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Barreling into the wild

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A sled dog team heads along Alaska’s Stampede Trail as part of the Henderson Haul project’s effort to remove oil barrels from the wilderness. (Submitted photo)2 / 6
Rhonda Schrader and Joe Henderson pose for a photo in Alaska with five barrels they extracted in December from the frozen ground. (Submitted photo)3 / 6
With ice axe in hand, town of St. Joseph resident Rhonda Schrader scouts a field of discarded oil barrels during a December 2016 trip to Alaska’s backcountry. (Submitted photo)4 / 6
The lead dogs, Alaskan malamutes, on the Henderson Haul dogsled team prepare for the trail. (Submitted photo)5 / 6
Barrels like these littering areas throughout Alaska’s backcountry are what town of St. Joseph resident Rhonda Schrader hopes to remove as part of an effort she and an Alaska man launched last year. (Submitted photo)6 / 6

Every single step of Rhonda Schrader's latest project is a struggle.

There is frozen tundra. Everywhere. Dogsleds are the sole mode of transportation.

Blowtorches eventually enter the picture, as does outdoor camping. In sub-zero temps.

When it's all done, Schrader and her partner on the project will have about 300 pounds of recyclable material to show for their efforts before they go back at it again.

And the town of St. Joseph resident wouldn't have it any other way.

"I'm giving back to the environment what the environment gives to me," said Schrader, a graphic designer who moonlights as an outdoor adventure guide. "I really enjoy being out there."

She's one of two people behind the Henderson Haul project — a two-person effort aiming to remove abandoned oil barrels from Alaska's vast wilderness. She and partner Joe Henderson have made it their personal mission to extract the barrels, which they say are an eyesore at best and an environmental hazard at worst.

"I think it's really important that we be good stewards to the land and clean up what our ancestors have left for us — a mess," Schrader said.

It's a big undertaking.

She said there are more than 40,000 barrels scattered across Alaska. Worse yet, they're found in some of the most remote, inhospitable, virtually impassable locations Alaska has to offer.

Want to drive a truck out to the barrels? Forget it, Schrader said.

"It's impossible to get there by vehicle," she said.

On their inaugural extraction effort in late December 2016, she and Henderson had to cross three large rivers just to reach their destination at the edge of Denali National Park.

It's a reality that makes even snowmobiles an impractical option.

That, she said, is why dogsledding is the only realistic way to traverse the rugged outback on the way to the barrels. The dog teams, consisting of 22 Alaskan malamutes, are able to navigate the narrow trails and ford the rivers in ways vehicles just can't.

Thirst for adventure

Since the effort requires dogsleds, that limits the extraction trips to wintertime. So Schrader and Henderson set their sights on Christmastime for the weeklong extraction process.

While it was the duo's first time attempting to haul out barrels, the trip wasn't in unfamiliar territory. Henderson is a longtime Alaska resident who is regarded as a modern-day legend in the dogsledding community. To wit: he once endured a four- to five-month solo trip with a dogsled team without resupply or human contact.

"He's not a Byrd or a Shackleton or an Amundsen, but pretty darn close if you consider modern day times," Schrader said, describing Henderson in a column she wrote for the September/October 2016 edition of Mushing Magazine.

And Schrader's no newbie herself. She cut her teeth in Alaska's outback in April 2016, when she signed on to work as an arctic guide alongside Henderson. An outdoor-adventure enthusiast, Schrader owns and operates the Howling Wolf Adventures guide business, which caters to people and their dogs.

She said she and Henderson complement each other well in the wild.

"We're two people who are really into the environment and really into dogs," she said.

They hatched the idea for extracting the barrels after last year's guide experience, when Schrader for the first time eyeballed the large drums dotting the pristine wilderness.

'Kind of a process'

Planning for the extraction adventure was tedious and vital, Schrader explained.

That meant gathering up gear, meals and a plan for how it would all come together packed onto dogsleds.

Once they reached the trailhead, it took four hours to unload the equipment, pack the sleds and get the anxious dogs harnessed up for the ride.

"It's kind of a process," she deadpanned.

The dogsled ride along the Stampede Trail — popularized in John Krakauer's account of Chris McCandless' perilous journey in the novel "Into the Wild" — was rough. The team encountered limited snowpack in parts, which slowed efforts, along with three rivers in their way.

Once they reached the extraction site, Schrader and Henderson worked mainly with headlamps to remove the barrels, which proved a herculean task in itself.

The barrels, discarded decades ago by oil companies, are frozen into the tundra. The duo used heavy-duty blowtorches and ice axes to remove them from the ground. Much of the work was done by light of headlamps, since the season brought about three hours of daylight.

"It's pretty extreme conditions," Schrader said.

As if that wasn't enough work, the return trip saw a sled fall off the side of a mountain, requiring Henderson to rescue the sled using ratchet straps.

During December's trip, the team removed five barrels from the site. From there, Schrader said they drove the containers back to Fairbanks, where the barrels were recycled and the toxic materials inside were properly disposed of.

Adventure looms

Schrader said they learned a lot during their maiden extraction — not the least of which involved handling chemicals remaining in the barrels. She said they suspected one contained jet fuel, which presented its own challenges.

"We'll have to be a little bit more careful," she said, describing how the fuel ate through their gloves.

Those lessons will inform their approach to the next extraction, which Schrader said is set for April.

Right now, there's no specific goal the team is shooting for since the project is dependent on funding.

"It all depends on how far the barrels are in and how long it takes us to get the barrels out," she said.

The team has targeted Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a second extraction site.

For now, the project is funded through donations, though Schrader said Henderson Haul will be applying for nonprofit status. She said she's also seeking volunteers to help write grants.

She figures each trip costs about $500 per extracted barrel.

Schrader said if fundraising goes well, there could be a "big expedition" in the works for 2018-19.

In the meantime, she's satisfied to make a difference however she can.

"We have an obligation to clean up the damage that these corporations have created in the name of progress," Schrader said.

More information about the project is available at www.hendersonhaul.com.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

(715) 426-1072
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