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.