We’ll, I woke up at 4am this morning and not quite sure why. This is the first day in a while where there is no scheduled training run. I could be sleeping in! But here I am, up well before Alaska’s late dawn with my morning coffee sitting on the couch in my cabin. The room is illuminated by a strand of cheap LED Christmas lights with three dogs sprawled out on the floor. After letting the house dogs and myself out to use nature’s restroom, I noticed a faint dancing of remnants of the waning night’s auroras in the sky along with the crispness of Alaska’s interior subzero temperatures. This is why I got up.
The winter dog season can be a blur. It seems like only yesterday I was building dog houses in the fall light and hooking dogs to the front of the ATV while beginning our long slow process of training for the upcoming race season. Now it is the beginning of January, below zero, and am beginning to feel the thousand mile stare that all musher’s develop this time of year. Between training dogs, keeping up with kennel chores, life, and the jobs that help fuel this addiction, we all begin to show signs of the rigors of what it takes to operate a sled dog kennel at the highest level.
For many, the idea of dog mushing is simple. It consists of standing on the runners under a star lit sky, while watching the aurora borealis dancing above spruce trees covered with a season’s worth of snow. Sure, this romantic image is part of it. But what mushing really is made of is going to bed late and getting up early. Scooping dog poop, clipping toe nails, repairing dog houses, cleaning dog houses, adding straw to houses, cutting meat, hauling thousands of pounds of dog food around, keeping ravens, grey jays, and foxes away from your dog food, waking up at odd hours to scare a confused moose away, finding ways to most efficiently freeze salmon, deworming dogs, vaccinating dogs, shaving feet, checking feet, massaging shoulders, messaging wrists, and many MANY more odd kennel jobs I can’t think of at the moment. Then there is of course the countless hours of hooking up dog teams which involves harnessing dogs, booting dogs, in some cases putting shirts and coats on dogs, setting up the team, and packing the sled. Of course all of this eventually leads to a chorus of screaming and barking huskies demanding to run while they pound in their harnesses, and eventually after all of this set up time a musher has the moment of bliss of releasing the brake and BAM! The dogs take off. The barking ceases, and pure silence fills the air. Only the panting from the dog’s breath with a slight pounding of 48 feet moving in unison over a vast winter wonderland can be heard, while of course, the aurora borealis dances overhead.
Mushing is a beautiful thing and of course it is fun. Otherwise why would we do it? After ten years of participating in this tradition where sleep deprivation is the norm, I still have not found a reason to ask myself, “Why do I do this?” The answer is simple. Until you have grown a bond with a team of dogs and can legitimately speak to them without ever saying a word, the concept of mushing must not make a lot of sense. When I go into the dog yard to do chores or when I am on the back of the sled for countless hours of every day, I develop a bond with these amazing canine athletes like no other. The dogs allow us mushers to accompany them through country that their ancestors have been traveling for thousands of years. They allow us to join in a very old tradition where the simplicity of nature out performs the everyday confusion of modern technology.
Mushing is also about development. Watching a team of dogs mature into a spectacle on the trail is an amazing thing to watch. Just yesterday, Laredo ‘Larry’ ran lead for the first time. I’ll be honest, this dog at times seems as dumb as a pile of bricks, but yesterday he lead the team with the guidance of our old veteran Skor around the trails of Two Rivers. After checking in with me by looking back a few times searching for guidance, Larry quickly developed the confidence to charge forward. And I do mean charge! This big boy who is a gentle giant marched down the trail pulling the entire team with him. Seeing Larry grow through out a run and join his littermates as up and coming super star leaders in the mushing world (I may be a little bit biased) was an amazing thing to watch! Sure, one could argue it is simply because of his superior sled dog genetics that allow him and his siblings to develop into such great dogs, but one can also argue that all of those countless hours of work put into operating a kennel shows in one’s dog team. And my team, for being mostly rookies continues to make me proud. Tired, but proud! So far this season as we prepare for the up and coming Two Rivers 200 and the Yukon Quest 300 in the weeks to come, I feel I have barely had time to stop and sit back and glance around the beautiful world we live in away from the dog life. I guess this is why I woke up this morning instead of catching up on some rest. Then again, this morning at 4 am when I gazed up at the early morning star lit sky with some faint flickering of the Auroras and breathed in the crispness of the subzero air, I heard a dog circle in their house as they adjusted and nestled back down to sleep in the warmth of their straw beds. I was reminded there is no world away from the ‘dog life.’ My world is where dogs are king, and life revolves around these amazing athletes. At even the most solitude times when there is no dog insight, a musher still is thinking, ‘it’s for the dogs.’