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I’ve always considered myself a cat person, but the prospect was irresistible: three days on a dogsled, mushing in the wilds of Alaska. To ice the cake, the invitation came from my old college roommate, Brian O’Donoghue. Once a Russian history major, Brian somehow morphed into a bearded Alaska salt who has run both the Iditarod and Yukon Quest, and whose books about his misadventures (My Lead Dog Was a Lesbian, and Honest Dogs) would make Jack London blow his whiskey out his nose.
“Here’s the Number One Rule,” Brian tells me as we assemble our gear outside his spacious log cabin in Two Rivers, south of Fox. “If you get thrown, don’t let go. No matter what it takes, hang on to the sled. Your safety, your gear, your gloves, your hat—take care of these AFTER the sled stops, and you’ve anchored it down with the hook.”
We hit the icy road carrying 11 Huskies from his relatively modest kennel. They’re tough, but sweet. The “dog box” that slides onto the bed of Brian’s pick-up has eight small dens, each one matted with straw. Our sleds are tied on top. The three remaining dogs ride in the cab with us, their quick breath layering the windows with dog-breath frost.
Our 48-mile trip begins at Mile 57 on the Elliott Highway, some 60 miles north of Fairbanks. The trailhead will lead us into the White Mountains National Recreation Area, a crisp Alaskan wilderness with 250 miles of mushing and snowmobiling trails, and a dozen remote public cabins that can be reserved in advance.
We pull on our Carhartts (full-length, insulated mushing suits), and hook the dogs to their pull lines. Five for me, six for Brian. The instant we harness them, the dogs go half mad, howling, leaping into the air like Russian acrobats in their hard-wired desire to pull. It’s over the top. The beginning, I’ve been warned, is the scariest part. Your ears ring with riotous barking, your bloodstream pounds with adrenaline, there’s a tightening in your gut and numbness in your fingers. I feel half insane, myself.
“This is what we’ll do!” Brian shouts. “I’m going to put my lead dog on. Then I’ll put yours on. Then I’ll run back to my sled, pull my hook, and take off. You follow right behind.”
Brian clips the dogs on, and he’s off like a shot. I wait 15 seconds, and wobble out my snow hook. The instant it’s free, my dogs charge after him. We fly down the trail, tearing up the snow at a giddy 10 miles an hour.
Brian has put the fear of God in me with a litany of worst-case scenarios: I’m caught on the sled hook, and dragged through the trees; the dogs escape, and disappear into the woods; the sled tips over, smacks into a stump, and shatters; I lose control on a downhill and run over my own dogs.
Nobody bothered to tell me how plain gorgeous it was going to be. The trail stretches out before us, white and silky, the road to Heaven. The only sound is the shush of my runners on hard-packed snow, and the cold air tastes like diamonds.
I do as Brian instructed, using the drag- and the claw-brakes to keep the team from “bunching up.” To my surprise, riding the sled is almost intuitive; if I keep my balance, and remember to use the drag brake on the downhills, I move along at a good clip. With an unskilled musher, though, the hounds need constant encouragement. If I’m silent for more than 30 seconds, they veer gleefully into the snow banks and tangle their lines into knots. And so, for the duration of the ride, I’m compelled to provide a ceaseless monologue of praise.
“Go ahead, Atigan! Go ahead, Milo! Good boy, Fig! Good boy, Woody! Good dogs! Go, Rick! Go ahead, Fig! Good dog, Atigan! Good boy, Milo! Go ahead, Woody! Good dog, Rick! Good dog, Fig! Good boy, Atigan! Good dog, Milo! Good dog, Woody. Go ahead! Good boy, Fig! Good dogs! Good dogs!”
After two hours of this, I have the voice of a penguin. The whole deal is harder work than I’d expected; more like kayaking, or skateboarding than hitchhiking. My Huskies pull like mad—for the first 15 minutes. After that it’s all about coaxing, hollering and leaping off the runners to help push the sled on the uphill slopes.
“It’s a team effort,” Brian told me. Indeed it is. We’re a pack, and I’m top dog. At our best moments, we sail together through open tundra with glorious views of the mountains, or pitch down twisting trails that have me holding on for dear life. Dogs love variety, and whenever anything new comes up—a hairpin turn, for example—they race ahead hell bent for leather, jetting around S-curves and onto bridges so narrow that steering my sled between the rails is like threading a needle—on a roller coaster.
We’re out two nights, and spend both in classic log cabins maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. There are foam mattresses, Coleman ranges and lanterns, and wood-burning stoves. Firewood is stacked outside; before we leave, we’ll replace what we’ve used. Each cabin has a well-thumbed journal, filled in with tales of peril and victory by past mushers and snowmobilers. People leave other things, as well: magazines, Scrabble, a packet of freeze-dried macaroni and cheese. At the Colorado Creek cabin, we strike it rich: The last tenants bequeathed us a pan of Jiffy Pop.
Cooking is another surprise; it takes an avalanche of snow to produce a quart of water. I tackle this Sisyphean task while Brian makes a warm meal for the dogs. They eat noisily, and howl their approval.
The sun sets slowly, skirting the edge of the Earth. We spend the rest of the evening telling stories, catching up on our lives, and solving that classic backwoods riddle: What do you get when you cross two know-it-alls with a wood burning stove? (Answer: A cold, smoky cabin.)
Above the Arctic, the Aurora Borealis drapes a shimmering green veil across Orion’s shoulders. We climb a nearby hill to watch the show. When we return, the thermometer reads 25 below. Our Huskies, unperturbed, curl up in the snow and snooze peacefully, frost on their snouts. I watch them with admiration, awed by the eternal bond between human and canine. The truth dawns on me abruptly: I wouldn’t have been pulled here by cats.
It took some effort, but Brian has done the impossible. He’s made a dog man out of me.
Photograph by Brown Cannon