In winter we leave the windows uncovered, and from my pillow I watch the stars blink brightly from a deep black sky. To the east it looks like someone has sloshed a bucket of pale green paint onto a black wall and now the color oozes and slides slowly downward. Without warning, the color brightens and lurches, stabbing upward, coruscating to the north. It’s like watching the keys while some invisible hand plays the piano. Under that electric aurora the dogs are stirring. Norton bellows out a low, throaty baritone, followed by Lefty and then Ox. Kitty joins in with her jarring alto and then come the puppies’ straining yips, sounding more and more like adults with each passing day. Even in the dark, I know each dog’s voice. When the canine chorus reaches its peak in a perfect 31-dog harmony, my stomach lights up, mimicking the sky. Energy ripples across the dome of my belly. I rest my hand over its voluminous curve and under my palm burst unpredictable waves and flourishes. It’s 15 degrees below zero and I heave my massive body out of bed to pee. I have no idea what time it is because time doesn’t exist in winter in Alaska. Four in the afternoon looks the same as seven in the morning, which looks the same as midnight. The only thing that changes is the position of the stars wheeling overhead. I step carefully down the ladder-steep stairs from the bedroom loft, trying not to wake Andy. I reach the plywood landing and take one last big step over Zigzag, curled on her dog bed. In 20 feet I’m at the front door, pulling aside the wool blanket that hangs over the frame to keep the draft at bay. Outside the snow squeaks under my down booties as the temperature continues its downward plunge. I crunch through the three or four inches of snow that fell a few days ago – the season’s first snowfall – and think of Decembers past. More normal years, where the first snow fell in September and we were on dogsleds well before Halloween. At this time last year we were running 60 miles a day, training for back to back thousand-mile sled dog races across the Yukon Territory and across Alaska. This year, we amble across the tundra with our pack of 3-month-old puppies as our neighbors clatter by stubbornly on the gravel road, letting their dogsleds get beat to hell out on the uncovered tussocks the size of basketballs. Andy chops firewood and permachinks drafty spots along the walls of our one-room log cabin and hauls water every other day. From nails in the rafters hang dog harnesses in need of repair and also a bouncy swing for a new baby. Upstairs under the window across from our bed is a little wooden crib that can be rocked back and forth. Andy has built a shelf alongside it full of minute onesies and miniature knitted sweaters and sleeper sacks and diapers. Once a week or so, we’ll pull out a teeny pair of footie pajamas and marvel that any human could ever be small enough to wear them. Yesterday I watched Andy’s face as he held up a pink fleece number and then cradled it to his chest – his blue eyes glowing, the skin around them crinkled in straight, emanating lines. Neither of us had those lines when we first met six-and-a-half years ago. Our faces hadn’t yet been weathered by wind and sun and a dozen thousand miles of being on a dogsled. They are well-earned marks of pride for us, sure to deepen in the coming weeks of sleeplessness and joy.
Like most dog mushers this time of year, we are the constant fixers of broken things. We have one fully functioning vehicle and two partially working ones, with a third in the shop whose repairs are worth more than the value of the thing in its entirety. We have 31 dogs to feed and unpaid maternity leave and an open pantry with boxes and cans tumbling out of it. Four dog beds take up most of the real estate in our small cabin and on frigid nights we can feel the heat from the woodstove on one cheek and the cold creeping in from the windowpane on the other. But outside, the puppies contentedly sleep on top of each other in their houses. They close their eyes and exhale, burrowing their chins down on the heads and bellies and backs of their littermates. The adult dogs play bow and bark and howl excitedly, exalting in an uproar when Andy brings out their harnesses and takes them on a run. Clumps of snow from our last and only storm cling to spruce boughs and stay cemented in the crotches of birch branches. Unbelievably the Healy winds haven’t knocked them to the ground in sheets and sprays. It’s cold and clear, brighter than day when the moon is full, the spruce casting long shadows on a sparkling silver lawn.
I don’t sleep anymore. The baby in my belly is too big, stuffed underneath my ribcage. My hips fall asleep as I toss from one side to the other. Carpal tunnel ravages my wrists. Andy can’t be sleeping either. I tell him he ought to sleep on the couch downstairs and get some rest, but he doesn’t want to leave my side. He roots into my curved back, puts his warm hand on my moving belly, and calms the baby into peaceful sleep.
This part of pregnancy is like the end of training. We’ve packed all the drop bags, made a race plan, gotten ourselves and the dogs as prepared as we ever will be and now the race is only days away and we are thinking about the start line. We’re thinking about hooking up that finely tuned dogteam and the announcer saying 3…2…1…GO! But like any other musher, we’d so much rather be doing the thing than thinking about doing the thing. We are people of action, but all we can do is wait.