December 09, 2010
It was -10 and everything I wore was soaked in sweat. The hundred-pound sledge was loaded with firewood and three new mattresses, and as I pulled it away from the road and away from the dogs a swell of nervousness enveloped me. While I had made sure the leaders were tied off to a tree and the sled was tied securely to a road sign, I knew it would take me nearly half an hour to haul the sledge on my own power while breaking trail to Savage Cabin and switch out the old mattresses for the new. We were 15 miles into the park, and if the dogs somehow broke free while I was gone...
As rapidly as I could, I unloaded the sledge, wrapped the old mattresses in a tarp and secured the load with ratchet straps. (You may be wondering at this moment, "Why on earth would they haul mattresses out to a cabin with a dog team?" The answer is simple: the part of Denali that we patrol is a Wilderness. That means no motorized vehicles can enter there and everything must be done with manpower and dogpower in the winter. This preserves the silence of the wilderness both for the animals who make Denali their home and for visitors who want to enjoy this vast and remote park.) As I finished up the final knots securing the load, I stood and listened. Nothing. Had Arc chewed the gangline and set the rest of the team free? Had Yakone turned the team around and now they're all tangled? As I hauled the old mattresses back down the trail, my thoughts inevitably turned to the worst case scenario. And I could visualize each and every one of them as vividly as real life.
I turned the corner back onto the road and saw seven sets of pointy ears and seven wagging tails off in the distance. What good dogs, I thought with a sigh of relief. But the hardest part still hadn't happened. I still needed to untie the team, turn them around without causing a fight or tangle, re-attach the sledge with the old mattresses on it and travel 15 miles back to the kennels. It was about 3:00 p.m. One hour of daylight left.
Let's just say it wasn't easy. After one (moderately) tangle-free turnaround, I attached the big sledge and the dogs were going crazy. I had made them wait long enough, and now we were finally going home! Until I realized I had tied the wrong knot. A knot that would not come out. The moment I was thanking every ounce of preparedness in me for that knife in my pocket, the moment I cut the rope, the team was off like a flash. Now if only I could see where they were going, I thought as I dragged behind the sled, grasping desperately to the end of the rope that slipped more and more through my sweaty gloves as snowhooks clanked against underlying concrete. That one golden rule of mushing so engrained in me by now that it's more of a natural instinct: Never Let Go. And so I didn't let go. And just when I was, literally, at the end my rope, the team came to a screeching halt. They had turned down a narrow, forested trail heading toward Savage Cabin and the sled got stuck on a sign. While I was in store for more turn-around adventures - this time aided and abetted by closely knit spruce - I was ever grateful for my leaders turning down that trail and bringing the team to a stop.
Finally we were back on the road and headed home. Darkness crept in at the edges of the sky. The forested world was encased in a crystalline frost and a dense fog began to cloak the lower elevations. A polar sunset at its shoulders, Denali emerged from the back of the Alaska range, 80 miles away, and towered over its much nearer counterparts. True cold was setting in and the dogs developed a hoary halo around their fur as my eyelashes and hair and facemask froze solid. That flat light making the snow so hard to decipher, but it didn't matter. I trusted those dogs so much, and at that moment I had tears in my eyes like a real crybaby because I loved them so much and was so proud of all the hard work they did. The water in my eyes started to freeze and I smiled it away and took a deep breath and kept on mushing. Just me and my dogs, mushing down the trail. Hauling mattresses.