Interior Autumn

Fall is more prolonged here than I remember. Actually, since I moved back to Alaska in 2013, I think I thought that about every fall. That it is more gorgeous and lengthy than I can recall from my childhood. Maybe when I was a kid, I was rushing too much, ready to get on to the next thing too quickly. Now I’m reveling in these golden leaves and sprawling sunsets. The air is sharp and the sunlight seems brighter. Days are clear and the sky is a crisper blue. All good autumnal words, right?

To me, fall is mud. Here, the mud is minimal. This is not the swampland I learned to mush in. Or maybe it’s just still dry, and the perpetual overcast drizzle is yet to come. Or maybe the interior, where Fairbanks is located, gets better autumns than down in the valley.

When I mushed here in 2011/2012, I started in November. The world was already frozen and white, although there was still not enough snow on the ground for sleds. Sometimes that wait for sleds is an interminable wait. I’ve mushed on four wheelers into January. That’s miserable and cold. Four wheelers are not the way we’re supposed to mush. The grinding loud engine is not the point of doing this. By December, January, when the miles are long and your hands are frozen, you are sick to death of that machine.

But for now, the four wheeler is a godsend. A way to do this, a way to be in training. And full of nostalgia. I don’t love quad mushing, but I am familiar with it. And I know it leads to better things.

My team is so small. To Shawn’s dismay, I can’t help repeating: I wish I had more dogs. But that will change. My five dog string is strong and dedicated. Their tug lines always taut. Even just those five can pull the quad in gear. Impressive. These dogs are so impressive. And all so sweet. I have an entirely female team. It started by accident but I don’t hate it. Female sled dogs can be, well, bitchy towards each other, but I have been working through a routine to socialize them together, to get my personal Themyscara lined out and happy, a team. We run together in the big play pen I built, every day around lunch time. They stretch their legs and smell each other’s business, and sometimes my most dominant females raise their hackles, but I give them a low admonishment and they come over to me, tails wagging apologetically. They are good dogs. They are getting to know each other.

Ophelia has been relegated to staying outside. Her coat is thick and heavy, and inside she pants hard. She’s acclimating to the cooler temps, and the human biome inside is a bit too much. Also, she seems to me to lord her privileges over the other two new recruits, who are much more submissive than she is. Ophelia stands taller than every dog here, even Hooch, now, and she wants to prove she is better than all of them too. She raises her hackles at everyone, tail high, ears high. Naughty language from a dog: “I’m in charge” language. I tell her no and she recalls– Oh yeah, that dumb two legger is in charge. So I’m folding her in with the other two young dogs. They all three sleep together outside. I let them play in the playpen together. They can come inside, but after the two newer dogs get more comfortable with indoor cuddling. Then they get equal indoor time. I want them to become a unit. Despite Ophelia’s pampered upbringing, she is equal with those two. They are a team. When Bonnie and Hooch become too old to race, these three will be my starter-core.

Bonnie and Hooch, on the other hand, can come inside whenever they want. They are technically retired: they have earned their spot on the couch. Hooch especially has a place of honor on the bed. Bonnie would be welcome there too but she doesn’t like the stairs at all. She curls up in the office on her own blanky.

The puppies are growing! It’s inevitable I guess. They are goofy and enthusiastic. All but R2 have figured out how to get on top of the house– although it’s not a graceful process, exactly. The adult dogs are teaching the pups how to howl. Howling is a post-meal activity, typical for sled dog yards. It’s bizarre how consistent it is. I’ve worked at many kennels, and every one is the same: after dinner, the dogs start up a chorus to the sky. They sing their haunting song: and then suddenly, almost simultaneously, they quiet. The silence after that is eerie. Like everything pauses. A moment of silence. One of my favorite moments.

Our chorus, as Shawn remarks, is not exactly harmonious at the moment. The puppies don’t quite know how to howl, and my young adult dogs are not as practiced either. Hooch is not much of a howler– I’ve only ever caught her at it once or twice– and so it’s truly a children’s chorus, but maybe if the children’s chorus was made up of random kids who had never sang before. I think it’s beautiful. It says: we are all exercising and eating and being loved and happy. We are doing what we are meant to do, body, mind, soul. We are syncing together, we are becoming a team.

This is the team I have dreamed about. I didn’t know it was these dogs, in particular. Maybe I had to wait this long to find these very ones. Who knew it would be a group of almost all females? I like that.

And when we hook up in the morning, before the sun has even tried to peak over the hills, I look at my little five dog string, and I can’t wait til those pups are grown and we are all traveling together down the trail.