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.