It became impossible to keep the heavy sled straight on the newly frozen river. The 13 panting Greenland huskies in front of us repeatedly veered off to the side of the steep canyon, causing the heavy load to topple. When I asked Ulrik, our musher, what caused the unusual behavior, he grunted: “Our lead dog, Diesel, does not like the sight of the water bubbles under the thin ice—he once died from drowning in the Arctic Ocean!”
Three Danish friends—Ulrik, Jan, and I—were traveling up the frozen Atigun River that flows down the slopes of the Brooks Range in northeastern Alaska. Our objective was to cross this most northern and remote Alaskan mountain range by dog sled. As it was late in the season in Alaska, much of the snow at lower altitudes had melted, so we decided to travel up the frozen river at night. The dog’s claws tiptoed quickly across the hard ice and zig-zagged between the thinner ice sections, where you could see the water was running beneath. The water that caused Diesel to go crazy.
At that time, Ulrik ran a local dog-sledding outfit out of central Alaska. He was an old friend of mine and used to guide with me on long expeditions into the remote Northeast Greenland National Park. As a former Greenland special forces Sirius Patrol commander, Ulrik had spent the four previous years crisscrossing the high Arctic shores by dogsled and boat. Now relocated to Alaska, where he lived in the outback with his wife, two children and 36 huskies, he was an extremely competent outdoorsman with an edge to him, except in the care of his dogs. I would call him an alfa-male warrior with a “fight or flight” life philosophy. He was a hard man, but had a deep passion for his huskies. Including Diesel, so named because he could run on anything and for a long time.
“He once died?” I asked incredulously, pointing at Diesel in the lead with his beautiful large husky head, muscular shoulders and air of friendly superiority—“Do tell.”
Ulrik recounted the full story that night in the tent pitched in the middle of the Porcupine caribou migration track. He had become a legend in the Arctic Brotherhood and a famous Sirius Patrol musher. After his military service, he was much sought-after and when, in 1995, Arctic explorer Will Steger from Minnesota was looking for an expert musher to join an international team of explorers to be the first to cross the Arctic Ocean unassisted from Russia to Canada via the North Pole, he turned to Ulrik, who accepted the invitation. Ulrik would fly his own team of dogs to Siberia and his specific task would be to lead the different dog teams across the Arctic Ocean sea ice.
From the outset, the expedition ran into problems as progress ground to a halt due to bad ice conditions. The gyrating Arctic Ocean sea ice formed huge pressure ridges against the fixed shore ice and huge leads opened and closed in front of the team. Ulrik assessed the situation and explained to Steger that it would be better to wait it out for better conditions and not push forward and fight against nature. However, Steger was probably impatient (he had scheduled for journalists to meet them at the North Pole on a fixed date), ignored the advice, and ordered the entourage to continue. Being a military man, Ulrik followed orders and pushed forward with his dogs, including Diesel, out in front.
Soon and without warning, a large lead opened under his sled and the dogs and sled fell into the freezing water. Two of the front dogs, including Diesel, were pressed under the sled in the process and did not resurface immediately. Without hesitation, Ulrik grabbed his large knife and jumped head first into the cold water to save the two harnessed dogs from drowning. The other expedition members waited agape for a long minute that felt like eternity when suddenly a dog exploded out of the water from below and landed on the nearest ice floe. Another dog followed shortly and finally , Ulrik emerged from the water, scrambling up on a floe beside his lifeless dogs. He quickly grabbed their snouts, pressed their breasts together and sucked the saltwater out of their lungs. It was with great relief to see their tails wag again. At that point, Ulrik had successfully resuscitated both dogs, but in the process, his wet clothes had frozen stiff and he started to get severe hypothermia, shaking violently in the Arctic wind. The other people quickly got into action, stripped him naked and reheated him with hot drinks and a dry sleeping bag. Dogs and man were all saved.
Ulrik recuperated soon and furiously confronted Steger in his tent, pointing out his lack of leadership and care for the dogs. He then decided to leave the expedition with his own dogs and rightly assessed that the safety of the animals was a top priority. He knew that a prefixed schedule in a unforgiving environment where nature and not man decides next steps was sheer folly. A few weeks later, Ulrik was back in Alaska with all his dogs alive.
Months later, Ulrik was invited by the press to attend a reception at Hotel Waldorff Astoria in New York, honoring all expedition members. When a reporter from some pet magazine stuck a microphone in Ulriks’s face and asked him how he emotionally experienced the savings of his dogs, he deadpanned: “They had very bad breath when finally breathing.”
Now I understood why Diesel avoided signs of water and accepted that the going that night on the frozen Atigun River would be slow and hard work for all. We did, however, succeed in crossing the Brooks Range with Diesel and Ulrik. Ever since that trip, I have always had a soft spot for sled dogs. There is something special about traveling with these tough yet wonderful animals.
The Atigun River trip led me to introduce dog sledding trips for our clients in the North, and we continued to put other successful expeditions together. Over the years, our guests and guides have traveled with the Thule Inuit in northern Greenland, journeyed with Ulrik in Alaska and skied dog-sled supported with the East Greenlanders near Natural Habitat’s Base Camp Greenland.
During the summer at the base camp, Julius Nielsen (our local guide and main Zodiac raft driver), keeps his dogs on a nearby island. We always make a point of visiting his sled dogs and our clients LOVE it. We also use a few of his best dogs to be the first line of polar bear defense at camp. When the sled dogs bark, we know to be alert.
Our clients also have the opportunity to experience dog sledding on Nat Hab’s Ultimate Churchill polar bear trips and it is always a great pleasure to visit with the dogs, observe the mushers as they prepare for the run, and then ride behind an eager team of happy huskies!
So, what happened to Diesel and his master? Well, I heard that Ulrik is back in Denmark teaching Arctic warfare tactics and I assume that Diesel and his four-legged buddies are now happily cruising in Dog Heaven. I often think about the luck I had to meet such a wonderful dog on his second time around.