Rob's Blog Archive

March 4, 2012











Starting with 2005-2006, I’ve run dogs with the temperature below zero at least once each season. Last Monday, the average temperature during my second run was -11F.  The string is intact. 

My first subzero run was December 7, 2005.  It was dusk.  The temperature had risen from -22 F that morning to its high and would drop back to -23 F before the sun rose again.  The average during my 23 miles of sledding was -4 F.  I had just purchased a Cabela’s Trans-Alaska suit.  It was windproof and insulated head to toe.  Still, I was cold.  My old farts were in their prime and my hip was bone on bone so there was no way I could step off and run while the team kept pulling.  Instead I stopped the dogs several times and did laps around the team and sled.  Even with this, I didn’t fully warm up until I got back to the ATV and was working hard pushing it into place next to the sled.

Mushing is different from most outdoor sports.  For example, unlike backcountry skiing where nighttime generally meant that I was happily in a tent, leaning on a pad lounger with my sleeping bag draped over my legs, I’m often mushing at night when it’s coldest.  On top of this, with a good string of dogs running at a distance pace, 8-12 mph, I’m only working a little harder than if I was sitting down.  And, of course,  there’s a continual headwind.  The windchill at -11 F with the 9 mph average we had was -29 F.

Every piece of my cold weather clothing system is meant for that use, starting with my briefs which are synthetic.  They’re less comfortable than cotton but handle perspiration much more effectively.  Socks and briefs go on first.  Then come polyester long johns, both top and bottom.  My insulated pants are half inch thick foam and rated to -30 F.  They go on next.  All of my insulation is foam and it’s manufactured by Northern Outfitters.  Their motto is, “Adventure Starts Below Zero.”  After the -30 pants, I put on stretch nylon windpants.  The boots, essentially 1” foam mukluks, are next.  These are new this year.  At five pounds a pair, they’re a full pound lighter than the Cabela’s boots I used previously.  They also have a relatively soft sole and I do think this helps keep my feet warm by stimulating blood circulation.  After I tighten all the laces on the boots and tuck them in places that will keep them from getting tangled, I zip the pantlegs tight over the boots’ tops. 

At this point, I double check to make sure I have everything I need for the run laid out and ready.  I don’t want to be hanging in the 65 F house too long while dressed for subzero temperatures.  The -30 jacket goes on next---again half inch foam.   I lay the collar down and put on a foam hood.  I swivel my head back and forth a couple of times to make sure the hood is on correctly, then I put on my parka.  Headlamp goes on next.  Finally, I put on a pair of liner gloves.  While sledding I’ll wear foam mittens and I’ve already thrown hand warmers into these.  While hooking up the dogs, however, I need the dexterity of the gloves. 

Carrying whatever I need for the run, I step outside.  Human beings are not built for this sort of cold but dogs are.  In fact, most dogs can survive in extreme cold if they are given enough food and water.  The difference between my Siberians and a pointer, for example, is my dogs need less food  to stay warm.  It’s perfectly normal for me to look out at the yard on a -25 F morning and see several dogs comfortably balled up on the snow rather than in their doghouses. 

It’s between seven and eight below as we leave they yard.  With the altitude we gain and the continuing nocturnal drop, the temperature we see averages -11 F. 

The crescent moon set a couple of hours earlier.  We do get subzero with overcast here, but tonight is clear.  Most of the time on the trail, I watch the string of dogs to make sure there are no tangles, but I occasionally shut my headlamp off for a second and look up at the stars.  It is late February.  I’ll be saying good bye to Orion in a few weeks. 

The trail itself is a little slow on the way up so the dogs do work.  The route we take, the eastern leg of Short Marshall Lake Loop, had been groomed early the week before, snow had fallen, and only a few snowmobiles had ridden over the new snow.  On the way down, however, we run on four miles of virgin corduroy made by the groomer.  The next and last last two miles have seen some traffic, but the ribbing from the groomer shows on them as well.

It’s just before 2:30 in the morning when we get back to the dogyard and I close the gate behind us.  In the yard, it’s between -10 F and -11 F.  It eventually drops to -17 F, the coldest night of the season.  Usually, we get a few nights with sub -20 F, but not this year. 

It doesn’t take long to put the ten dogs back at their houses and stow my sled, harnesses and lines.  I wait an hour, then head out one last time to feed the dogs their second meal for the day.

With the feeding done, I head back inside.  All the clothing comes off, I put a couple of pieces of wood into the stove, then hit the sack.  The dogs have their post dinner howl just as I doze off.

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