One Year Later
I am excitedly waiting for our first snowfall here in Minnesota. I know it's only October, but when half of your year relies on frozen earth and snow pack, the atumnal dark skies pull on my desire to be nose deep in snow.
This winter, I will be back in Willow, AK training an Iditarod sled team for the 2024 race from Anchorage to Nome. Anna will be racing, but it takes a whole bunch of people to get to the start line.
Anna and I often wonder what people who don't run sled dogs think what our life looks like during the winter. We speculate that some think we live in the middle of nowhere surrounded by wild predators knocking down our door. Others may think that we live the lush life of perfect dogs that don't fight, bite or get sick and are surrounded by a winter wonderland. Even some may have images of the film 'Togo' or '8 Below' where the beards of surly men are overcome by Old Man Winter's eternal frost and digits are lost to the grips of the Great Freeze.
I think a little bit of all of this is true. We live in a place off the beaten path, surrounded by passionate mushers. At night, howls of sled dogs can be heard for miles and miles while the Aurora dances overhead in her night sky. Moose are quite present and are pushed to the well-trodden paths in the deep snow made by our sleds and snow machines. They are known to be aggressive towards dog teams, which is terrifying, but we are willing to share the wilds with them. It is cold. There's no way around it. Frost forms on my eyelashes and ruff as we run dogs through the icy swamps. I wear innumerable layers, drink endless hot cocoa, and use heat packs to keep frost bite at bay.
The most realistic picture I can paint for you is this:
We live in a very small cabin and wake long before the sun who, in the middle of winter, peeks out for just 5 hours on the horizon. It's cold, but the dogs need to be fed before their run. We feed them before we feed us. It's a mix of kibble, raw meat, fat and water. All slopped together for a nutritious breakfast. We check for injuries in the wrists and hips and tend to them if needed. Then there is the poop. A lot of it and plenty to scoop. Poop tells you a lot about the health of a dog so scooping it is a very important task. We feed ourselves and put on our layers before we spend miles on our sleds.
Hooking up dogs for a run is a raucous event. The dogs wildly vie for a spot on the team screaming "put me in coach!" from their wooden houses. The joy is unmistakable. With our sleds packed and parkas on, there only remains the most brilliant silence. The sound of the sled runners on the snow and the "gee", "haw" or "good dogs!" of the mushers are heard until there is a pause in the run and the dogs bang against their harnesses to run again.
Time passes while many stupid or profound thoughts are had before it's time to head home. Upon entering the yard we praise the dogs as their cohort welcomes them home with envy. We feed them before we feed ourselves, no matter how cold we are. More poop is scooped and injuries cared for then we head back into our small cabin thaw out and fill our bellies with fatening foods. We commune with our housemates, make a plan for the next day, and turn in for the night.
We don't run every day. On the off days we do chores around the yard, groom trails, maintain sleds, and run to town for groceries. Don't worry, we do spend heaps of time laughing and being silly around the house. A lot of dance parties are necessary to make it through the winter
This is not the life for everyone, but for now, it's the life for me. I love working with dogs. Even solo hiking or skijoring with Diggins brings me an immense amount of happiness. I feel so unbelievably lucky to work with sled dogs. We are all a pack together having fun running around in the
I will head up in December for the race season. Until then, I'll be dreaming of snow!