If you have time to read only one posting, click the following link to read the entry for the last day of our journey.

The Journey begins to take shape

Journey begins to take shape (Unedited)

Note: this entry replaces several other related previous postings related to this one.

With our estimated date of departure now set for around July 29th, this year’s journey is beginning to take shape. The one current snag that could throw a spanner into the journey is my back.  For the third time in seven months, I threw it out again two weeks ago. (Usually, I would throw it out once every five years or so, but managing Leben seems to have accelerated that schedule, although it is not his fault.) I am loading up on visits to my chiropractor, acupuncturist, and massage therapist to help accelerate my back’s recovery so I can get on the road. My hope is that if it occurs again in three months, I will be safely home by that time. The last thing in the world I need is to be 6000 miles away from home with two German shepherds, one paralyzed, with 600 pounds of camping gear I have to lug around, and have my back go out on me again, when I can hardly walk let alone manage Leben or set up and break camp. Fortunately, it is easer to manage Leben on the road than at home, so if I can only get on the road I hope I think I will be home free.

This is will our third attempt at Alaska in three years. In 2012, we set out to Alaska by way of the end-of-the-road in Labrador, but made it only to Thunder Bay, Ontario, where we had to turn back because of a few issues with the Defender and Leben. Then, last year, I delayed the trip until after Leben’s spinal surgery for a couple of ruptured discs, but, unfortunately, three weeks after we got underway after his supposed healing period ended, his recovery failed and the operation left him paralyzed. Now that he has adjusted well to his new life (and to his wheelchairs and strollers), I decided that this may be the last chance for the three of us to take one more road trip, so we are going to try again for the third time.

In the 1990s, I visited Alaska five times, flying there each time, without my dogs, Sonntag and Kessie. In 1992, I took the ferry from Seattle to Juneau, took a bus and camped along the ALCAN (Alaska-Canada Highway) to Fairbanks, backpacked in Denali for three days just a few miles from where Chris McCandless (the Into-the-Wild guy) was spending his last few days, visited Brooks Camp and the Valley of 10,000 Smokes (VTTS) in Katmai National Park, flew to McNeil River to watch the brown bears fishing for salmon, rented a car and drove to Homer, Seward and Valdez, and then flew home. Bitten by the Alaskan bug (not to mention mosquitoes and, almost once, a bear), I returned in 1993-1996 to visit McNeil River again and to hike solo the entire VTTS three more times and then went on a month-long expedition with Outward Bound to the magnificent Gates of the Arctic National Park. It was in researching the latter that I first learned of the Dalton Highway, the 500-mile dirt and gravel road that goes up the North Slope from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, and promised myself that someday I would drive that road.

In 2000, before I was to take a position in Russia with, I decided to take Sonntag (Kessie, sadly, had died in 1999) on one last road trip, Sonntag’s favorite treat. I looked at a map and saw that the longest drive from DC in North America was to Prudhoe Bay along the Dalton Highway, so off went. An editor from the National Geographic, which had just opened up a story on dogs, approached me and Sonntag on the street one day before the trip and asked if he could accompany us in Alaska for some photos, and I agreed. That trip was 45 days, 12,500 miles. On that trip, during one glorious night 150 miles south of Prudhoe Bay, in an absolutely magnificent setting, as I sat with Sonntag on a prominence that jutted out onto the tundra of the North Slope, I promised him that someday I would return to that glorious spot to scatter his and his sister’s ashes. That site, the next night, was captured for posterity in one of the several photos of our trip included in the January 2002 National Geographic.  Click here for a YouTube of that story.

Sonntag died in April 2001, and after Leben and Erde arrived on the scene a few weeks later, I decided that I had better get on the road again that summer before it was too late, and so off we went. That trip was 50 days and 14,500 miles. In addition to going to Prudhoe Bay again, and scattered Sonntag’s and Kessie’s ashes where I had promised, we took a side trip of a few thousand miles to Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and then another of a few thousand more miles to San Francisco on the way home. I had to bivouac in Indianapolis for a few days on the way home because I dared not drive into DC on September 12th with my Defender looking the way it did.

Each of the above two trips had a specific purpose, the first to meet up with the National Geographic and the second the scatter my dogs’ ashes where I promised, which purposes served as magnates to keep us headed toward our destination.

In 2002, I took a break from Alaska and drove with Leben and Erde to the end of the road in the northeast in a little community called North West River, Labrador, by way of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland on the way up and Prince Edwards Island on the way back, 60 days and 10,000 miles. We were making plans to set out again in 2003, but Erde’s immune system took a hit that year for some reason and the trip was cancelled. Any trips I might have planned for 2004-2010 get set aside for one reason or another.

In 2011, we set out again for Alaska by way of Labrador, but I had to delay the trip by two weeks and then cut the trip short after reaching Labrador in Thunder Bay, Ontario, after my vehicle appeared to be overheating (false signal) and Leben developed a terrible skin allergy that was difficult to control. That trip was 8,000 miles and 37 days. In 2012, we were getting ready to set out again on July 15th for Alaska, when it was discovered that Leben’s difficulty running was due to two disc ruptures. Hoping to avoid his becoming paralyzed like Sonntag, when I believed the chances of surgery arresting any further decline were good, I went ahead with the surgery on July 17th. Unfortunately, Leben, who was able to walk OK the day of his surgery, never recovered fully from the surgery. After his healing period ended, we got on the road for an abbreviated trip starting in mid-September, headed for at most Banff in the Canadian Rockies. Unfortunately, Leben’s recovery failed and then, with just normal activity, he became completely paralyzed three weeks into the trip at Pukawaska Park on Ontario’s Lake Superior. Knowing how to manage a paralyzed dog, we finished our tip the next day at Thunder Bay again, and then set out for home, 4000 miles and 21 days after we started, where my number one goal was to learn how to manage him and get him acclimated to his new life. (In retrospect, it was mistake on my part putting that magnificent dog through that surgery. He was not a good candidate for it. I should have waited for nature to take its course and then put him into a wheelchair if he indeed did become paralyzed at all that way.)

So, the purpose of this trip is to pick up where we left off last year at Thunder Bay, and head to Alaska again. While that may be enough to give us a purpose for this trip, I wanted sometime a little more tangible to plan for, a magnate that would pull us the 5880 miles to get to Prudhoe Bay.  Remembering my backpacking trip into Denali in 1992, and remembering Sonntag’s excited reaction to our brief excision into the park to Teklanika Camp (milepost 30 along the 91-mile dirt and gravel Denali Park Road to Wonder Lake) in 2000, I entered the lottery for a coveted permit to drive the park road the weekend the park closes in mid-September. I entered last year but lost, as I entered only once (as is allowed) and had to compete with 10,000 other anxious souls for one of the 1,600 permits (400 per day for four days). Immediately after I applied for the lottery this year on May 21st, I was able to secure a coveted campsite Teklanika Camp for the five days of Road Lottery, just to cover myself with a campsite for whichever day I won, if at all.

On September 15th, I waited anxiously by my computer at 9:00 a.m. for word about whether I won or lost the lottery. (I knew my odds were low, 1/7 to be exact, as 11,000 people had applied. When word never came, I finally figured out that my on-line application, although submitted, was not accepted because I had not signed into the National Park Service website, but they never told me that. So much for good websites. (Blame it on the sequester, I guess.) That’s the bad news. The good news is that I immediately put up an ad on Anchorage’s Craigslist and was able to get a permit. The details of that I will keep to myself. Suffice it is to say here that persistence and reason pay off. So, we now have a magnate, something that will pull us to Alaska, with a date certain. Now that I know we must be in Denali starting on September 12th, I can plan the rest of the trip around that date. But once thing that will factor heavily in my planning is that we do not arrive in Alaska until after August 21st. The reason for that is that the weather has been warmer than usual this year, which means that Alaska is suffering through one of its worst mosquito seasons in years. It is hoped that after August 21st or so, the cooler night air will have decimated the mosquito population, if not eliminated it. I do not recall that we were bothered by mosquitoes too much in 2000 and 2001 when we arrived near that time.

Later, I will post a new map showing our new tentative plans. I say tentative because every mile of this trip is optional because anything can happen to change those plans, as I have learned on all of our last four attempts. Our number one goal of any trip we take is to make it home safely, and that dominates the entire trip.

So, Leben and Erde, who first visited Alaska as four-month old pups, will return (it is hoped) as 12-year old dogs. I am extremely fortunate that they are still with me and in good health. Now, if I can only get my back to work again.

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