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
Loretta heaved and her eyes bulged and she just stared at the floor. Her whole body stiffened and her mouth closed. She groaned, and then relaxed, panting again. I sat on the floor next to her, rubbing her soft ears and running my hand down her back. When I took my hand away she flattened her ears and asked for me to stay with her, leaning slightly forward toward me, brown eyes locked into mine. Nobody had told her about this, about labor and birth. She didn’t have appointments with midwives, or the opportunity to ask questions, or any kind of scan that could tell her there may be a problem in there. She just felt the contractions rippling through her body and knew she had to lie down and knew she had to push. After about an hour, a little tiny tail emerged, limp and motionless. She took a break and then pushed again and a smooth, gleaming sac appeared, but wasn’t all the way out of her yet. With a final push she yelped as her first pup slid from the womb. For a moment there was stillness. Andy and I looked at each other and looked at her. Would she know what to do? Should we rip the sack open like we had seen the other mothers do in years past? Loretta has never done this before. Should we intervene? And then she saw it, the pup in the sac, and her eyes grew wide with focus and she dove toward it, ripping the sac open and licking, licking life right into that pup. He gasped for breath and cried while she cleaned away all the blood and fluid. She found the umbilical cord and gnawed at it with her teeth until he was free, and then he tumbled toward her blindly. His eyes won’t be opening for two weeks, but he crawled toward her warmth and within minutes had latched onto a teat and began quenching a thirst he somehow knew had to be quenched. All of those things happened without a word of instruction. Some innate knowing within both of them guiding all of their movements. Loretta knew nothing but the age-old instincts that had lain dormant within her until this moment. She put those instincts to use five more times, each pup emerging into the world with greater ease than the last. I had never worried about any births before that one. The birth of Loretta’s litter was the sixth we had witnessed at our kennel. But it was the first we had witnessed since we got the news. Unlike Loretta and the rest of our mom dogs, we do have monthly appointments with midwives and doctors. We do receive scans that can tell us there may be a problem in there, and a week ago we discovered that there is indeed a problem. The umbilical cord that carries nutrients and oxygen and blood to our baby didn’t form correctly. Where they would normally be covered in a protective sleeve of jelly, the umbilical vessels instead branched outside of their protective covering and attached themselves to the side of the placenta and not the center. They are exposed and rigid instead of covered and flexible. They are highly susceptible to rupture, and that rupture would mean a lifeline being cut off. How do you prevent that? What precautions can you take? How did this happen? When would it happen, if it was going to? All questions to which nobody seems to know the answer. Instead we carry that heavy knowledge with us every day and wonder, and wait.
The people who give us the best advice tell us it’s going to be a lot like a dog race. It’s a long trail, first of all, nine months. That’s the better part of a year. And every day sees new growth – sometimes painful, like my lower back struggling with all this new weight; sometimes frustrating, like my lungs not being able to take in the same amount of air they could have the last time I climbed a mountain; sometimes wonderful, like the baby kicking and punching and doing backflips. And sometimes inexplicable, like those times my mind wanders down into the darkest depths of the possibilities associated with this condition, and then she shakes me awake with the hardest kick yet. Like she knows somehow, innately, to be reassuring.
Marilynne Robinson wrote “An unborn child lives the life of a woman it might never know, hearing her laugh or cry, feeling the scare that makes her catch her breath, tighten her belly. For months its whole life would be all dreams and no waking. The steps in the road, the thought of [death], then the dread sinks away for a while, and how is a child to know why?”
And every time, with that reassuring kick…does she know why?
Aside from it being a long trail, it’s riddled with uncertainty. Remember how we used to find uncertainty thrilling? It left us breathless and terrified and alive. It forced us into scenarios – well, we forced ourselves, pushed ourselves forward, into scenarios – that we never could have imagined. How could I have ever known what it was like to run a wild, 15-dog team over dirt and rocks and roots for 70 miles? Nothing could have prepared me for that in the 2016 Iditarod and my heart was in my throat guessing how it might go, and there’s only one way to find out how that’s going to go and it means you just fucking GO. You Move Forward. Even if the fear drags your heart down into your feet as though a big weight is attached to it. Even if you feel your heart plummeting. What are you going to do, quit? Turn around?
It’s too overwhelming to look at the trail as a whole. One thousand miles is more than a brain can truly comprehend in one sitting. And so you take it, not even one day at a time but one run at a time. One six-hour increment. Yes, you had a six-hour hell ride through the Burn. But that’s over now. You don’t know yet about that six-hour magic carpet ride you’ll have at sunrise sprinting across Norton Sound. About the dance party you’ll have in the middle of the sea ice with one of your best human friends and all of your best dog friends. You don’t know about the foxes who will run alongside your team at daybreak, or that that particular color blue even existed in the world when you cross the ice of Golovin Bay.
My sister said, You have the power to choose what to believe. You can choose to believe the worst or you can choose to believe the best. And that it’s a brave choice to be positive. And that we are brave people.
There is no telling what is going to happen over the next four months. Nobody can tell us the answer for sure, and no amount of divining or crying or fury is going to be worth the energy expended. People intuitively want to tell us, It’ll be fine. If she’s anything like you, she’ll be stronger than this thing. But nobody knows if it will be fine. And it doesn’t matter how strong our little girl is, what happens has nothing to do with her and nothing to do with me. It is simply out of our control. It feels like we’re walking across a minefield and we’ll be lucky to reach the other side unharmed. The only thing we do have control over is how we choose to carry on. We have no choice but to move forward, but we do have a choice in how we move forward.
Andy said it’s like that last, sapping run into Dawson. It’s fraught. You wonder how you got here. You don’t know if you’ll be able to keep going forward, but you can’t stay here on top of this lonely mountain with the wind howling through your wet clothes. But people pick you up, you see. You don’t have to do it alone. They come by and shine their light on you. They lead you into the next checkpoint, or maybe even into the next half-dozen checkpoints. Your friends and family scream in frustration at the same points along the trail as you do. They cry when you do. They laugh when you do. They struggle alongside you. And even if the finish line isn’t where you thought it was going to be, and you didn’t come in the top ten like you thought you would, you cross it all the same and you do it with these people by your side.
I think with a lot of mushers, times of struggle force us to look inward. We find the strength to overcome such hardships – such unbelievable, stupid, awe-inspiring, head-busting hardships – from within. The world starts spinning and one thing leads to another and before we know it, we’re in some fucked up situation that is complicated beyond reckoning. And the first thing we do is take a breath and say, OK, how am I going to fix this? First, I need to secure my sled. Second, I need to straighten and secure the gangline. Third, I need to untangle the dogs. We systematically work through the problem until it is solved, no matter how long it takes to solve it, and we do it alone. We find a solution and we keep moving forward. That’s easy enough to do in a physical situation. But what about the mental ones? What about the ones having to do with an umbilical cord buried deep in your insides that you can’t systematically stop and fix? Suddenly the world is a dark and awful place. Everything about it is negative. It’s stupid and what’s the point? Why did I even sign up for this? Why did we knowingly put ourselves through this, if this is a thing that can happen? You look within and try to dig up some jewel of positivity, try to mine it from your hungry, tired, freezing cold soul. What helps more though, is that kick you get from someone else. Sometimes it’s the dogs, looking back at you with their ears perked up and then turning forward in the harness, ready to go. We’re fine, they say. Look at us, we’re doing great. Can we please get moving down the trail? You imbecile? And sometimes it’s the people you have chosen to surround yourself with. The very best people on earth. These people will give you a hug, share their food with you, trade advice and dog snacks and jokes, tell you they, too, could use a pick-me-up. Let’s travel this next section together, they’ll say. Let’s mush with our headlamps off and follow the northern lights. Let’s race each other down Front Street. Ready? Go!
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.
A few trees there, around a bend where the wind lied down a little. The sky had muted & flashed an intimation of clearing before swelling over again, falling back into the arms of the storm. At the last camp, I had snowshoed out to cut spruce boughs & saplings for the dogs to bed & burrow into, fed out the last of the kibble, hoping a four-hour break might suffice. I had knelt over a small fire I lit by the runners of the sled, thinking shit, we’d better run straight in after this. But here we were, the team parked at an angle off the trail, resting up. I wrote “dog team won’t go- please help” on a stray piece of cardboard, hung it from my ski-pole lodged trailside. I unhooked Kabob, laid out my sleeping bag, crawled in to nestle with her & waited for a headlight. ***
I have wondered often how precisely to articulate whatever it is that compels us to run 1,000 mile sled dog races. I know, for instance, that there is no finer company than our team of dogs. & I know that there is that long desire in us, the compulsion to allow endurance to define exploration. I realize, in the end, that I have a strange relationship with fear, & that over & again, even as I tremble & am repelled, I find a sort of ecstatic abandon in throwing myself headlong into its reach. It is, I think, what constitutes adventure. That expectation of a progress that embraces adversity rather than shying from it as we are so often taught to do. Maybe that’s why our dreaming is so peculiar in its fascination—its narratives are never, seemingly, self-produced, & so they are never hemmed in & orchestrated by what our waking minds might not seek to hazard. They are a sort of conflagration of every language our bodies speak. & so maybe I find that mirrored & enacted in distance mushing, where your will is both absolutely paramount & utterly secondary, depending on the second.
Solo knew to stop, even while Loretta lunged & shifted, focused forward. The jumble ice over the Yukon in 20-mile country, angry & angular, shot out in every direction. Picture an explosion of shale, fragmented boulders & shards cast in crevices. Volunteers had chainsawed the trail over the crossings. Somehow. & there, the alpenglow settling upon the far bluffs, the runners caught a jutting foot of ice, flipped the sled. We are taught always by experience never to let go, never to unclutch our grasp on the handlebar. There on the Yukon, my dog team could have run all the way to Slaven’s, & there I’d sit, a lonesome speck in all that expanse of white. Instead, I held on, flipping upside down with the sled, my back smashing into an ice boulder the size of a bear. Had my overmitts not been tied around my back, I suspect I’d have broken my spine, Instead, as so routinely happens along the trail, I took a breath, righted the sled, said “alright” to Solo & carried on, thinking all the while, that’s going to leave a mark.
I had to drop Solo in Eagle. It devastated me, almost beyond repair. A lead dog of his caliber is perhaps as difficult to describe as the compulsion to race in the first place. His passion always palpable, his drive unparalleled, he is the dog that rallies the entire team, infusing them with his spirit. He does not tire. He does not err. He is, however, a mortal like the rest of us, & had aspirated before we reached the village, showing signs of nascent pneumonia. Together, we had run some of the finest miles I’ve ever experienced. The leg from Circle to Slaven’s, through the crisp gloaming, traversing some of the most extraordinarily beautiful country I’ve ever seen, was perfection. Coming into Eagle, at the last crossing, a snowmachine inexplicably idled halfway down the chute to the river, blocking the one safe route for a dogteam. Without flinching, Solo geed us through a labyrinth of jumble ice, past the snowmachiner, & back along the trail to the slough, He is effortless in his Herculean efforts. With him in my team, I was precisely on my race plan. Without him, I found myself pulled over along the Top of the World Highway, my dog team asleep, a tattered scrap of cardboard hanging from a ski-pole fluttering in the wind.
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.
Beside our dirt road, the cottongrass blooms in clusters, rising out of a watery ditch. I rub the soft, silky fibers between my fingers and close my eyes. It’s the downy undercoat of shedding sled dogs, growing somehow out of the ground. We called it “dogflower” those first few summers, and that’s what we call it still. The white, cottony tufts dot a broad green swath of tundra that rolls interminably to the west and north. The land drops in a forested fold down to Panguingue Creek and rises again, a few times, til it reaches a high, barren ridgeline. We have our own name for that one, too. Wolf Ridge. I walk out to the sunwashed bluff behind the cabin and see the smoke settle and lift and settle again in the creases of birch- and alder-filled creek bottoms. The sun is a mean red eye that hovers over Wolf Ridge for a little while, warning us of wildfires to the north and west. Reminding us of all we stand to lose. I turn around and see the dogs. See Bullock lounging on his house behind a little altar of purple fireweed. See T-Bone, with his leg and tail hanging off the side of his house while he sleeps. Piper, always watching me, ears flickering up and back down with every step I take. All 27 of them in their quiet, fairytale yard, surrounded by spruce that now seem less like a shelter from the wind and more like a box of matches waiting to be struck.
The summertime clouds of my Texas childhood march across the Alaskan skyscape. Towering cumulonimbus rife with electricity. Dark grey and black and roiling. Or glowing florescent pink at midnight, an extension of the alpenglow-lit faces of the Outer Range. The flashing lightning that seemed to buzz straight into my bloodstream and the booming thunder that elicited screams of delight from the childhood me now produce a different reaction. A quickening of the pulse, to be sure, but out of worry instead of thrill. A constant scanning of the horizon for the dreaded white plume.
And now the wind has shifted and the smoke has blown away in a dirty smudge on the horizon. From upstairs the high mountains ring my viewshed, sharp and clean and crystal clear. Oh, to be a nomad out in that hinterland again. Our only home a warming tent. Our only transport a dog team. Our only provisions what we carry. The cold air freshening our lungs as we inhale and exhale in white, steaming puffs. Our minds gentle with the knowledge that nothing can be taken from us.
The reflective trail markers blink in the arc of my headlamp and by now the dogs instinctively drive toward them. We have been on the trail for a week and a half, and for the past 800 miles the trail markers have been this torch light to follow - this lone constant in a maze of wildly changing extremes. They twinkle along the edge of a steep trail lined with trees and then the trees fall away. The dogs surge forward and I set my toes on the drag brake, laughing a little. We have 150 miles to go in the Yukon Quest 1,000-Mile International Sled Dog Race and my 12 dogs are sprinting up Rosebud Summit, chasing caribou in the dark. Their noses are lifted, nostrils drawing in some tantalizing current and turning it into energy, and I can feel it. I lift my head, too, and see those glittering trail markers ascend perilously upward, outlining various lanes on a narrow gravel summit virtually free of any kind of shoulder. I find out later that the multiple trails were lathed in case of a windstorm during which one of those travel options would become a hanging cornice of wind-blasted snow. I stomp my sharpest snow hook into the frozen gravel and walk ahead of my dogs, making the mistake of shining my light down either side of the ridge. I walk back and kneel down next to Solo and Littlehead. I tell Solo I need him to be on his A game up here. I step back onto the runners and pull up the hook and the dogs continue to surge along, ears forward, intent on hunting. I stop them again and again and remind them that here is where we will take it easy. Here is where we will walk. It feels like we have gained well over a thousand feet in elevation when I see the trail markers pitch unbelievably upward again. I turn my headlamp on its highest setting to be sure, but the reflective markers stay the same brightness. I shine the light back onto my dogs and realize we are marching steadily into the sky itself, the glittering stars perched just above the horizon line mimicking the lathes. A faint aurora swirls its green scarf around us. It feels like we are floating. My gut turns sour, recognizing before the rest of me that something bad is happening. We are falling.At first, we pass the glowing markers in what feels like slow motion. The way a rollercoaster car seems to hover over the edge just before it drops. And then the sled begins to vibrate as it picks up speed over the gravel. I am balanced on the thin metal brake bar, digging its sharp teeth into the bare ground as heavily as I can. My knees are bent and I am tucked into the back of my sled, trying to become one with it. The dogs suddenly swerve to the side of the trail - a caribou carcass wasted by hunters - and my sled fishtails, catching an edge hard and flipping. My body lands on the ground but my hands grasp the handlebar yet. I drag for a hundred feet or so and the dogs come to a stop. I stomp a snow hook into the ground and turn the sled back onto its runners. The pitch is so steep that the sled glides forward past its bridle and hangs there against the snow hook line. I take a few deep breaths and pull the hook. Within seconds we reach warp speed again, the incandescent trail markers creating a blurred and brilliant boundary for this uncontrollable hell. The sled is vibrating so hard that the action I see before me takes on a flip book-like quality: My wheel dogs, Hoss and Bullock, are nearly crouched with their front legs outstretched, pushing hard into the earth, trying to stop. Hoss and Bullock look back nervously. Hoss and Bullock start to fall. In front of them, Ox and Iron start to fall. The sled begins to overtake the dogs. I flip the sled on purpose this time, hoping the friction of the sled on its side will slow it down enough to keep from running over my team. I land hard on my right elbow for the fifth time over the course of this race and the pain is nearly unbearable. The trail takes a sharp right turn and we come to a stop beneath a sizable tree. I lay under the sled for a few moments, stifling sobs. What's the point of crying. Nobody cares. Nobody can hear you. I crawl out from under the sled and walk up to Solo, apologizing to all the dogs that I couldn't keep them safe. He jumps on me, wagging his tail, licking the tears off my face. That answers that! I think to myself. What is there to do but keep going? ... Back on the Yukon 160 miles earlier, the wind howled ferociously. Curtains of blown snow whipped across the ice - we could see them in the distance like big white sheets curling and unfurling on a mile-long clothesline. Trail markers lay like fallen soldiers, splintered from being run over by sleds. I was in the first stages of a gripping panic. Lance was just ahead of me, I thought, but then his team was a long, dark ghost in the far distance, already across the river from us. The next team was a day behind us, and the trail was disappearing. Solo hopscotched from one patch of snow to the next, linking them together over wind-polished glare ice peppered with sharp shale. The chinook was incessant and warm, and as we hugged turns in the river and thus became sheltered from it, the remnant -30 F cold seeped up from the newly cemented watercourse - a bitter reminder of the fickle flux of this place. Alongside the frozen ramparts of jumble ice, the dogs' ears perked up and they stared at the ground. They could hear the water pulsing below. Beyond, the Yukon was a cracked and expansive sea, claiming the landscape entire. We kept stopping for one reason or another. The dogs found prior teams' snacks on the ground and stopped to chew them out of the ice. The dogs chewed off their booties and the booties had to be replaced. The dogs got tangled. I became unreasonably short with them, telling them we needed to keep up. I began panicking about falling too far behind and being alone. The more I worried, the less motivated the dogs became. I stopped and pulled on my parka, realizing a reset was needed as the insidious cold infiltrated my layers. I thought about Brent saying attitude is everything. I remembered to believe in my dogs. I thought about Mandy on this exact stretch of trail last year. She left Circle and struck out onto the Yukon with Brian Wilmshurst, relieved to travel the lonesome 50-mile stretch to Slavens with another team. Then Brian had to turn around and drop a dog. Mandy was on her own, and now I know that scary gut-punch feeling she must have had of being on the Yukon all by herself. It ended up being her best run of the entire race. Her dogs loved the windblown ice. They loved the challenge of finding their own trail. As the sun descended behind a gunmetal wall of lenticular clouds, shards of light glowed on the distant mountains back from whence we came. For us, it would be into the wind. Into the clouds and into the dark. The dogs faced forward as another gust ruffled their fur. They were silent, patient, composed, self-possessed. They were on an adventure. They were on a new trail. They were not scared. I looked at my sled and saw that it had everything we needed to survive out here. Everything I had learned in the last lifetime of learning was within my power. I was capable. We needed no one. Wordlessly, we glided on into the coming night. The only witnesses to our transformation were the wolves who traveled wraithlike on the periphery, welcoming us in their way to a lone wildness that transcended geography and became in turn the fact of who we were while we were out there.
I had stopped the team after any combination of potential leaders had failed to move us forward. Littlehead was sleeping in the sled bag with a sore wrist, Shane had been spooked irrevocably by fireworks shot at the team leaving Chistochina, & Andy-dog had put in as much effort & energy in one run as most dogs do in ten. I wasn’t even sure at that point that I was on the trail, as I hadn’t seen a blaze for some time. It had been twenty hours since we left the last checkpoint. It had been nineteen since Littlehead came up a little lame. In the meantime, I had been sprinting from the sled to the team, back & forth, switching dogs around, giving encouragements, essentially consolidating weeks of leader training into one very long run. We had camped along the trail, next to Kristin’s team. We, like everyone else, had plowed through twelve inches of pure sugar snow the whole way, along seemingly never-ending straight lines cut through the black spruce. I had developed a bit of trenchfoot & a corona of blisters around my heels & found walking, running & pushing or pulling the sled uphill a bit of a challenge. & so, twenty hours in to that run & nine hours after our last camp, we figured alright, enough, let’s camp again. As I kicked in a little pullout in the deep snow, my team quiet behind me, I heard a dog team howling to go close by. It was decidedly a team getting hooked up—there is no mistaking the enthusiasm in that sound. It was only a few miles away—I had almost camped the dogs within earshot of Mendeltna. It was a process indicative of the entire race for me. I created a race plan based not on what was best for the dogs, but what I thought best suited the training we had done. I didn’t account for snow conditions or hills or the pressure of a race. I didn’t account for any of the variables that you absolutely have to consider in running a successful race. & accordingly, I walked a very fine line for 310 miles, verging precipitously on blowing up my dog team. I made all of the errors that you wish you never had to make yourself. I knew better, but knowing intellectually & knowing viscerally are two very different things. What I figured I would never do I now know I will never do, if only because it was such an enduringly difficult feat for us to right a race that started in paucity of rest.
The first run to Chisto was good in terms of dog performance. Kristin & I had an interesting tangle during a pass during which her sled’s bridle hitched itself to my claw brake just in time for our snowhooks to pop. Our teams were inadvertently hitched together until they weren’t. Thanks to Nic for catching my team once it loosed itself.
& once we bedded down in Chisto, we regarded a very loud, very busy checkpoint wherein fifty hot teams of dogs interpreted the idea of rest quite variably, you could say. In any event, we should have trusted our teams to rest appropriately, as they trained to do all winter out at Alpine Creek in the presence of other dogs. Instead, we stayed just three hours, hoping to get in front of the bulk of the teams that would tear up trail conditions. It would have been a fine plan had we considered topography & trail conditions more appropriately. It didn’t help that within a few hundred yards of leaving the checkpoint, someone shot fireworks at dog teams. Kristin made it through fine after yelling at the responsible party. I didn’t realize they were shooting them at the teams or I likely would have been arrested. I saw them burst overhead & then I saw my very frightened leader try to turn around & come to me as quickly as possible along the gangline, making for a giant tangle. Shane had been on edge after the sonic booms we hear periodically on the Denali Highway in training (it’s an air force training grounds), but this sent him to a new place. For the rest of the race, he wouldn’t run anywhere but in wheel. Headlights scared him to the point of stopping. Noises got him jittery. People don’t really consider the full consequences of their actions, I don’t suppose, or if they do, they are bereft of some essential compass to guide them. In losing a leader right away, I was set up for a very trying & long run.
By the time we got to Meier’s Lake, I had three of our biggest dogs in my sled bag & was out front of the team pulling on the gangline with a leash to help us up the hills. I had relied on Littlehead the whole way & she needed a break, so I put Loretta up front a few miles out on the pipeline trail & she brought us in. Until the Mendeltna run, it was the longest run of my life in terms of challenges & exertion.
Meier’s into Sourdough was fairly fun, actually. The trail demanded a good deal of sled handling, winding through thickly treed forest, up & down quick hills. The dogs felt good & it showed.
Leaving Sourdough they still looked great until an hour down the trail , when Little came up lame. She had a sore bicep & we got her off her feet quickly enough that she was able to run again later. I put a shoulder coat on her & against all of her protests got her in my sled bag to bed down & enjoy the ride. From that point on, with Little & Shane both out of commission, I was in leader training mode. Mendeltna was so far away & I wasn’t sure I’d make it there at all, let alone in a timely fashion. Once I did, I hobbled around the dog chores, rubbed by own feet with emu oil & caught a few hours of sleep. JJ & Nora had come along as our handlers & did an amazing job throughout of remaining positive & energetic & helpful even as it was evident that we were slogging through certain sections. I was incredibly grateful for their help at Mendeltna especially.
When I awakened there, I knew that the bulk of my work was behind me. I had worked almost in fifty yard splits with the dogs for the last two runs, building Loretta’s sense of what it was to lead, working up Andy-dog’s confidence, getting Tex some time up front too. I left Mendeltna with Littlehead & Andy up front & switched Andy out for Loretta about twenty miles in. She got it. That little girl (a yearling) took us the remaining 45 miles without a single problem, enjoying herself along the way. We cruised the last leg, with the dogs settled in, the leader woes cleared away, & the mood of the team vastly improved by a good rest & some good massage work at the checkpoint,. The yearlings were playing tug of war with booties found along the trail. They were speeding up with overflying ravens, nipping at one another, feeling positive & looking good. I just ski-poled & smiled the whole way.
When we pulled around the corner of the Hub & saw the finish line, we heard a chorus of cheers go up. Kristin & JJ & Nora & the Squids & Matt & Kate were all there, ready to help unharness & feed & assist in any way. It felt wonderful after all of that to bring a happy team across the finish line & into the company of such good friends. The Squids both had amazing races & hadn’t exactly slept a great deal & nor had their handlers, & here they all were to cheer us on. Extraordinarily good people abound, once you find them. I tried in crossing the line to see Kristin’s reaction to Loretta powering her way through in lead. I was so proud of her performance.
All told, it was an invaluable race due to the lessons it reinforced in us. We didn’t run particularly well, or plan the race appropriately, or do very many things right, really. But those mistakes we made we won’t make again. & in the meantime, I crossed the finish line with a yearling looking like an old pro in lead. It was enough of a slog that nostalgia won’t do its usual ruinous work on memory (to borrow a Chabon phrase) & I won’t be glowing about the experience & pining to do it again, but I will hold the lessons it taught me very close at hand in races to come.
Until then, better get back to the bandsaw. The Quest is right around the corner for my lovely wife, with dropbags due on Saturday. Plenty of time to rest up come May, maybe.
The imprint was how we knew. How I knew, really. Who knows what dogs perceive in this situation. But the imprint of the caribou's body on the deep, soft snow was how I knew the wolves must have been successful. Their tracks were so fresh and so surprising that it appeared the pack dropped from the sky. One of my leaders slowed and turned her face, and that's when the high, lonesome howls rang out from the gnarled alders at the trail's edge. The dogs' pace quickened as snow spilled away from the runners and we plunged eastward into darkness.... The sled tracks ended and we continued; fine, sparkling powder fluffing around the dogs' legs and frosting the fur around their faces. The waning daylight muted the folds and shadows of rolling topography and the shock of an early afternoon sunset glowed magenta beneath peeling clouds. As it always does, the silent purity of unbroken trail became punctuated and pocked, punched through with the weight of a thousand pounds. Half the moose in the harem trotted north, upslope, while three bulls loped south - their giant antlers silhouetted against the fast-slipping sun. Lavender and rose and so much white. The heart-quickening exclamation of deep, chocolate brown moving so eloquently against it all. ... The headlights appeared at the crest of the hill right as I finished untangling a tugline. I hopped on the runners and said "Alright!" and the dogs lunged against their harnesses. The engine was loud and the exhaust created a fog around the team when a woman's panicked voice pierced through all of it. "Wait!" she yelled. "Wait! My husband is back there and I lost track of him! I can't turn this machine around and you're heading that way, so can you please make sure he's all right?" and that's when the glowing green eyes came toward us. Folding back on their teammates, the leaders created a mess of snarls and growls and twisted lines and before long Solo was on his back. Five mouths tore into his belly and legs as tangled dogs took out their frustration and confusion on the nearest scapegoat. I grabbed the leader line and hauled it up as hard as I could, unraveling the knot of angry dogs and finally pulling it taut. Breathless, I collapsed on my knees in front of the team. Solo had a gaping hole in his groin and a half-dozen puncture wounds in his leg. "I need a vet," I said. We were 62 miles down the trail. ... At Alpine Creek Lodge, a space was cleared on the bunkhouse floor. Owners Claude and Jen were suited and booted and out the door in minutes, headed down the trail to help Andy with the two dog teams. Ania and Chrissy and Bob laid on the floor next to us. Solo's head was in my lap while strangers' hands petted him, held his legs, held first aid supplies, expertly packed his wounds with sterile gauze soaked in sterile solution, patted my back. Solo licked the tears off my cheeks as our vet Jayne's voice crackled through the phone line. "He's going to be OK. Dogs are amazing," she said. Strangers' voices spoke kind words. Strangers brought me dinner. These strangers were guests staying at the remote lodge and they dropped everything to help us. One of them was a nurse who may have found her calling as a vet tech. Three of them were members of a group called the Motorheads - a club of extraordinary gentlemen who ride their snowmachines all over the state and who also happen to adore Downton Abbey. These three men - Bob, Steve and Ed - agreed to haul Solo and I the nearly 70 miles down the trail to the closest veterinarian first thing in the morning. As nurse Colleen put the finishing touches on Solo's bandages, Andy came through the back door of the lodge. He had driven in my team and was about to go back out for the yearling team when Bob Bondy said, "Mom and dad are bringing them in." While Andy was busy securing my team, Claude and Jen had gone out to where the yearling team was being watched by a snowmachiner and turned the team around. Claude lit the way with his snowmachine while Jen stepped on the runners and drove the 11 dogs back to the lodge. The next morning, a sled was filled with straw, a sleeping bag, a dry bag of clothes, an extra sterile bandage and some dog food. I climbed in and Solo crawled right into my lap. We were covered with a sleeping bag and off we went. The Motorheads came up with a series of hand signals for me. They stopped and checked in every ten miles. They had someone ahead and someone behind. They watched us every second to make sure we were safe and sound. They wiped the snow off Solo's face and offered me hot coffee.
We pulled into Dr. Jayne's empty parking area and got Solo inside. As the Motorheads drove away I felt my eyes well up with tears. Jayne was returning from Palmer and would not arrive until 7 p.m. She made me a dinner of homemade soup and bread and fresh salad. She gave Solo some delicious frozen treats. She gave us a bed to sleep in and in the morning she made me french toast to fortify me for my return journey down the Denali Highway and then performed surgery on my soulmate lead dog upon whom I will depend to lead me down the Yukon Quest trail. The Bondy family provided me with a snowmachine to drive the 65 miles back to the lodge, but I had only been on a snowmachine once in my life. So Lynn and Bub, our dear friends from Cantwell, drove out to the trailhead in the morning and showed me what I needed to know. They got the machine off the trailer, started it, handed me a bag of homemade sandwiches and cookies (still warm) and sent me on my way. Two hours later I pulled into Alpine Creek, got on a dogsled and mushed the 65 miles back to the truck. By the time we arrived at Jayne's it was 11 p.m. Solo was wide awake and trying to play with Jayne's dogs despite his three drains and a new set of sutures.
It was 2:30 in the morning when our heads hit the pillow, but I couldn't sleep. Of course my thoughts were a flurry of worry for my precious dog, stretched out on the bed between us now and groaning occasionally with the pain of his bruised and stitched abdomen and leg. But they also were a flood of gratitude for the people of the North. The mushers who held my hand and guaranteed another dog would step up and take the lead for me. It happened to them too, once. On the Iditarod trail. On the Quest. On the Serum Run. Someone will step up and surprise you, they said. Maybe they've been waiting to be up there in front of that team their whole life! The strangers whose "mission of mercy" will doubtless be the basis for years of friendship. The people who over the seasons have now become our family, who without hesitation sprung into action and generously provided one solution after another to a logistical nightmare. And the sense of humor and adventure they all possess not only to survive the remote Alaskan winter but to flourish in it. What a wonder that in the heart of such an unforgiving wilderness the hearts of its inhabitants are so genuine. And what an overwhelming gift to know that windblown, lonesome trail is in fact the way home.
It's 3:04 a.m. and the alarm chimes a cheerful wake-up call. "Remember how you chose this? YOU actually set this alarm a few hours ago! For 3 a.m.! You are crazy!"Unbelievably, we are full of energy. We really can't wait to see how the dogs will do today. We quietly creak open the door of our room at Alpine Creek Lodge - an oasis of hospitality and winter weather in the desert that is Alaska this season. We pad out to the kitchen in our socks and fill up buckets of hot water, don hats, gloves and insulated bibs in the dark and head out the door. One clank of the bucket against a thigh and the sound of our voices sets T-Bone off in an instant. Then Trixie. Then Bullock. Then Hoss. Then everyone. Breakfast time is here! Quickly we spread out an array of bowls on the snow. One of us measures out supplements like probiotics and psyllium while the other ladles warm, meaty water and kibble into each bowl. We feed the loudest dogs first to try to give the other mushers and the family who run the lodge as much peace and quiet as possible. After breakfast we go around to each dog and say good morning, scooping poop along the way. On a day when we're being nice to ourselves, we would head inside for human breakfast, and at the lodge we are always in for a real treat - moose bacon with the perfect amount of crisp; eggs scrambled with caribou sausage; pancakes with blueberries picked this season or better yet, blueberry baked oatmeal! Chrissy knows just how to get mushers to totally veer off any schedule they may have! But today, our stomachs rumble as we harness the dogs, load them up in the truck and drive a few dozen miles away. We stop the dog truck - a one-ton diesel dually flatbed with a gigantic box on it to hold all 23 sled dogs in our team - and turn around. We unravel a seemingly neverending gangline and start clipping dogs in one at a time. By the time 23 crazy, barking dogs are lunging into their harnesses, the truck is jolting forward and rocking back. There is no question what they want - to go and go NOW! We oblige them with a shift of the gear and we're off! We keep the speed at about 10 mph for hours - our bodies becoming way more stiff and sore than they would be on a sled. But just watching the dogs is exhilarating. How they start a run, what they do after a snack break, how a dog might change whether he or she is in the front of the team or the back, how everyone congeals so beautifully the more hours they run together in harness. The most gratifying part is that when we stop at the end of a run, no matter how long it is, they are so very happy! Many of the veterans on our team are disappointed that they can't keep going, and they will not hesitate to let you know it. Back at the lodge, everyone rests peacefully on a dropline strung through the trees. They nestle into their straw or cozy into their coats if it's cold. Our breath turns to smoke in the waning light and we realize we are whispering. The alpenglow on the mountains is dazzling as the sun says goodnight to the Susitna River valley. There must be more than a hundred dogs here, yet silence prevails. It is a sacred hour and such an earned and satisfying peacefulness to have a yard full of quiet, sleeping dogs. They doze and dream while we pack away a warm meal and set the alarm for a few hours from now.
The headlamp was fading anyway, so I turned it off and let my eyes adjust on the dogs’ dark shadows. The moonlight soaked into my skin and brought something out of me that had been hiding all summer, like the sun coaxes blossoms from tight-lipped buds. I sighed and watched the bright, white mountains roll by beside us. To the north, a shimmer of green began to ooze from dark blue twilight. We had been downtrodden, and hooking up a dogteam for a night run after a full day of work was so unappealing. But we did it anyway. Can you believe we would have missed this?We made the sharp left turn onto our exit trail and the thick forest darkened around the team. I thoughtlessly slid the sled around one tree and then another. Jealous announcements from the rest of the dogs heralded our arrival home, and as we put everyone back on their houses our movements slowed down to halftime. Our eyes were lifted and mesmerized by pulsing, intertwined ropes of green that swirled around each other and spiraled down onto the ridgeline behind the house. The aurora became a fine-toothed comb. The aurora became a cyclone. The fish stew boiled and steam met the night air in a puff of white. The cabin lights burned amber from the windows. We stood on the edge of disbelief, and also on the edge of Panguingue Creek. What kind of a thing is that, where you look upon the very feeling in your heart? A thrumming, living fullness. And there it was, lighting up the sky.
(This entry was cross-posted at www.kristinknightpace.com)
It's been a predictably hectic summer season here at Hey Moose! Kennel. We've had the full host of ups & downs, from the great joy of being joined by three new puppies to the regrettable confrontation between our truck & a moose to the terrifying grizzly visitor we had at the dog yard. We've busied ourselves with the construction of more heat pens, a safer exit trail & a thousand small things besides. & though the rain has been almost inescapable up until August, we've managed to make headway with all of the projects we need to have in place before snow flies. We wanted to fill you in on our winter plans. The big news, of course, is that Kristin has signed up for the 2015 Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race. She'll be starting in Whitehorse, Canada, & mushing her way to Fairbanks. The race starts on February 7, when we average close to five hours of sunlight & when temperatures plummet to 50 below fairly regularly. The Yukon Quest has eight checkpoints along the way, so Kristin & the dogs will grow accustomed to camping along the trail or holing up in hospitality cabins along the way. It is very much a wilderness race that exposes its athletes to an unfiltered interaction with everything winter has to offer. We are so thrilled to be running the Quest as our first 1,000 mile race.
In preparation, we'll be running two teams in the Copper Basin 300 in January. Kristin ran a team last year & did a wonderful job. She's eager to return with a firsthand knowledge of the trail & with a dog team that knows every bend & turn along the way. It will be a great training run for the Quest & will allow her a chance to look over the core group of dogs she'll be taking along the 1,000 miler. Andy will be running the B team, showing the yearlings all the joys of racing, likely at a more leisurely pace. It's going to be a thrill for us to have two teams in a race for the first time.
We'll also be heading out to Eureka for our annual visit with the humans & dogs of Squid Acres & Wild & Free. We'll see if we can't put together another Eureka Invitational this year. It's a wonderful chance to expose all of our dogs to race-like conditions while spending time with some of our favorite people.
Andy will likely be doing one more race as well, but time will tell which one. Additionally, after our life-changing expedition in the Arctic last year, we're eager to get out for some extended trips with the dogs on our own time as well. We may be spending a good portion of time out at Wonder Lake in Denali National Park, & afterwards, we'll be trucking up the Dalton Highway to head back into the vast paradise of the Itkillik Valley again. When you find a place that fills you with that much wonder, you'd be crazy not to return. It's such a rich & unparalleled experience for dogs & humans alike-- we think about it literally every day.
It's going to be a full season, start to finish. We're presently in the process of querying potential sponsors, updating our website for the coming season & putting together some Hey Moose! Kennel merchandise. We're also designing a by-the-mile sponsorship program for Kristin's Quest bid, so keep your eyes peeled on the site for updates in that regard.
As always, our success here continues to depend on the hard work of family, friends & fans. A huge thank you to Andy's brother Jason for keeping up our website, Kristin's brother Jared for his continued media support in the form of awesome videos (more to come!) & to all of the sponsors & fans that have visited & helped us along the way.
A few weeks ago, it was the sandhill cranes overhead, one flock & then another, another. Then it was the varied thrushes at morning, the drizzle lingering into the daylight. Now, we have said goodbye to the dark of night & listen for the cue of the Swainson’s thrush instead to toll us to sleep. & with the summer, our attentions turn from all of the details of running dogs to all of the details that allow us to do so in the first place. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have loved ones from Outside stop in to visit. Tom & Patty got to meet the infamous Tinman at long last, after sponsoring him through last race season. Uncle Tom & Aunt Kathy met everyone—notably the more socially presentable sisters of Kabob & Littlehead. & in their visiting, it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to go over some of the basic elements of our day to day.
Our beautiful dogs, for starters, are Alaskan Huskies. Back in gold rush times, every dog that wasn’t chained up was brought north to help in freighting or mushing, however ill-suited or curiously sized. Those breeds, combined with the favored malamutes, Mackenzie River dogs & huskies that preceded them in traditional use, eventuated in a sort of mongrel breed suited best for distance racing. You may notice that sprint racing dogs tend to be houndier, short-coated, barrel-chested & built for speed. Alaskan huskies are bred out of their pure love of running & are built accordingly.
Certain kennels prefer a certain size of dog. Allen & Aliy at SP Kennel, for instance, have beautiful teams of 35-45 lb. dogs from lead on back to wheel. We tend to favor a 65 lb. male & a smaller female. The advantages or disadvantages of size are varied & are given to much theorizing into the small hours of the night by many among us. In the end, while the biomechanics are weighed & measured, sometimes you just prefer one kind of a dog over another. Sometimes you form a relationship with one size dog & are so impressed by his or her performance that you want to duplicate it in breeding. A quick look at the variety in size & shape among the famous lead dogs & you’ll see that there is no one answer. Like everything with this sport, all variables are considered in the eventuation of a successful dog run, right down to what you ate for breakfast.
Some folks have asked us why we chose the original dogs that we did. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to very deliberately & patiently bring together dogs out of proven genetics that fit our expectations in terms of size, build & temperament. We were incredibly fortunate to hit the nail on the head with the help of our friends & mentors. We could not be prouder of our dogs & we’re absolutely floored by their capacities on a daily basis.
Right now, that capacity tends to manifest itself as a huge desire to play & sprint full throttle. We take our dogs for free walks in the tundra & the creek in small, manageable groups. It’s a great way to let them just be dogs & to see pure joy writ large on their faces. It also lets us spend quality time with them as well, while watching with keen interest how the puppies & yearlings interact with their elders. Much can be told from such observation.
On evenings that are colder or wetter with rain, we’ll run a small string of dogs with the ATV. Otherwise, we spend a great deal of time in the construction & maintenance of a functional dog yard & home. We build new dog houses, drive new posts, fix pens, clip nails, split firewood, fid lines, inventory gear & do everything we can to organize ourselves before the first snowfall, when we are assured that all of our efforts at organization will explode in the usual detritus of harnesses, coats, ruffs, liner gloves & booties strewn every which way about the cabin. We’ve even found a little bit of time to tend to some of the human comforts at home, like putting in some grass seed, planting some vegetables & flowers & working on the cabin a bit. & we’re both training for trail races this summer as well in order to position ourselves well for winter fitness. Kristin will be making her trail racing debut with the Granite Tors trail run, a fifteen miler that attains to some beautiful heights. & I finally got my golden ticket for Mount Marathon down in Seward. A few weeks after that, I’ll run Crow Pass Crossing again, which is the most fun you’ll ever have in a wilderness marathon. In the fall I’ll try the Kesugi Ridge marathon too—who knows if I’ll throw anything else in there. It’s paramount for us to be able to understand what it feels like to push ourselves physically toward specific goals, as we ask that of our dogs every day in the winter. Too, it sure makes the thought of pushing a sled up Eagle Summit easier to stomach when you’ve done some legwork to prepare yourself.
Yes, the manufacture of the dream moves forward always, even when it seems like we ought to be idling on top of a dog house taking in the brief rays of the summer sun.
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.
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
Start I can’t attempt to recall beginning this race without first recollecting the generosity of so many along the way, from friends & family to dog sponsors, from mentors to volunteers, veterinarians to trailbreakers to officials. This is a sport that depends entirely on the selfless, passionate investment of everyone involved, & the Yukon Quest in particular fosters such a sense of community & family that it overwhelms. The physical act of reaching the starting line in downtown Fairbanks alone required use of J.J.’s snowmachine, Jamie’s driveway, Anna & Josh’s front yard, Michael’s enduring work as a handler, Schiro’s support &, of course, Kristin’s constant companionship, help & positivity. All of that & I haven’t even mentioned the dogs yet.
After so much preparation, the actual circus of the starting line was the final bit of pomp & circumstance to wrap up before I could finally commit to my time on the trail with my dogs. Healy acquitted itself well, as friends & neighbors & co-workers all showed up to offer their support & encouragement. I was reminded, then & again, that we don’t run these races alone, & that at every milepost along the way, we continue to have that same support.
Once the countdown hit zero, Solo & Kabob pushed into their harnesses & we were off, doglegging down to the Chena & starting along on our river miles. As houses turned to cabins & cabins turned into remote hunting shacks, groups of onlookers stood around bonfires cheering on teams as they passed. Signs stood near bridges, spraypainted letters rooting for Wild & Free, for Team Squid (& clearly, I raised a fist & cheered for both). The trail was hard & fast with some icy grooves & sections of glare ice, but for the most part, without any particular challenge.
A hard left off the Chena put us on track to Two Rivers, winding through tight forested trail, in a labyrinth of trails that limned open meadows, skirted beaver ponds & stayed sound & stable through the spruce & birch. As night fell, it occurred to me that I didn’t actually ever ask what trail marker I should be following. On some trees, CDs hung, on others, multi-colored reflectors, & then for the YQ, black & orange blazes. For some time, I ran alone, until a flooding light swept in behind me & Ryne passed with a beautiful looking team of dogs. Afterward, we wound our way out toward Pleasant Valley. A family handed me a bagged lunch with a sandwich & brownie &, of all things, a napkin. The napkin, it turns out, kept Chase laughing all the way through his first run. We are so filthy on the trail that such a nicety becomes almost absurd—although the thought behind it was incredibly touching.
Passing Pleasant Valley store & geeing into the ditch trail, I had the surprise of getting to see Kristin & Michael cheering us along—an unexpected boon. The dogs kept their steady, excited trot as we crossed the Chena Hot Springs Road & started along some winding trails buffeted on either side by looming copses of birch. We passed a team camped, then another, then another as we continued toward our goal of a camp somewhere close to 60 miles in. I found a suitable spot, hooked in the team, snowshoed out a turn-off & got everyone fed & bedded down for a five hour break. I laid down & caught a few minutes of sleep, the temperature nice & mild, the stars bright & enthusiasm coursing through my veins.
First Camp-Mile 101
When the alarm sounded, I took off everyone’s coats, bootied them up, snacked them & readied to head off down the trail. We had about fifteen miles into Two Rivers checkpoint, with a couple open water crossings that took just a bit of human lead-dogging. The dogs were alert, excited, moving nicely. At Two Rivers, we stopped just long enough to grab a few things from my drop bags & leave a few things for Kristin & Michael to take from my sled. No straw necessary & no excess weight for this run, as Rosebud loomed twenty miles downtrail.
Out of Two Rivers the trail started to variegate & engage us more—I started feeling grateful for all of our time out in Eureka with the Squids & Brent, running those challenging trails in icy conditions. The glaciation started to rear its head, with hairpin turns that careened directly into angled walls of ice. We never knew what was coming, & each time the dogs saw the “X” of two crossed trail markers (signifying difficult terrain), they seemed to glory in it, speeding up to round each corner.
A mile before Rosebud, I pulled over to take off booties, snack the dogs & get myself a little salmon jerky & water. I knew with a good climb ahead they could use all the traction they could get, & I could use all the fuel I could get. Sebastian & Amanda passed while I was pulled off, & I didn’t see either of those fine-looking teams again on trail. I put Norton & Littlehead up front, thanking Solo & Kabob for all of their tireless work leading the team so far. Norton & Littlehead have proven themselves powerhouses on hills & in wind, & I needed their relentless positive drive. Once I pulled the hook, we started gaining elevation right away, the trail sloping & gradual at first & then winding into serpentine switchbacks that climbed vermicular up the mountain. From the beginning, I lifted my drag break & pushed the sled, running behind. I’m a fan of running up hills most of the time. This one got a bit tiring somewhere along the way, I must admit, but chug along we did, stopping maybe twice up the main climb to catch our breath. The second stop, the sled was far enough above me that I couldn’t actually push it to get going without jumping. Iron & Doug were harness banging, cheerleading everyone along. Norty & Little did an amazing job, & up we climbed, the wind blowing sideways, visibility fairly low. Once we reached the first saddle, I knew we were having fun & started laughing & cheering along the dogs. They were incredible, & between every utterance, I’d shake my head & just say to myself, “unbelievable.”
The top of Rosebud & Boulder has a series of pyramidal castles that you climb rapidly & then descend in chutes that bear the ruts of teams that came before, ice deeply imbued with brown dirt. We were rocking our way up the hills, me sprinting behind, the dogs not missing a beat, until we came upon another team that stalled out. Tony had been unable to convince his dogs to get up one of the castles, so after talking, we decided I’d pull around & either try to motivate his team from the front or tie them off to my sled. Once I passed, his team perked right up & followed us no problem. On one of the steep chutes downhill, Doug took a misstep & hurt his shoulder a bit. When we hit treeline, I pulled over, giving the dogs congratulations. Tony pulled over behind & we re-bootied & snacked our dogs & both individually took in what we just experienced. Tony helped me put Doug in the sled bag & off we went. For one quarter mile.
Doug in a sled bag is one of those phenomena that cannot adequately be explained without the benefit of hearing him. He absolutely hates it. Kristin had to bag him coming into Tolsona on CB300, & we could hear him from two miles across the lake. He looks at you with these plaintive eyes & just howls, ceaselessly, more loudly than any dog in the history of mankind. You have to time your comments to the other dogs around the rare, brief pauses in his moaning. & all the while, he wrestles to escape.
As such, I ended up pulling over again to re-secure him & to wave Tony by. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but you’re going to know exactly where we are for the rest twenty miles.” He smiled & went along. The twenty miles of indefatigable moaning led us through all kinds of overflow, some of it up over my knees. At one point, I had to lead Norton & Little out into a crossing & then tug the sled by the gangline to get it moving behind them. Little took a bit of a swim, but otherwise, the dogs did a great job of remaining calm even when they were presented with new challenges. We finally crossed through the last section of overflow a half mile out from the checkpoint & arrived to find a dozen people with anxious looks on their faces. Doug’s moaning makes people think the worst. It sounds pretty convincingly like the beacon of the apocalypse. Once we pulled in & assuaged everyone’s fears, we got the team parked & bedded down for their first full vet check. I gave massages, fed the dogs, got some food in my own belly thanks to the wonderful volunteers at 101, & managed to sneak in a good forty minutes of sleep or so. (My total by the end was six hours over four days).
Keeping an eye on Eagle Summit, I made my way through starting preparations, got some good advice from the race officials, kissed my lovely wife goodbye & set out to go up & over Eagle Summit with dusk falling. Norty & Littlehead were up in front again for another climb. The team loosened up over the first couple miles & then we started ascending. There was a wind advisory, & we did have to do a bit of work to keep on track, but the dogs were focused & up we went. It was dark by the time we reached the saddle up top. We followed from tripod to tripod & by the time I saw the tire in place for setting a hook, I also saw Norty & Little starting down over a precipice unlike any I’d ever seen before. Folks had cautioned that for three to fifteen seconds, you just sort of freefall & do your best. It’s an interesting feeling seeing your team disappear in front of you, over the cusp, into the night on the steepest descent you’ll ever experience on the runners. In my recollection, this black hole of a drop looks a bit like that man-eating cave-monster thing in Star Wars at Jabba the Hut’s place, with the trail markers standing in for the crooked yellow teeth. The claw brake worked sporadically for just long enough to catch & release, & otherwise, I said “easy” a hundred times & sort of held my breath. & then, that part was over. Just like that. Terrifying, absolutely, & then, over. The dogs took the hard gee & started up the second saddle. The second descent is much, much longer than the first, & you sidehill down it, for the most part. The good news is, it’s slightly less steep, so you have some semblance of control. I like to be able to mean “easy” when I say “easy,” so that was a fine perk. Even still, we flew down that mountain in breathtaking time. Once we hit bottom & wound our way off of Eagle & on to the trail to Central, I took stock, took a deep breath & looked closely at my dog team to see how everyone was doing.
& here is the most extraordinary thing: those dogs seemed to almost metabolize the experience immediately into confidence. It was as if they looked around for a moment, said “holy hell, we just did that,” & then all congratulated themselves, puffed out their chests & started flying down the trail. To see young dogs take on such unspeakably challenging terrain & internalize it so proudly & confidently left me speechless in awe. I have never been prouder of those dogs.
So amped up & confident were the dogs that in our zooming along we ended up somehow missing one crucial haw & finding ourselves instead going off trail headfirst into a drainage that was precisely the width & length of a dog team. With a team of young males all jazzed up over Eagle Summit, I had to rig a Rube Goldberg contraption in order to have a safe & effective come-haw & get us back on track. After a half hour with that, we were again running into the night, ready for the next challenge.
Regarding the next challenge, it turned out Norton likes normal ice alright, just not ice of curious hues. On the creek, we hit a long stretch of ice maybe 30 feet wide & ½ mile long & we cruised right along until there was a small & sudden patch of brownish-black ice by a gravel bar. Norton laid down, all fours splayed out. It was actually pretty adorable for such a big & capable dog. Norton took some convincing, but along we went. The trail into Central for the last few miles was along tussocks & back trails that had been driven by a truck or ATV, so the ruts were persistently nagging & all of us got beaten up a bit & shaken around by the exposed tundra. Nonetheless, we pulled into Central happy & amped up. I dropped T-Bone in Central, as he expressed to me a clear desire to go hang out with his mom & Michael instead of continuing along. No need to push folks who aren’t enjoying themselves, especially at this age.
We gathered some things from the drop bags, chatted for a bit with some folks & then headed out for Medicine Lake to make camp.
The trail out was varied—rough snow but straightforward, for the most part. Some tussocks before the airstrip, then the long beeline across Medicine Lake & into the trees. We found a good place to pull out that one of the 1,000 milers left behind & made camp for the night, the ice fog settling in, the temperatures plummeting, the moisture in the air chilling me through. It was a cold camp, but the dogs didn’t notice. I had bedded them in straw, in their insulated coats, & then covered them each over with another layer of straw. Another beautiful dog run, & we were right on my schedule.
Camp 2 – Circle
Birch Creek is a serpentine & endless river. I put Tinman in the bag ten miles into this run for a sore shoulder & he seemed to luxuriate in the ride. Otherwise, it went largely like this: Birch Creek. Birch Creek. Birch Creek. Birch Creek. Birch Creek. Birch Creek. Birch Creek. (Think about Chef Michael Roddy’s food at circle). Birch Creek.
& then, after getting into the trees & passing Aliy & Chase & Heidi coming the other way, we were just about to the checkpoint, hawed off onto the road & then…wound around a cabin & ended up in a straight line with Solo in single lead standing with his front paws on the step of an outhouse. Seriously. He led us by himself through a long slog & then circled a cabin to end up standing in front of a shitter as if he were patiently waiting to go in. So, I kicked out a trail, we went back over to the road & worked our way toward the fire hall. A squirrel ran in front of our team just before we rounded the corner into full view, so naturally, we arrived all looking perky & lively, which was a good boon. I owe that squirrel.
Kristin & I volunteered in Circle last year, so it was a special thing indeed to pull in & see Olaf & Jean & Michael & all the rest of the familiar faces. It was like coming home, in an odd way, & it felt incredibly comforting at that stage of the race.
I got everyone bedded down, fed & massaged. I would drop Tin there, but I let him hang out in team & get his fill of food & love first.
As for me, I went in & enjoyed the splendors of Chef Michael’s creation: two bowls of chili, an everything omelet, biscuits & gravy, three donuts, two scones & a gallon of water. Then, I promptly climbed on top of the fire truck & fell asleep for a solid couple of hours. It was amazing. I decided in Circle that after the long slog in I would give the dogs eight hours of rest. I had planned for it but was tempted to cut it to six in order to try to chase down Ryne or Amanda (though they blazed on in so quickly I don’t think I’d have seen hide nor hair). I was admittedly a bit wobbly while I was in Circle, but I had this feeling growing in me that my dogs were about to bust this thing open. I knew after a solid rest that they would be a consolidated, well-oiled machine leading me into the finish line.
I was right. I put Norty & Little up front & we ran the first forty miles in five hours, blazing along with the dogs looking absolutely beautiful. Me, I didn’t fair quite as well. I found myself nodding off a bit & then hallucinating pretty consistently. I kept seeing suburban neighborhoods on the banks of the river, or connexes on the side of the trail. I saw a few white bats flying around. I saw non-existent headlights through oxbows in the river. I saw white sand beaches, the sun languid & easy over the rolling waves of cerulean water.
But every time I would start to let sleep overcome me, I would jerk my head up & see something even more incredible: a cohesive team of dogs on a mission for the finish line.
Ten miles before Medicine Lake, I put Solo up in single lead. He made it clear to me that if he was going to give it his all up front, then I damn well was going to have to give it my all from the runners too. As we sped along, I kicked & ran & pumped & cheered. Once off the creek, we blazed across Medicine Lake & started into the up & down trail outside Central. Solo was loping, throwing himself into every turn, & I had shed two layers in spite of the temperature & was sprinting with the dogs, calling them up, grinning ear to ear. As we drew closer & closer to the finish I started to tell them what they meant to me, how proud I was of them. Two miles out, I had tears streaming down my face & couldn’t stop telling them thank you, thank you, thank you. One mile out, we were all exhilarated, leaning into it, high-tailing it for the finish line.
& then there it was, the fire in the burn barrel, the group of folks huddled together, Darrin & Heidi watching the team in, Lauren holding up the red solo cup with a candle in it signifying my red lantern status, & my beautiful wife with a broad smile on her face. We loped in, the dogs overjoyed, my fist pumping in the air. I have never been so happy to come in last, never so very proud. We had done the 74 mile run in almost the same amount of time it took us to go 55 the day before. It was the finest dog run of my life, without question. I was so proud, so incredibly proud.
The banquet was a swift ordeal, but it reminded me just how amazing this community is. I got to race against some amazing people here, all of them high on their runs, all of them in love with their dogs & with this dream we all share. I raced against people that are fundamentally good, & I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt to talk dogs afterwards with each & every one of them. If you wonder about the hearts of mushers, don’t. These people are pure & genuine & love what they are doing. & I can’t imagine in the least a better way to be.
A very sincere thank you to all of our supporters, all of the other mushers & dogs on the trail, the Yukon Quest organization, vets, volunteers, & fans. & to my darling wife & our breathtaking dogs.
I lay curled in my -60 sleeping bag in the front seat of the truck, the clouds a patchwork gossamer skein to the moonlight filtering down. Outside, the sounds of dog teams in the varying stages of entrance or exit--the clank of cooker lids, barking leaders harness-banging to go, quiet words exchanged between mushers & handlers. I closed my eyes, for the second time in two days, & where I thought to dream instead I saw Kristin & the team barreling into the checkpoint, that wonderful broad smile on her face, the lolling tongues of the dogs. Where I wanted to feel my exhaustion spread through me & overtake me, instead my pride thrilled & thrummed in me & kept me awake. My family out there on the trail, plugging along, doing such a beautiful job.
Handling under any circumstance is a difficult but extraordinarily educational task, especially for an aspiring musher. Handlers can observe checkpoint routines, look over dog teams, talk shop with mushers, interact with the incredibly generous volunteer veterinarian team, & forge friendships all the while, winding down the road. & I do mean down the road-- the Copper Basin 300 requires, in addition to the usual tasks, a great deal of driving. All told, the truck tallied just shy of 1200 miles for this trip.
A handler’s workload includes greeting the team at every checkpoint, assisting the team in reaching their parking spot, helping tend to any dropped dogs, assisting the team in leaving, & then cleaning up the straw & the leftover supplies when the team is back on the trail. Once the spot is clean, you pack up & drive to the next checkpoint to repeat the process.
Other than pulling on the leader line or occasionally swinging wide the gangline, a handler doesn’t get to interact with the dogs. This means that you stand with arms folded next to twelve of your absolute best friends & look them in the eye & see that imploring recognition, & you simply have to shrug & turn away. This alone could kill a man. At least I had the dropped dogs to join me, each stretching out in turn in the cab of the truck, each getting tended to with massage, food, fluids, whatever they wanted.
That’s the gist of what a handler does, but what a handler feels is something else entire. I cannot begin to describe the pride I felt seeing my wife & our dogs come loping into the finish. I love each of them with everything I have to give, & to see those smiles, that sense of accomplishment, was nothing short of extraordinary. I have known for some time that our dogs were born to run, & I have long suspected that my wife, too, is certainly most in her element when her feet are on the runners. I can now tell you unequivocally, upon seeing her cross that finish line, that she was born to mush, plain & simple. I am proud beyond words. My heart over-brimmed there, watching them roll in, & over-brims still in recollection.
This was our first race with our own dogs, with our own kennel & under our own guidance. Everything that we have done to make this possible culminated in that beautiful smile on Kristin’s face at the finish line. & along the way, I thought about those details ancillary to the race—pallets of kibble, booties in bundles, meat snacks, posts & swivels, & on & on & on. I thought about the incredible generosity of our dog sponsors, our friends, our families, our mentors & our community. People, some of them complete strangers, who contribute to this wild dream of ours from landlocked states & Southern towns & office cubicles. I thought about the fact that our dogs are well-cared for in every circumstance largely because that generosity affords us the tools we need for that care. No team crosses that finish line alone, & wrapped up in every footfall of every dog is this shared, collective enthusiasm & love for the sport that you all encourage & support in us, a live filament buzzing in our hearts. & so whatever our joy & pride in completing this race with happy, healthy dogs, I hope you know we share it with all of you who have helped us get here in the first place. It’s a stunning, heart-stopping feeling to see your dream manifest, & it spurs a gratitude the depths of which I’ve never known. We can & will say thank you over & again, but a capable, healthy dog charging through a finish line after 300 miles says it best. From Norton, Kabob, Littlehead, Solo, Bullock, T-Bone, Andy-dog, Ox, Zigzag, Hoss, Doug & Shane (our CB300 team), thank you.
In the dark, the water swirled around my knees as Kabob jumped out from the shelf ice and onto my boot. Littlehead followed, trusting me enough to move forward into the icy current of the Gakona River. Half the dogs in my team were willing to take the plunge, but those who hesitated had an awful lot of power and my team was stalled out. Laura stood on the runners of my sled as I yelled encouragement and pulled forward on the gangline with all my might. We were halfway through the crossing but not progressing one inch, when I heard splashing coming from behind. A man in red snowpants emerged from the darkness and hauled up my gangline into his frozen mittens. We tromped through the river and onto the other side. Who are you? I asked. What is your name? You are my hero! Tommy, he said. He was breathless and drenched. Our gloves were stiff outlines of our hands as we traded a handshake, then he walked slowly and heavily toward his barking team in the distance. I pulled forward and put in my hooks, giving the dogs a chance to roll in the snow while I dug through my sled bag to find my extra pair of boots.
"Kristin!" a voice yelled. It was Laura. "We need your help!"
I looked back to the river and three headlamps proceeded steadily down the wooded foothills of the Gakona. Teams began to pile up on the ice at the bank as dog after dog refused to drench themselves in the swirling river. I told Solo to stay up, then ran back and plunged into the water for a third time. I grabbed Mandy's leaders as Laura hauled up the dogs in the middle of the team, water finally making its way over my knee-high Neos and soaking my socks.
I returned to my sled and began to chop away at my overboots, being careful not to shatter the plastic buckle that holds them on. They were a solid block of ice and weighed ten pounds each, and oh what a relief it was to be rid of them! My extra boots were cold, but dry. I strapped the stiff Neos to the top of my sled and pushed on into the night. Thirty more miles to go til the next checkpoint.
As the trail rose and descended, our experience was highlighted by something akin to the code of the North. A knowing laugh between two mushers at a checkpoint. A headlamp turning back toward us in the dark, waiting, making sure. Mushers lending, borrowing, encouraging. In a haze of exhaustion, of thrilling highs and desperate lows, a camaraderie thriving and growing stronger with each passing mile. And surrounding those concrete moments of kinship, a swirl of visions seemingly dreamed: small lights far in the distance, winding up a towering white mountain illuminated by the moon; dogs' shadows prancing in unison on an unmarred canvas of snow-covered lakes; auroras bending and flexing through a sea of gauzy clouds; daylight breaking unexpectedly after countless hours of darkness. And the dogs with their wagging tails, their loving kisses, their uncompromising devotion. They do so very much for us and ask so little in return. What hearts they have. What love of running, of hunting, of traveling. A glorious contagion that battles the weak human body's overwhelming urge to sleep. An all-out run to the finish line, tears frozen on my cheeks, these sweet friends we raised from puppies and look at them now! Still raring to go after 300 miles. My heart bursting with pride.
More than one thousand truck miles later, we arrived again at Stampede Road. The moon's brightness made convincing auroras out of windswept clouds that tore out over the Alaska Range in long rays. The outer range that overlooks the sweeping tundra and then the band of trees that shelters our home sat high above the horizon; lambent, phosphorescent, welcoming. We loaded up our sleds and tied them to the truck, hooking the dogs up for their final run. They burst forward into their harnesses, tails held high with excitement. Home! Almost there! A fresh trail had been put in all the way to our doorstep and upon entering the cabin we were greeted with the radiant warmth of the woodstove. Someone had come in and gotten the home fires burning, a tall pot of water hot and ready for the dogs' dinner. Wood hauled and split on the front porch. And farther down the trail, our puppies and inside dogs had full bellies in the yards and homes of our neighbors. And farther down the trail, at the boundary of our community, every member within its circle issued heartfelt congratulations upon our return. And even farther down the trail, across a solitudinous and wintry land that holds captive our hearts and those of our dogs - that separates us from the ones we love - our families and friends lit up the ether with their love and support and generosity. And oh how we could feel it all! Spreading into our very beings like that moonlight saturating the clouds.
As the truck climbed the icy inclines of the Elliott Highway, the sun descended behind piles of remote, snow-covered domes. Its last wink before setting illuminated icy shingles that dangled off tree branches waving in the wind. Glass chandeliers on the verge of shattering, remnants of an epic ice storm. We continued our ascent to a windblown summit - a battlefield of hunched and wounded spruce bowing to the ground, struggling to remain on their feet. Sheets of snow packed into the crevices of truck doors and sledbag fabric as 50 mile-per-hour gusts whistled through stanchions and ratchet straps. Six hours of driving 25 to 30 miles per hour got us to Paige and Cody's spread in Eureka - a remote paradise for dog mushers whose entire lives are ruled by the trail. All 15 race dogs and all nine puppies were settled into their temporary homes as the wind chapped our hands and cheeks bright red, boxing our ears and watering our eyes. We stepped inside the arctic entry and pushed the door closed against the gale. Inside, the fire crackled and laughter filled the cabin, its windows frosted with an inch-thick layer of white ice crystals. From the dark outside, they glowed as though through wax paper. We made our plans for a big camping trip and awakened the next morning to the same violent winds as the temperature steadily creeped lower. Four degrees below zero with windchills of -40. These extreme conditions could easily occur on the races Andy and I are running this year, so we decided this would be an excellent opportunity to test our gear and to make sure the dogs were having fun through it all. As we took one last look around the cabin, a gust roared overhead and crashed onto the roof, creaking the stovepipe. It sounded like we were sheltered in a house under the ocean, waves booming onto sea cliffs above.
In a din of barking, we clipped each dog to the gangline. Everyone had booties on all their paws, along with T-shirts, harnesses and windproof coats that protect their flanks and genitals from frostbite in the wind. The mushers, covered head to toe in gear, breathed heavily as sweat dripped down our backs. We ran each dog to the line while wearing ten pounds of clothes and five pounds of boots, while unraveling tangles and knocking ice out of tiny snaps, while ensuring everything was perfectly aligned in a calm and collected manner, even though the entirety of the outside world was a swarm of chaotic noise. We pulled the hooks and...
Runners skidding out on ice, putting a foot out to keep the sled from toppling into the centrifugal force of a 90-degree turn with a hot team out of the driveway, wind slamming into the trees overhead, whistling through millions of branches and turning them into furiously sweeping broomsticks. Wind. Wind. Wind! The shhhhhh of the drag brake on windblown trail, the crrrrrrrr of the claw brake biting into the ice.
Then off the road and into the woods. Only as wide as a dogsled, the old mail trails provided us with a route to our "checkpoint" in Manley Hot Springs. Spruce trees brushed our shoulders for miles and willows switched our faces. With Brent leading the way, we ducked under branches and wove around broken-down trucks and snowmachines. Intermittently we emerged from the shelter of the trees onto open sloughs as the wind blew the sleds right out of their tracks. The dogs were unbroken in their forward advance, tails pushed to the side by the blast. The trail led back to a wide, plowed road and our powerful teams churned into the streets of Manley. We zoomed past houses adorned with Christmas lights, windows glowing softly onto the bitterly windswept street. One by one, five dogteams pranced across the one-lane trestled bridge, headlamps glancing off reflective harnesses that bounced rhythmically in the dark. We turned into the driveway of celebrated mushers Joee and Pam Redington. There we parked, fed and strawed our dogs and walked into a warm, clean home rife with Iditarod history. Joee's father, Joe Redington, Sr., was the founder of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Andy and I silently loaded our plates with salmon caught from a nearby river, mashed potatoes, lasagna, homemade bread and jam and a variety of berries. It was an honor just to sit at their kitchen table. We hardly spoke a word and instead listened to them tell stories about dogs and mushers over the years. Before we took off again with the dogs, Joee showed us his shop. There, the shelves were lined with unbelievable works of art made from jawbones, baleen, fish skins, wood, beads, fur and hide - amazing renditions of native Alaskans catching fish or otters, mushing their dogteams, dancing in costume. Every one imagined and then created by Joee in a manner fit for a museum. The very last thing one would expect to find after mushing to a remote Alaskan village for dinner.
We ran home fast, sailing through the forests as the umbriferous moonlight spliced the treetops and settled on the snow. We ate, slept, and got up the next day to do it again. This time, Andy and I went on our own to the top of a nearby pass. We wanted the dogs to get experience climbing steep hills while running into the wind. We skidded out onto the road and climbed up steep intervals as gusts blasted our faces and then came from behind, billowing out the dogs' coats. Swirls of spindrift surrounded our sleds as our brakes kicked up a fine powder, blinding us to everything but our wheel dogs. From the corner of my eye I noticed several discrete spotlights shining down onto the landscape. What was going on out there, some kind of mining project? How could someone shine such bright lights down from above in this extremely remote place? Then I realized it was moonlight illuminating the ice-glazed snow of treeless bluffs in the distance. Headlamp off, I looked in every direction at valleys unfurling to the four corners of the earth. Giant stars wobbled and then fell, burning up in the atmosphere above my dogs. Wind gusted into the hood of my parka, closing the furs over my face and then blasting them open again. Another star fell and then another. Meteors, I guess. And the shadow of my dogs and the shadow of my sled and the shadow of me on a snowbank. The moon harsh, resplendent, otherworldly.