Training with Friends

For the past two winters, Hey Moose! Kennel has been lucky enough to become Hey Moose! Checkpoint every so often. Friends from near and far have traveled to Healy to explore the trails around Denali and enjoy our neck of the woods. This time, it was Mandy Nauman of Douglas Fir Mushing and Laura Allaway of Trail Breaker Kennel - both out of Fairbanks. It was an adventure from the very start. Because Hey Moose! doesn't have road access, the two parked their dog trucks a mile away at Earthsong Lodge, a great place run by our neighbor Jon Nierenberg. They called and we coordinated putting booties on and harnessing our dogs all at the same time - they from the parking lot and me from home. As the minutes ticked down until our scheduled meeting time on the trail, I put my 12th dog into place and pulled the hooks. There are 15 dogs in the Hey Moose! racing team, but our exit trail is a narrow, winding, tree-filled path, and I wasn't yet ready to take that many dogs down it right off the bat. Dogs are so amped up by the time we pull the hook that it can be an uncontrollable situation.

I let out a sigh of relief as I rounded the last 90-degree turn of our exit trail and swung out onto the mushing trail that takes us out to the main road. Within a minute I could hear their two 14-dog teams barking like crazy and my dogs sped up. We struck out across the tundra and then came to a stop as Mandy and Laura pulled their knots and fell in line behind me. The sky was streaked with neon pink as the sun set behind Denali, creating a giant triangular shadow on the clouds above. We kept a steady pace toward Sunday Creek and the settling dusk, gliding silently through snow-caked trees and tundra.

Night fell and the dogs became a singular pack, moving as one and perking up at signs of fox, wolf and ptarmigan. They love to run at night, and can't wait to see what's around every corner. Their excitement is contagious, and no matter how cold or dark it is, it's impossible not to have fun.

When we arrived home a few hours later, we set up droplines around the house for Mandy and Laura's dogs, gave them straw and fed everyone. We made a plan to get up in the morning and each run a 14-dog team to our dog trucks, then head out to the Denali Highway for a 50-mile run. In so many words, running three 14-dog teams out of a tricky exit trail and then stopping them after one mile out on the open tundra is, well, INSANE. And the dogs let us know what a crazy idea it was as we loaded them into the dog trucks one by one. It was 3:30 in the afternoon and almost dark by the time we had our sleds loaded atop our trucks. With an hour to get to the DH, another hour to booty and harness the dogs again, six hours or so to run 50 miles, an hour drive back and the prospect of hooking all those dogs up again only to run one mile at the end of it all, I said what we all were thinking: Let's just run them here! We can easily do 50 miles on these trails. Laura, looking exasperated, said, "Well, at least let's go get a pizza and a beer first." We had already driven our trucks a few miles into town, so we parked at the local pub, grabbed some grub and made a new plan with full bellies. Unexpected craziness is good for dogs training to run races anyway, we reasoned. Another night run later, we were back at home, planning our next run in the morning.

We were on the trail by sunrise and climbed the ridge north of our house. We crossed a frozen lake and turned west, the team drenched in rare sunlight as the vast north boundary of the park and the distant Kantishna Hills unfolded before us. Thin, high clouds melded together above us, pushed by wind, as our packed trail suddenly disappeared. Norton and Andy-dog were unsure at first, then full of disciplined resolve as they plunged shoulder-deep into a trail apparently broken by a single dogteam days ago. Every time I stepped off the runners to push the sled forward, I fell into bottomless snow. Somehow, the sled floated right through it and the dogs maintained a steady pace. Two miles later, we gee'd onto a hardpacked snowmachine trail and I hollered with joy. Every dog received hugs and kisses as their tails wagged with accomplishment. Dogs are so humbling, the way they make the most mountainous of tasks seem like no big deal. The way they accept the simplest of things, like a pat on the head, as payment in full for their hard work.

The hours flowed by with the trail and before we knew it, it was dusk again - pale lavender fading into denim fading into navy blue . Slate Lake a white spectacle of loveliness set against a ring of mountains backlit in embers. As we made the loop around the lake, I looked back at Laura who silently raised her fist in the air in celebration. Three of the luckiest gals in the world and their beautiful dogteams. A few tiny specks of happiness in a vast, winter wilderness.