Thirteenth Day of Christmas: Dog mushing

Last February, just two weeks after I turned 29, my mom and I paid a visit to the country’s largest 01080003(663,268 square miles, y’all) and least densely populated (731,449 very cold people) state. I had my apprehensions about the trip. Since I began traveling in earnest about five years ago, I’ve made a point of visiting other countries. There’s plenty I would like to see in the United States–New York, Chicago, the east coast in general, the south, the Grand Canyon, etc.–but I guess I kind of figured that it would always be there. Whereas there tends to be less certainty, less stability where international travel is concerned. And I wanted to get some more challenging travel experience under my belt before I got spoiled by domestic travel. So, I was a little concerned about whether a trip to Alaska constituted real travel experience. What’s the point of leaving your house if you don’t get a merit badge for it, right?

Also, Alaska has this reputation for being cold and I’m the type of person who can’t feel my feet if the 01080012temperature drops below the 50s. I was born and raised in California where simply having to put on a jacket is kind of a big deal. I raided the local army surplus store for warm socks, boots, jackets, sweaters, longjohns, basically anything I could find that would a) keep me warm and b) make me look like a marshmallow. And still, I wasn’t sure if I was prepared. I hadn’t a clue what it felt like when the temperature dipped below zero, and we were looking at temperatures ranging between 10 and 30 degrees in Anchorage and 15 and -15 in Fairbanks, which is where we would be camping overnight. Outside. In the snow.

Still, I’ve always wanted to see the Iditarod, and my mom shared this desire. Not to mention, the pesky Northern Lights, which had managed to elude me in Norway the previous October. But mostly, I wanted to go dog mushing. That is, my mom and I both really, really wanted to go dog mushing. It’s not that I grew up picturing myself mushing dogs in Alaska. Again, I grew up on the central coast, where a trip to the beach in the winter is not out of the question. So I didn’t mature with those visions in my head. Such dreams were too remote. It would have been like dreaming of hot air ballooning around the world; once you considered it, you couldn’t not want to do it, but how would such a fanciful notion get into your head in the first place? The idea that it was possible to mush dogs in Alaska was almost too incredible to be true.

We spent our first week in Anchorage, celebrating what they call the Fur Rondy–the festivities 01080030 01080029 surrounding the start of the Iditarod. There were ice sculptures, a roller derby match, a pre-race dinner during which the racers drew their starting numbers. During the latter, my mom raced around the room, gathering signatures from the racers and deciding that she was rooting for Aliy Zirkle. In 2000, Aliy won the Yukon Quest–an even longer, harder trek than the Iditarod–and she’s had two second-place Iditarod finishes, so she seemed like a likely candidate. I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of the gender distribution among Iditarod racers. But there were 66 contestants, and of these 15 were women. Not bad, really. The race is the same for men and women. Same distance. Same unpredictable conditions and hardships. Mushers of both genders do their business the same way the dogs do–while running along the trail–except that the mushers have to drop their pants while balancing on the sled. They’re remarkably adept at this particular skill, I would later learn.

We attended a special presentation at a local hotel, during which we met Aliy Zirkle and–more exciting, still–her dogs. (I should mention that her husband Allen Moore is also a well-respected musher. In 2012 he placed second in the Yukon Quest. In 2013, just weeks before the Iditarod, Allen won. And he ran pretty much the same team Aliy would use for the 2013 Iditarod, so her chances seemed pretty good.) The dogs were nothing like I was expecting. They’re petite, for one thing, which is apparently a subject of some debate amongst mushers. Aliy’s kennel favors smaller dogs, dogs you could pass in the street without a second glance or thought. Traditionally, mushers have run larger dogs, canines that look capable of pulling a giant sled through the snow. There also seems to have been an attitude that male dogs were preferable, of course. And while Aliy seemed like a very low-key sort of person, there was some heat to her tone when the subject of the large, male mushing dogs–and especially large, male lead dogs–came into play.

Aliy’s lead dog is Quito, a seven-year-old female who has raced the Iditarod five times and the Yukon Quest three times. Watching Quito run, and especially watching her cross the finish line (via a live video feed I set up once I returned to California), I completely understand why Aliy, or any musher, would bristle at the notion that a male lead is preferable. Quito, like all the mushing dogs we saw in Alaska, is incredible, a force of nature, an artist, an athlete.

On Sunday, March 3, we watched the teams leave Anchorage bound for the real first leg of the IMG_0606 IMG_0593 IMG_0592 IMG_0591 IMG_0586 IMG_0575 IMG_0553 IMG_0548 IMG_0529 IMG_0528 IMG_0517 IMG_0505 IMG_0491 IMG_0485 IMG_0479 IMG_0469 IMG_0464 01110020 01110019journey, which is Willow. To better understand the race, you need to know that there is a southern route and a northern route, both of which have the same beginning and finishing point. They race the northern route on even years and the southern rate on odd years. There are 26 northern route checkpoints and 27 on the southern route covering a total distance of 998 miles. Mushers have the option of stopping at checkpoints for as long as they want, and are required to have one 24-hour layover at the checkpoint of their choice, and eight-hour layover at White Mountain, and an right-hour layover at a stop along the Yukon River. The Iditarod is all about strategy, and it’s fascinating to watch the racers’ patterns–when they decide to push through, and when they stop for a break. It’s worth noting that many of them don’t actually sleep (or at least not very much) when they stop at a checkpoint. At each of these points, they’re picking up a drop back of supplies–booties for the dogs, food, headlamps, anything they might need through the vast, cold stretch of wilderness. They’re also feeding and massaging their dogs, caring for and evaluating the ones that might have health issues, making important decisions such as whether or not to leave behind a dog who isn’t feeling or performing well. The mushers begin the race with 16 dogs, and are required to finish with at least 6. Along the way, dogs that get sick or injured on the trail are left at checkpoints, in the care of trained veterinarians. No one finishes the Iditarod with 16 dogs. Of course, there’s always some temptation to keep dogs on the line just a little bit longer, because they can’t rejoin the team once they’ve been left behind and a musher who has too many injured dogs too early on doesn’t stand much of a chance. But a good musher won’t risk his or her dogs’ health or safety for an earlier finish.

These dogs love to run. They love to pull a sled. That might sound like the type of thing a dog musher will tell you and you don’t really believe because, well, if you love animals you don’t want to see them taken advantage of or harmed. But the first thing you note at the Iditarod starting line is the fact that the dogs are yipping and straining at their harnesses. They can’t wait to run. And when the sled’s brakes are finally released and they are finally allowed to exercise the privileges to which they were born, there’s a moment of stillness as though they can’t believe they’re finally at their liberty. We saw this again and again. Each team looked a little different. Some mushers favored the larger, more traditional mushing dogs. Some favored smaller athletes. Most mushers smiled and waved at the crowd. Generally, the type of person who wants to spend weeks of solitude in the Alaskan wilderness doesn’t have much use for cheering tourists, but dog mushing is an expensive sport, the cash prize barely covers the expenses of running a team for a single year, and they need sponsors. Most of them, anyway. Some were quiet, focused. This wasn’t the start of the race for them. This leg of the journey was not being timed. In fact, I don’t think the mushers particularly cared for the race through Anchorage, which is all for show and tends to get their dogs riled at a time when they want them focused. Too many mushing dogs in a single place can get dangerous–too many lines, too many personalities, too many people. Which is why Aliy Zirkle prefers to race through checkpoints and camp her team just beyond or before them to rest. Checkpoints can be chaotic, and mushing dogs need to rest whenever there is an available opportunity.

After the loud and prolonged ceremonial start, we gathered in the street for the annual Reindeer Run, IMG_0627 01090010which sounded like a lot of fun when we purchased our tickets two days earlier, but once we were all standing in the street shivering in our ridiculous costumes as volunteers dragged reluctant reindeer with large, elaborate antlers through our ranks, I started to have doubts. The sidewalks were crowded with people eager to watch our run. They wanted to see blood. I know this because if I were watching a race in which people in absurd costumes ran through snow-packed streets while reindeer chased them, I’d probably want/ expect to see blood as well. The idea was that the reindeer were males, and they had female reindeer in heat at the end of the finish line. They gave us a minute head start before releasing the male reindeer, who rushed through the crowd of runners to get to the finish line. It was mayhem. Pacman went sprinting by, Santa fell in the snow, my mom narrowly missed being gored by a reindeer. My lungs were burning from trying to run in the cold, but the occasional glimpse of antlers behind me was pretty good motivation because I did not stop running.

After we’d celebrated the hell out of the Fur Rondy (sans gaping antler wounds, I would like to add), we flew to Fairbanks for the highlight of the trip: dog mushing. We’d booked a three-day tour with photo-1Paws for Adventure, which is just on the outskirts of Fairbanks. Day One was mushing school. We got to meet the dogs for the first time, though we didn’t yet know who we’d be running during our overnight adventure. Our very first sled trip was as passengers, getting a feel for the sled. Feet on the runners, hands on the bar in front of you, and, if you need to break, apply pressure to the rubber flap dangling behind the sled between your feet. Balance is very important; the sled is light and the dogs take turns and dips as fast as you allow them to. This is how I wound up on the ground watching my team race away with my sled the first day of training. (Which is not all that uncommon. Mushers fall off the sled all the time, even the experienced ones. But I was still embarassed. And it was severely demoralizing watching the dogs dashing away with my sled without the slightest care for the fact that I was on the ground rather than the sled. In fact, I suspect they were pleased because there was no one to apply the dastardly breakpad.) We watched another first-time musher wave helplessly as his team took a left turn where they were meant to turn right and he found himself on the wrong trail with no means of correcting or controlling them.

This is what I learned during training: The dogs closest to the sled are the wheel dogs. The dog or dogs IMG_0684at the front are lead dogs, the team behind them are the swing dogs, and the rest of the dogs on the line are the team. Leslie had us pull dogs from their houses and attach them to the sled ourselves, which was thrilling but also terrifically difficult because some of them had a tendency to buck with excitement. The best method was straddling them like miniature horses, releasing their attachment to their leash, grip the collar extremely firmly, and walk them to the sled. The line should be stretched out to prevent a complete clusterfuck when you start tying the dogs to the line. Also, the sled needs to be anchored down with the giant ice pick which you stamp into the ground, otherwise your sled will be gone.

The following day, Leslie picked us up at our hotel and we drove about half an hour outside Fairbanks to the trailhead. There were four tourist mushers and Leslie at the lead. Mom and I were the only first-time mushers, and I was absolutely terrified. We wore about 19 layers–a conservative estimate–which included a gigantic exterior suit, gloves which decreased my dexterity making it difficult to drive the sled, and giant moon boots with three layers of socks. I still couldn’t feel my feet by the end of the day. I also wore my red beanie, which I’d purchased in honor of Bill Murray.

The trip to our campground was terrifying. The landscape was sublime–wide expanses of blinding, white snow then narrow trail through a patch of forest with tight, terrifying  turns and branches slapping your face. I ran Kermit, Gopher, Maya, Scrubby, and Harry. And they wanted very badly to run. Almost as badly as I wanted to not disgrace myself by falling off my sled. I was liberal with the breakpad, and spoke very little to them because I was afraid any encouragement would inspire them to run faster, which I did not want. I struggled to find my balance on the sled, especially during steep downhill and uphill jaunts. At one point, during a steep uphill phase, the sled stalled and I stepped off to help walk uphill. As soon as the dogs felt the decreased weight they took off, leaving me to stumble up with a single hand on the bar, just five fingers preventing me from losing my sled in the Alaskan wilderness. We traveled 20 miles. I didn’t fall, but I suspect that was mostly luck. We didn’t stop for food, or bathroom breaks. Occasionally, Leslie’s sled would disappear from view and I later learned that she would drop her pants and do her business on the trail while mushing. Which was the dogs’ approach as well. You’d notice that the sled was moving slightly slower and a dog’s line had gone slack. Then, there would be dog shit flying in the sled’s path. Fortunately, it was too low to do any damage, and I was grateful that I didn’t have any passengers because they would have taken a face full of it.

We arrived at camp exhausted and cold. I was panicking a little because I knew I would be sore the following day, and we still had the return trip to make. Leslie made an incredible meal of fettuccine alfredo with smoked salmon and wine and dessert. Truly incredible fare. And we had the kitchen stove in our tent so we remained warm all night long.

We tied a line between trees and harnessed the dogs along the line with little beds of hay, which they took their time making comfortable. As soon as they’d been fed, they took up a collective howl of gratitude and pleasure. It was primitive and, without exaggeration, the most beautiful music I’d ever heard. I slept very soundly that night, as is my habit when camping. I awoke sore and the slightest bit disoriented. The night before I’d made a bathroom of sorts, which might be putting a rather nicer spin on the accommodations than they deserve. There was no tree cover near the camp, except along the path, and you ran the risk of being spotted by other dog mushers if you did your business near the path. So I stamped down the snow about 15 feet from the trail behind a tree with a branch perfectly fashioned for supporting toilet paper. I later discovered that the other members of my group discovered and utilized my bathroom.

I was nervous about the return trip and sore from the difficult task of balancing my weight on the sled the day before. It didn’t help that we had to guide our teams down a steep drop that twisted to the left immediately leaving camp. Successfully negotiating that drop helped bolster my confidence and courage and I realized, quite suddenly, that I had a much better sense of what I was doing. I could crouch and shift my weight, I could adjust the speed of the sled going into a turn. I could even interact with the dogs, with immediate effect. I’d noticed that Leslie would encourage her team by saying “good dogs” in a very high-pitched voice. I started to do the same. And every time I did, their ears would perk and they’d tug all the more forcefully at the line. As soon as my fear fell away, I was intensely, proudly affectionate of my team. Of their speed, their strength, their endurance. But mostly, their heart. They ran 20 miles through extreme cold, and they would have run 20 more if I’d allowed them. The last three-quarters of the trip we were a team and I was intensely happy. It made so much sense, the fact of shifting and balancing and ducking and encouraging. I had no fear. There was no place for it. Instead of concentrating on the unpleasantness of what would happen if I fell, I focused on a better, smoother run. And when I realized that we were near the road, and vehicles, I wanted to cry. I hadn’t had enough time with them, and regretted that I would return to California and never be given the opportunity to develop into a competent musher. My mom had the same look on her face, as though she had suddenly suffered a loss.

This clearly isn’t a post about Christmas. But it’s about a newly found and very deep longing for the season they sing about in Christmas carols–the time of snow and sleighs and men adorned in two eyes made out of coal. Because without it, I can’t mush dogs. And within a mere two days of exposure, I realized that I don’t want or intend to live without ever again running a team of dogs. And, wherever you are–even if you’re beach-locked the majority of the year–I can’t argue enough how intense, rewarding, and enlightening the experience of dog mushing can be.

I returned home with several days left of the Iditarod. I followed the website as Aliy took and held the lead through a good portion of the race, and then lost it to Mitch Seavey, who won the Iditarod in 2004, with very little time left. Late at night, I watched the live stream as Mitch Seavey made his way into Nome. It was dark, and a small circus of people–one of them brandishing a large check–greeted him. He passed the check along to his wife and went, immediately, to his lead dog Tanner, who he embraced and talked to. I’d heard a musher say that they mostly coveted a win so their lead dog could have the honor of having the wreath placed around them at the end of the race. Watching Mitch Seavey at the end of the Iditarod, I believed that held true for most mushers.

About half an hour later, Aliy and Quito came down the chute toward the finish line. Like Mitch, she looked exhausted, and a little disheartened. Back-to-back second place finishes must have been frustrating. And like Mitch, she immediately dropped to the ground to talk to her lead dog. The dog who had finished the Yukon Quest just weeks earlier, and had won the coveted Golden Harness Award for her efforts on the trail. The dog who, by traditional standards is too small and the wrong gender entirely. It was an incredible moment, and one that I’ll not soon forget.

And you can bet your space heater, that I’ll be avidly following the 2014 Iditarod, obsessively watching to see which racers have hit what checkpoints and with how many dogs still on their team. And yeah, I’m rooting for Quito. And Aliy.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] Dog mushing in Alaska. One of the most incredible experiences of my life, and something I intend to repeat as soon as possible. If you haven’t heard a pack of mushing […]

  2. […] been in love with dog mushing for two years now, since my mom and I visited Alaska to watch the start of the Iditarod and then fly to Fairbanks for a two-day dog mushing adventure […]

  3. […] most importantly, when we were in Alaska my mom and I went on an overnight dog mushing adventure with Paws for Adventure out of Fairbanks. It remains one of the most exhilarating, terrifying, […]

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