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.