Waiting

In winter we leave the windows uncovered, and from my pillow I watch the stars blink brightly from a deep black sky. To the east it looks like someone has sloshed a bucket of pale green paint onto a black wall and now the color oozes and slides slowly downward. Without warning, the color brightens and lurches, stabbing upward, coruscating to the north. It’s like watching the keys while some invisible hand plays the piano. Under that electric aurora the dogs are stirring. Norton bellows out a low, throaty baritone, followed by Lefty and then Ox. Kitty joins in with her jarring alto and then come the puppies’ straining yips, sounding more and more like adults with each passing day. Even in the dark, I know each dog’s voice. When the canine chorus reaches its peak in a perfect 31-dog harmony, my stomach lights up, mimicking the sky. Energy ripples across the dome of my belly. I rest my hand over its voluminous curve and under my palm burst unpredictable waves and flourishes.

It’s 15 degrees below zero and I heave my massive body out of bed to pee. I have no idea what time it is because time doesn’t exist in winter in Alaska. Four in the afternoon looks the same as seven in the morning, which looks the same as midnight. The only thing that changes is the position of the stars wheeling overhead. I step carefully down the ladder-steep stairs from the bedroom loft, trying not to wake Andy. I reach the plywood landing and take one last big step over Zigzag, curled on her dog bed. In 20 feet I’m at the front door, pulling aside the wool blanket that hangs over the frame to keep the draft at bay. Outside the snow squeaks under my down booties as the temperature continues its downward plunge. I crunch through the three or four inches of snow that fell a few days ago – the season’s first snowfall – and think of Decembers past. More normal years, where the first snow fell in September and we were on dogsleds well before Halloween. At this time last year we were running 60 miles a day, training for back to back thousand-mile sled dog races across the Yukon Territory and across Alaska. This year, we amble across the tundra with our pack of 3-month-old puppies as our neighbors clatter by stubbornly on the gravel road, letting their dogsleds get beat to hell out on the uncovered tussocks the size of basketballs. Andy chops firewood and permachinks drafty spots along the walls of our one-room log cabin and hauls water every other day. From nails in the rafters hang dog harnesses in need of repair and also a bouncy swing for a new baby. Upstairs under the window across from our bed is a little wooden crib that can be rocked back and forth. Andy has built a shelf alongside it full of minute onesies and miniature knitted sweaters and sleeper sacks and diapers. Once a week or so, we’ll pull out a teeny pair of footie pajamas and marvel that any human could ever be small enough to wear them. Yesterday I watched Andy’s face as he held up a pink fleece number and then cradled it to his chest – his blue eyes glowing, the skin around them crinkled in straight, emanating lines. Neither of us had those lines when we first met six-and-a-half years ago. Our faces hadn’t yet been weathered by wind and sun and a dozen thousand miles of being on a dogsled. They are well-earned marks of pride for us, sure to deepen in the coming weeks of sleeplessness and joy.

Like most dog mushers this time of year, we are the constant fixers of broken things. We have one fully functioning vehicle and two partially working ones, with a third in the shop whose repairs are worth more than the value of the thing in its entirety. We have 31 dogs to feed and unpaid maternity leave and an open pantry with boxes and cans tumbling out of it. Four dog beds take up most of the real estate in our small cabin and on frigid nights we can feel the heat from the woodstove on one cheek and the cold creeping in from the windowpane on the other. But outside, the puppies contentedly sleep on top of each other in their houses. They close their eyes and exhale, burrowing their chins down on the heads and bellies and backs of their littermates. The adult dogs play bow and bark and howl excitedly, exalting in an uproar when Andy brings out their harnesses and takes them on a run. Clumps of snow from our last and only storm cling to spruce boughs and stay cemented in the crotches of birch branches. Unbelievably the Healy winds haven’t knocked them to the ground in sheets and sprays. It’s cold and clear, brighter than day when the moon is full, the spruce casting long shadows on a sparkling silver lawn.

I don’t sleep anymore. The baby in my belly is too big, stuffed underneath my ribcage. My hips fall asleep as I toss from one side to the other. Carpal tunnel ravages my wrists. Andy can’t be sleeping either. I tell him he ought to sleep on the couch downstairs and get some rest, but he doesn’t want to leave my side. He roots into my curved back, puts his warm hand on my moving belly, and calms the baby into peaceful sleep.

This part of pregnancy is like the end of training. We’ve packed all the drop bags, made a race plan, gotten ourselves and the dogs as prepared as we ever will be and now the race is only days away and we are thinking about the start line. We’re thinking about hooking up that finely tuned dogteam and the announcer saying 3…2…1…GO! But like any other musher, we’d so much rather be doing the thing than thinking about doing the thing. We are people of action, but all we can do is wait.

-KKP

The hardest parts on the longest trails

Loretta heaved and her eyes bulged and she just stared at the floor. Her whole body stiffened and her mouth closed. She groaned, and then relaxed, panting again. I sat on the floor next to her, rubbing her soft ears and running my hand down her back. When I took my hand away she flattened her ears and asked for me to stay with her, leaning slightly forward toward me, brown eyes locked into mine. Nobody had told her about this, about labor and birth. She didn’t have appointments with midwives, or the opportunity to ask questions, or any kind of scan that could tell her there may be a problem in there. She just felt the contractions rippling through her body and knew she had to lie down and knew she had to push. After about an hour, a little tiny tail emerged, limp and motionless. She took a break and then pushed again and a smooth, gleaming sac appeared, but wasn’t all the way out of her yet. With a final push she yelped as her first pup slid from the womb. For a moment there was stillness. Andy and I looked at each other and looked at her. Would she know what to do? Should we rip the sack open like we had seen the other mothers do in years past? Loretta has never done this before. Should we intervene? And then she saw it, the pup in the sac, and her eyes grew wide with focus and she dove toward it, ripping the sac open and licking, licking life right into that pup. He gasped for breath and cried while she cleaned away all the blood and fluid. She found the umbilical cord and gnawed at it with her teeth until he was free, and then he tumbled toward her blindly. His eyes won’t be opening for two weeks, but he crawled toward her warmth and within minutes had latched onto a teat and began quenching a thirst he somehow knew had to be quenched. All of those things happened without a word of instruction. Some innate knowing within both of them guiding all of their movements. Loretta knew nothing but the age-old instincts that had lain dormant within her until this moment. She put those instincts to use five more times, each pup emerging into the world with greater ease than the last.

I had never worried about any births before that one. The birth of Loretta’s litter was the sixth we had witnessed at our kennel. But it was the first we had witnessed since we got the news. Unlike Loretta and the rest of our mom dogs, we do have monthly appointments with midwives and doctors. We do receive scans that can tell us there may be a problem in there, and a week ago we discovered that there is indeed a problem. The umbilical cord that carries nutrients and oxygen and blood to our baby didn’t form correctly. Where they would normally be covered in a protective sleeve of jelly, the umbilical vessels instead branched outside of their protective covering and attached themselves to the side of the placenta and not the center. They are exposed and rigid instead of covered and flexible. They are highly susceptible to rupture, and that rupture would mean a lifeline being cut off. How do you prevent that? What precautions can you take? How did this happen? When would it happen, if it was going to? All questions to which nobody seems to know the answer. Instead we carry that heavy knowledge with us every day and wonder, and wait.

The people who give us the best advice tell us it’s going to be a lot like a dog race. It’s a long trail, first of all, nine months. That’s the better part of a year. And every day sees new growth – sometimes painful, like my lower back struggling with all this new weight; sometimes frustrating, like my lungs not being able to take in the same amount of air they could have the last time I climbed a mountain; sometimes wonderful, like the baby kicking and punching and doing backflips. And sometimes inexplicable, like those times my mind wanders down into the darkest depths of the possibilities associated with this condition, and then she shakes me awake with the hardest kick yet. Like she knows somehow, innately, to be reassuring.

Marilynne Robinson wrote “An unborn child lives the life of a woman it might never know, hearing her laugh or cry, feeling the scare that makes her catch her breath, tighten her belly. For months its whole life would be all dreams and no waking. The steps in the road, the thought of [death], then the dread sinks away for a while, and how is a child to know why?”

And every time, with that reassuring kick…does she know why?

Aside from it being a long trail, it’s riddled with uncertainty. Remember how we used to find uncertainty thrilling? It left us breathless and terrified and alive. It forced us into scenarios – well, we forced ourselves, pushed ourselves forward, into scenarios – that we never could have imagined. How could I have ever known what it was like to run a wild, 15-dog team over dirt and rocks and roots for 70 miles? Nothing could have prepared me for that in the 2016 Iditarod and my heart was in my throat guessing how it might go, and there’s only one way to find out how that’s going to go and it means you just fucking GO. You Move Forward. Even if the fear drags your heart down into your feet as though a big weight is attached to it. Even if you feel your heart plummeting. What are you going to do, quit? Turn around?

It’s too overwhelming to look at the trail as a whole. One thousand miles is more than a brain can truly comprehend in one sitting. And so you take it, not even one day at a time but one run at a time. One six-hour increment. Yes, you had a six-hour hell ride through the Burn. But that’s over now. You don’t know yet about that six-hour magic carpet ride you’ll have at sunrise sprinting across Norton Sound. About the dance party you’ll have in the middle of the sea ice with one of your best human friends and all of your best dog friends. You don’t know about the foxes who will run alongside your team at daybreak, or that that particular color blue even existed in the world when you cross the ice of Golovin Bay.

My sister said, You have the power to choose what to believe. You can choose to believe the worst or you can choose to believe the best. And that it’s a brave choice to be positive. And that we are brave people.

There is no telling what is going to happen over the next four months. Nobody can tell us the answer for sure, and no amount of divining or crying or fury is going to be worth the energy expended. People intuitively want to tell us, It’ll be fine. If she’s anything like you, she’ll be stronger than this thing. But nobody knows if it will be fine. And it doesn’t matter how strong our little girl is, what happens has nothing to do with her and nothing to do with me. It is simply out of our control. It feels like we’re walking across a minefield and we’ll be lucky to reach the other side unharmed. The only thing we do have control over is how we choose to carry on. We have no choice but to move forward, but we do have a choice in how we move forward.

Andy said it’s like that last, sapping run into Dawson. It’s fraught. You wonder how you got here. You don’t know if you’ll be able to keep going forward, but you can’t stay here on top of this lonely mountain with the wind howling through your wet clothes. But people pick you up, you see. You don’t have to do it alone. They come by and shine their light on you. They lead you into the next checkpoint, or maybe even into the next half-dozen checkpoints. Your friends and family scream in frustration at the same points along the trail as you do. They cry when you do. They laugh when you do. They struggle alongside you. And even if the finish line isn’t where you thought it was going to be, and you didn’t come in the top ten like you thought you would, you cross it all the same and you do it with these people by your side.

I think with a lot of mushers, times of struggle force us to look inward. We find the strength to overcome such hardships – such unbelievable, stupid, awe-inspiring, head-busting hardships – from within. The world starts spinning and one thing leads to another and before we know it, we’re in some fucked up situation that is complicated beyond reckoning. And the first thing we do is take a breath and say, OK, how am I going to fix this? First, I need to secure my sled. Second, I need to straighten and secure the gangline. Third, I need to untangle the dogs. We systematically work through the problem until it is solved, no matter how long it takes to solve it, and we do it alone. We find a solution and we keep moving forward. That’s easy enough to do in a physical situation. But what about the mental ones? What about the ones having to do with an umbilical cord buried deep in your insides that you can’t systematically stop and fix? Suddenly the world is a dark and awful place. Everything about it is negative. It’s stupid and what’s the point? Why did I even sign up for this? Why did we knowingly put ourselves through this, if this is a thing that can happen? You look within and try to dig up some jewel of positivity, try to mine it from your hungry, tired, freezing cold soul. What helps more though, is that kick you get from someone else. Sometimes it’s the dogs, looking back at you with their ears perked up and then turning forward in the harness, ready to go. We’re fine, they say. Look at us, we’re doing great. Can we please get moving down the trail? You imbecile? And sometimes it’s the people you have chosen to surround yourself with. The very best people on earth. These people will give you a hug, share their food with you, trade advice and dog snacks and jokes, tell you they, too, could use a pick-me-up. Let’s travel this next section together, they’ll say. Let’s mush with our headlamps off and follow the northern lights. Let’s race each other down Front Street. Ready? Go!

-KKP

Yukon Quest 2016, Part 2

I was awake & looking back along the trail from whence we had come when I saw the headlight eek itself out of the darkness. The snow had died down & the wind had relented, only gusting now where it had previously remained a steady strong muscle flexed over the mountain. I hobbled out of my bag, up the gangline, calling Kabob to the lead & snapping her in before Laura stopped her team next to mine. I explained why I was stopped as she smiled at her dogs, whistling their favored tunes, scratching behind their ears. She has the true sensibility of a dog person, reacting with utter equanimity & calm, unhesitating in her offer to help. The Code of the North is the code of the trail, & here, a nineteen-year old exemplified it, running her team just in front of mine, pausing when we lapsed, her headlight flickering & dawdling on my lead dogs to coax them along.

The feeling of exulted relief upon pulling into Dawson was unlike anything I’ve felt. I never once feared for anything—not for my life, not for our safety, not for any grave danger. We were close enough to Dawson & well enough fed & rested that we could have walked the last twelve miles in with the sled on its side if it came to that. But even still, 24 hours to run 52 miles is as ludicrous a proposition as you’ll come across in this sport. Kristin & Rose & Jen had rallied to the checkpoint over & again, watching the GPS tracker for my team bob & stumble along in fits & stops. Finally, here we were.

Dawson generally enables a long recuperative period for a dog team. Since mine had spent the better part of the last day in periods of repose punctuating small runs in inclement conditions, they were already well-rested. All were healthy, pleased with themselves, & from all visual clues quite ready to continue along. Dogs are mercurial that way, from time to time.

Me, I was ready for sleep.

***

The northern lights flashed & rippled & radiated, framed by the haunting silhouettes of tall aspen & spruce lining the trail. I had fed the dogs, bedded them down, along the trail. Said hello to Luc as he zoomed past, his small team looking lively & bright. At this point, my leader troubles had continued past Dawson. So it was with unmixed joy that I welcomed Cody & Paige to share the trailside with me. I’ve never run with friends before, not during a race, not really even during training. Clearly, I liked it enough to stick with them until the finish line.

***

Training leaders used to be one of the basic principles by which we operated. We held ourselves personally accountable for everything a lead dog was capable of doing. We expected nothing from a dog that we hadn’t trained from scratch. Solo, Littlehead, Basin & Norton had all undergone a fairly extensive process involving one-on-one attention over the course of several months. Afterwards, unwittingly, we entrusted that training to them. Running young dogs up front with your proven leaders, it turns out, makes you complacent. You allow yourself to be firmly convinced that their aptitude is entirely self-derived. Nevermind that Solo is lunging next to them, nipping at them when their attention finds some distraction. Nevermind that Littlehead will throw all of her weight into harness to balance the force of her co-leader sniffing after a squirrel off-trail. After three thousand miles of training, we felt confident that our young guys up front were as competent as their mentors. Turns out that if you think your other dogs will do all the training, you’re sorely mistaken. I saw moments of utter brilliance from many of my dogs after we dropped Solo. Loretta was a stand-out, combating the short attention spans of her brothers while driving us forward. Hank & Buck had stretches of up to thirty miles of sheer determination. & then, suddenly, they didn’t. They’d start playing with one another or pause without reason or dive off into the deep snow along the trail. I had not taught them otherwise. Without Cody & Paige putting up with us for 450 miles, this would have been a very different race & a very different experience for both the dogs & for me. Because of their patience & friendship, my team was able to cross the finish line having had an extremely positive experience, imbuing Loretta, Kabob & everyone else with an inswell of confidence & pride.

This summer, though, I’m braking out the ski-jor belt & I’m making damn sure I have lead dogs up front.

***

The way the trail comes back to me is never linear, chronologically. A memory of the bluffs along the Fortymile will flash & fade & then I’ll see the bluffs just before Trout Creek. Or I’ll think of camping before Carmacks & associate it with my solitary camp along Birch Creek, simply because I ate the same thing for dinner both times. I realize as I write this disjointed recollection that the linearity becomes secondary to the kind of lambent beauty that connects scene to scene. That massive yawning stretch of white through Cogland Lake, or the full throttle angular turns through blackened forest leaving Scroggie. The ice fog hanging dense over the burn before Pelly. The cast of crisp light over the mountains as we careened down Eagle Summit, the sled tipped sideways while I rode on top, my eyes fixed on Hoss & Bullock. & through it all, the unwavering, ineffable, stupefyingly enduring & intrepid will of the finest companions with which we could ever hope to share such a quest. I think maybe one of the finest things about this sport is what a dog can teach you about your accomplishments. Every time along the trail that the triumph or the lack, the exultation or the deafening trough of defeat sounded, the dogs reacted with the same calm assuredness. I think of how often I begin trying to articulate my experiences even as they unfold, providing a narrative for an absent audience. I used to run along the beach of Kachemak Bay with Willa & we would talk, for hours. I was busy working out the complexities & difficulties of a failing relationship, pondering the motivations & devices of meaning-making that defined my place, existentially. Willa was busy participating in the sheer joy of running, the sea chasing her during high tide, the gulls & eagles suffering her brief charges. I was occupied with a compulsion to understand why something felt the way it did, while she was busy feeling it, wholly, unapologetically & without artifice. & so along the trail, it should not have surprised me to find in Hank’s playfulness or Hoss’s huge sighs lulling me to sleep at camps, in Loretta’s wagging tail or Kabob’s earnest glances that same mirrored truthfulness of presence. It was an epic quest for me & just another adventure for them. A race is not without its difficulties, but in the end, nothing meaningful is, & we cherish & prize our most difficult accomplishments precisely because of their inherent challenges. While we organize our reactions, the dogs have already taken the next step, already rounded the next bend, already sighted in on the next hill. Wordsworth said “we murder to dissect,” which, though I don’t suppose it was meant to suggest a credo, has become one of sorts. With the dogs, you let be the world through which you travel. You feel its passage, you know yourself a traveler, & you know that your faring forward is your only mode of being. You get to be a dog a while.

-ap

Yukon Quest 2016, Part One

A few trees there, around a bend where the wind lied down a little. The sky had muted & flashed an intimation of clearing before swelling over again, falling back into the arms of the storm. At the last camp, I had snowshoed out to cut spruce boughs & saplings for the dogs to bed & burrow into, fed out the last of the kibble, hoping a four-hour break might suffice. I had knelt over a small fire I lit by the runners of the sled, thinking shit, we’d better run straight in after this. But here we were, the team parked at an angle off the trail, resting up. I wrote “dog team won’t go- please help” on a stray piece of cardboard, hung it from my ski-pole lodged trailside. I unhooked Kabob, laid out my sleeping bag, crawled in to nestle with her & waited for a headlight.

***

I have wondered often how precisely to articulate whatever it is that compels us to run 1,000 mile sled dog races. I know, for instance, that there is no finer company than our team of dogs. & I know that there is that long desire in us, the compulsion to allow endurance to define exploration. I realize, in the end, that I have a strange relationship with fear, & that over & again, even as I tremble & am repelled, I find a sort of ecstatic abandon in throwing myself headlong into its reach. It is, I think, what constitutes adventure. That expectation of a progress that embraces adversity rather than shying from it as we are so often taught to do. Maybe that’s why our dreaming is so peculiar in its fascination—its narratives are never, seemingly, self-produced, & so they are never hemmed in & orchestrated by what our waking minds might not seek to hazard. They are a sort of conflagration of every language our bodies speak. & so maybe I find that mirrored & enacted in distance mushing, where your will is both absolutely paramount & utterly secondary, depending on the second.

***

Solo knew to stop, even while Loretta lunged & shifted, focused forward. The jumble ice over the Yukon in 20-mile country, angry & angular, shot out in every direction. Picture an explosion of shale, fragmented boulders & shards cast in crevices. Volunteers had chainsawed the trail over the crossings. Somehow. & there, the alpenglow settling upon the far bluffs, the runners caught a jutting foot of ice, flipped the sled. We are taught always by experience never to let go, never to unclutch our grasp on the handlebar. There on the Yukon, my dog team could have run all the way to Slaven’s, & there I’d sit, a lonesome speck in all that expanse of white. Instead, I held on, flipping upside down with the sled, my back smashing into an ice boulder the size of a bear. Had my overmitts not been tied around my back, I suspect I’d have broken my spine, Instead, as so routinely happens along the trail, I took a breath, righted the sled, said “alright” to Solo & carried on, thinking all the while, that’s going to leave a mark.

***

I had to drop Solo in Eagle. It devastated me, almost beyond repair. A lead dog of his caliber is perhaps as difficult to describe as the compulsion to race in the first place. His passion always palpable, his drive unparalleled, he is the dog that rallies the entire team, infusing them with his spirit. He does not tire. He does not err. He is, however, a mortal like the rest of us, & had aspirated before we reached the village, showing signs of nascent pneumonia. Together, we had run some of the finest miles I’ve ever experienced. The leg from Circle to Slaven’s, through the crisp gloaming, traversing some of the most extraordinarily beautiful country I’ve ever seen, was perfection. Coming into Eagle, at the last crossing, a snowmachine inexplicably idled halfway down the chute to the river, blocking the one safe route for a dogteam. Without flinching, Solo geed us through a labyrinth of jumble ice, past the snowmachiner, & back along the trail to the slough, He is effortless in his Herculean efforts. With him in my team, I was precisely on my race plan. Without him, I found myself pulled over along the Top of the World Highway, my dog team asleep, a tattered scrap of cardboard hanging from a ski-pole fluttering in the wind.

ap

December darkness

The lights are shards of green and red glass, shattered across the atmosphere. Each piece sharpens and glows before it vanishes. And then they are a gentle, verdant sea, inverted in the night sky. Their waves lapping at the hard edges of a black and jagged coastline in the shape of the Alaska Range. Tonight the stars hover just overhead, and Mars burns like a frenetic red beacon over a distant mountain pass. But the feathered frost that used to be my breath has built and grown so around my face, caught in my eyelashes and in the smooth, shiny hairs of my beaver fur hat, that I can barely see any of that now. My world is a tunnel lit up by a headlamp, inhabited solely by the dogteam in front of me. The reflective tape on their harnesses bouncing. The green glow of their eyes flashing as they glance to the side. Their fur, all white now because of the frost. Escaping breaths captured there for hours and hours.

I can’t believe I could have missed all of this! I think to myself. One lazy excuse could have robbed me of these 150 miles on the runners. Could have robbed the dogs of turning into a synchronized, lovely pack chasing moose under a sky close and starry and burning out at its edges with aurora. A good friend once told us that self-motivation is the hardest part of being a dog musher, and he was right. Nobody is making our training schedule but us. And certainly nobody is following up on it, making us adhere to it, giving us a test every week to see if we digested necessary lessons or passed important milestones.
And so we wake up at 2 am and leave by 3:30. We fall asleep leaning up against each other, mid-sentence, as we wait for those six hours of rest between runs to come to an end. And then we get up and booty the dogs and see this collective energy amass into a team of barking, lunging, excitement and we can’t help but get caught up in it, feel the urgency of it, our hearts racing as we clip that final tugline and step on the runners and pick up that snowhook and get whisked away down some cold, dark trail.

The lights are pinpoints of blue-white and yellow, moving steadily across a giant, frozen landscape. Each one bobs and flickers, revealing the contours of Alaskan topography or the actions of the person on the runners. If we turned off our lights, nobody would see us. And sometimes we do that, to feel even more immersed. No bit of human ingenuity separates us from the dogs now, everything is feel and instinct. The northern lights are the only lights now, and when our eyes adjust to that new, fast darkness, we can see the dogs’ ears perk up when the lights start dancing. We can feel the thrum of energy gather, the pull of the sled away from us. We are running faster than ever now, the smell of snow on the wind, the feel of cold deepening the closer we get to the river.

Of storms and smoke and summertime

Beside our dirt road, the cottongrass blooms in clusters, rising out of a watery ditch. I rub the soft, silky fibers between my fingers and close my eyes. It’s the downy undercoat of shedding sled dogs, growing somehow out of the ground. We called it “dogflower” those first few summers, and that’s what we call it still. The white, cottony tufts dot a broad green swath of tundra that rolls interminably to the west and north. The land drops in a forested fold down to Panguingue Creek and rises again, a few times, til it reaches a high, barren ridgeline. We have our own name for that one, too. Wolf Ridge.

I walk out to the sunwashed bluff behind the cabin and see the smoke settle and lift and settle again in the creases of birch- and alder-filled creek bottoms. The sun is a mean red eye that hovers over Wolf Ridge for a little while, warning us of wildfires to the north and west. Reminding us of all we stand to lose. I turn around and see the dogs. See Bullock lounging on his house behind a little altar of purple fireweed. See T-Bone, with his leg and tail hanging off the side of his house while he sleeps. Piper, always watching me, ears flickering up and back down with every step I take. All 27 of them in their quiet, fairytale yard, surrounded by spruce that now seem less like a shelter from the wind and more like a box of matches waiting to be struck.

The summertime clouds of my Texas childhood march across the Alaskan skyscape. Towering cumulonimbus rife with electricity. Dark grey and black and roiling. Or glowing florescent pink at midnight, an extension of the alpenglow-lit faces of the Outer Range. The flashing lightning that seemed to buzz straight into my bloodstream and the booming thunder that elicited screams of delight from the childhood me now produce a different reaction. A quickening of the pulse, to be sure, but out of worry instead of thrill. A constant scanning of the horizon for the dreaded white plume.

And now the wind has shifted and the smoke has blown away in a dirty smudge on the horizon. From upstairs the high mountains ring my viewshed, sharp and clean and crystal clear. Oh, to be a nomad out in that hinterland again. Our only home a warming tent. Our only transport a dog team. Our only provisions what we carry. The cold air freshening our lungs as we inhale and exhale in white, steaming puffs. Our minds gentle with the knowledge that nothing can be taken from us.

-KKP

The Quest

The reflective trail markers blink in the arc of my headlamp and by now the dogs instinctively drive toward them. We have been on the trail for a week and a half, and for the past 800 miles the trail markers have been this torch light to follow – this lone constant in a maze of wildly changing extremes. They twinkle along the edge of a steep trail lined with trees and then the trees fall away. The dogs surge forward and I set my toes on the drag brake, laughing a little. We have 150 miles to go in the Yukon Quest 1,000-Mile International Sled Dog Race and my 12 dogs are sprinting up Rosebud Summit, chasing caribou in the dark. Their noses are lifted, nostrils drawing in some tantalizing current and turning it into energy, and I can feel it. I lift my head, too, and see those glittering trail markers ascend perilously upward, outlining various lanes on a narrow gravel summit virtually free of any kind of shoulder. I find out later that the multiple trails were lathed in case of a windstorm during which one of those travel options would become a hanging cornice of wind-blasted snow. I stomp my sharpest snow hook into the frozen gravel and walk ahead of my dogs, making the mistake of shining my light down either side of the ridge. I walk back and kneel down next to Solo and Littlehead. I tell Solo I need him to be on his A game up here. I step back onto the runners and pull up the hook and the dogs continue to surge along, ears forward, intent on hunting. I stop them again and again and remind them that here is where we will take it easy. Here is where we will walk. It feels like we have gained well over a thousand feet in elevation when I see the trail markers pitch unbelievably upward again. I turn my headlamp on its highest setting to be sure, but the reflective markers stay the same brightness. I shine the light back onto my dogs and realize we are marching steadily into the sky itself, the glittering stars perched just above the horizon line mimicking the lathes. A faint aurora swirls its green scarf around us. It feels like we are floating. My gut turns sour, recognizing before the rest of me that something bad is happening. We are falling.
At first, we pass the glowing markers in what feels like slow motion. The way a rollercoaster car seems to hover over the edge just before it drops. And then the sled begins to vibrate as it picks up speed over the gravel. I am balanced on the thin metal brake bar, digging its sharp teeth into the bare ground as heavily as I can. My knees are bent and I am tucked into the back of my sled, trying to become one with it. The dogs suddenly swerve to the side of the trail – a caribou carcass wasted by hunters – and my sled fishtails, catching an edge hard and flipping. My body lands on the ground but my hands grasp the handlebar yet. I drag for a hundred feet or so and the dogs come to a stop. I stomp a snow hook into the ground and turn the sled back onto its runners. The pitch is so steep that the sled glides forward past its bridle and hangs there against the snow hook line. I take a few deep breaths and pull the hook.
Within seconds we reach warp speed again, the incandescent trail markers creating a blurred and brilliant boundary for this uncontrollable hell. The sled is vibrating so hard that the action I see before me takes on a flip book-like quality: My wheel dogs, Hoss and Bullock, are nearly crouched with their front legs outstretched, pushing hard into the earth, trying to stop. Hoss and Bullock look back nervously. Hoss and Bullock start to fall. In front of them, Ox and Iron start to fall. The sled begins to overtake the dogs. I flip the sled on purpose this time, hoping the friction of the sled on its side will slow it down enough to keep from running over my team. I land hard on my right elbow for the fifth time over the course of this race and the pain is nearly unbearable. The trail takes a sharp right turn and we come to a stop beneath a sizable tree. I lay under the sled for a few moments, stifling sobs. What’s the point of crying. Nobody cares. Nobody can hear you. I crawl out from under the sled and walk up to Solo, apologizing to all the dogs that I couldn’t keep them safe. He jumps on me, wagging his tail, licking the tears off my face. That answers that! I think to myself. What is there to do but keep going?

Back on the Yukon 160 miles earlier, the wind howled ferociously. Curtains of blown snow whipped across the ice – we could see them in the distance like big white sheets curling and unfurling on a mile-long clothesline. Trail markers lay like fallen soldiers, splintered from being run over by sleds. I was in the first stages of a gripping panic. Lance was just ahead of me, I thought, but then his team was a long, dark ghost in the far distance, already across the river from us. The next team was a day behind us, and the trail was disappearing. Solo hopscotched from one patch of snow to the next, linking them together over wind-polished glare ice peppered with sharp shale. The chinook was incessant and warm, and as we hugged turns in the river and thus became sheltered from it, the remnant -30 F cold seeped up from the newly cemented watercourse – a bitter reminder of the fickle flux of this place. Alongside the frozen ramparts of jumble ice, the dogs’ ears perked up and they stared at the ground. They could hear the water pulsing below. Beyond, the Yukon was a cracked and expansive sea, claiming the landscape entire. We kept stopping for one reason or another. The dogs found prior teams’ snacks on the ground and stopped to chew them out of the ice. The dogs chewed off their booties and the booties had to be replaced. The dogs got tangled. I became unreasonably short with them, telling them we needed to keep up. I began panicking about falling too far behind and being alone. The more I worried, the less motivated the dogs became. I stopped and pulled on my parka, realizing a reset was needed as the insidious cold infiltrated my layers. I thought about Brent saying attitude is everything. I remembered to believe in my dogs. I thought about Mandy on this exact stretch of trail last year. She left Circle and struck out onto the Yukon with Brian Wilmshurst, relieved to travel the lonesome 50-mile stretch to Slavens with another team. Then Brian had to turn around and drop a dog. Mandy was on her own, and now I know that scary gut-punch feeling she must have had of being on the Yukon all by herself. It ended up being her best run of the entire race. Her dogs loved the windblown ice. They loved the challenge of finding their own trail.
As the sun descended behind a gunmetal wall of lenticular clouds, shards of light glowed on the distant mountains back from whence we came. For us, it would be into the wind. Into the clouds and into the dark. The dogs faced forward as another gust ruffled their fur. They were silent, patient, composed, self-possessed. They were on an adventure. They were on a new trail. They were not scared. I looked at my sled and saw that it had everything we needed to survive out here. Everything I had learned in the last lifetime of learning was within my power. I was capable. We needed no one. Wordlessly, we glided on into the coming night. The only witnesses to our transformation were the wolves who traveled wraithlike on the periphery, welcoming us in their way to a lone wildness that transcended geography and became in turn the fact of who we were while we were out there.

Copper Basin 300

I had stopped the team after any combination of potential leaders had failed to move us forward. Littlehead was sleeping in the sled bag with a sore wrist, Shane had been spooked irrevocably by fireworks shot at the team leaving Chistochina, & Andy-dog had put in as much effort & energy in one run as most dogs do in ten. I wasn’t even sure at that point that I was on the trail, as I hadn’t seen a blaze for some time. It had been twenty hours since we left the last checkpoint. It had been nineteen since Littlehead came up a little lame. In the meantime, I had been sprinting from the sled to the team, back & forth, switching dogs around, giving encouragements, essentially consolidating weeks of leader training into one very long run. We had camped along the trail, next to Kristin’s team. We, like everyone else, had plowed through twelve inches of pure sugar snow the whole way, along seemingly never-ending straight lines cut through the black spruce. I had developed a bit of trenchfoot & a corona of blisters around my heels & found walking, running & pushing or pulling the sled uphill a bit of a challenge. & so, twenty hours in to that run & nine hours after our last camp, we figured alright, enough, let’s camp again. As I kicked in a little pullout in the deep snow, my team quiet behind me, I heard a dog team howling to go close by. It was decidedly a team getting hooked up—there is no mistaking the enthusiasm in that sound. It was only a few miles away—I had almost camped the dogs within earshot of Mendeltna.

It was a process indicative of the entire race for me. I created a race plan based not on what was best for the dogs, but what I thought best suited the training we had done. I didn’t account for snow conditions or hills or the pressure of a race. I didn’t account for any of the variables that you absolutely have to consider in running a successful race. & accordingly, I walked a very fine line for 310 miles, verging precipitously on blowing up my dog team. I made all of the errors that you wish you never had to make yourself. I knew better, but knowing intellectually & knowing viscerally are two very different things. What I figured I would never do I now know I will never do, if only because it was such an enduringly difficult feat for us to right a race that started in paucity of rest.

The first run to Chisto was good in terms of dog performance. Kristin & I had an interesting tangle during a pass during which her sled’s bridle hitched itself to my claw brake just in time for our snowhooks to pop. Our teams were inadvertently hitched together until they weren’t. Thanks to Nic for catching my team once it loosed itself.

& once we bedded down in Chisto, we regarded a very loud, very busy checkpoint wherein fifty hot teams of dogs interpreted the idea of rest quite variably, you could say. In any event, we should have trusted our teams to rest appropriately, as they trained to do all winter out at Alpine Creek in the presence of other dogs. Instead, we stayed just three hours, hoping to get in front of the bulk of the teams that would tear up trail conditions. It would have been a fine plan had we considered topography & trail conditions more appropriately. It didn’t help that within a few hundred yards of leaving the checkpoint, someone shot fireworks at dog teams. Kristin made it through fine after yelling at the responsible party. I didn’t realize they were shooting them at the teams or I likely would have been arrested. I saw them burst overhead & then I saw my very frightened leader try to turn around & come to me as quickly as possible along the gangline, making for a giant tangle. Shane had been on edge after the sonic booms we hear periodically on the Denali Highway in training (it’s an air force training grounds), but this sent him to a new place. For the rest of the race, he wouldn’t run anywhere but in wheel. Headlights scared him to the point of stopping. Noises got him jittery. People don’t really consider the full consequences of their actions, I don’t suppose, or if they do, they are bereft of some essential compass to guide them. In losing a leader right away, I was set up for a very trying & long run.

By the time we got to Meier’s Lake, I had three of our biggest dogs in my sled bag & was out front of the team pulling on the gangline with a leash to help us up the hills. I had relied on Littlehead the whole way & she needed a break, so I put Loretta up front a few miles out on the pipeline trail & she brought us in. Until the Mendeltna run, it was the longest run of my life in terms of challenges & exertion.

Meier’s into Sourdough was fairly fun, actually. The trail demanded a good deal of sled handling, winding through thickly treed forest, up & down quick hills. The dogs felt good & it showed.

Leaving Sourdough they still looked great until an hour down the trail , when Little came up lame. She had a sore bicep & we got her off her feet quickly enough that she was able to run again later. I put a shoulder coat on her & against all of her protests got her in my sled bag to bed down & enjoy the ride. From that point on, with Little & Shane both out of commission, I was in leader training mode. Mendeltna was so far away & I wasn’t sure I’d make it there at all, let alone in a timely fashion. Once I did, I hobbled around the dog chores, rubbed by own feet with emu oil & caught a few hours of sleep. JJ & Nora had come along as our handlers & did an amazing job throughout of remaining positive & energetic & helpful even as it was evident that we were slogging through certain sections. I was incredibly grateful for their help at Mendeltna especially.

When I awakened there, I knew that the bulk of my work was behind me. I had worked almost in fifty yard splits with the dogs for the last two runs, building Loretta’s sense of what it was to lead, working up Andy-dog’s confidence, getting Tex some time up front too. I left Mendeltna with Littlehead & Andy up front & switched Andy out for Loretta about twenty miles in. She got it. That little girl (a yearling) took us the remaining 45 miles without a single problem, enjoying herself along the way. We cruised the last leg, with the dogs settled in, the leader woes cleared away, & the mood of the team vastly improved by a good rest & some good massage work at the checkpoint,. The yearlings were playing tug of war with booties found along the trail. They were speeding up with overflying ravens, nipping at one another, feeling positive & looking good. I just ski-poled & smiled the whole way.

When we pulled around the corner of the Hub & saw the finish line, we heard a chorus of cheers go up. Kristin & JJ & Nora & the Squids & Matt & Kate were all there, ready to help unharness & feed & assist in any way. It felt wonderful after all of that to bring a happy team across the finish line & into the company of such good friends. The Squids both had amazing races & hadn’t exactly slept a great deal & nor had their handlers, & here they all were to cheer us on. Extraordinarily good people abound, once you find them. I tried in crossing the line to see Kristin’s reaction to Loretta powering her way through in lead. I was so proud of her performance.

All told, it was an invaluable race due to the lessons it reinforced in us. We didn’t run particularly well, or plan the race appropriately, or do very many things right, really. But those mistakes we made we won’t make again. & in the meantime, I crossed the finish line with a yearling looking like an old pro in lead. It was enough of a slog that nostalgia won’t do its usual ruinous work on memory (to borrow a Chabon phrase) & I won’t be glowing about the experience & pining to do it again, but I will hold the lessons it taught me very close at hand in races to come.

Until then, better get back to the bandsaw. The Quest is right around the corner for my lovely wife, with dropbags due on Saturday. Plenty of time to rest up come May, maybe.

-AP

Imprints

The imprint was how we knew. How I knew, really. Who knows what dogs perceive in this situation. But the imprint of the caribou’s body on the deep, soft snow was how I knew the wolves must have been successful. Their tracks were so fresh and so surprising that it appeared the pack dropped from the sky. One of my leaders slowed and turned her face, and that’s when the high, lonesome howls rang out from the gnarled alders at the trail’s edge. The dogs’ pace quickened as snow spilled away from the runners and we plunged eastward into darkness.

The sled tracks ended and we continued; fine, sparkling powder fluffing around the dogs’ legs and frosting the fur around their faces. The waning daylight muted the folds and shadows of rolling topography and the shock of an early afternoon sunset glowed magenta beneath peeling clouds. As it always does, the silent purity of unbroken trail became punctuated and pocked, punched through with the weight of a thousand pounds. Half the moose in the harem trotted north, upslope, while three bulls loped south – their giant antlers silhouetted against the fast-slipping sun. Lavender and rose and so much white. The heart-quickening exclamation of deep, chocolate brown moving so eloquently against it all.

The headlights appeared at the crest of the hill right as I finished untangling a tugline. I hopped on the runners and said “Alright!” and the dogs lunged against their harnesses. The engine was loud and the exhaust created a fog around the team when a woman’s panicked voice pierced through all of it. “Wait!” she yelled. “Wait! My husband is back there and I lost track of him! I can’t turn this machine around and you’re heading that way, so can you please make sure he’s all right?” and that’s when the glowing green eyes came toward us. Folding back on their teammates, the leaders created a mess of snarls and growls and twisted lines and before long Solo was on his back. Five mouths tore into his belly and legs as tangled dogs took out their frustration and confusion on the nearest scapegoat. I grabbed the leader line and hauled it up as hard as I could, unraveling the knot of angry dogs and finally pulling it taut. Breathless, I collapsed on my knees in front of the team. Solo had a gaping hole in his groin and a half-dozen puncture wounds in his leg.
“I need a vet,” I said.
We were 62 miles down the trail.

At Alpine Creek Lodge, a space was cleared on the bunkhouse floor. Owners Claude and Jen were suited and booted and out the door in minutes, headed down the trail to help Andy with the two dog teams. Ania and Chrissy and Bob laid on the floor next to us. Solo’s head was in my lap while strangers’ hands petted him, held his legs, held first aid supplies, expertly packed his wounds with sterile gauze soaked in sterile solution, patted my back. Solo licked the tears off my cheeks as our vet Jayne’s voice crackled through the phone line. “He’s going to be OK. Dogs are amazing,” she said. Strangers’ voices spoke kind words. Strangers brought me dinner. These strangers were guests staying at the remote lodge and they dropped everything to help us. One of them was a nurse who may have found her calling as a vet tech. Three of them were members of a group called the Motorheads – a club of extraordinary gentlemen who ride their snowmachines all over the state and who also happen to adore Downton Abbey. These three men – Bob, Steve and Ed – agreed to haul Solo and I the nearly 70 miles down the trail to the closest veterinarian first thing in the morning.
As nurse Colleen put the finishing touches on Solo’s bandages, Andy came through the back door of the lodge. He had driven in my team and was about to go back out for the yearling team when Bob Bondy said, “Mom and dad are bringing them in.” While Andy was busy securing my team, Claude and Jen had gone out to where the yearling team was being watched by a snowmachiner and turned the team around. Claude lit the way with his snowmachine while Jen stepped on the runners and drove the 11 dogs back to the lodge.
The next morning, a sled was filled with straw, a sleeping bag, a dry bag of clothes, an extra sterile bandage and some dog food. I climbed in and Solo crawled right into my lap. We were covered with a sleeping bag and off we went. The Motorheads came up with a series of hand signals for me. They stopped and checked in every ten miles. They had someone ahead and someone behind. They watched us every second to make sure we were safe and sound. They wiped the snow off Solo’s face and offered me hot coffee.

We pulled into Dr. Jayne’s empty parking area and got Solo inside. As the Motorheads drove away I felt my eyes well up with tears. Jayne was returning from Palmer and would not arrive until 7 p.m. She made me a dinner of homemade soup and bread and fresh salad. She gave Solo some delicious frozen treats. She gave us a bed to sleep in and in the morning she made me french toast to fortify me for my return journey down the Denali Highway and then performed surgery on my soulmate lead dog upon whom I will depend to lead me down the Yukon Quest trail. The Bondy family provided me with a snowmachine to drive the 65 miles back to the lodge, but I had only been on a snowmachine once in my life. So Lynn and Bub, our dear friends from Cantwell, drove out to the trailhead in the morning and showed me what I needed to know. They got the machine off the trailer, started it, handed me a bag of homemade sandwiches and cookies (still warm) and sent me on my way. Two hours later I pulled into Alpine Creek, got on a dogsled and mushed the 65 miles back to the truck. By the time we arrived at Jayne’s it was 11 p.m. Solo was wide awake and trying to play with Jayne’s dogs despite his three drains and a new set of sutures.

It was 2:30 in the morning when our heads hit the pillow, but I couldn’t sleep. Of course my thoughts were a flurry of worry for my precious dog, stretched out on the bed between us now and groaning occasionally with the pain of his bruised and stitched abdomen and leg. But they also were a flood of gratitude for the people of the North. The mushers who held my hand and guaranteed another dog would step up and take the lead for me. It happened to them too, once. On the Iditarod trail. On the Quest. On the Serum Run. Someone will step up and surprise you, they said. Maybe they’ve been waiting to be up there in front of that team their whole life! The strangers whose “mission of mercy” will doubtless be the basis for years of friendship. The people who over the seasons have now become our family, who without hesitation sprung into action and generously provided one solution after another to a logistical nightmare. And the sense of humor and adventure they all possess not only to survive the remote Alaskan winter but to flourish in it. What a wonder that in the heart of such an unforgiving wilderness the hearts of its inhabitants are so genuine. And what an overwhelming gift to know that windblown, lonesome trail is in fact the way home.

Variations on a Theme of 10 mph

It’s 3:04 a.m. and the alarm chimes a cheerful wake-up call. “Remember how you chose this? YOU actually set this alarm a few hours ago! For 3 a.m.! You are crazy!”
Unbelievably, we are full of energy. We really can’t wait to see how the dogs will do today. We quietly creak open the door of our room at Alpine Creek Lodge – an oasis of hospitality and winter weather in the desert that is Alaska this season. We pad out to the kitchen in our socks and fill up buckets of hot water, don hats, gloves and insulated bibs in the dark and head out the door.
One clank of the bucket against a thigh and the sound of our voices sets T-Bone off in an instant. Then Trixie. Then Bullock. Then Hoss. Then everyone. Breakfast time is here!
Quickly we spread out an array of bowls on the snow. One of us measures out supplements like probiotics and psyllium while the other ladles warm, meaty water and kibble into each bowl. We feed the loudest dogs first to try to give the other mushers and the family who run the lodge as much peace and quiet as possible. After breakfast we go around to each dog and say good morning, scooping poop along the way. On a day when we’re being nice to ourselves, we would head inside for human breakfast, and at the lodge we are always in for a real treat – moose bacon with the perfect amount of crisp; eggs scrambled with caribou sausage; pancakes with blueberries picked this season or better yet, blueberry baked oatmeal! Chrissy knows just how to get mushers to totally veer off any schedule they may have!
But today, our stomachs rumble as we harness the dogs, load them up in the truck and drive a few dozen miles away. We stop the dog truck – a one-ton diesel dually flatbed with a gigantic box on it to hold all 23 sled dogs in our team – and turn around. We unravel a seemingly neverending gangline and start clipping dogs in one at a time. By the time 23 crazy, barking dogs are lunging into their harnesses, the truck is jolting forward and rocking back. There is no question what they want – to go and go NOW!
We oblige them with a shift of the gear and we’re off! We keep the speed at about 10 mph for hours – our bodies becoming way more stiff and sore than they would be on a sled. But just watching the dogs is exhilarating. How they start a run, what they do after a snack break, how a dog might change whether he or she is in the front of the team or the back, how everyone congeals so beautifully the more hours they run together in harness. The most gratifying part is that when we stop at the end of a run, no matter how long it is, they are so very happy! Many of the veterans on our team are disappointed that they can’t keep going, and they will not hesitate to let you know it.
Back at the lodge, everyone rests peacefully on a dropline strung through the trees. They nestle into their straw or cozy into their coats if it’s cold. Our breath turns to smoke in the waning light and we realize we are whispering. The alpenglow on the mountains is dazzling as the sun says goodnight to the Susitna River valley. There must be more than a hundred dogs here, yet silence prevails. It is a sacred hour and such an earned and satisfying peacefulness to have a yard full of quiet, sleeping dogs. They doze and dream while we pack away a warm meal and set the alarm for a few hours from now.

-KKP