“Dogsledding exists at the intersection of skill and chaos…” —Burton Penner
I wake to the sound of howling and barking. It pierces the cold clear air. My eyes are open now and the bright sunlight comes through the trees and the snow sparkles in small dollops on top of spruce boughs. The dogs cease their howling song after a three or four minutes and now I’m fully awake but I dread moving out of my sleeping bag. It’s so cold. I’ve left the top of my sleep system open, being paranoid about condensation, so snow surrounds the inner lining of my sleeping bag. I move reluctantly, trying to get socks, fleece pants, jacket, and snow pants on, and finally put my boots onto my feet. I have left my boots open with my shell jacket laying over them, but they are still frozen stiff, and difficult to get into. I have to take short breaks in between layers to warm my hands. After 45 seconds my fingers turn bright reddish purple and become useless. I must re-warm them slowly in order to continue dressing. In this way the morning routine seems hurried and yet painfully slow at the same time.
The days all begin like this. I wake up to a clear sky, the trees overhead. Sometimes, during the night, if there is wind, the exposed portion of my face will be sprinkled with snow. Most days the sky is a light gray, but on the last day the sun comes out and the sky is an immaculate blue. After breakfast the sleds are packed and the dogs, who have slept tied to a stake line one next to the other, are hitched to the sleds. Wheel dogs first, then swing dogs, then the leads. Zeus lunges at his harness. He’s a swing dog today, second row on the left and impatient to get started. All the doggers begin the day with enthusiastic impatience, howling the sun up into the sky, then wiggling like slippery wet eels into their harnesses. They lunge happily forward into the day, into time, into the cold.
A word about the doggers. They are attached by a short lead line to the stake line each night. They curl up into little balls on or beside a small pine bough bed, their tales over their noses. Eager to get into their harness each morning each dogger jumps and yelps and howls, putting their paws through the straps without trouble. If you bend their paws too much they yelp. They beg for belly rubs, and Frazier puts his nose in my face, not so much licking me as much as he is stabbing me with his nose. It stamps my face again and again until he jumps down to all fours again. Ethyl, usually grumpy and snapping at the other dogs, jumps up and puts her paws on my shoulders too. She is a beautiful white dog with dark brown-markings around her eyes and ears. I scratch behind ears, smushing her face close to mine. Cedar wiggles on her back twisting around and around until I scratch her belly too. Each and every dogger gets pets and pats and belly rubs each morning and night and every time the sleds stop. Their loyalty, their work ethic goes beyond the names. It’s clear our foremost duty on the trail is to stay alive to take care of the dogs. It’s this partnership that allows everything else to be possible. The way that you exist in nature when you dogsled is different than if you are hiking or kayaking or rappelling down a cliff. It’s more significant and very sharp. It requires faith in another living thing that you must impart without the aid of language. It requires grace and acceptance. It is tied inexplicably with the magic of a wintery cold landscape the same way the movement of a camel evokes the way that sand moves over dunes in the desert.
 The word is dogger to refer to one dog, and doggers to refer to multiple. Originally it referred to a worker who attaches dogs (as to logs), moves articles mechanically by dogs, or fastens articles (as stock to be machined) into dogs that will hold them for further processing. ‘Good dogger!’ ‘Come on dogger! Let’s go, HIKE!!’
I’m standing on the left runner of a sled, feet one behind the other in a kind of improvised fifth position. My sled partner, Bob, is on the right runner. We fly across the snowy lake. The dogs pant and pull, snapping up snow as the run in small sips. Sometimes the snow becomes sticky and slushy, melting into a sticky, gluey substance that makes the sled move in a sliding slow motion as if through honey or molasses. The runners collect this slushy ice substance and have to be de-iced twice a day by the end of the trip, which requires flipping them on their side and hacking at the ice with a small sledge hammer, then flipping the sled over again, making sure to be ready with the break. As soon as the runners touch the ground again the dogs take off, and if you’re not ready, your sled will be 25 feet away from you in a matter of seconds.
There is no need to steer the sleds, the doggers follow the trail ahead made by skiers and other sleds. Sometimes when the snow becomes thin, and the ice becomes visible and water starts pooling underneath, the dogs will avoid that section and reroute the sled moving back to the trail after the short detour. They know to avoid thin ice moving the sled effortlessly around it. It’s human error that puts the sleds through the ice.
When people take a vacation, it’s an escape from reality. When they return to their everyday life it’s ‘back to reality’. I feel the opposite. Reality was pushing the sled up hills, over portages beside thin ice on the river, across large windy lakes, and through deep, thick forests that required us to break trail every day. Reality was the act of surviving, daily. The cold surrounds me all the time. I’m not cold necessarily, but it’s always there forcing me to pay attention to how much I’m sweating as I’m pushing a 300 pound sled, or skiing for five or six hours straight. How much water have I been drinking? Is it enough? Will I succumb to frostbite? Hypothermia? This is not even as intense as it could be—we have supplies, plenty of food and guides who know these woods inside and out. It still feels intense though. I am surviving in a harsh, frozen landscape where even silence feels stretched and brittle. It crackles in the air even over the whoosssshhh shusssshhhh the sled makes over the snow.
None of these things were too much of a concern, but they are there in your mind as you travel through the wilderness. My life is so close. It’s big and vast as the lake and the woods around me and so so full. Falling off the trail, falling through the ice, twisting an ankle, getting my boot caught under the metal-spiked brake on the sled…What better reality than the one where you are constantly thinking of survival, constantly breathing in clean air, constantly being physically and mentally challenged and constantly being pulled forward through this vast wilderness by a team of faithful dogs.
Bob puts his foot through the ice on our first day. It’s my fault. The ice is thin and our sled is tipping toward the river. I’m terrified of going into the water myself, as I know wet clothing is one of the worst things that can happen. It’s not like I can go back into the lodge and change. I pull and pull the sled but it’s as if I’m not doing anything. My boots are sinking further into the snow, and sliding further toward the river. In between trying to right the tipped sled I steal terrified glances at the cold brown water. It moves sluggishly under the thin layer of broken ice, there is barely a current at all. We finally right the sled, but I feel terrible that Bob has had to get wet in the process.
On the fourth day Bob tips off the trail falling a couple of feet down an embankment. It’s my fault. To make matters worse he’s one of the most experienced among us. Minus the guides, and Paul himself. Bob has been to Greenland, the Arctic, and Elsmere Island, Alaska, to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Being partnered with me means he’s had to put up with a lot. On the last day we switch sides, me on the outside as the smaller one, Bob on the inside to keep the sled on the trail. I still let him man the sled solo on the same section of river that we went over on day one. I am not going to take any chances. I’m also sad that I’m too afraid to go with him over the difficult terrain. The sled still tipped precariously over roots and rocks, even under Bob’s expert care. I ran after it, grateful for the chance to move my feet and perhaps warm my toes, which have become painfully cold over the course of the week.
It was not the only time I had to run as fast as I possible could after a sled. I sprinted after the sled after Donna and I (mostly I) lost control. I sprinted after it in heavy boots through deep snow. I pelted, hard for what was probably only 25 or 30 feet. Maybe less. I hear Donna scream after me. “Loose sled!!” My feet felt like lead and the snow feels like peanut butter. I’m not a sprinter. I’m not even really a runner. But it’s amazing what your body will do when your mind shuts off and all that is left is necessity. I catch the sled and push the break and the dogs slide to stop. Donna catches up and we resume our wild ride through the woods.
Dog tails. The long hair moves slightly in the wind. Sometimes the tails wag with enthusiasm. They are constantly curled like flags at full mast ready to lead the way at all times. These tails are curl around noses at night, and wave a greeting every morning. They are happy curly tails.
Thanks to Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge for the best dogsledding trip a girl could ask for, so excited to travel with them to Svalbard this spring!