My days with Jodi are full of dogs and dirt and kibble, tuglines and harnesses, tire chains and trailer hitches, sawed, stewed meat, gray jays picking at the scraps and squirrels in the awnings waiting their turn. There are voles in the dog food bags, fat and happy, not even scrambling to get away from the human hands dipping in with their scoopers for the next meal. There is firewood to be chopped and brought in, stoves to be stoked, water to be hauled. The clouds hover around the foothills of the Whites, promising snow, refusing to follow through. The temperature is below freezing now, hopefully for good.
In the mean time, the work of early season training goes on. With the trails nearby too icy and rutted for decent quad runs, we switched to truck training on some nearby* BLM roads that are unmaintained and therefore sufficiently snow covered in early winter. This involves quite a circus of mid-morning activity as Jodi and I chain up her truck tires, hitch the dog trailer, play “catch-and-release” (or really release-and-catch, but the other way has a much nicer ring to it, no?) to shuttle dogs between the dog yard and the trailer to load up. My experience with my own dogs bolting into the woods to chase whatever scent or bunny/deer/moose/grouse is at hand leaves me vaguely nervous for this part, but her fantastic team has proven reliable to sprint around for a minute before heading to the trailer to load up for the run. Packed up finally, we head out, unchain once we reach the highway, and make our way to what has become our trailhead. Once there, the trailer is unhitched and the dogs are unloaded, harnessed and hitched to a gangline attached to the front bumper of the truck. They look fantastic, lining out and settling into their runs like professionals. Even the young dogs are figuring out the routine and sliding seamlessly towards being a part of the team. Watching the team line out, lean into their harnesses, lunge forward at the call to go, swing gee and haw through the turns, take their breaks and launch back into the run with the joy and enthusiasm they are born to is beautiful to see.
The other thing that’s beautiful is the landscape around this network of roads in the foothills of the mountains. It doesn’t take long to leave the (mostly deserted anyway) highway behind and top out a long climb into 365 degree views of mountains, spindly northern forests with her Charlie Brown Christmas Tree spruce scattered across the lower elevations, ridgelines with ominous rock outcroppings, the weathered landmarks of centuries and on the near horizon, snowcapped peaks rolling into further distance. There is wilderness in every direction, and even on blustery, overcast days with just the dim blue sub-arctic light glowing below the clouds, the views and the stomach churning vastness of it all, of being in the midst of such wilderness, makes me catch my breath a little.
But of course, the real and immediate thing is the dogs. Their smooth, ground-eating trot over the landscape, ears perked towards ravens overhead or grouse in the bushes even as they follow the command to continue ahead and not give chase. Their eyes bright as they sidle up for a quick scratch during a break and foot check. Their tails flagging back and forth happily after a run, each leaning in for a back scratch as we go up and down the line taking off harnesses, dolling out praise and compliments, then loading dogs back into warm, straw-filled boxes for the ride back to the kennel and a warm dinner of meat stew and kibble.
It goes without saying that mushers would rather be on sleds, sliding along trails through the mountains and not stuck on the backs of quads or in trucks, the miles suddenly interminable without runners and handlebars and snowhooks and trail. Oh, good trail! But these early season runs are still something I look forward to each time we head out. They are full of strong, happy dogs and a fantastic wilderness that I still have to pinch myself sometimes to believe I’m trekking through. Snow will come, trials will solidify and sleds will be pulled out. But in the mean time, this foundation is critical – both for the dogs and for me as Jodi and I talk about routes and mileage, dog gaits and habits, injuries and booties and feet, feeding (oh, the endless talk of food – ours and theirs!) training and conditioning. These conversations won’t be possible later, at least not in the volume we are privy to now with so many hours in the truck behind the teams, so I’m trying to make the most of what we have for now – truck training may not be ideal, but it is nothing I’ll turn my nose up at. Especially given the alternative.
* Alaskan “nearby” here referring to something closer than an hour away if the roads are decent.