An adventure in the winter woods
By Jenna Woginrich, November 2010

I love snow. It makes sweaters warmer and coffee tastier. It makes homes feel cozier. It makes a book and a fireplace seem like everything a reasonable human being could ever need. My reasons for wanting snow tonight had nothing to do with hibernation, though. I was hoping for a quick inch to touch down and cover the ice on the road behind the house. I wanted to be out in the snow before it froze. I’m not crazy. I just live with sled dogs, and we had an appointment.

By three in the afternoon, it was almost dark (Sandpoint has the pleasure of being not only at the northern tip of the state, but also as far east in the Pacific time zone as possible; daylight is a fairweather friend at best) and I was getting excited. I peered out the office windows again: the lights in the parking lot illuminated a steady snowfall that was already covering the cars with a healthy layer. People groaned and grumbled around me. I thought, You’re in North Idaho . . . how could this possibly surprise you? and clicked away at my mouse, trying to finish up so I could get home as soon as possible.

Driving home from work, my tires slid out from under me, trying to show me the best way to go about getting off the road. Giant plows passed me by like steamships passing a tugboat. I gripped the steering wheel and forged ahead. Truth is, even though the road was a horror, I was excited that it was being covered up so quickly. What makes awful traction for cars just so happens to make wonderful conditions for mushing. The fresh powder was all the traction my Siberians’ paws would need to get across the ice, and the runners of my kicksled would sink onto the layer of ice below, sliding effortlessly like pucks on a shuffleboard.

One of the real perks of moving here was this weather. I grew up dreaming about dogsledding. I wrote short stories about kids who took their teams to school and kept them in a barn with a woodstove during classes, harnessing them up and taking them down the lantern-lit trails back to their family farms after school got out. I romanticized the stories of Jack London. And every now and then, even as an adult, when I push a shopping cart around the frozen-food section of the grocery store, I pretend the handlebar is the grip of a wooden sled, ahead of me a team of dogs.

I finally pulled into the driveway, past the big birch tree and the rusted green truck from the 1940s. After running inside and greeting the dogs with the usual hugs and ear scratches, I dashed into the bedroom to change into heavy pants and a few thermal layers. I grabbed my red parka, fingerless mittens, and musher’s hat—an old, hideous leather hat with earflaps lined with rabbit fur.(There’s nothing warmer.)

Ready to go, I called the dogs into the garage and harnessed them up to our humble bispecies transport. Our ride was a small Norwegian kicksled—basically, a glorified snow scooter. It has a basket (the part of the sled where you stow gear, cargo or a passenger), handlebars, and six-foot-long runners, but weighs a mere 20 pounds and folds flat for storage. The perfect portable dogsled for our small team. These Nordic wonders work on snow just like a wheeled scooter does on concrete. The rider gives a kick and, on level ground, it slides along for a yard or two before it needs another push. With just two dogs, it’s perfect. We can go on runs a three- or four-dog team can make, because I do half the work. Which I prefer. If I’m going to go outside in a snowstorm to be pulled around by wolves on ropes, I should at least burn some calories.

I opened the garage door and stood behind the sled. I saw nothing but darkness and the snow falling around the entrance. Already, the tracks my car made were disappearing. The dogs barked and lunged in place, dying to run out into the night. I gave them the go-ahead.

“Hike! hike!” I yelled, and they took off. In the wrong direction. They headed for the road to the highway instead of the service road to the field trails behind the farm. There was no changing their minds and I had to stop them and manually coax them around. After some convincing, they started to head into the wilderness. With the smells of coyotes and elk in their noses, they picked up the pace.

When we’re mushing, the dogs are harnessed with a single lead-section gang line and are kept together by a neck line. Jazz, my older dog, used to lead on a recreational team back in Tennessee. (Yes, there are dog teams in Tennessee. They run with wheeled carts most of the year.) So, when he’s in harness, he’s serious. Head down, shoulders taut, gait as steady as a metronome. Annie is a different story altogether. As far as outdoor sports go, she’s more like a sorority girl in a brand new Patagonia jacket. When given the call to take off, she bolts as if we were on a sprint line. Jazz can barely keep up with her. I always search around with my headlight, trying to find the deer she’s chasing, but there never is one; she just loves to take off.

I worked up a sweat jogging behind them. Then we came to a road with a slight downhill. That’s when it happened. They took off, using the grade for momentum. For half a mile or more, I was just along for the ride. At first I held on for dear life. When I had gotten used to the speed, I relaxed, stood back on the runners, and closed my eyes. Time and space seemed to disappear. The whole world was just the snow that passed us in the glow of the lantern. Everything around us was dark and still. There was no noise in the world but the padding of the dogs’ feet on whiteness and the slide of the runners on ice. No one cheered. No one barked.

I opened my eyes to see their heads bobbing in the yellow light as they loped ahead of me. The road forked and I yelled out a “Gee!” and Jazz, ever the professional, turned himself and Annie to the right. “Home for treats!” I yelled, and they picked up speed as they headed toward the garage. They slowed to a trot and I started kicking again, all of us panting and exhausted. We trudged back into the light of the garage and went through the business of stepping out of harnesses and shaking the melting snow out of our coats.

Together, the three of us made our way into the kitchen. The dogs lapped water from their big blue bowl and I put on a pot of coffee. The rest of the evening was devoted to hot beverages and library-borrowed documentaries— perfect. Annie fell asleep at my feet, and Jazz joined me on th e couch with his head on my lap. I scratched his ears while listening to Shelby Foote talk about Harpers Ferry, and tried to understand what anyone does with a cat.