National Park & Preserve Alaska
November 15, 2010
As the inches accumulated last night, I'm sure none of the park mushers got any sleep. Maybe this was the snow, the big one. Maybe we'll be able to get out on our dogsleds tomorrow.
Fast forward to around 1:00 this afternoon and the dogyard is cacaphonic chaos. The sleds are out, the ganglines laid before them on the ground just waiting to come to life with the power of five dogs. And the dogs are going nuts. They seem to know that not everyone gets to run today, and they are doing their best to convince us that they should be the one picked to run.
Keta, usually a sweet and reserved little girl, stands on her hind legs, flexing a paw open in a big wave as she bounces off my leg. I walk past her and grab Pyro, an athletic and excitable two-year-old ready for his first serious year in harness. Some dogs bark wildly and fling slobber everywhere (Esker), some dogs just look really cute (Trout). But one thing is for certain, and it's that nobody in this yard wants to be left behind.
In the din of barking, the meticulous work of putting on harnesses, arranging necklines and tuglines and double-checking sled rope knots occurs. Warm layers of clothing are laid out on the sled bag in the order they will be worn: down parkas, fleece jackets, balaclavas, extra gloves, overmitts, wool hats.
Once everyone is hooked up, the noise level in the dogyard makes a heart flutter. The dogs lunge against harnesses and they want to go right now! You are holding them back, and what is the matter with you? In this moment, the musher must maintain a clear head. Surely we all take a deep breath, look down at ourselves and take note of what we are wearing (forgetting gloves back at the kennels on a 5-degree day= not so smart), check radios, look at tuglines and necklines to make sure nobody is tangled, and then we do what the dogs so desperately ask of us: we pick up the snowhooks, pull the quick-release knot and say, "Ready guys?"
It's the first run of the year, so my heart is racing as we speed out of the dogyard and into the woods. Within minutes, my muscles remember the balancing act as the sled bounces off tussocks and narrowly avoids trees. If this is exhilarating for me, I can't imagine how the dogs must feel. But then again they have hardly looked back at me and their tuglines are taught as a cable and their ears are pointed forward and everything that matters in the whole entire world is just up ahead.
On the Denali tundra, mushing is undoubtedly a group effort. There is basically no time when a musher is standing on the runners and not helping out, and even though it's 5 degrees I could be happy in a T-shirt after about 20 minutes of dogsledding. It is work. It is pushing and pulling, leaning and lifting, running alongside in deep snow and shouting encouragement. But more than anything it is a connection to incredibly powerful dogs who love you and will do whatever you ask of them. Their strength is awe-inspiring, even to those of us who have spent the last two months training them every day. To see them work so hard sets a flame to our own fatigue and spurs us on.
We return to the kennels in a blur of black spruce and white fallen snow. The dogs in the yard welcome us with an excited howl and the teams cruise to a stop. Chulitna - the same dog who led my team with all her might, who put Tor in his place with a growl when I needed it most and who navigated through waist-high willows to return my team to the proper trail - thrusts her head into my chest, gives me a kiss on the nose and puts her paw on my knee. That right there, I think. That's why I do it.
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