Submitted by Krista Mann
Out in front of me the dogs are running, pink tongues bouncing, ears tilted slightly forward, tails swishing like slow, upside down windshield wipers, I am standing at the back of the sled breathing cool air, looking out over slowly melting winter-white snow, rows of black spruce trees, and in the distance, I can see the shadow of the Alaska Range. I am mushing.
It feels like a postcard that I don’t mind living inside of. Ten dogs stretched out ahead of me: Chili and Hummer my leaders, M&M and Swiss, Rerun and Silver, Stubby and Thelma, Lester and Saluda. The soft padding of their feet like rain drops across the snow. I am trying to remember every detail. The way Lester seems to glide as he runs. Thelma barking, short and choppy, at Stubby, one of our eight month old puppies as he learns what it means to be a working dog, it seems like she is telling him to get in line and stay there. The quiet of a team focused on moving forward. The way the sled kicks out with my feet as it snaps around a corner. The sound of my own sing-song voice saying, “good dogs, good puppies,” again and again.
This is a special run: First, I have never driven a sled with ten dogs before (usually I drive teams of four, five, or six). The power is amazing. Second, I am running two out of the five puppies I have been working with since January. It is only the second time they have ever pulled a sled, and they are doing so well. I’m a proud mom. And third, strangely, it is one of the last times I will drive a sled here in Alaska.
It is the end of the dog sledding season, my first winter as a musher in training, and I can’t stop gushing. I’m like a little girl who doodles hearts around a boy’s name except my hearts enclose the names of dogs like Rooster, and my doodles would be tiny pictures of trees and mountains and me behind a sled heading off into the woods. I’m hooked.
It happened by accident. In August 2011, my husband and I moved to Alaska. We only planned to stay until December, and we were trying to pack in as much as we could for those first few months. In light of trying everything, we signed up for a full-day “mushing school” at a local Fairbanks, Alaska dog sledding kennel, Paws for Adventure.
Later, we decided to stay in Alaska for six more months so I sent an e-mail that paved the way for me to volunteer/work at the kennel two days a week. I would learn the ropes, help with the dogs, and mush. Best e-mail ever.
I’m a pure novice, so don’t count on me for expert advice, but I have learned a lot over the last few months. I can now proudly: Scoop poop and remove it from the dog yard. Clean out the old straw from doggy houses and replace it. Feed and water 50 dogs (yep, 50!). Dig the doggy houses out of the snow/icy, sometimes with the help of an ax. Help with guests and tours. Harness dogs and get them hooked up to the sled, and so on. I like the daily work; it helps you appreciate the whole experience of dog sledding.
But the best part, of course, is mushing. Today, on our final hill, the puppies, Silver and Stubby, are getting tired. You can see it in the way they slow and surge forward like little cars puttering in jerky motions. When we pull into the dog lot they are panting. But with their tails wagging behind them, it almost looks like they are smiling. Puppy smiles.
We have one more run left. The other three puppies get a turn now. Pebbles, Tanana, and Gopher. They wiggle and squirm like little kids as we slide their paws through the loops so the harness fits under their chests and across their backs. We wrestle them into line with the other adult dogs, and this time, I hop into the sled basket to ride. I am the “untangle and straighten” person, for when, or if, the puppies make a mess of the ropes. But today they don’t.
Instead, as we glide down the hard packed trail I take pictures and a little movie. I want to capture this and pour it into a bottle, so later, someday when I am no longer in Alaska, which is coming faster than I can believe, I can go back. I can open that bottle and see just how Swiss rolls in the snow when we stop the sled, a white dog covered in white snow. The air cold on my teeth. The mountains moving above me in the distance like a whisper. I want to take my mushing postcard with me.