On a warm Sunday in early October, I woke up at the cabin alone. Matt and baby Sylvia were in Fargo for several days, but I stayed home, tasked with caring for the dogs and running the team. The temperature at our cabin read 46 degrees F., almost too warm to train. I thought about not running, but I didn’t have to work that day, so I decided to go anyway. I would stick to the wettest of our trails where I could run the team through large puddles to keep them cool.
Halfway through the run, I stopped at a road crossing to listen for traffic. I turned the ATV off so the sound of my engine couldn’t mask any oncoming cars. Hearing nothing, I tried to start the machine back up but nothing happened. I couldn’t downshift to neutral. Our ATV has an electronic shift but it didn’t seem to be working. The dogs decided they didn’t care to wait and pulled out into the road which seemed to pop the clutch and start the engine. This should have been my warning sign, but I didn’t heed it and kept going around our loop again.
About a mile later, while going up a hill, the ATV killed. I couldn’t re-start it and I couldn’t shift down to neutral. I was stuck in gear going up a hill and despite a good effort by the team, we weren’t going anywhere.
It has happened a scant few times to me when I have gotten the ATV stuck: the team becomes frantic and then hysterical to go and there is nothing I can do. In this situation, I found the only thing I could do was unhook the entire team, tie each dog off to a tree along the trail and head for home to retrieve the car. Three dogs and I walked home—a little over a mile away. I fetched the Subaru, drove to the trail head, and walked each dog out to the car—this took about 15 minutes per dog. One dog chewed himself free from his tree and ran home on his own.
I hooked the team to the Subaru, ran them to our parking spot and then again walked each dog down to the kennel from the car—another 15 minutes per dog. Mind you, “walking” each dog sounds benign. These dogs don’t “walk.” Two of them are so strong I can barely get them on the gangline in the kennel—a distance of 25 feet. To walk each of them ¼ mile involved an act of super human strength to keep from getting dragged on my face the entire way. Three hours later, I had them all home.
October remained warm. Between keeping up with our jobs, the warm weather (some days were too warm to run), watching the baby and my school schedule, we fell behind on training compared to last year. There have been days we have thought about getting out of sled dogs altogether. Since Sylvia was born last spring, the first question people ask is “will you keep running dogs?”
“We’ll just keep going until we crash and burn,” I tell people. But I have teetered on the edge of crashing and burning.
A week ago, the warm October turned cold and it began to snow. It hasn’t really stopped since. Nevermind that we hadn’t picked up the yard or pounded posts in the new puppy yard or finished the driveway project that we had planned for November. The beauty and bite of winter’s arrival is that there is nothing to be done. We go from the frantic pace of summer and fall to a sudden hush.
Everything is quiet. The cabin floor goes from a pattern of muddy paws to a clean slate. We light the fire place, watch the snow fall and breathe a little more deeply.
I’ve been enjoying the first few runs on snow and so have the dogs. The other morning, the team scared up a snowy owl—it rose up in front the dogs, wings spread. My leader Buda dove into the snow and picked up a dead hare. He intended to keep running, rabbit in mouth. I stopped and ran up there to grab it. Gabby snatched it from me, trying her best to play finders keepers. Finally getting a hold of the thing, I tossed it away, hoping the owl would come back for its hard-earned meal.
And so we keep on keeping on. The hardest and also the most rewarding runs are ahead. In a sudden change of heart, we decided Matt would run the Beargrease this year (he has unfinished business from last year). I plan to run the UP200 and the Can-Am Crown in Maine—both of which will be new races to me. We are joined by a new handler this week—a gal who ran tour dogs at Menogyn last year is going to get her chance to run a race team.
It will likely be a difficult winter, but I am determined. Dogged determination, some say. I am determined to find the beauty in our crazy life and to have fun. If that’s dogged, then I’ll go with it.
By Erin Altemus