Follow the adventure from the beginning

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Lights in the Night: Part Three

Above the Arctic Circle

Ivan the Terrible is flaring his upper lip and I can see his fangs from ten meters away. We’re on a path in the woods and the sun has just made its last shining puff for the night. Ivan is bigger than all the others and capitalizes his size advantage to begin viciously attacking his teammates. Now he has his neighbor by the neck and won’t let go. He gnaws mercilessly and writhes his shoulders deeper into the bite in order to assert his dominance – and I’m sitting here watching every minute of it.

These huskies are born and bred to pull sleds. Within the first six or seven days after birth, a good musher (or driver) is already holding and speaking to the pup in front of its mother in order to gradually and wholly assume the role of master in the dog’s 15 year (average) life. While they are young, the dogs train only in the warmest months. Working during the spring and summer allows them to build their strength until they reach the 12-month mark when they are fully able to handle pulling a sled in the arctic cold.

The 11 dogs harnessed in front of me tonight are perfect. They are beautifully proportioned, made of pure, conditioned muscle and bone, and protected by thick, full coats of fur. They are connected by a fairly complicated rope-to-carabiner system that forms them into an elongated amoeba. One in the front, then five cascaded pairs.

The lead and the dog closest to the sled must be the strongest, but not necessarily the largest. They are the ones that use their muscles most efficiently and behave most obediently according to the driver’s commands. And they need to be smarter than the rest of the team with inherent leadership skills, because sometimes the other dogs actually follow them more than the driver. Ivan the Terrible is the largest dog on the team tonight, and also one of the strongest, but he is most certainly not the lead. He’s too brutish and too horny.

“Horny?” I ask the sled driver, not sure whether I’ve misheard or maybe it’s his accent, or…

“Yes, horny,” he laughs. Torban is a full-time dog breeder and sled driver from Germany. He’s tall and thin, roughly 35 to 40 years old, and forms his speech through gaunt and weathered cheekbones. The relationship he has with his dogs is full of heart and calculations – a most perfect love affair built on passion, trust, obedience, and responsible decisions.

“All of my best leads have a bad case of kennel cough right now,” Torban explains. “Twelve dogs of the 35 that I own have serious infections. Normally females make the best leads, so I put this one on the job tonight. But she’s in heat, and it’s making the male dogs on the team get crazy and misbehave.”

Now I get it. I’ve met plenty of Ivan the Terribles in my life. They usually imagine women are in heat after only a few beers, and generally manage to cause the same biting confusion this dog creates amongst the team tonight.

“He just needs to run,” Torban assures me (is this what I’m supposed to say from now on? Go take a lap and then we can talk?).

“That’s what these dogs love to do. Work is play for them,” he says. And with the quick release of a short, one-syllable command in a special language used just for sled dogs, Torban gets them into gear. The dogs start pulling, and burn a burst of calories from the 1.5 pounds of raw meat they consume everyday. The first heave to get the sled into motion is the most difficult. The huskies really have to dig in, but then, once the sled gets gliding, they sprint together as a single-celled unit. The barks that pierced the woods just a half second ago subside immediately and the huskies focus on the task at hand. The dogs won’t settle – they are in fact anxious – until you get them running, and then everything disappears.

All sound is muted. The dogs’ paws pound and patter silently across the snow. The trees and short quick breezes absorb any note of our presence and it’s just me, and the night sky, and the tundra, and the occasional sound of the wooden sled coming down hard after hitting a mogul. Sometimes the rough drops rack my bones and teeth against each other but I don’t feel it because I am drawn completely toward everything else.

And when the dogs need to turn right or left, Torban yells “Gee!” then “Haw!” In less than a second all 11 dogs follow the command at the exact same time and pull us in the right direction. It’s as automated as a turn signal on a car and makes me wonder if the huskies aren’t actually people dressed in dog costumes – it’s that quick, and that obedient.

“I’m out almost every night,” Torban says as we pull further into the wilderness, “but I haven’t seen the lights in weeks.” He tells me that it’s definitely worth traveling to the top of the world to catch a glimpse of their belly dance in the sky, but that hardly anyone has seen them recently. “It’s been a bad year to catch them,” he says and I say that I seem to have heard that before.

The way he says it, though, sticks to my chest as I recline against the back of the sled. I am sitting on top of a reindeer pelt. When I stick my fingers into it, down toward the skin, the fur comes up to my middle knuckle.  Everything rises and falls all around me, into my lungs then out again. It’s been a bad year to catch them. Catch what? What is it that I’m so eager to find? So eager to receive. Catch this like a baseball. Catch that like a joke. Catch this like your sweater on a hook, and it sends you reeling around to face the other way.

The breaths I take while riding behind the dogs tonight are full of the purest oxygen on the planet. And the night’s dome redefines my retina’s understanding of the color midnight blue. The intensity of this place is overwhelming because it feels like the sky is sitting right on top of me. It’s not as heavy as you’d think, though. I carry it easily on this sled with me, in my pocket, and under my gloves. I take the air in slowly and deeply, checking to make sure that the stars don’t get caught in my teeth. And I recognize the sanctity of my stillness, despite gliding across the snow in full motion.

By the time we reach a Sami teepee to take a rest in the middle of nowhere (address please? Third tree from the left), I need to use the restroom. Torban asks me if I really have to go and wants to know if it can wait until we get back to the kennel a couple of hours and a few miles back.

“Why?” I ask. Aware that de-gearing in the cold will present it’s own set of uncomfortable challenges.

“Wolverines,” Torban responds. “They’re one of the few species that kill for pleasure. And they don’t care if you’re a human or a sled dog.” I laugh because I think he’s joking, but when he doesn’t even smile in return I realize he’s not. “We’ve had a few problems with them recently – though not this close to the trail. If you really have to go, stay close to the dogs. I’ll prepare us some coffee over the fire.”

Is this for real? They’ve had some “problems” with flesh eating monsters lately? And if I just pee my pants? Because going inside the tent unfortunately isn’t an option. I could ask Torban to watch for wolverines while I relieve myself in front of him and the dogs, but that’d just be weird. The only other option I have is to end this paragraph here, leave it to your judgment, and hope you’ll still decide to be my friend in the end.

Anyway, the Sami tent. We start a fire inside and heat up some sandwiches until they’re filled with smoke. And the coffee is a muddy mix of campfire and thick, grainy liquid. The dogs are harnessed to trees outside, and for the first time tonight they are silent and restful. I step outside to greet them.

After seeing the way they chomp at the bit to run and go and move like wild animals because they are wild animals, I’m a little afraid to pet them, but Torban says it’s ok. And so I lay down with them. On top of the snow, and they’re on top of me. They lick my face and I’m a toddler with pretend friends everywhere. It’s playtime! And then I look up, scanning the entire horizon for any sign of an aurora borealis.

I’d love to tell you that I find the lights right now – it’d be so perfect – but I don’t. Chasing after uncertainty teaches me that perfection most accurately rests in the eyes of the expectant. And I’ll be best off when I can learn to expect nothing and find perfection everywhere. Torban ducks through the tent flap as he comes outside. He sits down and I wonder how he got here, all the way from Germany, and what this is about, and…

“I had to get out of my cubicle and I felt the call,” he answers before I can even fully ask. It’s something, I think, that he knew about me before we even got to the details. “I’ve been breeding and racing sled dogs for 15 years,” he says. “I don’t make good money, but…”

“But you’re happy?” I interject.

“Sometimes,” he says. “But more than that, I’ve found my family. I live with these dogs. They mean everything to me. They know when I’m in a good mood and when I’ve had a fight. They love me and protect me and I do the same for them.”

Torban tells me about one time a couple of months ago when he was out on a team building mission with a group from the British Army. Snow came in from nowhere, and from everywhere, blowing up and down and sideways, and it blinded all seven teams. Each person was driving their own sled with five or six dogs depending on their weight. (Even when you have your own team, though, the dogs will only follow commands from the head musher. The rest of the time, they’re actually just following the sled ahead of them.) And the team building wilderness adventure was cut short, and they had to set up camp for days, and the dogs were the only reason the group was able to stay warm enough to not die.

“Woah,” I say, looking straight into Torban’s big eyes. He smells sour, like a mountain man. And his face is attractive, save the leathery years added by his work. I look down and notice he’s missing two fingers from the middle knuckle.

“I fell through the ice last winter with a team of twelve dogs,” he explains before I can fully ask again. “Frostbite,” and it’s like he knows what I’m thinking and maybe he knows why I’m here (could you share the secret please?) and then we have a meeting of purpose without needing to share another word. Just a few last sips of coffee.

Rugged mountain man meets arctic cowgirl. He’s into his life pretty deep now. Up to his neck in ice and snow. He says he’ll never go back, because he’s found it, whatever that is. And I like the sound of that challenge. Never go back, or maybe never look back. Catch this like a curveball you never saw coming.

1 comment:

  1. Christine,
    I just loved reading this post. It felt like I was there with you, feeling stars in my teeth and the fur of the reindeer pelt. Beautiful writing! Hope you're doing well.