Dictionary.com defines opportunity as a good chance for success. Opportunities aren’t always apparent to us. Sometimes we have to look for them. When someone asks you to participate in an activity that you haven’t tried before it is easy to decline. This week I was given the opportunity to go for a sled dog ride. As we had recently watched Dead Poet’s Society in English class, the phrase ‘carpe diem’ came to mind. So I decided to seize the day.
It was a balmy 15 degrees outside with the sun shining. Even though I had on a heavy coat, gloves, hat, boots, and long underwear, my friend Kathy said that I wasn’t dressed properly for mushing. First stop was to her house to get me dressed in warmer clothes. The long underwear and jeans stayed on. I topped them with a heavy duty pair of waterproof bib overalls. My cotton socks weren’t sufficient. Kathy said that Alaskans say that ‘cotton kills.’ So I put on a pair of smart wool socks. My sweatshirt was also made of cotton; it was replaced with a fleece. I already had boot warmers in my snow boots. I then put my feet into another set of boots. Neoprene wrist warmers were slipped over my hands and topped off with gloves. My hat was replaced with a hat that had a chin strap and a bill. I also packed a wool neck gator to wear if I got cold; I had a package of hand warmers in my pocket. I was now ready to venture outside. I had suddenly gained at least 10 pounds.
We drove to the dog yard where her handler, Dee Dee, was already at work. The dogs were selected based upon the anticipated mileage and who needed to go on a training run. Their names were on magnets that attached to a baking pan. In this fashion, the names could be moved around to see who worked better together as well as which dogs could not run near each other. This also gave Kathy and Dee Dee the flexibility to make changes based upon the dog’s running positions.
The selected dogs were then harnessed and made ready to go. Up until this time, the dog yard was quiet. Now there was a lot of barking as the remaining dogs knew that they were being left behind this time. Looking like the Michelin man, I finally figured out how to climb into the sled; not an easy task with all of those layers of clothes. Kathy got me settled and zipped in for the ride. When she was ready, the snow hook (this acts as an anchor or brake) was pulled. The dogs were told, ‘let’s go’ and off we went! To clarify the terminology, ‘mush’ is one of those terms that is used in the movies and not real life.
I wish I had a picture of my facial expression at that time. It was so exciting!! The dogs are so powerful. I took numerous photos from my position in the sled. Kathy was a wonderful teacher. She talked about the sled, the dogs, and mushing as we rode along. At first I was in awe of the scenery. It was beautiful; clear skies and mountains.
Then I noticed that I was focusing more on the dogs. I watched each one’s unique gait. Two dogs in particular loved to grab a mouthful of snow whenever they could. I started looking to make sure that there were no tangled lines and that all dogs were playing nice with each other.
After we had gone about 10 miles Kathy asked me if I wanted to drive. I wasn’t about to pass up this opportunity. She stopped the sled and gave me instructions. Then she climbed on the sled bag and off we went. Well, we didn’t go far before I hit a snowdrift. The sled overturned and Kathy jumped off. I was on my stomach in the snow. But the best part is that I didn’t let go of the sled. I didn’t even panic. I just talked to the dogs and held on while Kathy uprighted the sled. At this point, I decided we should change drivers. So I climbed back onto the sled.
I was glad that I wasn’t driving when we met four snowmachiners on the narrow trail. I do want to thank the one gentleman who was kind enough to move off of the trail to allow the dogs to pass. We brushed the sled and body parts against the other snowmachines. This section was a very narrow trail.
After we had gone a few more miles, Kathy thought that I needed to drive again. I wasn’t so sure. I was quite comfortable where I was. She insisted that I was up to the task. Yes, the thought of tipping the sled again crossed my mind. But those things happen to professional mushers also. So I went for it. It wasn’t long before I was shifting my weight and getting the hang of it. I drove about 4 miles. Anyone who thinks that mushing looks easy, think again. There is more to it than just jumping on the runners. You have to plan where each dog will run, watch all dogs for signs of overheating or injury, make sure that the gangline is tight as well as judge your surroundings. This is a lot of responsibility.
We had ten dogs with different personalities that worked beautifully as a team. The situation reminded me a lot of my students. I want to thank Monica and Xenia for being great leaders. Kathy, you have no idea what an impact that you made on my life. Thank you for believing in my ability.
Joy Davis, Target® Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ Finalist