Deep snow. Surrounded for as far as I could see in deep, deep snow. Where was the trail? I had no freaking idea. We had been cruising, fresh from a night spent at Windy Gap cabin in the White Mountains National Park before we landed ourselves in this newest... adventure ill call it.
After pulling my hook from the cabin and shouting "Let's Go" to my screaming team of huskies we were shooting out onto a frozen creek and on to our final 40 mile leg towards home after a multi day camp-out. Not five minutes had past before the trail disappeared and the dogs were swallowed by snow with my sled quick to follow. I was waist deep in the stuff myself and the dogs heads would just stick out from the white quick sand seeming snow that engulfed us. If I'm sounding dramatic its because that's exactly what was going through my head at the time... the day before had been spent breaking trail and searching for hard-pack, so to start out a 40 mile run with the same shit as the day before?! My ears were steaming. As much as the monkey part of my brain wanted to scream and shout and throw things, there's nothing to do but to keep moving. Scanning trees for yellow diamond markers and tromping through snow at agonizingly slow speeds, praying your feet will find some semblance of a hard trail hidden beneath the wind blown snow. And hidden it sure was. The traitor part of my brain started to kick in as I searched and I searched and I searched with no markers or trail revealing itself in order to ask... "are you sure you're even in the right place? Were you supposed to leave the cabin from the opposite side onto an entirely different creek? Are you literally trying to move through untouched woods and waist everyone's energy to just realize you're not even near the trail?" Not yet... I'm not ready to turn around yet. The best and worst part is how beautifully amped these incredible sled dogs are to move forward. All they want to do is bulldoze on no matter the trail conditions. An attitude I normally praise them for but currently was ready to rip my own hair out over. I would drop my snow hook, tip the sled on its side as the hook would find no anchor in this endless snow and walk out in front of my team in attempts to use my human brain to suss out where trail breakers would have passed through. But as I would walk (all the while cursing myself for not packing snow shoes because walking is not the word I would use to describe my embarrassingly slow swim) the dogs would get jealous of my lead in front of them and start banging in their harness until the tipped sled would pull back upright from its precarious position in the snow and the dogs would drag it and the hook towards me. Again, normally a wonderful drive but in this case caused the largest dog tangle possible as every dog, lead and wheel dog included, wanted to reach mom. Oh how I would scream and shout to stop their forward momentum but no... onward they ran until they were nose booping me in a mess of dog and gangeline that would take the better part of 10 minutes to line out again. The second time of detangling was in progress when I was finally pulled out of my own mind to make a new decision, spurred on by some of the largest goose bumps given to me during that trip. There I was, muttering and pulling on tugs when every dog froze, hackles rose silently and heads turned to look across the creek. I froze too and looked but my lesser senses couldn't see shit. Stevie alert barked once, Ridge alert barked once and they stayed, watching something. Their heads moved in tandem as whatever it was, inspiring them back into silence, made its way through the trees and down the bank. We need to get out of here I thought, this is getting ridiculous, and so an idea hit me. Loose leading. My mind melted at my idiocy of not thinking of it earlier. Granted, we've never tried it before but this would be a darn good time to start.
Loose leading from my understanding is where you take a lead dog, unhook them from the team, and unhindered by teammates or tug line, they will find their way through deep snow and on to the path of least resistance for the team to follow. I learned of loose leading through Matts parents. I was visiting for the first time, sitting in one of the coziest homes and above the kitchen table was a framed cover of mushing magazine. The photo was of Matts team back when he was a teenager living in Eagle and already training some badass dogs. They explained to me what it was and why you would use this trick. The memory replayed itself and I figured now would be that time. I unhooked Fitz, moving Ghost and Stevie, my heard driving girls into lead. And sure as shit it worked like a charm. The minute I unsnapped his tug Fitz was off, bounding through the snow and once he reached about ten feet out front of us, I called "Fits, wait for us". He turned, buzzing with energy but patiently still, blue eyes blazing and ears fully perked. Not that he knew what "wait for us " means but he knows his name and knew I needed something. I hopped back on the sled saying "Alright, Lets Go" and off he went. Loping towards better running conditions and we chased after him. He wouldn't go past a few team lengths ahead of us before stopping, waiting for Stevie and Ghost to almost catch him and take off again into the trees. Sure enough I started seeing those wretched yellow markers reappear. Thank the heavens, we were in the right spot.
Sled dogs. This trip has shown me in what way they are my essence of Alaska. They take the wilds and make it home. They take the terrifying and make it exciting. They bring life to the frozen earth and bring an approach I will never be able to live without.