‘To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.’ –Rebecca Solnit, ‘Hope in the Dark.’
‘I would do this again, with 8 dogs,’ I said to myself as we bumped along the water bars and skidded across ice.
It has been a tough time finding the trails for long runs with the team, this year. Both of our normal big-mile trail networks are being plowed for logging, and there were questions in my head about the quality of terrain elsewhere. In short: I was being cautious. This left some sections of trail that are straight, fairly short, and boring.
I had had enough. So I did my research, asked the snowmobile clubs, and decided to load up 8 of the steadiest dogs, the ones that will slow when I ask them to, and who stand silently and patiently, and who also I can let completely loose if I needed to. I made a thermos of tea, ate a almond-butter sandwich, and headed out in the brightness of the afternoon.
The start of the run was divine. It was warm. The sky was the bright and cloudless blue that is made so much brighter in contrast with the whiteness of snow. Silence.
Hyside and Hilde were in lead, Hilde leading with a forceful charge and confident directness, sometimes dragging Hyside ahead. Hyside was getting warm quickly. He is a big fuzzy boy, but I wanted him in lead for our descent down the backside of the height of land, a mile of switchbacks, blind spots and continuous downhill.
As we approached that descent, I performed the superstitious acts I always perform as I approach that descent, not knowing what was on the other side. My wish for safety, paired for my wish for the unknown. Remembering that I have been descending that trail for years, with teams as small as 6 dogs and as large as 12. And remembering that it is North facing and would be drifted with soft wet snow.
We plunged around the first turn, and the speed picked up but remained controlled and steady. There was glare ice under a dust of snow, there were sticks on the ground that caught in my drag mat, and there were more than a few open water bars and crusted rutted tracks from snowmachines. It took balance and an open heart.
I knew that under my feet was just a skim of snow on top of the ground. The ground was peeking up everywhere, open patches of dirt that would only grow in the sun and the heat radiated out from the dark earth. Water was running everywhere.
Hilde charged forward fearlessly, with Hyside there to guide her. I chose Hilde because I wanted her to be challenged, to learn how to cross water and leap across water bars, and trot among the whipped pieces of brush that stuck up through the snow.
When we entered Jericho, and turned gee to make a loop through the park, Hyside declared that he was just too hot to go on, and dove into the snow. There was no real way to hook down, and standing in a former clearcut, not many options for a tree to tie off too. I trotted them forward a bit further into the trees, and then hooked down, my snowhooks digging into something, but just barely.
What was a quick substitute of leaders did not work right away, as Hilde made Ia uneasy. As I unclipped Ia to move up Ariel and Bayley, the snowhooks released and the team came at me. However, instead of leaping at the sled like I usually do, I grabbed the gang line, and just unclipped everyone except for Ellie and Ia. I set the hook gently, and then tied off to a tree. It was warm, it was mid-afternoon, and I was grateful to be on the trail with these dogs.
They ran around playing with each other, as I sorted out the lines and decided what configuration to call them back to me for. Bayley was standing stock-still in the front of the team, and I didn’t have to move her as I clipped the lines in for her to lead, joined with Ariel. Working my way back the team to Foreman, the last one in wheel, I simply stood on the runners and released the line, and the team shot forward.
Recently I have been bringing up the concept of how I train resilience into the dog team. Sure, I want to cultivate a team that is fast, strong, and tough, but also one that responds to challenges with adaptation and grace, beyond physical strength. I want to build understanding, joy, and an open heart. Training is not just about miles covered, elevation gained, or the splits of a race. There is something, deeper.
The entire afternoon was bathed in the golden slanty light of December. Long shadows, honey bright sun, and the ridgelines in the distance marked by alpen glow, even at 2 p.m. The sharpness of winter air. We were on trails that I have run so many times with them, in fall and in winter, but I was seeing it anew.
The run back was slow. The air was warm and the snow had grown sticky. There was 60 pounds in the sled. We stopped to snack before the last 10 miles, my snowhook digging into dirt. In silence, before I pulled the hook, I asked them softly ‘are you ready?’ and in silence, they all leaned forward. It is a different experience, running the team that is absent of the screaming impatient cheerleaders of House, Taz, and Nibbler.
The whole run back, as we hugged the side of the Crescent range, I couldn’t stop watching the glow in the west.
I needed to pay more attention to my footing, of course, as we bounced through water bars and slid down muddy hills of water and rock. But I didn’t want to watch for trail problems, I wanted to watch the sunset.
On this run, I was awake and alive. In the past two weeks, it hadn’t felt like I was truly running dogs, in the straight flat Wild River runs, out and back without elevation or turns.
It was a feeling of strength, as I pedaled uphill, coaxing the dogs to remember their steady gaits and speed. Ariel and Bayley had their heads down.
As we descended from the height of land, the sun had passed behind the ridgelines in the west. It glowed, firey red and yellow and fading to blue black, the iridescent edge marking the mountains.
I looked to my left, at my old friends Mt Adams and Jefferson, seeing immediately all the times that I had watched the sun set from those slopes, looking down in to the valley, and to the west. I pointed and waved and said to no one in particular, ‘I used to live up there.’
As the sun set, the temps cooled, and we were on the wide uncomplicated road back to the truck. Bayley and Ariel picked up speed, and the team responded in suit. They were racing to the truck, faster than we had left it. I thought of the speed that comes with those last few miles to Portage, in Can Am, as the warm afternoon gives way to the cool brisk dusky twilight.
All the tails were wagging at the truck. They were happy, but not spent. I had been worried, unnecessarily, about their endurance, speed, and drive.
As a post-script, one of the last things I did, after the dogs were loaded and gear stored, was take a good long look at the sled. The runners were crusted with grit and mud, but the bolts were still strong, the stanchions intact, and the sled plastic showing a few dents from rocks but runnable still. I thanked her for her work, and her toughness, and then hefted her onto the roof.
I opened this with a quote from Rebecca Solnit, on the nature of hope in the face of uncertainty. It was those words, that I had read that morning, that powered me into the unknown, instead of staying in gloom and safety.
Hope. Hope in our resiliency.
Keep it coming.