Monday, March 15, 2010

When the bug bites . . .

Jamaican musher Newton Marshall

No, this isn't a post about the amazing
Newton Marshall.
But we do have something very much in common.
It's called Joy





So I signed up for the trip about 2 years ago. And I almost backed out.


It sounded horribly cold, I certainly didn't have the right clothes, and I was quite sure I'd get hurt.


But my friend Chris Heeter, who runs the Wild Institute, was sure I'd like this trip. And after being personally accompanied by Chris down a rocky mountain in Baja as the sun sank, as stars began to come out and the mountain wash blurred, as my knees screamed and feet felt leaden, as I practically hallucinated from exhaustion and dehydration (Me: "Look, Chris, did you see that beautiful face in that rock?" Chris: "Keep putting one foot in front of the other, Kathleen. You're doing great"), let's just say I'd came to trust her.


Big time.
With my life.


And so I didn't back out. I took a leap of faith and showed up one snowy morning in 2008 in Brimson, Minnesota, to the 300-acre homestead of Kathleen Anderson, an amazing piece of land she calls Wintermoon Summersun.


I showed up for Mushing 101. Terrified.


Kathleen's driveway is about a half-mile long, edged by gorgeous pines and other trees. You take it slowly driving down this snow packed gravel stretch known as Petrell Road. You never really know what's coming your way around the bend in the middle. 


But very soon you hear barking. And you are greeted joyfully by the raucous sounds of 30+ Alaskan Husky dogs who are thrilled to see you.


Over the next 4 days, you come to know them well. Very well. Including what goes into them and what comes out. You are kissed, leaned on, smiled at, barked at, nudged, and best of all -- pulled by -- these gorgeous creatures whose happiness is utterly contagious.


Alaskan Huskies (unlike Siberian Huskies, which are an AKC-recognized breed), are what my vet calls "purebred mutts." Take a wolf, mix in a little hound, add almond-shaped eyes, and you begin to get a picture of an Alaskan Husky. The ears of some stick straight up. Some flop over at the tips. Some have massive coats of fur. Others look like hounds, with short hair. Some have brindle coats, others look like a bit of German Shepherd creeped in. Some have blue eyes, others brown, and still others have all manner of mixed colors. These dogs aren't bred for looks. And each looks distinctive. They are bred for speed, endurance, and some unearthly desire to run and pull.


But here's what they have in common: They're leggy, their paws spread out and reveal a kind webbing, they sing in harmony about 10 minutes after they've been fed from a contentment they can't contain, and they leap like frogs or 'roos when someone walks near them with specially-made harnesses. You can practically hear them shouting: "Pick me! pick me!" And if they aren't picked, they howl a mournful sound that practically breaks your heart to hear.


During my first visit to Wintermoon Summersun, I fell in love. Hard. I was willing to do anything for these creatures. And I did. I chopped frozen meat and mixed it into warm water, I carted around sleds laden with buckets of meaty water (to encourage them to drink before the water freezes) and kibble. I fed dogs, I watered dogs, I exercised dogs, I scooped up after them, got knocked down by their exuberance, sat down next to them and had my face covered in dog kisses.


I rode in a sled, watched these amazing animals work as a team, listened to the driver softly tell them commands like "gee" (for "take a right") and "haw" (for "hang a left") and "on by" when some varmint ran across the trail.


And then the day arrived when I had the opportunity to drive the sled. I was so unnerved that I stole away and meditated for 15 minutes and prayed I wouldn't screw up, lose my grip on the handlebar of the sled, and lose the team.


"Never ever ever ever ever let go of the sled, "we are told. "If you do, the dogs will be gone." Gone. They just don't stop. (Well, they do stop eventually, but let's just say things can go very very wrong). The responsibility felt nearly unbearable. I took the deepest breath of icy air I could, planted my boots on the runners, made sure I had a snow hook in place, gripped the handlebar with all my might, and gave the sign to release the sled. We took off like a slingshot. Were it not for snow beneath us, I dare say we would have created fire.


I honestly cannot describe what the next 25 minutes were like. Nirvana? Bliss? The complete convergence of body, mind, and soul? Ecstasy?


When Kathleen asked us to describe the experience, I could only utter these words: "Sex, mushing, dark chocolate -- in that order."


To that last, I realize, I should include child birth.


It's taken 2 years to have 2 of the 3 most important treasures I need to keep this madness going. That would be Ginsberg, an Alaskan Husky up who's now been with our family for 3 weeks, and as of this afternoon, my first sled. The third possession would be youth. Won't get that back, so I'll just have to make do.


I want to stay more about this beautiful acquisition I made today (and I will) but for now, I'll just end with pictures. And joy.


Mine's he one in front

Which will one day follow behind this little fellow
Ginsberg, 10 weeks

My quirky little pup who prefers to sleep like an upside down giraffe

And who remains a "Mama's Boy"

Unless he's staring at me like I'm some kind of fool

Or working me over with his baby blues

Or letting his wild side emerge with his kindred spirit, PreciousGrrrrlChild

Life is good.
Spring has arrived.
The snow is melting.
And I promise to post other than dog pictures soon!

13 comments:

Alix said...

Kathleen, I am stunned by the eloquence and beauty of this post. It is positively breathtaking... the description of your mushing experience, the imagery you created, and those precious precious photos of Ginsberg. Okay, the sled is pretty dandy too.

But really - this has to be one of your finest posts ever. Thank you sweetie.

ellen abbott said...

Oh, that sounds like so much fun. I think I would willingly endure snow for that. And Ginsberg is such a cutie. But don't you need more than one dog to mush?

Linda said...

Very heartfelt writing.(And eloquently put, "from cleaning dog crap to cutting meat" as in the link.) Congrats, beautiful wood and workmanship on that sled of yours. Don't forge the colorful booties for Gins! What a ride it'll be!

Suldog said...

Very cool story (no pun intended.) And the eyes on him! Oh, my. Stunning, indeed.

Barb said...

I liked the story about your mushing experience. Of course, the photos of the pup are priceless. Keep them coming, as far as I'm concerned!

Lydia said...

I enjoyed and learned from this post as much as any I've ever read, and more than most!

♥ Braja said...

But i LOVE that chair :)))

Derrick said...

Hi Kathleen,

Super, descriptive story - and BLUE eyes! Save room on the sled for me!

willow said...

So cool, the sledding and the mushing and all that! And that Ginsberg is just too, too sweet.

Linda said...

Oops, 'forge' should be 'forget.' What passion, Newton finished- 12 days, 4 hours, 27 minutes! Thought of your joys Sunday night watching Kent Hrbek's Outdoors- Outward Bound dogsledding in Ely and the Beargrease start in Duluth.

becky said...

Ginsberg is ADORABLE!! Mushing 101... sounds like a wonderful adventure. I've always wanted a Husky... and I've always wanted to go to Alaska.... hmmmm...

Ricq said...

"Sex, mushing, dark chocolate -- in that order."

Yup, that's about right. :-)

Congratulations on the new sled -- as you're beginning to suspect, your life will never be the same from this point forward. And that's ok.

Joycee said...

This perfect life...brought to you by Kathleen! Joy can be an everyday thing if we embrace it. Your comment at GrannyMountain,
"Taking the long view" is my post today...come over for a visit sweetie!

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