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.Read More
I was awake & looking back along the trail from whence we had come when I saw the headlight eek itself out of the darkness. The snow had died down & the wind had relented, only gusting now where it had previously remained a steady strong muscle flexed over the mountain. I hobbled out of my bag, up the gangline, calling Kabob to the lead & snapping her in before Laura stopped her team next to mine. I explained why I was stopped as she smiled at her dogs, whistling their favored tunes, scratching behind their ears. She has the true sensibility of a dog person, reacting with utter equanimity & calm, unhesitating in her offer to help. The Code of the North is the code of the trail, & here, a nineteen-year old exemplified it, running her team just in front of mine, pausing when we lapsed, her headlight flickering & dawdling on my lead dogs to coax them along. The feeling of exulted relief upon pulling into Dawson was unlike anything I’ve felt. I never once feared for anything—not for my life, not for our safety, not for any grave danger. We were close enough to Dawson & well enough fed & rested that we could have walked the last twelve miles in with the sled on its side if it came to that. But even still, 24 hours to run 52 miles is as ludicrous a proposition as you’ll come across in this sport. Kristin & Rose & Jen had rallied to the checkpoint over & again, watching the GPS tracker for my team bob & stumble along in fits & stops. Finally, here we were.
Dawson generally enables a long recuperative period for a dog team. Since mine had spent the better part of the last day in periods of repose punctuating small runs in inclement conditions, they were already well-rested. All were healthy, pleased with themselves, & from all visual clues quite ready to continue along. Dogs are mercurial that way, from time to time.
Me, I was ready for sleep.
The northern lights flashed & rippled & radiated, framed by the haunting silhouettes of tall aspen & spruce lining the trail. I had fed the dogs, bedded them down, along the trail. Said hello to Luc as he zoomed past, his small team looking lively & bright. At this point, my leader troubles had continued past Dawson. So it was with unmixed joy that I welcomed Cody & Paige to share the trailside with me. I’ve never run with friends before, not during a race, not really even during training. Clearly, I liked it enough to stick with them until the finish line.
Training leaders used to be one of the basic principles by which we operated. We held ourselves personally accountable for everything a lead dog was capable of doing. We expected nothing from a dog that we hadn’t trained from scratch. Solo, Littlehead, Basin & Norton had all undergone a fairly extensive process involving one-on-one attention over the course of several months. Afterwards, unwittingly, we entrusted that training to them. Running young dogs up front with your proven leaders, it turns out, makes you complacent. You allow yourself to be firmly convinced that their aptitude is entirely self-derived. Nevermind that Solo is lunging next to them, nipping at them when their attention finds some distraction. Nevermind that Littlehead will throw all of her weight into harness to balance the force of her co-leader sniffing after a squirrel off-trail. After three thousand miles of training, we felt confident that our young guys up front were as competent as their mentors. Turns out that if you think your other dogs will do all the training, you’re sorely mistaken. I saw moments of utter brilliance from many of my dogs after we dropped Solo. Loretta was a stand-out, combating the short attention spans of her brothers while driving us forward. Hank & Buck had stretches of up to thirty miles of sheer determination. & then, suddenly, they didn’t. They’d start playing with one another or pause without reason or dive off into the deep snow along the trail. I had not taught them otherwise. Without Cody & Paige putting up with us for 450 miles, this would have been a very different race & a very different experience for both the dogs & for me. Because of their patience & friendship, my team was able to cross the finish line having had an extremely positive experience, imbuing Loretta, Kabob & everyone else with an inswell of confidence & pride.
This summer, though, I’m braking out the ski-jor belt & I’m making damn sure I have lead dogs up front.
The way the trail comes back to me is never linear, chronologically. A memory of the bluffs along the Fortymile will flash & fade & then I’ll see the bluffs just before Trout Creek. Or I’ll think of camping before Carmacks & associate it with my solitary camp along Birch Creek, simply because I ate the same thing for dinner both times. I realize as I write this disjointed recollection that the linearity becomes secondary to the kind of lambent beauty that connects scene to scene. That massive yawning stretch of white through Cogland Lake, or the full throttle angular turns through blackened forest leaving Scroggie. The ice fog hanging dense over the burn before Pelly. The cast of crisp light over the mountains as we careened down Eagle Summit, the sled tipped sideways while I rode on top, my eyes fixed on Hoss & Bullock. & through it all, the unwavering, ineffable, stupefyingly enduring & intrepid will of the finest companions with which we could ever hope to share such a quest. I think maybe one of the finest things about this sport is what a dog can teach you about your accomplishments. Every time along the trail that the triumph or the lack, the exultation or the deafening trough of defeat sounded, the dogs reacted with the same calm assuredness. I think of how often I begin trying to articulate my experiences even as they unfold, providing a narrative for an absent audience. I used to run along the beach of Kachemak Bay with Willa & we would talk, for hours. I was busy working out the complexities & difficulties of a failing relationship, pondering the motivations & devices of meaning-making that defined my place, existentially. Willa was busy participating in the sheer joy of running, the sea chasing her during high tide, the gulls & eagles suffering her brief charges. I was occupied with a compulsion to understand why something felt the way it did, while she was busy feeling it, wholly, unapologetically & without artifice. & so along the trail, it should not have surprised me to find in Hank’s playfulness or Hoss’s huge sighs lulling me to sleep at camps, in Loretta’s wagging tail or Kabob’s earnest glances that same mirrored truthfulness of presence. It was an epic quest for me & just another adventure for them. A race is not without its difficulties, but in the end, nothing meaningful is, & we cherish & prize our most difficult accomplishments precisely because of their inherent challenges. While we organize our reactions, the dogs have already taken the next step, already rounded the next bend, already sighted in on the next hill. Wordsworth said “we murder to dissect,” which, though I don’t suppose it was meant to suggest a credo, has become one of sorts. With the dogs, you let be the world through which you travel. You feel its passage, you know yourself a traveler, & you know that your faring forward is your only mode of being. You get to be a dog a while.
The lights are shards of green and red glass, shattered across the atmosphere. Each piece sharpens and glows before it vanishes. And then they are a gentle, verdant sea, inverted in the night sky. Their waves lapping at the hard edges of a black and jagged coastline in the shape of the Alaska Range. Tonight the stars hover just overhead, and Mars burns like a frenetic red beacon over a distant mountain pass. But the feathered frost that used to be my breath has built and grown so around my face, caught in my eyelashes and in the smooth, shiny hairs of my beaver fur hat, that I can barely see any of that now. My world is a tunnel lit up by a headlamp, inhabited solely by the dogteam in front of me. The reflective tape on their harnesses bouncing. The green glow of their eyes flashing as they glance to the side. Their fur, all white now because of the frost. Escaping breaths captured there for hours and hours. I can’t believe I could have missed all of this! I think to myself. One lazy excuse could have robbed me of these 150 miles on the runners. Could have robbed the dogs of turning into a synchronized, lovely pack chasing moose under a sky close and starry and burning out at its edges with aurora. A good friend once told us that self-motivation is the hardest part of being a dog musher, and he was right. Nobody is making our training schedule but us. And certainly nobody is following up on it, making us adhere to it, giving us a test every week to see if we digested necessary lessons or passed important milestones. And so we wake up at 2 am and leave by 3:30. We fall asleep leaning up against each other, mid-sentence, as we wait for those six hours of rest between runs to come to an end. And then we get up and booty the dogs and see this collective energy amass into a team of barking, lunging, excitement and we can’t help but get caught up in it, feel the urgency of it, our hearts racing as we clip that final tugline and step on the runners and pick up that snowhook and get whisked away down some cold, dark trail.
The lights are pinpoints of blue-white and yellow, moving steadily across a giant, frozen landscape. Each one bobs and flickers, revealing the contours of Alaskan topography or the actions of the person on the runners. If we turned off our lights, nobody would see us. And sometimes we do that, to feel even more immersed. No bit of human ingenuity separates us from the dogs now, everything is feel and instinct. The northern lights are the only lights now, and when our eyes adjust to that new, fast darkness, we can see the dogs’ ears perk up when the lights start dancing. We can feel the thrum of energy gather, the pull of the sled away from us. We are running faster than ever now, the smell of snow on the wind, the feel of cold deepening the closer we get to the river.