Part II: Off and Running
There was absolute silence among the dogs standing harnessed, eagerly leaning forward, tugging squarely on the gangline. The sun was just beginning to sink below the pine trees on the horizon of the far side of the lake. Gusting winds swirled snow crystals off the surface of the ice and into my face, which I protected with an upturned collar and a down-turned monkeycap. I stepped onto one of the runners of a sled, an instructor took the other and muffled through her mask, “hold the bar tightly,” which I did. She leaned down and yanked up the sharp steal anchor that was embedded in the ice and stood up to grasp the bar tightly as well.
“Hike,” was all that was said, and the sled lurched to an instant cruising speed that seemed completely unfettered by the nearly 1 ton cargo the dogs were pulling. Blasting across the ice on the back of a dogsled was altogether exhilarating. The tedium of preparation was behind us, all anticipations assuaged. We were on our way.
However, I was then beginning to realize the dynamics of what was going on. Any appearance that either the instructor or I were in control of the sled was just that, an appearance. The fact was the only ones in control were the dogs. Riding on the rear of the sled, we could merely suggest subtle changes in direction, “gee” for left, “haw” for right. These suggestions were routinely vetoed by the dogs. I also realized that, if I were to somehow fall off the sled while in motion, it would be like falling off of a sailboat in rough and stormy seas. I would have no hope. The speed at which we traveled was far faster than I had anticipated, and any attempt to run and catch up was absurd. I knew I would simply have to hold on, no matter what.
We continued on across the enormous lake, our destination only as far as the other side. With our late start, we had little time before it would be completely dark. Camp had to be made soon. When approaching the far shore, the instructor stepped on a pedal between the two runners that had large metal teeth intended to slow us in the snow. There was no snow, or very little, anyway, and the teeth merely skipped and chipped across the top of the ice, no matter how hard she stomped on it. We were not slowing down, and I could see that she was beginning to reevaluate.
“We are going to have to tip it over!” she shouted over the tremendous scraping of the break on the ice.
She then stepped across to my runner and told me to lean to the side, which we did, pulling the sled over with a thud, throwing us spinning on our backs across the ice. The resistance was just enough to cause the dogs to stop. We got up, brushed the snow off our clothes and inspected the sled. Everything was still tightly packed and attached.
The other sled thumped and skidded shortly after us. Our first job was to secure the dogs. The dogs were tied up out of each other’s reach, where they each nestled a shelter into the sparse snow. Drifts began to gather around each of them, and before long, they were almost covered. The dogs, outside of their meals, took care of themselves for the night. It seemed that the dogs might keep warmer if they were tied together. However, I was assured that if any of them were to reach each other, pandemonium would invariably ensue. The dogs, though gentle with the drivers, delighted in fighting one another.
I stood on the ice in the windy darkness and watched the dogs prepare for sleep. Some of them shuffled and squirmed to try and work themselves into the paltry snowdrifts gathering on them. Some of them lay perfectly still except for the contractions of their breaths. All of them curled into balls to stay warm — except one. A dog named Gustaff was pacing quietly and methodically in a circular path that was the outer diameter of the rope to which he was tied, head down, huffing furious clouds of breath. This was not a broken spirit, like the lions that pace mindlessly with vacuous eyes in the zoo. He was pent up, like a coiled spring or a loaded sling-shot. The longer I watched him, the more I realized that what I was seeing was not aggressive or defiant but pensive. He was probably not even aware that I was standing there. His eyes fixed on something farther away than where I was standing. He was waiting to run.
The humans were already seeing to our own warmth when I left Gustaff. Rather than an igloo, or a tent, we were to sleep under wall-less tarps laying our ground-pads (a sheet of ¼ inch foam) directly on the ice. These, and our sleeping bags, were to be our only shelter. That evening we all climbed into our sleeping bags and joked about bringing the dogs into the bags with us. We all pressed our cocooned bodies together. It was no time to be demure.
In Part III, I encounter some of the dangers of of living and sleeping on brittle ice.
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For further reading on gentleman mushers, I recommend the following:
Paulsen, Gary (1994). Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod. Harcourt