in each area. It was only small but had some great leatherwork and Shania couldn’t resist and purchased a small leather bag which was very nice. We wandered back into the township (a loose term) proper and in out of some interesting shops. Some were obviously just a tourist trap but one in particular was a local who had developed some salves so we indulged for the sake of curiosity and also the arthritis pain we both feel. The main ingredient is Devil’s Club with some hemp oil and other essential oils thrown in. We were initially concerned about getting the salve back into Australia because it had Cannabis Sativa mentioned in the ingredients. But after much discussion with the maker of the salve, he assured us there was no banned substance in it and we wouldn’t get pulled up at customs. Time will tell whether it’s just a white witch’s brew or it really works. He was a true local and seemed genuinely interested in helping – oh well let’s see. We also helped save the planet by buying some metal straws with nice rubber ends and a pipe cleaner. Hey it’s our little bit to give back!
A look around a couple of more shops and we then headed down to the river edge. The river still had a lot of snow surrounding the edges and chunks floating by. The river was framed by Denali and the Alaska Ranges behind it against a blue sky. Shania went for a wander along the bank as Billy Bob had a chat to woman who had just retired as a teacher and was up here to work the season and had secured a job with Holland America as a tour guide. She was interesting to talk to and we got on well. Shania rejoined us and as we headed back to the street an elderly couple was there and we spotted our first Make America Great Again cap. Alaska is a Republican state after all. “Hey I can see Russia from the porch”.
Anyways we had a quick lunch of a pasty and fruit beside the park and headed back. It was an uneventful trip back and made good time. So much so that we continued down our road and came to the actual Big Lake. It was well named and still had a covering of ice over most the surface. The houses front onto the lake with the “road” behind them. It’s a great spot and the houses range from RVs parked in an allotment to large houses.
And so we headed back to the B&B to pack up our gear ready for the trip south in the morning. Not before another couple of vodkas on the deck which was again bathed in sunshine and warm when the wind didn’t blow. Another stir fry and a bit of TV and we were done for the day. One of the things Shania was fascinated with about the dogs is when they start howling. One dog starts them off and then the rest of them follow. Imagine about 30-40 dogs howling for a couple of minutes. Shania chatted to Martin about the reasons why. They do it for bonding and also if they spot a moose or other wildlife. It was surprising how quiet the dogs were most of the time. The only time you would hear them is at feed time and if they started howling.