On dogs and trail-breaking
December 29, 2010
I was frustrated. My team and Michael's team were tied together to make a jumbo train of dogs while Michael broke trail ahead onto Igloo Creek. The lead dogs of the first team were so far ahead of me I could hardly see where they were going. By the time I realized they were stopped, the second team was overcoming the first and a large tangle ensued. What I realized when I approached the front of the dog train was that we were, indeed, on a trail. A rabbit trail. Winding ever so conveniently through tightly knit willows and alder. For me, the snowshoe trail was nowhere to be seen. Behind me, Jen's team could see the correct direction of travel and went around us and onto the snowshoe trail while I stood in the middle of a mess of confused dogs.
"What's your plan?!" she yelled above the barking.
"My plan?" I asked incredulously. "I don't have a plan! I don't know what to do!"
"Well, you better come up with one and execute it," she said firmly.
This snapped me back into a place of calm action rather than panicked inaction. I took a deep breath and detached my team from Michael's, winding around his sled and team and through the willows, out onto snow-covered Igloo Creek. While I am a backcountry ranger in the summer and regularly find my way through trailless wilderness, breaking trail on an icy creek with a dogteam in the heart of winter is a thing unto itself.
The shelf ice collapsed under the sled time and again, dropping us into shallow water. Dropping us into ice holes knee-high. Once I discovered which lead dogs could handle the uncertainty of the ice, we struck out again onto the snow-covered blank slate of Igloo Creek. No trail before them, Aurora and Yakone held their heads high and made decisions for the group. The soft snow spilled away from their chests as they waded through it, paws lifted to overcome the depth. We'd come to a fork in the creek and they would look to me for a command.
"Umm," I told Yakkers. "Whichever?" At this point, the dogs certainly knew better than I. They could feel and smell where the ice would hold strong.
They chose the path to the right. It was smooth sailing until a large dip in the snow raised the dogs' suspicions. Most likely it was a break in the ice and running water was just beneath their paws. After some verbal encouragement, the dogs remained unconvinced. I stepped off my sled, walked out in front of the dogs, crashed through the ice into shallow water, told them it was "fine, just up to my ankles!" and continued walking ahead. Soon enough, they followed and trotted right on past me. I swung myself onto the sled as it cruised by. They just needed me to show them it was safe.
This was a strange phenomenon since, for me, the dogs have been the ones revealing what's possible and what's not. I worry my sled will slide off the edge of the road at Sable Pass. They pull me right out of harm's way. I worry my sled might topple over on a steep drop, maybe even land on the dogs. They happily leap off the drop and into the powder, loving the excitement, and my sled remains upright. They are constantly the ones teaching me what is within my capabilities.
By the time we were breaking trail on Igloo Creek we had been out for four days. My team and I had bonded tight as we led the way over Savage River ice and up to Primrose Pass the first day, ventured onto the Teklanika River in -40 and into deep snow through the Igloo Forest on the second day and broke trail up and over Sable Pass together and all the way to East Fork cabin on the third day. All of us were up in the dark every morning, the trail (or lack thereof) lit by moonlight and the faint glow of headlamps. We saw the sky bruise into dawn - from deep navy hung with stars to plum and cranberry and lavender. The moon shimmered the whole day through and to the west Denali appeared to have been dipped in magenta ink and stamped onto the horizon. We worked very hard, but silently enough to hear the chickadees call to one another in the spruce. When flocks of the tiny birds fluttered out in front of the dogs, the dogs would speed up excitedly - a reminder that they are, after all, dogs. Though we anthropomorphize them and assign them names and witness their incredible intuition and rely on their decisions, little things like that make me step back and remember how very nearly they are wild animals. Spirited creatures who rely on instinct and fight over food and communicate wordlessly and howl back at the wolves. And then I think about Aurora up front, breaking trail on Igloo in that deep blank snow. And how her serenity and confidence traveled right up to me on the gangline and calmed and cheered me. She was so much more to me than an animal. She was the embodiment of some munificent force. Which, I suppose, is a dog's very definition.