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.