There is nothing like the feeling of being pulled along a frozen trail by a team of sled dogs.
Their eagerness electrifies the lines tethering them to the sled, and you can feel their desire to run in your bones.
I have been pulled by trains, horses, elephants and even people, but being pulled by canines born to pull, born to run, born for the cold and wide-open land is a different connection altogether. It’s a tether only the musher truly knows.
My concept of mushing and sled dogs was a combination of “Call of the Wild,” and PETA ads before I moved to Alaska.
I was lucky that the first musher I met was Dallas Seavey, who would go on to become the youngest winner of the Iditrarod sled dog race less than two years later.
Seavey, a member of the racing Seaveys, as venerable an Alaskan family as I would come to know, was coming off a top-10 finish in the Iditarod and a win in the Jr.
He was poised to win it all, and if I listened closely to his words in our first conversation, he laid it all out in plain English.
His dogs would continue to breed for endurance, for less rest, faster digestion and more run.
He told me the only limit to the 1,000-mile race would be human endurance. And we all know that we’ve reached the limit of that without the addition of performance-enhancing drugs or human growth hormone.
It’s a science project began by Gregor Mendel and perfected in the land of the Midnight Sun under blindingly frozen skies over tundra and stream with overflow, sub-zero wind and aurora borealis.
The day I met Dallas he was busy dealing with dogs, which is so normal as to be habitual. He, like other mushers, lives a life that is revolved by dogs. Like the opposite of the earth and sun, his universe is barking and shit, endless shit.
It was near zero when I ran with his team. The sun was low on the horizon, as it neared the shortest day of the year. As high in the sky as it would get that day, it painted gold across ice and snow in a meadow near where Dallas lived with his wife and children.
We drove in a circle, the wind whipping over us as the dogs strained in harness, responding to his gee and haw.
We splashed through some melted streams and waded through deeper snow, and I let the sun wash over me and focused in on the sounds of the padding feet on hardened trail, the panting and the slice of sled skis through ice and snow.
After all of that, we were rewarded with hot cocoa in the warm yurt where the Seaveys resided.
I’m not an animal person. I loved a dog once. I loved him for half my whole life, and he died one day, and I felt like I lost a part of me. It’s been hard to love another animal since then.
Seavey walked into the yurt with a box full of puppies, and for the first time in a long, long time, I felt my heart twitch just a little as the balls of smiling fur wriggled in my arms.
Not much compares to an armful of puppy.
But these guys only get so much coddling, because they’ll be on the puppy team before long, and that means they start putting on the miles, and sojourns inside to the warm world of humans will be less and less, until they learn to love the cold.
The colder the better. For racing dogs.