Friday, December 28, 2007

Get Miles!

Morning comes too soon, but comes in beauty: I awaken to a glistening of snow over spruce and an eruption of howls, yips and barks in the yard. Tom takes me out on the snow machine to show me the trail after making a hand-drawn map for me. He stops the machine periodically along the trail to show me markers or turning points. My helmet is foggy, and the snow fall is wet. Eight snow machines pass us, and I’m engulfed in the fumes of 2-stroke engine oil. By the time we get back to the cabin, I’m literally nauseated from the fumes.

I don’t get it. Snow machine’s are loud, scaring away any wildlife in the woods. Snow machine’s are stinky: indeed, when we returned today, my clothes and parka reeked of snow machine fumes. But their must be some allure, because they’re everywhere up here.

A far better way to see nature is by dogsled. Traveling by dogsled is still a necessity to many people who inhabit Greenland and other arctic areas of the globe. Where I am in Michigan, dogsledding is a way of life, a culture.

The yard erupts when I push the five-foot sled between the rows of blue-barrel dog houses. I stamp down on the snowhook with my boot, tie off the sled to a small birch tree, and begin to hook up six dogs while Tom does the same. It’s full-blown chaos: a cacophony of barking, screaming huskies, hell-bent on miles.

Each dog whirls around in circles, hoping to be hooked up, like elementary school kids waiting to be picked for a game of dodgeball. "Pick me!" they shout. When they are finally approached by someone with a harness, they explode with excitment.

Once on the line, they lunge forward excitedly and the snowhook tightens its grip. My heart races in anticipation of the first run on snow-covered trail. Tom gives a sign, asking if I’m ready, I nod, and we’re off.

All is quiet, except for the sound of the dogs’ breathing and the sled runners. This is what it’s all about I think. Winter hangs heavily on the boughs of spruce and hemlock and from the vapors trailing from the dogs’ open mouths. I round a corner and winter flies from the sled runners, white flecks of beauty evaporating into the air.

I pull the hood on my parka up as a wet snow begins falling steadily. Snowflakes collect on the coyote-fur lining around my hood as we head up a hill. We come down fast, the dogs giving chase to Tom’s team in front of mine, and suddenly he yells back to me, “we’re gonna do the outer loop this time,” and turns a sharp right, disappearing into the pristine winterlude.

I’m going fast, and I slowly begin to realize I cannot take this 90 degree turn at my current rate of speed. I stamp on the drag brake hard, but the ruts in the trail from snow machines combined with my speed and this angle make my efforts futile. The turn has come too fast, and I’m going down. I see it unfolding in slow motion. Then suddenly, the sled tips up and my left shoulder collides with the hard-packed trail. Snow is up my sleeve, and the impact rips the hood of my parka half off. I cannot breathe for a minute, and as I lie in the snow trying to regain my breath, I look up to see my team running hard, happy for 160 pounds less to pull. I lay my head back down in the snow. The pain is instant and overwhelming, a hard, sharp pain shooting through my shoulder down my left arm.

“Shit,” I curse, and struggle to pull myself off the frozen ground. I hope to God Tom is able to grab my team, and that he doesn’t yell at me too badly for screwing up.

On the six mile route back to camp, I grind my teeth to fight the pain, bracing myself at every turn, every bump. I hang on with one hand and pray there are no other sharp turns coming up. I think about the predicament of many a musher who has braved the Iditarod trail with broken bones and injuries, and realize just how delicate the balance is in winter. Bad judgment can cost a lot in winter. I think, also, about these amazing and loyal dogs and a musher’s dependence on them – how despite my injury, the just keep chugging along, doing what they were born to do: run. Mushing is teamwork to the fullest extent.

After sixteen miles and a bum shoulder, I’m angry at myself, and wonder about the fate of myself in the Tahquamenon Race in nine days. Am I ready for this? And what if this shoulder is broken? I’d surely have to withdraw.

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