Thursday, November 17, 2005

Something's Brewing Up Above

A few weeks ago we celebrated the 10th anniversary of our migration from Chicago to Alaska's Greatland. What a strange, wild and mystical adventure it has been. For many of us being a part of the ‘Dogmushing World’ is an intense spiritual experience. Each year we commemorate this unique lifestyle of the North by participating in various races throughout this 'season of the snow'. Events such as the ultimate challenge - The Yukon Quest - are a platform for us to show off our lil' furry babies, our treasures, to the world. For nearly 2 weeks we are surrounded by dozens of the most magnificent beasts on the planet as we travel that hallowed trail between Whitehorse and Fairbanks. To us they are more than just athletes; the pooches are an extension of each musher's spirit, their heart, and souls. I received many of my lil' poopers from Curtis and Lester Erhart, native Athabascan mushers from the Yukon River village of Tanana. It was an honor to live and train with these true dogmen of the north as they taught me not only about dogs but how to survive the demanding winter conditions.

My 'flesh and blood' kin have always been the Dawgs, starting off with Maverik. I always realized their unique gifts: the inherent beauty, natural toughness and pure, unconditional love (and of coarse their most enduring quality – their wildness). As I held that first litter of pups in my arms so many moons ago, this clueless Cheechacko from Chicago had absolutely no idea how many “huge messes” we’d get ourselves into on this trail of life together. If you had told me then that within ten years we would have traversed 10’s of thousands of miles, mushing from coast to coast – from Kasilof to Coldfoot, Kotzebue to Carcross, that we’d compete in dozens of races, including 7-1,000 milers; that these tiny balls of fur would become the energy force of my very existence, that their hunger for the unknown, curiosity for what lay ahead and desire to live fully on a daily basis would dominate our mind thought. If I had known that then? I’m sure that goofy city slicker smile would have ever so slowly spread across my face.

Racing is fun; a real-life rollercoaster ride for a few weeks out of the year – what a rush! In this sport we all set goals to achieve. Some want to win, others just to finish. Personally, all I ever wanted was to be one of the pack- a true animal. (If any of you have ever gotten close enough to get a whiff of me it's obvious that I do a pretty good job in this capacity.) For most of us, however, this life amongst the beasts of the North is a year-round mosaic of mushing mayhem. Who ever really knows what tomorrow will bring? Our main crew: June-Mari, Marcellus, Shyela, Uncus, Gracie, Makaj, Malaki, along with the rest of their comrades ask, “Where we off to today boss?” The terrain we’ve covered has been immense; the views immaculate, yet what one vividly remembers the most are the wildlife encounters. That wild ‘mama moose’ right behind Dick Mackey’s house in Nenana, the crazed wolf chasing us across Myrtle Creek a few miles east of Coldfoot, or even just a few days ago the wolverine that floated before us on the Wheaton River road.

Back in 2000 before our first Quest race – now there’s a wildlife encounter that will always seem like it happened just yesterday. At the time we were staying up on Murphy Dome, just 20 miles southwest of Fairbanks. We helped a retired military veteran, Rich Doran build a cabin up in the area the previous summer. He was kind enough to let us stay there to train, and he also helped grubstake our first Quest. The trails were perfect there at over 2,000 ft; the highest area around Fairbanks, offering numerous areas to explore. Glancing to the south that afternoon I watched the evening sun lay down to sleep behind Denali’s enormous shoulders. I was a few minutes outside of the homestead with the pooches. We were returning from a ‘fun-run’, a short ten-mile jaunt around the hood. The Quest was just 2 days away. If only we knew then what lay waiting just 2 minutes ahead! “Gee Marcellus, good girl Junie – let’s go home.” As usual we were flying, coming down the homestretch. Suddenly, all the dog’s ears sprang up, heads veering instinctively to the left. “What the …..?!” An enormous amount of brown fur was hurtling itself not at the pack of beasts but at the waxen-faced greenhorn standing on the back of the sled. The animal’s eyes were huge, red glowing orbs in the headlamp’s beam and they looked pissed. Miraculously, I somehow flung myself into a snowbank alongside the trails edge. “Now what you gonna do my lil’ moose friend?” This 1,200 pound moose with lethal weapons consisting of hooves could tear apart my dog team in seconds. Fearing for the team’s safety, I yelled out to my leaders, “Alright boy, c’mon Marcellus, go home!” Only problem was I wasn’t the one on the runners. The moose would be in charge of steering the sled this time around. Boom! In a frenzy, the dog team scrambled for home pulling a bit more weight this time as well. In an instant ‘bullwinkle’ had flipped over on his back and ended up on top of the sled. Bewildered to say the least, it’s glaring eyes were staring back towards me. The team was now carrying our deranged friend on down the hill towards home – a ride I’m sure this gangly legged moose will never forget. Fortunately on the 1st sharp turn, the sled flipped on its side releasing our behemoth neighbor back into the wilds. Moments later the dogs were safely back at Rich’s. The following evening we’d be up until the wee morning hours repairing and putting our Percy Dyke sled back together just hours before the Yukon Quest was to begin.

Looking ahead, I’m sure there’ll be numerous other encounters for us to investigate and explore along the way. Life in the Northland is always intriguing, often intimidating, and highly demanding; yet on a whole, incredibly amazing. It’s a treasured existence we and our beloved beasts are able to share, traveling through this exotic country in search of what defines who we truly are. Hope to see you on down the trail….


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