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