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It’s hard to believe this is all happening sometimes! Outside, the pups are in a big pile taking a nap. In here the old ladies Bonnie and Hooch are curled up on the couch and on the bed lounging and waiting for snow. In my brain a million projects are stewing around. This is it! I’ve made it! I’m at my kennel, the kennel I dreamed about since I was a kid, and most of all there is just… More work to do!

I couldn’t be happier.

And guess what else?

On Saturday it’s our birthday. Yep, *our* birthday– Shawn and I coordinated and have the same birthday. Just kidding, that was an accident. But also true! To celebrate, we’re heading south to Denali National Park to meet up with my family.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve worked on getting the yard ready and spending lots of time with the pups. Although I didn’t expect to be taking these guys home so early, it’s been great to have them. I get to spend a lot of one on one time with them (see this post I wrote about that). I’m also getting ready for winter. There is a reason a lot of Alaskans I know identify with House Stark. They have it right. Except we say “Winter is Coming” with a touch of slightly insane excitement. Or, at least the mushers I know do.

As I get my ducks in a row, I have been doing a lot of thinking. Reflecting on how this is better than I could ever imagine, and also different. Not really tougher– I had no illusions about how tough this would be. I’m at the easy part now and I know things will really get tough later one, when I’m in the depths of training for the big races.

The thing I didn’t expect is how rewarding this is.

I think I have a fear of loving dogs. I have worked with (and loved) a lot of dogs in my time. And I’ve pretty much had to say goodbye to all of them. Even my dog Coby, who I raised from a pup, ended up adopting my mom. I see him when I visit, but they belong to each other now. And until Hooch, I’ve never been able to stay with sled dogs. And even if I didn’t move on from handling gig to handling gig, those dogs wouldn’t be mine in that deep way that more than money means. Even more than all the work and companionship that handling means. That is a commitment to take on all of the care and love of that dog from beginning to end.

Because I think there’s a part of me that is afraid I’ll have to say goodbye again (and, I will, that’s how life with dogs works), sometimes it feels hard to let them into my heart.

I felt the same way with Ophelia. I was afraid I couldn’t love her. While everyone cooed over her puppy self, I was a little reserved and trying to decide if I for sure liked her or not.

One day (this was in Minneapolis), when Ophelia was maybe 10 or 12 weeks old (about the same age as these guys are now), Hooch and Ophelia and I were walking on a sidewalk by a busy road. I had a leash that I strapped around my waist that clipped to Hooch, and I had a second leash clipped to the “belt” part with a Caribbeaner, clipped to Ophelia. Traffic was busy– It must have been rush hour. We needed to cross the road and we came up to a pedestrian only cross walk. I was reaching to push the walk button when the caribbeaner pushed on the leash buckled just right and unclipped Hooch and Ophelia from me and from each other in a second. Hooch, thank god, went running away from the road and into an open gate. Ophelia, though, in her 10 week glory and terror, ran straight into the road, full blast towards oncoming traffic.

This whole instance probably took less than three seconds. I remember the vision of that little floppy puppy heading towards a line of cars. And I remember not hesitating even slightly as I ran after her, my arm outstretched in an undeniable “STOP” motion, also heading straight for those cars.

I dove for her leash. I caught her.

I don’t know if the cars screeched to a halt. I don’t know, honestly, if they even stopped. They must have. I scooped up Ophelia and ran as fast as I could to the gate where Hooch had hidden to block her from running into the road too.

That was probably one of the most terrifying moments of my life. And also not. I’m a cowardly person, I tend to think. I hesitate and fear. But I didn’t even blink when that dog ran into traffic. So I stood there on the sidewalk after that, shaking and crying, and I knew I loved that dog.

And in a slow motion way, at the kennel, that’s happening here too. I am not great with money. I never have been. Candy and coffee and food are very tempting and very buyable. But now my first thought is the dogs. Making sure they have everything they need. Then go get groceries. Budgeting. It’s like a miracle! Shuttling money towards them so easily. Shuttling time towards them.

Maybe I just don’t recognize it. But it’s fulfilling. It’s rewarding. I feel like I’m living for something. (Maybe it’s a selfish something, I don’t know, but that’s a subject for another time.) After a year where that was difficult, I feel… Peaceful. Correct. Anyway, not to get all sappy. I guess the point is. I’m where I’m supposed to be… And that’s running into traffic for these dogs. (Hopefully just metaphorically from now on.)

So we get one other cool thing for our birthday. The glacier work at AIE is wrapping up, and the word on the street is that that very Ophelia girl (who I’ve been missing all summer) should be coming home soon.

I can’t wait.

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Mari loves dog mushing, boxing, writing, and hiking. They spend their off time reading as much as possible and going to the movies.

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