Sunday, December 23, 2012
They’re interesting feelings, both. Watching your dog team pull the hook & rush through the narrow sliver of trail lining down toward Fish Creek, the darkness of the -30 degree night enveloping them as swiftly as you can muster a futile, broken “whoa.” Or wrestling through a balled up bundle of dogs doing their best to rip one another apart, while your ankle is wrapped in gangline & the sled is unmoored. In the case of the former, I ran only 300 yards before seeing the glow of their eyes emerge from the oildark night—no tangles, no aggression, no miles-long dashes. You hear stories from friends about lost teams that end in unthinkable loss or injury or at the very least healthy dogs some dozen miles distant from their driver. For me, this time, they sat resting in the deep, unbroken snow &, with a leader change, called up as soon as I asked them to. Their undiminished spirit & enduring good health almost forgave Basin & Kabob’s shared commitment to exploring every animal track on the way home. Nighttime brings out the hunter in a dog. & meanwhile, the broad stroke of the auroras in a bright band overhead, & the crescent moon rust-orange & slung low enough on the horizon that it looked to sit atop Eight Mile Hill. & in the case of the latter, hindsight reveals to me that I did very little right & chocked up a good number of checkmarks in the “asinine behavior” column. You see a dog tear into his teammate & the impulse is not to calmly drop the hook, secure the sled, & then set about quietly separating the two. It needs to be, but for me, it’s not yet. Instead, I didn’t double check the hook, I rushed in too quickly, had the dogs accordion on me, flailed miserably about in the deep snow, tripped over the gangline that had lassoed my ankle, pulled feebly at harnesses, & yelled a great deal to Kristin for help. The majority of the time, running dogs, you are seldom afforded the luxury of another’s assistance. I suppose I would have figured it out eventually without her, out of necessity, but I’m glad I didn’t have to this time around. Once we had the team lined out we turned them around a mile up-trail & got them back to the yard. Solo, the instigator, has an inchlong gash on his nose & a tooth puncture in his hind. He’s staying inside to avoid frostbiting an open wound. Basin, somehow, is just fine, as are the other involved parties. Our parkas & snowpants, meanwhile, will need a scrubbing. For me, the week bore the weight of massive, declarative humility. If I endeavor to convince myself I am anything other than novitiate in this pursuit, now or ten years from now, I will be in every event disabused of that notion firmly by one circumstance or the other. I will learn, day by day, dog by dog, & some of what I learn will be engrained as habit & rightly & fortuitously so—but I will never be expert in these things. It is emblematic of how life in Alaska strikes its bargain with you on a daily basis; you get to inch toward understanding & accommodating, but every inch you gain is buffeted by some other exacted toll. Figure out how the heating system works & then the graywater goes. Build the last doghouse & then wake up to a heat pen torn to scraps. It can prove exhausting from time to time, but I can scarcely think of anything more richly rewarding either. We have the opportunity to work with dogs that are both our dearest companions & the highest caliber of athlete conceivable. It’s what I imagine it would be like to be a good friend & assistant to an Olympian. When you fuck up, the stakes are remarkably high, & yoked to the well-being of another. It’s easy to be rattled, shaken, to eat crow & to make apologies. In the end, it’s not an apology a dog asks of you though, it’s simple guidance & direction. & for me, a week like this starkly reminds me that regardless of how I feel about a given run, or how lovely the night sky or how circuitous my thoughts, running dogs could give a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut. This whole thing is about them, first & foremost. Human hubris is no kind of compass for travel with a dog.