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.

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December darkness

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.