Dog Mushing in Alaska

Getting Motivated

             I almost didn’t leave my bed and breakfast the morning I had an appointment to go to dog mushing school. The temperature in Fairbanks, Alaska hovered around negative twenty on that March morning, and the wind howled on the other side of the thickly insulated door. I did not want to cross that threshold, away from the comfortable heat and into icy misery.

            But I had already paid for the dog mushing lessons, and I wanted to forfeit that money even less than I wanted to be cold, so I bolted outside, started the car, cranked the heat, bolted back into the house and  waited so it got nice and toasty.  After a while, I rushed  back outside and climbed in the car. I backed out of the driveway with an hour to travel twenty (mostly) highway miles, and I needed every minute of it. It was slow going, as I did not see an inch of pavement on the way to the kennel aptly named Just Short of Magic. I also did not see any lines denoting lanes, shoulders, passing zones, etc. All of those were there, I assume, they were just hidden under several inches of ice and snow.

Foundation Fitness landscape picture of Alaska

As a born and raised Northerner, I like to tease Southerners because they don’t know how to drive in snow. Here’s a dirty little secret: Neither do we. I made my best guess where the lane was, kept my speed under 40 mph even when I could see zero other cars, turned the wheel only when I had no choice, ditto on touching the brakes and gas, and thanked the traffic gods that almost nobody else was dumb enough to drive in those conditions.

           As I pulled in to Just Short of Magic, the snow was even deeper in the parking lot than it had been on the highway. To my right, a couple dozen dogs scampered in their kennel, their icy breath steaming out of them like panting dragons. I parked, stuffed my hands into my gloves, pulled my balaclava over my face and stepped outside. A thousand icy ducks pecked their icy beaks at my chest, back and face as I hustled across the barren parking lot toward the welcome cabin.

            Those few seconds were miserable. Did I really want to ride on a dog sled for an hour in these conditions? As a small business owner who writes about adventure and the outdoors, I have discovered that perseverance is crucial to my success—more important than talent and at least as important as hard work. Whether I’m trying to make it through a “cold stretch” in which no editors will buy stories or a cold stretch in the wilderness, the key is to keep plowing ahead, to believe spring is coming and summer after that, maybe even an endless summer, if I allow myself to dream. As a dad, too, I talk constantly to my daughters about enduring tough times. The best way to build perseverance is to put myself in situations that require it—such as being outside when the temperature is negative 20.

Prepping for the Ride

            Inside the reception cabin, Jenna wore the same exuberance on her face that she expressed on the phone while taking my reservation a few weeks earlier. You’d think she spent her days on the beach not in blizzards. She outfitted me with Arctic caliber coat and boots—simply walking from the car to the cabin revealed that my St. Louis coat and boots weren’t hearty enough. Just Short of Magic’s gear went atop my long johns (top and bottom), jeans, snow pants, sweatshirts, gloves, hat and balaclava. As I waddled outside to mingle with the dogs, I wondered if I fell over whether I’d be able to get back up.

            The owner, Eleanor Wirts, greeted me by name. We talked for a minute about the cold—she said she closes when the temperature reaches negative 40. Customers sometimes call Eleanor when it’s snowing and ask if class is still on. She tells them yes as politely as possible.

            Eleanor walked me to where the dog’s harnesses hung on hooks. They were at eye level. She raised her hand way over her head, and said that’s where the hooks are in the summer. Her point: We were standing atop three feet of snow.

            I put harnesses on the dogs, connected them to the sled, and within minutes we were off, with Eleanor standing on the back and me sitting in the sled at her feet. She always starts that way so her customers get a feel for the sled first. Soon she invited me to stand on the back with her, and then she let me drive and she sat in the sled.

 

 

 

I gripped the handlebar with both hands, put my right foot on the runner and my left foot on the drag and let the nine dogs do the rest. They exuberantly led us into the glorious stillness of the thick forest.

Mush!

            Eleanor shouted encouragement to me constantly. Warmth, like from the first bite of soup, started in my chest and flowed up and down. It was not because of hard work—all I was doing was standing on the sled. It was more like that feeling when you see your favorite band in concert, and they play all of your favorite songs right in a row.

           An involuntary smile crossed my face, and as we pushed deeper into the woods, I was struck by an eerie sense of familiarity, even though I had never done this before. I wracked my brain, trying to figure out why. I finally concluded it was not the physical sensation that I was familiar with, but my emotional response to it. This will sound strange, but here is what it felt like: the moments right after a great shot in golf. My favorite time on a golf course is the drive from the fairway to the green after a nice approach. I know my ball is on the green, and on the cart ride there, I bubble with anticipation about how close it will be. There is a calming feeling of hopeful contentedness.

            I had showed up to Just Short of Magic expecting to be cold, miserable, exhausted, deflated.

            Instead I felt warm, happy, joyful, buoyant.

            Perseverance, shmerseverance. This wasn’t anything to endure. This was pure fun.

             I wanted to freeze the moment … and the next one … and the one after that. I’ve made three trips to Alaska, and each one has had numerous snapshots that became indelible memories: bracing at the severity of negative 40 in the tiny town of Circle, pondering the mysteries of the deep high above the frozen Turnagain Arm (part of the Gulf of Alaska), goose-hunting on the barren and desolate Nenana River and then plucking, cooking and eating a goose on its banks. But the joy of dog mushing wasn’t a snapshot—or if it was, it was a very long exposure.

             The trail unspooled in front of us, promising more beauty. The forest surrounded us in infinite sameness, a mirrored room of trees as far as I could see. The only sound came from the dogs’ footsteps, the snow crunching under the sled and my own delighted giggling. Occasionally Eleanor hollered “gee” or “haw” at the dogs—universal animal terms for right and left. I ducked under branches, leaned into turns and lifted my foot off the drag to pick up speed … after which Eleanor usually called out “more drag!” like a driving instructor telling a student to go the speed limit.

           Alas, after an hour, the dogs pulled us back to the kennel. I stomped on the brake with my left foot and bounded off the runner. I exulted about the ride to Eleanor. She smiled like someone whose job it is to warm people with joy every day.