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.


December 8

Meaning has always seemed a shifting thing—mercurial & relative, given entirely to circumstance. I used to think of meaning as a sort of static wellspring, a thing you encounter after a long journey prompted in its name, a grail, an El Dorado. Something pre-original that waits indifferently for your arrival.
At this time yesterday, the sun had faded well below the range, & in the soft & muted vestigial light I could just discern ridgelines north & south, the swale of the valley where the river cuts across miles of tundra. On either side of the trail, caribou & moose prints, wolf scat with hare fur in it, weaving animal tracks running criss-cross & vermicular across a land too looming & too vast to ever comprehend. The dogs on the line running into that quiet dark, & we on the runners behind them, following suit. & the light fading until full dark enveloped us.
What the dogs always teach are the fundamental lessons of humility & love. These are not lessons you have a choice to heed—they are mandates, & rightly so. You open unto the dogs, give to them the largest fraction of yourself that you can give, cognizant that with each footfall, with each glance back, they are giving you everything. When you fail them, your heart feels it so keenly that the words you would use in remediation desiccate & fall out of your mouth powder-dry, brittle & broken. Your syllabary is divested, entirely, & you are left only with your heart talking to their hearts, pleading & hoping, nothing more. I have known so many things in life capable of beautiful articulation. I have heard sentences that stunned me, read pages that left me in tears, spent years in the study & pursuit of those things-- but the duel capacity for love & loyalty that comes from a dog, like the vastness of the landscape through which they cut a trail, cannot be described adequately.
I think about that though, about how we drive into that darkness & there tethered all as one how we are worlds & worlds of being, each & all. I think about the vastness of the world & then I take from it the sunlight, & then I think about this place & I take from it all signs of civilized life, & in that yawning dark I put myself & a dog team, & scribed in our wake, lines drawn out over miles & miles of snow, is meaning. The kind of meaning I coveted years ago but never knew.
& so it is a shifting thing, a work, a practice to maintain. I fail it, I regain it, I feel it ebb & flow. & like any utterance, the hieroglyph we leave behind of sled runners & paw prints tells a tale that too will fade & alter & ultimately disappear. But we carve it out & know its breath. Its blood is our blood, its heartbeat our own. We with our headlamps darting the tiniest sliver of light over the dogs’ backs, & all around us, the oildark night.

Training with Friends

For the past two winters, Hey Moose! Kennel has been lucky enough to become Hey Moose! Checkpoint every so often. Friends from near and far have traveled to Healy to explore the trails around Denali and enjoy our neck of the woods. This time, it was Mandy Nauman of Douglas Fir Mushing and Laura Allaway of Trail Breaker Kennel - both out of Fairbanks. It was an adventure from the very start. Because Hey Moose! doesn't have road access, the two parked their dog trucks a mile away at Earthsong Lodge, a great place run by our neighbor Jon Nierenberg. They called and we coordinated putting booties on and harnessing our dogs all at the same time - they from the parking lot and me from home. As the minutes ticked down until our scheduled meeting time on the trail, I put my 12th dog into place and pulled the hooks. There are 15 dogs in the Hey Moose! racing team, but our exit trail is a narrow, winding, tree-filled path, and I wasn't yet ready to take that many dogs down it right off the bat. Dogs are so amped up by the time we pull the hook that it can be an uncontrollable situation.

I let out a sigh of relief as I rounded the last 90-degree turn of our exit trail and swung out onto the mushing trail that takes us out to the main road. Within a minute I could hear their two 14-dog teams barking like crazy and my dogs sped up. We struck out across the tundra and then came to a stop as Mandy and Laura pulled their knots and fell in line behind me. The sky was streaked with neon pink as the sun set behind Denali, creating a giant triangular shadow on the clouds above. We kept a steady pace toward Sunday Creek and the settling dusk, gliding silently through snow-caked trees and tundra.

Night fell and the dogs became a singular pack, moving as one and perking up at signs of fox, wolf and ptarmigan. They love to run at night, and can't wait to see what's around every corner. Their excitement is contagious, and no matter how cold or dark it is, it's impossible not to have fun.

When we arrived home a few hours later, we set up droplines around the house for Mandy and Laura's dogs, gave them straw and fed everyone. We made a plan to get up in the morning and each run a 14-dog team to our dog trucks, then head out to the Denali Highway for a 50-mile run. In so many words, running three 14-dog teams out of a tricky exit trail and then stopping them after one mile out on the open tundra is, well, INSANE. And the dogs let us know what a crazy idea it was as we loaded them into the dog trucks one by one. It was 3:30 in the afternoon and almost dark by the time we had our sleds loaded atop our trucks. With an hour to get to the DH, another hour to booty and harness the dogs again, six hours or so to run 50 miles, an hour drive back and the prospect of hooking all those dogs up again only to run one mile at the end of it all, I said what we all were thinking: Let's just run them here! We can easily do 50 miles on these trails. Laura, looking exasperated, said, "Well, at least let's go get a pizza and a beer first." We had already driven our trucks a few miles into town, so we parked at the local pub, grabbed some grub and made a new plan with full bellies. Unexpected craziness is good for dogs training to run races anyway, we reasoned. Another night run later, we were back at home, planning our next run in the morning.

We were on the trail by sunrise and climbed the ridge north of our house. We crossed a frozen lake and turned west, the team drenched in rare sunlight as the vast north boundary of the park and the distant Kantishna Hills unfolded before us. Thin, high clouds melded together above us, pushed by wind, as our packed trail suddenly disappeared. Norton and Andy-dog were unsure at first, then full of disciplined resolve as they plunged shoulder-deep into a trail apparently broken by a single dogteam days ago. Every time I stepped off the runners to push the sled forward, I fell into bottomless snow. Somehow, the sled floated right through it and the dogs maintained a steady pace. Two miles later, we gee'd onto a hardpacked snowmachine trail and I hollered with joy. Every dog received hugs and kisses as their tails wagged with accomplishment. Dogs are so humbling, the way they make the most mountainous of tasks seem like no big deal. The way they accept the simplest of things, like a pat on the head, as payment in full for their hard work.

The hours flowed by with the trail and before we knew it, it was dusk again - pale lavender fading into denim fading into navy blue . Slate Lake a white spectacle of loveliness set against a ring of mountains backlit in embers. As we made the loop around the lake, I looked back at Laura who silently raised her fist in the air in celebration. Three of the luckiest gals in the world and their beautiful dogteams. A few tiny specks of happiness in a vast, winter wilderness.

Road Closed

"All right, we have to get out of here in the next two hours," Andy says as he shuts the cabin door against a gust of wind. The dog truck is parked at the end of our trail, which meanders through black spruce a distance of 600 feet from our cabin to a dirt road. Out in the dogyard the wind knocks snow from the spruce boughs and swirls it all around the cabin. Dawn is just beginning to break, but you can hardly tell for how thickly the blowing snow occludes the sunrise. We pack everything we need for a day on the trail in our sleds, hook up our teams and speed down the exit trail. We stop at the truck and tie off the teams, then begin loading each dog into the dog truck. Fifteen minutes later, our sleds are tied down on the dogbox and we are busting through drifts as high as the grille of our Dodge Ram, high-tailing it for Stampede Road - the state-maintained main road that bisects our neighborhood in Healy. I close my eyes and pet Solo, while Andy says he hopes I enjoyed our last drive down our road for the next six months. This is it. Winter's here. From Stampede we turn south on the Parks Highway in a maelstrom of white. Every few minutes we glance in the side-view mirrors at our sleds perched high atop the truck, making sure the wind isn't taking them away. An hour later we arrive at a pullout occupied by a handful of dog trucks. The Road Closed sign on the Denali Highway is formidable. "Travel Not Recommended Beyond This Point." "Tell Someone Where You Are Going." We unload the sleds, tie them together, tie them off onto the dogtruck and begin putting dogs on the gangline. One by one, everyone is bootied. One by one every dog faces forward excitedly, ready for an adventure. Ready to run. The Denali Highway is perfect for distance training because it is one long, unbroken ribbon of trail for 135 miles. It is well-traveled by snowmachines and is a good way to get long miles on the dogs with a low risk of injury, since the trail is usually nicely packed and smooth.

Andy and I signal to each other through the din of barking dogs that we are ready by patting the tops of our heads. We pick up our snowhooks and off we go, standing on the brakes to keep the dogs at their big, smooth trots. The sky is a deep blue, almost purple, with a thin veil of swirling snow hovering on the mountains of the Nenana River valley. It is twelve degrees above. It is silent. Giant black ravens swoop down into the road ahead of the team, almost playful. The dogs pick up the pace and try to chase them. A small herd of caribou stumbles into the middle of the trail, forming a circle around their young. We stop the team and the dogs go crazy. The caribou decide, in their indecisive way, that leaving the trail is a good idea. They disappear into the taiga and the dogs lope past their footprints, sniffing the air, ears alert. They are having a blast - this pack of young dogs starting to form a cohesion that can only come with training together for hundreds of miles.

Three hours and seventeen minutes later we are back at the dog truck. We remove everyone's booties, give the dogs a snack of frozen meat and load them into the truck again. Sled are hoisted, ratchet straps are tied off and we are driving north again with three hours to go until the neighbors show up for dinner. The storm that we left in Healy has remained there all day. We can't drive faster than 50 mph because the snow is blowing directly into our windshield and we can hardly see. We turn onto Stampede Road and can't believe our eyes. At least a foot of new snow is piled upon the pavement. If it looks like this down here, at the bottom of the hill, there's no telling what kind of chaos lies ahead. A nearly unbroken blanket of snow reaches across the shoulders of the road and out onto the tundra. We arrive at our street and can barely tell where it is. Our neighbor a mile away from home lets us park at his place in the winter, so we back into our spot and unload the sleds. I tie off my sled to the front of the dog truck in the dark, snowflakes darting across my headlamp. I can see about 50 feet ahead of me and not much farther. As I unravel my gangline, I see a headlamp smudged by windrift. It's our neighbor Mike and his dogteam, plowing through two-foot drifts out on the tundra. We exchange a wave and I think to myself that there's just no better place to live. I get my dogs on the line and tell Littlehead and Solo to do their best to get us home. They plunge into the drifts and we sled into the night. There's so much snow I lose my footing and dump my sled a couple times. Then we hit Mike's trail a few hundred yards away and arrive home at the cabin within minutes. Andy's team comes in behind me and everyone is fed and settles down for a good night's sleep. The neighbors arrive as Andy washes dishes and I put the finishing touches on green chile enchiladas and shove them into the oven. Andy and I lean into each other and shake our heads, exchanging a silent glance that sums it all up. "We are crazy."

Denali Highway

We are privileged to live in the most beautiful place imaginable, with miles upon miles of wilderness unfurling from our back yard. Mountains give way to broad swales of tundra, spruce & birch boughs arch & hang overhead, & serpentine rivers wind their way through it all. It is, in a word, breathtaking. But as we wait for more snow & the ability to break out our sleds, we are relegated to predictable loops & trails. After a certain point, the dogs make it clear that a change of scenery would be greatly appreciated, & we humans are easily convinced. We've been running small teams with the ATV, so we decided to hook up all fifteen race dogs to the truck & take them for a spin on the Denali Highway over the weekend. The DH spreads west to east from Cantwell to Paxson over roughly 135 miles & provides fine training for distance mushers due to its wide trail, solid snow base, & varied topography. More snow underfoot means less risk of injury, & since we use the term "highway" pretty liberally around here, it's good to remind folks that they don't maintain it after October. That means you can run a truck on it just until the snow really dumps, & then you're either on a sled or a snowmachine if you're out there at all. Two lodges stay open year-round & provide incredibly hospitable services to mushers on training runs: the Alpine Creek Lodge & the Maclaren River Lodge. They're spaced out so that during long training runs, while the dogs are bedded down comfortable & warm in beds of straw, their mushers can bed down within warm cabin walls.

Our run was short enough that we'll defer that comfort for another date. In the case of truck training, for those of you who haven't seen it done, we just hook the gangline up to the truck & drive behind the dogs, giving as consistent a control as we can with the gas pedal. We keep the windows down for commands & keep our eyes steadily on the dogs. On Saturday, we passed several other dog teams heading the opposite direction, which is invaluable practice for our guys. It's a great way to see the whole team move together, & a great way to maintain solid braking control while being able to provide all the amenities of a dog truck if necessary. It doesn't hurt to have the heater on or the music playing either, I don't suppose.

Moving along

We had Kitty along in the cab with us as the mascot for the whole run. Miss Kitty did a fine job of sleeping, acting as talent scout, or giving Solo kisses. As for the team, Norton & Littlehead led a focused charge the whole time. We always try to select some all-stars from each run, but in this case, since everyone performed so well, it was easier to just note that Hoss, in spite of his size, is still a puppy & that Tinman was in a mood of easy distraction. All fifteen dogs showed no sign of being tired at the end of the run, with some notable harness-bangers still howling to go.

Kristin, Kitty & Solo

It was, all in all, a lovely run. The skies with pending twilight were various hues of blue, with the soft roseate alpenglow along the ridges & the rare seam in cloud cover where sunlight seemed to shock the snow. The dogs, with an exception or two, settled in to an easy trot & showed genuine joy at the new scenery. A team of happy dogs glancing back at you makes any effort worth the while.

Back home, we harnessed everyone up again for that long 600 yard run into the cabin, where a warm meal & fresh straw in their houses gave way to contented moonlit howls. We humans, tired but thrilled at our dogs' performance, cooked our own dinner & sat down by the fire to start drawing up teams for the next day.

Copper Basin 300

We relied on a our trusty puppy alarm to wake us up just after midnight last night in order to sign Kristin up for the Copper Basin 300! We're thrilled after a long, deliberate build-up to finally be able to join in on some of the races that we've followed so avidly for years. Here's to Hey Moose! Kennel's debut at the Copper Basin 300!