Sunday, December 30, 2007
I made the 100 mile round trip to visit my good friends Jan and Bob last night. Driving up 407 to Seven Mile Fire Line in the dark, snow machines buzzed past me, their headlights bobbing in the distance haphazardly.
Bob reminds me of Santa. Jovial with a pot belly and a long white beard, he dozes frequently while sitting in his recliner, even mid-conversation. Their surrogate granddaughter, Laura, sits on the recliner next to him. She sought the Shaws out through the local 4-H five years ago. Now, at thirteen, she has more experience than many on a sled. She will run the Tahquamenon 19-mile sportsmen class race, along with me and several others I know. Bob laughs when recounting stories of her attempts at hooking up a team from five years ago.
“When she tried to hook a dog up, the dogs would pull her wherever they wanted to go.”
Al Hardman and two teams came into the yard last night, making the dog to human ratio expand to about 100 to 8. No one in the dog yards would settle down from the excitement: new dogs, new smells, new things to see. The dogs howled all night. I timed them once after midnight, and they howled for over five minutes.
Tom left with Al and Rodney sometime after I went to bed, probably around 2 a.m. for an all night run over to Jim O’s cabin nearly 40 miles from here. It’s been nice being on my own. I don’t have to set an alarm because the howling wakes me up every morning at daybreak.
It is a beautiful day. It’s finally stopped snowing, and the sky is blue and bright. next to the white-covered trees. I’m losing track of days here. Every morning, I rise with the simple goal of caring for and running dogs. I am lucky. But it’s a full-time job caring for the dogs, and Tom and I share the responsibility.
This morning, I rose, washed my face, and started making broth for the dogs. When it’s cold, the dogs are brothed instead of given water. Broth consists of a small amount of kibble with a large amount of warm water, and sometimes chunks of meat or venison thrown in for good measure. After scooping poop and brothing/feeding what remained of Tom’s dogs, I waited a couple hours and then hooked up my six dog team for my first run alone.
The biggest obstacle for me so far has been not getting disoriented and lost. It's an insurmountable task when everything is white! Today, I took a wrong turn and inadvertently went up the cabin trail loop. I bit it in the "water hole," – a mid-calf deep puddle of freezing cold water and ice -- soaking my glove, boot and part of my pant leg. And when I tipped the sled into the water hole, I lost my team, at least eight miles from camp.
“Whoa, damnit!” I screamed as the team sped off, but it was no use. There I stood, alone, with my glove and pant leg soaked. I was more than a little concerned.
When things are going well, it's joyful and beautiful. The sunlight reflects off of the snow, throwing glints of light in every direction, and it's breathtaking.
But when things go bad, I can see how they can become very bad very quickly. My drinking water and what few supplies I did bring were in the sled bag, and tugged away with the dogs. At first, I began running down the trail after the team, but I quickly realized this was futile. I calculated how long it would take me to get back to camp. At roughly 2 miles an hour, and with it being 12:30 already, I estimated I’d make it back to camp just as the sun set. The team would make it back in an hour. I hoped and prayed they would make it back safely, and dreaded the embarrassment when I finally made it to camp, my own tail between my legs. Surely I would be the laughing stock of camp. I’m developing quite a reputation for losing my team.
Luckily for me, a snowmobiler flew up to me just as tears started to fill my eyes in panic.
"Did you lose a dog team?"
"Yes!" I sighed in relief. He is covered head to toe in black winter gear. All I can see of him under all of his black gear and helmet are his blue eyes, but they are kind and concerned. "Let me turn around and I'll take you back. They're only about 1/3 of a mile up the trail."
He quickly turns around, and I hop on the back. He zooms back to the dogs, and they’re safely tied to a tree, lying on their bellies soaking up the attention of four other snow mobilers in the group.
I thank them profusely. I am eternally grateful and feel extremely fortunate they were there to catch my team. As I step on the runners and wave one last sign of gratitude, I think about how easy winter can turn deadly.
Winter is a temptress. She leads us out to enjoy her beauty, but tests our preparedness.
We ended up running 20.35 miles today. And I learned a lot.
#1: bring a spare set of gloves.
#2: As Tom keeps telling me, lose your team, lose your life.
Tonight, it’s cold and clear. Stray snowflakes fall slowly down from Heaven. There’s frost on the windows, and even though I sleep in the mushers’ cabin, it is only heated with a single wood burning stove that is in another room, so it’s chilly here. I snuggle into my arctic rated sleeping bag, and in the mornings, it’s hard to come out of that cocoon. My shoulder is throbbing despite 1000 mg of acetaminophen. Dogs randomly bark in the yard, but the excitement of last night has died down. Still, an unrecognized truck pulls in the yard at 10:20 p.m. – apparently someone sent by Al Hardman to pick up a dropped dog from last night’s run.
Believe it or not, there are places still on earth where cell phones and digital signals do not reach. There are pristine areas where acres of white birch trees stand instead of buildings, where it is quiet, save for the sound of wood popping in a stove and 80 huskies howling in the night. These places are home to me, places close to the earth. I keep the snowy-white rolling tundra with me in my heart. I am most comfortable in solitude – always have been. Even though I am away from my family and I miss them, I know I will be sad to leave this place.
Posted by Shannon Miller at 1:25 PM