Full Moon

The headlamp was fading anyway, so I turned it off and let my eyes adjust on the dogs’ dark shadows. The moonlight soaked into my skin and brought something out of me that had been hiding all summer, like the sun coaxes blossoms from tight-lipped buds. I sighed and watched the bright, white mountains roll by beside us. To the north, a shimmer of green began to ooze from dark blue twilight. We had been downtrodden, and hooking up a dogteam for a night run after a full day of work was so unappealing. But we did it anyway. Can you believe we would have missed this?
We made the sharp left turn onto our exit trail and the thick forest darkened around the team. I thoughtlessly slid the sled around one tree and then another. Jealous announcements from the rest of the dogs heralded our arrival home, and as we put everyone back on their houses our movements slowed down to halftime. Our eyes were lifted and mesmerized by pulsing, intertwined ropes of green that swirled around each other and spiraled down onto the ridgeline behind the house. The aurora became a fine-toothed comb. The aurora became a cyclone.
The fish stew boiled and steam met the night air in a puff of white. The cabin lights burned amber from the windows. We stood on the edge of disbelief, and also on the edge of Panguingue Creek. What kind of a thing is that, where you look upon the very feeling in your heart? A thrumming, living fullness. And there it was, lighting up the sky.

(This entry was cross-posted at www.kristinknightpace.com)

Preseason Update

It’s been a predictably hectic summer season here at Hey Moose! Kennel. We’ve had the full host of ups & downs, from the great joy of being joined by three new puppies to the regrettable confrontation between our truck & a moose to the terrifying grizzly visitor we had at the dog yard. We’ve busied ourselves with the construction of more heat pens, a safer exit trail & a thousand small things besides. & though the rain has been almost inescapable up until August, we’ve managed to make headway with all of the projects we need to have in place before snow flies.

We wanted to fill you in on our winter plans. The big news, of course, is that Kristin has signed up for the 2015 Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race. She’ll be starting in Whitehorse, Canada, & mushing her way to Fairbanks. The race starts on February 7, when we average close to five hours of sunlight & when temperatures plummet to 50 below fairly regularly. The Yukon Quest has eight checkpoints along the way, so Kristin & the dogs will grow accustomed to camping along the trail or holing up in hospitality cabins along the way. It is very much a wilderness race that exposes its athletes to an unfiltered interaction with everything winter has to offer. We are so thrilled to be running the Quest as our first 1,000 mile race.

In preparation, we’ll be running two teams in the Copper Basin 300 in January. Kristin ran a team last year & did a wonderful job. She’s eager to return with a firsthand knowledge of the trail & with a dog team that knows every bend & turn along the way. It will be a great training run for the Quest & will allow her a chance to look over the core group of dogs she’ll be taking along the 1,000 miler. Andy will be running the B team, showing the yearlings all the joys of racing, likely at a more leisurely pace. It’s going to be a thrill for us to have two teams in a race for the first time.

We’ll also be heading out to Eureka for our annual visit with the humans & dogs of Squid Acres & Wild & Free. We’ll see if we can’t put together another Eureka Invitational this year. It’s a wonderful chance to expose all of our dogs to race-like conditions while spending time with some of our favorite people.

Andy will likely be doing one more race as well, but time will tell which one. Additionally, after our life-changing expedition in the Arctic last year, we’re eager to get out for some extended trips with the dogs on our own time as well. We may be spending a good portion of time out at Wonder Lake in Denali National Park, & afterwards, we’ll be trucking up the Dalton Highway to head back into the vast paradise of the Itkillik Valley again. When you find a place that fills you with that much wonder, you’d be crazy not to return. It’s such a rich & unparalleled experience for dogs & humans alike– we think about it literally every day.

It’s going to be a full season, start to finish. We’re presently in the process of querying potential sponsors, updating our website for the coming season & putting together some Hey Moose! Kennel merchandise. We’re also designing a by-the-mile sponsorship program for Kristin’s Quest bid, so keep your eyes peeled on the site for updates in that regard.

As always, our success here continues to depend on the hard work of family, friends & fans. A huge thank you to Andy’s brother Jason for keeping up our website, Kristin’s brother Jared for his continued media support in the form of awesome videos (more to come!) & to all of the sponsors & fans that have visited & helped us along the way.

-ap

Summer update

A few weeks ago, it was the sandhill cranes overhead, one flock & then another, another. Then it was the varied thrushes at morning, the drizzle lingering into the daylight. Now, we have said goodbye to the dark of night & listen for the cue of the Swainson’s thrush instead to toll us to sleep.

& with the summer, our attentions turn from all of the details of running dogs to all of the details that allow us to do so in the first place. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have loved ones from Outside stop in to visit. Tom & Patty got to meet the infamous Tinman at long last, after sponsoring him through last race season. Uncle Tom & Aunt Kathy met everyone—notably the more socially presentable sisters of Kabob & Littlehead. & in their visiting, it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to go over some of the basic elements of our day to day.

Our beautiful dogs, for starters, are Alaskan Huskies. Back in gold rush times, every dog that wasn’t chained up was brought north to help in freighting or mushing, however ill-suited or curiously sized. Those breeds, combined with the favored malamutes, Mackenzie River dogs & huskies that preceded them in traditional use, eventuated in a sort of mongrel breed suited best for distance racing. You may notice that sprint racing dogs tend to be houndier, short-coated, barrel-chested & built for speed. Alaskan huskies are bred out of their pure love of running & are built accordingly.

Certain kennels prefer a certain size of dog. Allen & Aliy at SP Kennel, for instance, have beautiful teams of 35-45 lb. dogs from lead on back to wheel. We tend to favor a 65 lb. male & a smaller female. The advantages or disadvantages of size are varied & are given to much theorizing into the small hours of the night by many among us. In the end, while the biomechanics are weighed & measured, sometimes you just prefer one kind of a dog over another. Sometimes you form a relationship with one size dog & are so impressed by his or her performance that you want to duplicate it in breeding. A quick look at the variety in size & shape among the famous lead dogs & you’ll see that there is no one answer. Like everything with this sport, all variables are considered in the eventuation of a successful dog run, right down to what you ate for breakfast.

Some folks have asked us why we chose the original dogs that we did. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to very deliberately & patiently bring together dogs out of proven genetics that fit our expectations in terms of size, build & temperament. We were incredibly fortunate to hit the nail on the head with the help of our friends & mentors. We could not be prouder of our dogs & we’re absolutely floored by their capacities on a daily basis.

Right now, that capacity tends to manifest itself as a huge desire to play & sprint full throttle. We take our dogs for free walks in the tundra & the creek in small, manageable groups. It’s a great way to let them just be dogs & to see pure joy writ large on their faces. It also lets us spend quality time with them as well, while watching with keen interest how the puppies & yearlings interact with their elders. Much can be told from such observation.

On evenings that are colder or wetter with rain, we’ll run a small string of dogs with the ATV. Otherwise, we spend a great deal of time in the construction & maintenance of a functional dog yard & home. We build new dog houses, drive new posts, fix pens, clip nails, split firewood, fid lines, inventory gear & do everything we can to organize ourselves before the first snowfall, when we are assured that all of our efforts at organization will explode in the usual detritus of harnesses, coats, ruffs, liner gloves & booties strewn every which way about the cabin. We’ve even found a little bit of time to tend to some of the human comforts at home, like putting in some grass seed, planting some vegetables & flowers & working on the cabin a bit. & we’re both training for trail races this summer as well in order to position ourselves well for winter fitness. Kristin will be making her trail racing debut with the Granite Tors trail run, a fifteen miler that attains to some beautiful heights. & I finally got my golden ticket for Mount Marathon down in Seward. A few weeks after that, I’ll run Crow Pass Crossing again, which is the most fun you’ll ever have in a wilderness marathon. In the fall I’ll try the Kesugi Ridge marathon too—who knows if I’ll throw anything else in there. It’s paramount for us to be able to understand what it feels like to push ourselves physically toward specific goals, as we ask that of our dogs every day in the winter. Too, it sure makes the thought of pushing a sled up Eagle Summit easier to stomach when you’ve done some legwork to prepare yourself.

Yes, the manufacture of the dream moves forward always, even when it seems like we ought to be idling on top of a dog house taking in the brief rays of the summer sun.

-ap

After the Arctic

To the south, for miles unimaginable, the Brooks Range at its northern terminus, buried in deep snow, some giant jawbone dropped over the country with cragged peaks & rolling foothills dissolving into the blue wisp of the horizon. The great valleys yawning between mountains too numerous to bear names, or, alternately, so beautiful that they bear two. Behind us, the tattered ribbon of our trail, hardpacked where the wind scalloped the snow, or beat to shreds from the heft of twenty-four dogs busting out a path, geeing & hawing up & over rises & buried tundra benches until the entire country seemed to sing out before us. We knew we were not the first to see Itkillik Valley from that perspective & we know we won’t be the last, but here is the central beauty of travel by dogteam: it is always a process of discovery.

I think back to childhood notions of explorers & adventurers, to the mythical & epic journeys to the poles or over the rolling tussocks of the Arctic or along the winding, circuitous trails we now get to race. The thrill & thrum of the world, the heart there on the line, the senses heightened in anticipation of something entirely unknown—& I think now that all of the central & vital features of adventure find no better vehicle than travel by dog team. These icons of discovery that named these uncharted places pushed themselves into a wilderness not in hopes of conquest, but communion. We don’t look at wilderness with any sense of propriety; we advance into it in order to try to garner some sense of what it feels like to be a part of that vastness, that humbling, unsentimental unity that is beyond human tendency, beyond any lexicon we know.

& so to mirror that onward march of humility, mushing makes of us even less. The dogs, in their pure enthusiasm & joy, in their unfettered commitment to moving forward, reduce us to the most utterly simple mechanisms of living. Our egos falter & then, fragile things, try to call out again for recognition, but it’s a dog’s health, an untangled tugline, a snowball stuck in the pad that wins our attention. It’s the gait of the leaders breaking trail, or the glances back to the driver from the yearlings. It’s the soft encouragements & the ebullient exclamations. Everything, everything, canine or human, reduces to the basic mission of joyfully moving forward into the unknown.

With dogs, there is no actual dissembling. You can pretend that you’re happy or unafraid or angry, but pretending will always fail. & so you have to actually force yourself to believe what you want the dogs to believe. & this is why I think mushing is perhaps the purest form of adventure. When you are afraid on the runners, as you likely should be the great majority of the time, you can’t turn from your fear in any way. You have to face it, greet it, lend it a runner so it can guide you too, & in the entire process you have to find pure joy. I have run up mountains behind the sled singing encouragements while the wind whipped us at 40 mph & darkness swallowed us whole, not knowing what awaited on the other side of a summit. & because my dogs needed me too, I absolutely loved it, every step of the way, with all sincerity. I willed myself to love it & I believed that love to be true, & so it was. Running up hills with dogs, we laugh & shout, we yawp at the wind, celebrate the elements. If the dogs don’t believe that you & your fear are friends, they won’t have any model for reconciling their own reservations.

I suspect that the great adventurers in bygone eras encountered something similar in their own travels. No honest man or woman faces this kind of country absent of fear. But it’s something that you harness, hook up & move forward, into & through whatever wide swath of country lies ahead, discovering it anew regardless of what scratches & syllabaries sully the map already.

-AP

200 Miles

On the dark horizon they swirled, dipped and spun – distant, green tornadoes of light rimmed in purple. They dimmed and coruscated under a wide, undulating arc, then turned off altogether suddenly, leaving the small moon to cast its solitary light on the snow. In a tunnel beneath all that, strung out before me in perfect unison, the dogs and their long strides encapsulated by my headlamp.
Only minutes before, I was slamming hard onto the ground. The multi-tool in my right pocket absorbed the impact and left a multi-tool-shaped bruise on my right thigh. I dragged behind my sled and woah’d the dogs to a stop, then carefully tipped the sled back upright, orchestrating a well-timed step directly back onto the runners as the dogs swept us on down the trail. I was tired and feeling unmotivated, questioning the necessity for sleep deprivation and racing in general. Many of us find ourselves doing this in the middle of a race. Why couldn’t I just go on a nice, leisurely camping trip with my dogs and my husband? Why would anyone with a modicum of sanity choose this madness? Breathlessly I swung my sled around huge trees, narrowly avoiding their 3-foot-diameter trunks (trees that big are hard to come by in the North) and calmly told the dogs, “Easy….take it easy.” And then the trail spat us out onto a placid meadow, giving us the reward of the aurora flaming silently out there in the ether. A gift we never would have noticed had we been sleeping comfortably in our beds.
Fast-forward through another checkpoint: Snowhook down, snacks to dogs, booties off, straw on the ground, water heated, meal fed, sleep for an hour, booties on, one more snack and we pull the hook. Into the dawn and rising sun, the wind begins to whip the birch. Stopping permits us a second to hear the rush and ebb of that invisible current through thousands of bare branches. We are off again and the dogs are hunting. Playing with each other, wagging their tails. What’s that high in the trees? Ears perked in perfect triangles. Eyes focused forward. They sprint after birds, chirping squirrels, hissing lynx. We follow a bluff ten feet above a snow-covered riverbed awash in sunshine. We run 35 miles in 3.5 hours, rest for two and do it again. It’s the last leg of the race and I have 11 of the 12 dogs with whom I started.
One year ago, we realized we had no lead dogs. We stopped in the middle of our season and chose six promising dogs to train one-on-one. We attached them to our waists and ran through the mushing trails, instructing them on every command we’d ever want them to know. And now, here I am coming down a blind corner into a foot of water creeping over ice. I don’t see the two oncoming teams tangled in the slush until it’s too late. My leaders splash into the ice-blue drainage and take a ninety-degree turn one way then the other, weaving precisely through two teams of dogs parked parallel and facing us. They trot confidently through the narrow, dog-lined corridor and run right over the snowhooks of the two sleds and on down the trail. Eyes wide, I can say nothing but “Good, good dogs! Good, good dogs!”
Minutes later we cross a road where people cheer and take our picture. Suddenly, we are sprinting across an open meadow, my lead dog Solo holding his head high. He is prancing, showing off. I come to realize he has a piece of fish in his mouth that a previous musher has left on the trail. He carries it there for miles, proudly flaunting his prize. Gliding through the sunlight, I can think of nothing but how much I love our dogs. They are capable of such incredible stoicism, strength, athleticism, grace. They can run 100 miles a day. And yet, at the end of the day, Solo loves tennis balls. Zigzag and T-Bone yearn for belly rubs and will demonstrate this yearning to you in no uncertain terms. Kabob will rest her chin on your shoulder and lean into your chest, overcome with a loving stillness. Littlehead will clean out your ears, eyes and nose. Iron, Ox and Tinman will stare at you open-mouthed and excited, tails wagging low and fast, as they clasp onto you and give you kisses. Doug, Andy and Shane will let out their brotherly grumbles, sweet brown eyes imploring you to give them more scratches as they lean into each other. Norton’s ears become pinned to his head as he lowers himself to the ground, patiently waiting to spring on you and place his paws on your shoulders, resting his chin on the top of your head. Bullock Friend-Face is irresistible with his one ear up and one ear down as he stomps one foot and then the other while his tail wags, beseeching you to come his way and give him a butt-scratch.
And so that is the answer, I tell myself. Why do we put ourselves through this madness? The dogs live for this. They are at their best doing this. Running. Hunting. Chasing in the dark. We are on their schedule, not the other way around. Everything is about them, and everything is for them. And the exhilaration of just being a part of it, of being allowed into this intimate pack, is overwhelming. Not only having the privilege of seeing what they are capable of – this gorgeous team, flowing almost liquid down the trail – but having the privilege of being one of them for a couple hundred miles. Removed from everything else in the entire world except this very moment. The runners have become a part of my feet. The sled is an extension of my body. The dogs and I have a singular, beating heart. And on we rush, chasing shadows through the trees. Finding our wildness, primordial and pure. Following scents on the wind.
-KKP

Yukon Quest 300

Start

I can’t attempt to recall beginning this race without first recollecting the generosity of so many along the way, from friends & family to dog sponsors, from mentors to volunteers, veterinarians to trailbreakers to officials. This is a sport that depends entirely on the selfless, passionate investment of everyone involved, & the Yukon Quest in particular fosters such a sense of community & family that it overwhelms. The physical act of reaching the starting line in downtown Fairbanks alone required use of J.J.’s snowmachine, Jamie’s driveway, Anna & Josh’s front yard, Michael’s enduring work as a handler, Schiro’s support &, of course, Kristin’s constant companionship, help & positivity. All of that & I haven’t even mentioned the dogs yet.

Start-First Camp

After so much preparation, the actual circus of the starting line was the final bit of pomp & circumstance to wrap up before I could finally commit to my time on the trail with my dogs. Healy acquitted itself well, as friends & neighbors & co-workers all showed up to offer their support & encouragement. I was reminded, then & again, that we don’t run these races alone, & that at every milepost along the way, we continue to have that same support.

Once the countdown hit zero, Solo & Kabob pushed into their harnesses & we were off, doglegging down to the Chena & starting along on our river miles. As houses turned to cabins & cabins turned into remote hunting shacks, groups of onlookers stood around bonfires cheering on teams as they passed. Signs stood near bridges, spraypainted letters rooting for Wild & Free, for Team Squid (& clearly, I raised a fist & cheered for both). The trail was hard & fast with some icy grooves & sections of glare ice, but for the most part, without any particular challenge.

A hard left off the Chena put us on track to Two Rivers, winding through tight forested trail, in a labyrinth of trails that limned open meadows, skirted beaver ponds & stayed sound & stable through the spruce & birch. As night fell, it occurred to me that I didn’t actually ever ask what trail marker I should be following. On some trees, CDs hung, on others, multi-colored reflectors, & then for the YQ, black & orange blazes. For some time, I ran alone, until a flooding light swept in behind me & Ryne passed with a beautiful looking team of dogs. Afterward, we wound our way out toward Pleasant Valley. A family handed me a bagged lunch with a sandwich & brownie &, of all things, a napkin. The napkin, it turns out, kept Chase laughing all the way through his first run. We are so filthy on the trail that such a nicety becomes almost absurd—although the thought behind it was incredibly touching.

Passing Pleasant Valley store & geeing into the ditch trail, I had the surprise of getting to see Kristin & Michael cheering us along—an unexpected boon. The dogs kept their steady, excited trot as we crossed the Chena Hot Springs Road & started along some winding trails buffeted on either side by looming copses of birch. We passed a team camped, then another, then another as we continued toward our goal of a camp somewhere close to 60 miles in. I found a suitable spot, hooked in the team, snowshoed out a turn-off & got everyone fed & bedded down for a five hour break. I laid down & caught a few minutes of sleep, the temperature nice & mild, the stars bright & enthusiasm coursing through my veins.

First Camp-Mile 101

When the alarm sounded, I took off everyone’s coats, bootied them up, snacked them & readied to head off down the trail. We had about fifteen miles into Two Rivers checkpoint, with a couple open water crossings that took just a bit of human lead-dogging. The dogs were alert, excited, moving nicely. At Two Rivers, we stopped just long enough to grab a few things from my drop bags & leave a few things for Kristin & Michael to take from my sled. No straw necessary & no excess weight for this run, as Rosebud loomed twenty miles downtrail.

Out of Two Rivers the trail started to variegate & engage us more—I started feeling grateful for all of our time out in Eureka with the Squids & Brent, running those challenging trails in icy conditions. The glaciation started to rear its head, with hairpin turns that careened directly into angled walls of ice. We never knew what was coming, & each time the dogs saw the “X” of two crossed trail markers (signifying difficult terrain), they seemed to glory in it, speeding up to round each corner.

A mile before Rosebud, I pulled over to take off booties, snack the dogs & get myself a little salmon jerky & water. I knew with a good climb ahead they could use all the traction they could get, & I could use all the fuel I could get. Sebastian & Amanda passed while I was pulled off, & I didn’t see either of those fine-looking teams again on trail. I put Norton & Littlehead up front, thanking Solo & Kabob for all of their tireless work leading the team so far. Norton & Littlehead have proven themselves powerhouses on hills & in wind, & I needed their relentless positive drive.
Once I pulled the hook, we started gaining elevation right away, the trail sloping & gradual at first & then winding into serpentine switchbacks that climbed vermicular up the mountain. From the beginning, I lifted my drag break & pushed the sled, running behind. I’m a fan of running up hills most of the time. This one got a bit tiring somewhere along the way, I must admit, but chug along we did, stopping maybe twice up the main climb to catch our breath. The second stop, the sled was far enough above me that I couldn’t actually push it to get going without jumping. Iron & Doug were harness banging, cheerleading everyone along. Norty & Little did an amazing job, & up we climbed, the wind blowing sideways, visibility fairly low. Once we reached the first saddle, I knew we were having fun & started laughing & cheering along the dogs. They were incredible, & between every utterance, I’d shake my head & just say to myself, “unbelievable.”

The top of Rosebud & Boulder has a series of pyramidal castles that you climb rapidly & then descend in chutes that bear the ruts of teams that came before, ice deeply imbued with brown dirt. We were rocking our way up the hills, me sprinting behind, the dogs not missing a beat, until we came upon another team that stalled out. Tony had been unable to convince his dogs to get up one of the castles, so after talking, we decided I’d pull around & either try to motivate his team from the front or tie them off to my sled. Once I passed, his team perked right up & followed us no problem. On one of the steep chutes downhill, Doug took a misstep & hurt his shoulder a bit. When we hit treeline, I pulled over, giving the dogs congratulations. Tony pulled over behind & we re-bootied & snacked our dogs & both individually took in what we just experienced. Tony helped me put Doug in the sled bag & off we went. For one quarter mile.

Doug in a sled bag is one of those phenomena that cannot adequately be explained without the benefit of hearing him. He absolutely hates it. Kristin had to bag him coming into Tolsona on CB300, & we could hear him from two miles across the lake. He looks at you with these plaintive eyes & just howls, ceaselessly, more loudly than any dog in the history of mankind. You have to time your comments to the other dogs around the rare, brief pauses in his moaning. & all the while, he wrestles to escape.

As such, I ended up pulling over again to re-secure him & to wave Tony by. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but you’re going to know exactly where we are for the rest twenty miles.” He smiled & went along.
The twenty miles of indefatigable moaning led us through all kinds of overflow, some of it up over my knees. At one point, I had to lead Norton & Little out into a crossing & then tug the sled by the gangline to get it moving behind them. Little took a bit of a swim, but otherwise, the dogs did a great job of remaining calm even when they were presented with new challenges.
We finally crossed through the last section of overflow a half mile out from the checkpoint & arrived to find a dozen people with anxious looks on their faces. Doug’s moaning makes people think the worst. It sounds pretty convincingly like the beacon of the apocalypse. Once we pulled in & assuaged everyone’s fears, we got the team parked & bedded down for their first full vet check.
I gave massages, fed the dogs, got some food in my own belly thanks to the wonderful volunteers at 101, & managed to sneak in a good forty minutes of sleep or so. (My total by the end was six hours over four days).

Mile 101-Central

Keeping an eye on Eagle Summit, I made my way through starting preparations, got some good advice from the race officials, kissed my lovely wife goodbye & set out to go up & over Eagle Summit with dusk falling. Norty & Littlehead were up in front again for another climb. The team loosened up over the first couple miles & then we started ascending. There was a wind advisory, & we did have to do a bit of work to keep on track, but the dogs were focused & up we went. It was dark by the time we reached the saddle up top. We followed from tripod to tripod & by the time I saw the tire in place for setting a hook, I also saw Norty & Little starting down over a precipice unlike any I’d ever seen before. Folks had cautioned that for three to fifteen seconds, you just sort of freefall & do your best. It’s an interesting feeling seeing your team disappear in front of you, over the cusp, into the night on the steepest descent you’ll ever experience on the runners. In my recollection, this black hole of a drop looks a bit like that man-eating cave-monster thing in Star Wars at Jabba the Hut’s place, with the trail markers standing in for the crooked yellow teeth. The claw brake worked sporadically for just long enough to catch & release, & otherwise, I said “easy” a hundred times & sort of held my breath. & then, that part was over. Just like that. Terrifying, absolutely, & then, over. The dogs took the hard gee & started up the second saddle. The second descent is much, much longer than the first, & you sidehill down it, for the most part. The good news is, it’s slightly less steep, so you have some semblance of control. I like to be able to mean “easy” when I say “easy,” so that was a fine perk. Even still, we flew down that mountain in breathtaking time. Once we hit bottom & wound our way off of Eagle & on to the trail to Central, I took stock, took a deep breath & looked closely at my dog team to see how everyone was doing.

& here is the most extraordinary thing: those dogs seemed to almost metabolize the experience immediately into confidence. It was as if they looked around for a moment, said “holy hell, we just did that,” & then all congratulated themselves, puffed out their chests & started flying down the trail. To see young dogs take on such unspeakably challenging terrain & internalize it so proudly & confidently left me speechless in awe. I have never been prouder of those dogs.

So amped up & confident were the dogs that in our zooming along we ended up somehow missing one crucial haw & finding ourselves instead going off trail headfirst into a drainage that was precisely the width & length of a dog team. With a team of young males all jazzed up over Eagle Summit, I had to rig a Rube Goldberg contraption in order to have a safe & effective come-haw & get us back on track. After a half hour with that, we were again running into the night, ready for the next challenge.

Regarding the next challenge, it turned out Norton likes normal ice alright, just not ice of curious hues. On the creek, we hit a long stretch of ice maybe 30 feet wide & ½ mile long & we cruised right along until there was a small & sudden patch of brownish-black ice by a gravel bar. Norton laid down, all fours splayed out. It was actually pretty adorable for such a big & capable dog. Norton took some convincing, but along we went. The trail into Central for the last few miles was along tussocks & back trails that had been driven by a truck or ATV, so the ruts were persistently nagging & all of us got beaten up a bit & shaken around by the exposed tundra. Nonetheless, we pulled into Central happy & amped up. I dropped T-Bone in Central, as he expressed to me a clear desire to go hang out with his mom & Michael instead of continuing along. No need to push folks who aren’t enjoying themselves, especially at this age.

We gathered some things from the drop bags, chatted for a bit with some folks & then headed out for Medicine Lake to make camp.

The trail out was varied—rough snow but straightforward, for the most part. Some tussocks before the airstrip, then the long beeline across Medicine Lake & into the trees. We found a good place to pull out that one of the 1,000 milers left behind & made camp for the night, the ice fog settling in, the temperatures plummeting, the moisture in the air chilling me through. It was a cold camp, but the dogs didn’t notice. I had bedded them in straw, in their insulated coats, & then covered them each over with another layer of straw. Another beautiful dog run, & we were right on my schedule.

Camp 2 – Circle

Birch Creek is a serpentine & endless river. I put Tinman in the bag ten miles into this run for a sore shoulder & he seemed to luxuriate in the ride. Otherwise, it went largely like this: Birch Creek. Birch Creek. Birch Creek. Birch Creek. Birch Creek. Birch Creek. Birch Creek. (Think about Chef Michael Roddy’s food at circle). Birch Creek.

& then, after getting into the trees & passing Aliy & Chase & Heidi coming the other way, we were just about to the checkpoint, hawed off onto the road & then…wound around a cabin & ended up in a straight line with Solo in single lead standing with his front paws on the step of an outhouse. Seriously. He led us by himself through a long slog & then circled a cabin to end up standing in front of a shitter as if he were patiently waiting to go in. So, I kicked out a trail, we went back over to the road & worked our way toward the fire hall. A squirrel ran in front of our team just before we rounded the corner into full view, so naturally, we arrived all looking perky & lively, which was a good boon. I owe that squirrel.

Kristin & I volunteered in Circle last year, so it was a special thing indeed to pull in & see Olaf & Jean & Michael & all the rest of the familiar faces. It was like coming home, in an odd way, & it felt incredibly comforting at that stage of the race.

I got everyone bedded down, fed & massaged. I would drop Tin there, but I let him hang out in team & get his fill of food & love first.

As for me, I went in & enjoyed the splendors of Chef Michael’s creation: two bowls of chili, an everything omelet, biscuits & gravy, three donuts, two scones & a gallon of water. Then, I promptly climbed on top of the fire truck & fell asleep for a solid couple of hours. It was amazing.
I decided in Circle that after the long slog in I would give the dogs eight hours of rest. I had planned for it but was tempted to cut it to six in order to try to chase down Ryne or Amanda (though they blazed on in so quickly I don’t think I’d have seen hide nor hair). I was admittedly a bit wobbly while I was in Circle, but I had this feeling growing in me that my dogs were about to bust this thing open. I knew after a solid rest that they would be a consolidated, well-oiled machine leading me into the finish line.

Circle- Central

I was right. I put Norty & Little up front & we ran the first forty miles in five hours, blazing along with the dogs looking absolutely beautiful. Me, I didn’t fair quite as well. I found myself nodding off a bit & then hallucinating pretty consistently. I kept seeing suburban neighborhoods on the banks of the river, or connexes on the side of the trail. I saw a few white bats flying around. I saw non-existent headlights through oxbows in the river. I saw white sand beaches, the sun languid & easy over the rolling waves of cerulean water.

But every time I would start to let sleep overcome me, I would jerk my head up & see something even more incredible: a cohesive team of dogs on a mission for the finish line.

Ten miles before Medicine Lake, I put Solo up in single lead. He made it clear to me that if he was going to give it his all up front, then I damn well was going to have to give it my all from the runners too. As we sped along, I kicked & ran & pumped & cheered. Once off the creek, we blazed across Medicine Lake & started into the up & down trail outside Central. Solo was loping, throwing himself into every turn, & I had shed two layers in spite of the temperature & was sprinting with the dogs, calling them up, grinning ear to ear. As we drew closer & closer to the finish I started to tell them what they meant to me, how proud I was of them. Two miles out, I had tears streaming down my face & couldn’t stop telling them thank you, thank you, thank you. One mile out, we were all exhilarated, leaning into it, high-tailing it for the finish line.

& then there it was, the fire in the burn barrel, the group of folks huddled together, Darrin & Heidi watching the team in, Lauren holding up the red solo cup with a candle in it signifying my red lantern status, & my beautiful wife with a broad smile on her face. We loped in, the dogs overjoyed, my fist pumping in the air. I have never been so happy to come in last, never so very proud. We had done the 74 mile run in almost the same amount of time it took us to go 55 the day before. It was the finest dog run of my life, without question. I was so proud, so incredibly proud.

The banquet was a swift ordeal, but it reminded me just how amazing this community is. I got to race against some amazing people here, all of them high on their runs, all of them in love with their dogs & with this dream we all share. I raced against people that are fundamentally good, & I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt to talk dogs afterwards with each & every one of them. If you wonder about the hearts of mushers, don’t. These people are pure & genuine & love what they are doing. & I can’t imagine in the least a better way to be.

A very sincere thank you to all of our supporters, all of the other mushers & dogs on the trail, the Yukon Quest organization, vets, volunteers, & fans. & to my darling wife & our breathtaking dogs.

Handling the CB300

I lay curled in my -60 sleeping bag in the front seat of the truck, the clouds a patchwork gossamer skein to the moonlight filtering down. Outside, the sounds of dog teams in the varying stages of entrance or exit–the clank of cooker lids, barking leaders harness-banging to go, quiet words exchanged between mushers & handlers. I closed my eyes, for the second time in two days, & where I thought to dream instead I saw Kristin & the team barreling into the checkpoint, that wonderful broad smile on her face, the lolling tongues of the dogs. Where I wanted to feel my exhaustion spread through me & overtake me, instead my pride thrilled & thrummed in me & kept me awake. My family out there on the trail, plugging along, doing such a beautiful job.

Handling under any circumstance is a difficult but extraordinarily educational task, especially for an aspiring musher. Handlers can observe checkpoint routines, look over dog teams, talk shop with mushers, interact with the incredibly generous volunteer veterinarian team, & forge friendships all the while, winding down the road. & I do mean down the road– the Copper Basin 300 requires, in addition to the usual tasks, a great deal of driving. All told, the truck tallied just shy of 1200 miles for this trip.

A handler’s workload includes greeting the team at every checkpoint, assisting the team in reaching their parking spot, helping tend to any dropped dogs, assisting the team in leaving, & then cleaning up the straw & the leftover supplies when the team is back on the trail. Once the spot is clean, you pack up & drive to the next checkpoint to repeat the process.

Other than pulling on the leader line or occasionally swinging wide the gangline, a handler doesn’t get to interact with the dogs. This means that you stand with arms folded next to twelve of your absolute best friends & look them in the eye & see that imploring recognition, & you simply have to shrug & turn away. This alone could kill a man. At least I had the dropped dogs to join me, each stretching out in turn in the cab of the truck, each getting tended to with massage, food, fluids, whatever they wanted.

That’s the gist of what a handler does, but what a handler feels is something else entire. I cannot begin to describe the pride I felt seeing my wife & our dogs come loping into the finish. I love each of them with everything I have to give, & to see those smiles, that sense of accomplishment, was nothing short of extraordinary. I have known for some time that our dogs were born to run, & I have long suspected that my wife, too, is certainly most in her element when her feet are on the runners. I can now tell you unequivocally, upon seeing her cross that finish line, that she was born to mush, plain & simple. I am proud beyond words. My heart over-brimmed there, watching them roll in, & over-brims still in recollection.

This was our first race with our own dogs, with our own kennel & under our own guidance. Everything that we have done to make this possible culminated in that beautiful smile on Kristin’s face at the finish line. & along the way, I thought about those details ancillary to the race—pallets of kibble, booties in bundles, meat snacks, posts & swivels, & on & on & on. I thought about the incredible generosity of our dog sponsors, our friends, our families, our mentors & our community. People, some of them complete strangers, who contribute to this wild dream of ours from landlocked states & Southern towns & office cubicles. I thought about the fact that our dogs are well-cared for in every circumstance largely because that generosity affords us the tools we need for that care. No team crosses that finish line alone, & wrapped up in every footfall of every dog is this shared, collective enthusiasm & love for the sport that you all encourage & support in us, a live filament buzzing in our hearts. & so whatever our joy & pride in completing this race with happy, healthy dogs, I hope you know we share it with all of you who have helped us get here in the first place. It’s a stunning, heart-stopping feeling to see your dream manifest, & it spurs a gratitude the depths of which I’ve never known. We can & will say thank you over & again, but a capable, healthy dog charging through a finish line after 300 miles says it best. From Norton, Kabob, Littlehead, Solo, Bullock, T-Bone, Andy-dog, Ox, Zigzag, Hoss, Doug & Shane (our CB300 team), thank you.

-AP

There and back again – The Copper Basin 300

In the dark, the water swirled around my knees as Kabob jumped out from the shelf ice and onto my boot. Littlehead followed, trusting me enough to move forward into the icy current of the Gakona River. Half the dogs in my team were willing to take the plunge, but those who hesitated had an awful lot of power and my team was stalled out. Laura stood on the runners of my sled as I yelled encouragement and pulled forward on the gangline with all my might. We were halfway through the crossing but not progressing one inch, when I heard splashing coming from behind. A man in red snowpants emerged from the darkness and hauled up my gangline into his frozen mittens. We tromped through the river and onto the other side. Who are you? I asked. What is your name? You are my hero! Tommy, he said. He was breathless and drenched. Our gloves were stiff outlines of our hands as we traded a handshake, then he walked slowly and heavily toward his barking team in the distance.

I pulled forward and put in my hooks, giving the dogs a chance to roll in the snow while I dug through my sled bag to find my extra pair of boots.

“Kristin!” a voice yelled. It was Laura. “We need your help!”

I looked back to the river and three headlamps proceeded steadily down the wooded foothills of the Gakona. Teams began to pile up on the ice at the bank as dog after dog refused to drench themselves in the swirling river. I told Solo to stay up, then ran back and plunged into the water for a third time. I grabbed Mandy’s leaders as Laura hauled up the dogs in the middle of the team, water finally making its way over my knee-high Neos and soaking my socks.

I returned to my sled and began to chop away at my overboots, being careful not to shatter the plastic buckle that holds them on. They were a solid block of ice and weighed ten pounds each, and oh what a relief it was to be rid of them! My extra boots were cold, but dry. I strapped the stiff Neos to the top of my sled and pushed on into the night. Thirty more miles to go til the next checkpoint.

As the trail rose and descended, our experience was highlighted by something akin to the code of the North. A knowing laugh between two mushers at a checkpoint. A headlamp turning back toward us in the dark, waiting, making sure. Mushers lending, borrowing, encouraging. In a haze of exhaustion, of thrilling highs and desperate lows, a camaraderie thriving and growing stronger with each passing mile. And surrounding those concrete moments of kinship, a swirl of visions seemingly dreamed: small lights far in the distance, winding up a towering white mountain illuminated by the moon; dogs’ shadows prancing in unison on an unmarred canvas of snow-covered lakes; auroras bending and flexing through a sea of gauzy clouds; daylight breaking unexpectedly after countless hours of darkness. And the dogs with their wagging tails, their loving kisses, their uncompromising devotion. They do so very much for us and ask so little in return. What hearts they have. What love of running, of hunting, of traveling. A glorious contagion that battles the weak human body’s overwhelming urge to sleep. An all-out run to the finish line, tears frozen on my cheeks, these sweet friends we raised from puppies and look at them now! Still raring to go after 300 miles. My heart bursting with pride.

More than one thousand truck miles later, we arrived again at Stampede Road. The moon’s brightness made convincing auroras out of windswept clouds that tore out over the Alaska Range in long rays. The outer range that overlooks the sweeping tundra and then the band of trees that shelters our home sat high above the horizon; lambent, phosphorescent, welcoming. We loaded up our sleds and tied them to the truck, hooking the dogs up for their final run. They burst forward into their harnesses, tails held high with excitement. Home! Almost there! A fresh trail had been put in all the way to our doorstep and upon entering the cabin we were greeted with the radiant warmth of the woodstove. Someone had come in and gotten the home fires burning, a tall pot of water hot and ready for the dogs’ dinner. Wood hauled and split on the front porch. And farther down the trail, our puppies and inside dogs had full bellies in the yards and homes of our neighbors. And farther down the trail, at the boundary of our community, every member within its circle issued heartfelt congratulations upon our return. And even farther down the trail, across a solitudinous and wintry land that holds captive our hearts and those of our dogs – that separates us from the ones we love – our families and friends lit up the ether with their love and support and generosity. And oh how we could feel it all! Spreading into our very beings like that moonlight saturating the clouds.

-KKP

Eureka

As the truck climbed the icy inclines of the Elliott Highway, the sun descended behind piles of remote, snow-covered domes. Its last wink before setting illuminated icy shingles that dangled off tree branches waving in the wind. Glass chandeliers on the verge of shattering, remnants of an epic ice storm.  We continued our ascent to a windblown summit – a battlefield of hunched and wounded spruce bowing to the ground, struggling to remain on their feet. Sheets of snow packed into the crevices of truck doors and sledbag fabric as 50 mile-per-hour gusts whistled through stanchions and ratchet straps. Six hours of driving 25 to 30 miles per hour got us to Paige and Cody’s spread in Eureka –  a remote paradise for dog mushers whose entire lives are ruled by the trail. All 15 race dogs and all nine puppies were settled into their temporary homes as the wind chapped our hands and cheeks bright red, boxing our ears and watering our eyes. We stepped inside the arctic entry and pushed the door closed against the gale. Inside, the fire crackled and laughter filled the cabin, its windows frosted with an inch-thick layer of white ice crystals. From the dark outside, they glowed as though through wax paper.

We made our plans for a big camping trip and awakened the next morning to the same violent winds as the temperature steadily creeped lower. Four degrees below zero with windchills of -40. These extreme conditions could easily occur on the races Andy and I are running this year, so we decided this would be an excellent opportunity to test our gear and to make sure the dogs were having fun through it all. As we took one last look around the cabin, a gust roared overhead and crashed onto the roof, creaking the stovepipe. It sounded like we were sheltered in a house under the ocean, waves booming onto sea cliffs above.

In a din of barking, we clipped each dog to the gangline. Everyone had booties on all their paws, along with T-shirts, harnesses and windproof coats that protect their flanks and genitals from frostbite in the wind. The mushers, covered head to toe in gear, breathed heavily as sweat dripped down our backs. We ran each dog to the line while wearing ten pounds of clothes and five pounds of boots, while unraveling tangles and knocking ice out of tiny snaps, while ensuring everything was perfectly aligned in a calm and collected manner, even though the entirety of the outside world was a swarm of chaotic noise. We pulled the hooks and…

Runners skidding out on ice, putting a foot out to keep the sled from toppling into the centrifugal force of a 90-degree turn with a hot team out of the driveway, wind slamming into the trees overhead, whistling through millions of branches and turning them into furiously sweeping broomsticks. Wind. Wind. Wind! The shhhhhh of the drag brake on windblown trail, the crrrrrrrr of the claw brake biting into the ice.

Then off the road and into the woods. Only as wide as a dogsled, the old mail trails provided us with a route to our “checkpoint” in Manley Hot Springs. Spruce trees brushed our shoulders for miles and willows switched our faces. With Brent leading the way, we ducked under branches and wove around broken-down trucks and snowmachines. Intermittently we emerged from the shelter of the trees onto open sloughs as the wind blew the sleds right out of their tracks. The dogs were unbroken in their forward advance, tails pushed to the side by the blast. The trail led back to a wide, plowed road and our powerful teams churned into the streets of Manley. We zoomed past houses adorned with Christmas lights, windows glowing softly onto the bitterly windswept street. One by one, five dogteams pranced across the one-lane trestled bridge, headlamps glancing off reflective harnesses that bounced rhythmically in the dark. We turned into the driveway of celebrated mushers Joee and Pam Redington. There we parked, fed and strawed our dogs and walked into a warm, clean home rife with Iditarod history. Joee’s father, Joe Redington, Sr., was the founder of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Andy and I silently loaded our plates with salmon caught from a nearby river, mashed potatoes, lasagna, homemade bread and jam and a variety of berries. It was an honor just to sit at their kitchen table. We hardly spoke a word and instead listened to them tell stories about dogs and mushers over the years. Before we took off again with the dogs, Joee showed us his shop. There, the shelves were lined with unbelievable works of art made from jawbones, baleen, fish skins, wood, beads, fur and hide – amazing renditions of native Alaskans catching fish or otters, mushing their dogteams, dancing in costume. Every one imagined and then created by Joee in a manner fit for a museum. The very last thing one would expect to find after mushing to a remote Alaskan village for dinner.

We ran home fast, sailing through the forests as the umbriferous moonlight spliced the treetops and settled on the snow. We ate, slept, and got up the next day to do it again. This time, Andy and I went on our own to the top of a nearby pass. We wanted the dogs to get experience climbing steep hills while running into the wind. We skidded out onto the road and climbed up steep intervals as gusts blasted our faces and then came from behind, billowing out the dogs’ coats. Swirls of spindrift surrounded our sleds as our brakes kicked up a fine powder, blinding us to everything but our wheel dogs. From the corner of my eye I noticed several discrete spotlights shining down onto the landscape. What was going on out there, some kind of mining project? How could someone shine such bright lights down from above in this extremely remote place? Then I realized it was moonlight illuminating the ice-glazed snow of treeless bluffs in the distance. Headlamp off, I looked in every direction at valleys unfurling to the four corners of the earth. Giant stars wobbled and then fell, burning up in the atmosphere above my dogs. Wind gusted into the hood of my parka, closing the furs over my face and then blasting them open again. Another star fell and then another. Meteors, I guess. And the shadow of my dogs and the shadow of my sled and the shadow of me on a snowbank. The moon harsh, resplendent, otherworldly.

KKP

December 8

Meaning has always seemed a shifting thing—mercurial & relative, given entirely to circumstance. I used to think of meaning as a sort of static wellspring, a thing you encounter after a long journey prompted in its name, a grail, an El Dorado. Something pre-original that waits indifferently for your arrival.
At this time yesterday, the sun had faded well below the range, & in the soft & muted vestigial light I could just discern ridgelines north & south, the swale of the valley where the river cuts across miles of tundra. On either side of the trail, caribou & moose prints, wolf scat with hare fur in it, weaving animal tracks running criss-cross & vermicular across a land too looming & too vast to ever comprehend. The dogs on the line running into that quiet dark, & we on the runners behind them, following suit. & the light fading until full dark enveloped us.
What the dogs always teach are the fundamental lessons of humility & love. These are not lessons you have a choice to heed—they are mandates, & rightly so. You open unto the dogs, give to them the largest fraction of yourself that you can give, cognizant that with each footfall, with each glance back, they are giving you everything. When you fail them, your heart feels it so keenly that the words you would use in remediation desiccate & fall out of your mouth powder-dry, brittle & broken. Your syllabary is divested, entirely, & you are left only with your heart talking to their hearts, pleading & hoping, nothing more. I have known so many things in life capable of beautiful articulation. I have heard sentences that stunned me, read pages that left me in tears, spent years in the study & pursuit of those things– but the duel capacity for love & loyalty that comes from a dog, like the vastness of the landscape through which they cut a trail, cannot be described adequately.
I think about that though, about how we drive into that darkness & there tethered all as one how we are worlds & worlds of being, each & all. I think about the vastness of the world & then I take from it the sunlight, & then I think about this place & I take from it all signs of civilized life, & in that yawning dark I put myself & a dog team, & scribed in our wake, lines drawn out over miles & miles of snow, is meaning. The kind of meaning I coveted years ago but never knew.
& so it is a shifting thing, a work, a practice to maintain. I fail it, I regain it, I feel it ebb & flow. & like any utterance, the hieroglyph we leave behind of sled runners & paw prints tells a tale that too will fade & alter & ultimately disappear. But we carve it out & know its breath. Its blood is our blood, its heartbeat our own. We with our headlamps darting the tiniest sliver of light over the dogs’ backs, & all around us, the oildark night.
-AP