The art of mushing

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I think a lot about Hemingway’s passion for bull fighting. He was an aficionado in an era when that meant something.

Sometimes I wonder what led him to his passion for the fights. Was it the Spanish countryside, the pace of life and the affinity that the people shared for what was then the national sport of Spain?

I’ve read and reread Hem’s bull fighting material many times, but I don’t live near enough to a bull ring to relate to the sport.

Recently I experienced, if it can be called that, a sport that I could very much find myself becoming an aficionado of. To Alaskans, it is the national sport. At times, it seems it’s the only sport.

It has almost nothing in connection with bull fighting, but had Hemingway made it to Alaska, he might have found similarities.

Papa wrote a lot about the kind of man it took to fight the bulls. About the mental tenacity required to bring down such a large beast so delicately. But he also wrote about the beauty of the beasts and the role they played in what is essentially a death ballet.

Dog sled racing traces its roots to necessity, to survival. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that bull fighting can trace its roots back to something similar, to man’s great dance with nature.

I have never been dog sledding before. My only exposure to the sport came from covering the start or end of the Race to the Sky, Montana’s premier mushing event.

So on an extraordinarily cold December morning, I traveled to the home of Dallas Seavey to try my hand at a sport that is so much more than just endurance. A sport that just might be the most beautiful embodiment of man’s great dance with nature.

There are no beautiful accouterments in dog racing. Survival clothing is very grounded in practicality and its most basic function.

The first thing you must know about racing dogs is that they bear very little resemblance to those massive huskies, samoyeds or malamutes you might think of when you imagine sled dogs.

Great sled dogs are not generally a single breed from what I can tell. The Alaskan Husky is not in fact a breed, but a category of dog.

And to look out on Seavey’s racing dogs is to see what look like smallish, husky-esque muts.

The dogs spend their non-running hours in a pseudo pack chained nearby to one another on a large, flat pad. The snow is meticulously cleared of their poop, while the chilled air smells distinctly of their urine.

Their excitement reaches a sharp crescendo as they realize it’s time for a run. Below the shadowed kennels is a large snow-covered marsh lit up like a concert stadium by a bright northern sun. When the teams are hitched to the sleds, they are run down a large shoot out into the open track.

I rode a trailer sled the first time around the loop. It’s a way to let people experience the feeling of driving the sled, while an experienced musher guides the well-trained dogs. Sort of like parachuting for the first time tandem with an experienced jumper.

The low sun is extremely bright shortly after rising to its zenith in the northern sky, just a little over the tree tops. It will set by 3:05 p.m.

“Hike!”

Contrary to popular beliefe, mushers do not usually say mush. It’s too soft a word to be an effective command word for these dogs.

We set off directly into the light with the dogs tugging and then smoothly pulling us out onto the track. I grab on to the sled hard and attempt to find something akin to sea legs as the sled shifts across the uneven snow.

Soon the sled starts to circle the wide marsh, and we turn our backs on the sun and gaze at its blinding reflection. I can sense the dogs’ anticipation of a good, hard run as they surge forward. A fork appears in the snow, demarcated by a slight shadow.

“Gee!” the driver shouts and the dogs veer right. I attempt to shift my weight to the left runner as the driver does. Because of the full circle of the track we were running, we don’t here the command for left, Haw!

The driver asked if we thought we could handle a thousand miles of this. I gazed out across the sun drenched snow-palace marsh and briefly thought, “yes.” But the penetrating cold physically hurt my toes, which were encased in boots advertised to be comfortable to 40 below. The sting of cold on my face numbed me to the point where it was difficult to sound coherent.

The driver explained that he frost-bit his toes a week ago after taking the dogs on a run in something other than his normal boots.

Shortly after this, I fell through the ice into a small creek. I soaked one leg good, and I was at least a quarter mile from the house. I took off running, the slosh turning to slush in the -7 degree air.

Dallas Seavey, the youngest person to ever run the Iditarod, and whose dogs pulled me around this marsh, looks young. To know that he’s finished one of the most grueling races in the world is enough to respect him. To know he finished in 6th place in 2009 is astounding.

After running the dogs, we sat inside his yurt, which is outfitted like an Ikea catalogue. Three Alaska husky pups are receiving a king’s pampering in the arms of visitors. But they’re soon put back out into the cold they are bred for.

Seavey talked about his grandfather, who raced in the first ever Iditarod

His wife, Jen, sits on the floor and cradles their young daughter. Jen ran the Iditarod too. It’s what they talk about in the summer when they’re not racing. And in winter they’re living it every minute of every day.

Mushers don’t live on a schedule like normal people. They work always and always in increments. Six hours of running, four hours of feeding and resting the dogs and then another six-hour run.

Even when they train, they keep to no schedule but the pull of the dogs on their harness.

“Hike!”

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