"All right, we have to get out of here in the next two hours," Andy says as he shuts the cabin door against a gust of wind. The dog truck is parked at the end of our trail, which meanders through black spruce a distance of 600 feet from our cabin to a dirt road. Out in the dogyard the wind knocks snow from the spruce boughs and swirls it all around the cabin. Dawn is just beginning to break, but you can hardly tell for how thickly the blowing snow occludes the sunrise. We pack everything we need for a day on the trail in our sleds, hook up our teams and speed down the exit trail. We stop at the truck and tie off the teams, then begin loading each dog into the dog truck. Fifteen minutes later, our sleds are tied down on the dogbox and we are busting through drifts as high as the grille of our Dodge Ram, high-tailing it for Stampede Road - the state-maintained main road that bisects our neighborhood in Healy. I close my eyes and pet Solo, while Andy says he hopes I enjoyed our last drive down our road for the next six months. This is it. Winter's here. From Stampede we turn south on the Parks Highway in a maelstrom of white. Every few minutes we glance in the side-view mirrors at our sleds perched high atop the truck, making sure the wind isn't taking them away. An hour later we arrive at a pullout occupied by a handful of dog trucks. The Road Closed sign on the Denali Highway is formidable. "Travel Not Recommended Beyond This Point." "Tell Someone Where You Are Going." We unload the sleds, tie them together, tie them off onto the dogtruck and begin putting dogs on the gangline. One by one, everyone is bootied. One by one every dog faces forward excitedly, ready for an adventure. Ready to run. The Denali Highway is perfect for distance training because it is one long, unbroken ribbon of trail for 135 miles. It is well-traveled by snowmachines and is a good way to get long miles on the dogs with a low risk of injury, since the trail is usually nicely packed and smooth.
Andy and I signal to each other through the din of barking dogs that we are ready by patting the tops of our heads. We pick up our snowhooks and off we go, standing on the brakes to keep the dogs at their big, smooth trots. The sky is a deep blue, almost purple, with a thin veil of swirling snow hovering on the mountains of the Nenana River valley. It is twelve degrees above. It is silent. Giant black ravens swoop down into the road ahead of the team, almost playful. The dogs pick up the pace and try to chase them. A small herd of caribou stumbles into the middle of the trail, forming a circle around their young. We stop the team and the dogs go crazy. The caribou decide, in their indecisive way, that leaving the trail is a good idea. They disappear into the taiga and the dogs lope past their footprints, sniffing the air, ears alert. They are having a blast - this pack of young dogs starting to form a cohesion that can only come with training together for hundreds of miles.
Three hours and seventeen minutes later we are back at the dog truck. We remove everyone's booties, give the dogs a snack of frozen meat and load them into the truck again. Sled are hoisted, ratchet straps are tied off and we are driving north again with three hours to go until the neighbors show up for dinner. The storm that we left in Healy has remained there all day. We can't drive faster than 50 mph because the snow is blowing directly into our windshield and we can hardly see. We turn onto Stampede Road and can't believe our eyes. At least a foot of new snow is piled upon the pavement. If it looks like this down here, at the bottom of the hill, there's no telling what kind of chaos lies ahead. A nearly unbroken blanket of snow reaches across the shoulders of the road and out onto the tundra. We arrive at our street and can barely tell where it is. Our neighbor a mile away from home lets us park at his place in the winter, so we back into our spot and unload the sleds. I tie off my sled to the front of the dog truck in the dark, snowflakes darting across my headlamp. I can see about 50 feet ahead of me and not much farther. As I unravel my gangline, I see a headlamp smudged by windrift. It's our neighbor Mike and his dogteam, plowing through two-foot drifts out on the tundra. We exchange a wave and I think to myself that there's just no better place to live. I get my dogs on the line and tell Littlehead and Solo to do their best to get us home. They plunge into the drifts and we sled into the night. There's so much snow I lose my footing and dump my sled a couple times. Then we hit Mike's trail a few hundred yards away and arrive home at the cabin within minutes. Andy's team comes in behind me and everyone is fed and settles down for a good night's sleep. The neighbors arrive as Andy washes dishes and I put the finishing touches on green chile enchiladas and shove them into the oven. Andy and I lean into each other and shake our heads, exchanging a silent glance that sums it all up. "We are crazy."