Polly and I reach the pens first and begin readying her canvas-slung sled. She hands me the lead line and I string it out in front on the crusty snow, hooking to the stake. Then I straighten up the neck and tug lines so they can be hooked to the dogs when they’re in harness.
Polly says we’ll try two inexperienced pups with three veterans. She generally uses five or six dogs instead of the seven or eight she used in the Yukon to haul freight. We enter the pen of the experienced dogs and I unhook dark Lena and bring her out, careful to lift her off her front paws by the collar, and lead her two-legged. Once at the lead-line I try to get the part-husky into harness, but I’ve forgotten the technique. Polly refreshes my memory by reminding me to grasp Lena’s rear between my knees. She shows me how to hold the harness in order to slip it over the dog’s narrow dark head. Lena is patient and submissive in handling. I give her a pat by way of thanks after hooking her collar to the neckline and the harness end to the tug line.
Polly hooks Hermes in lead position. He is the veteran lead. Hermes is finely tuned to four commands: Let’s go (for mush), gee, haw, and whoa. There are no reins except the voice. And Hermes is firmly attached to it. One other command I’ve seen him respond to: tighten up. When he hears this he stops goofing off and stands ready, tightly in his let’s go position.
I go get Kipmik, the all white pup whose name means Arctic Fox. She will get her first taste of harnessed running. She is excited and unused to being uplifted by her collar and made to prance over the packed snow on two feet. When I try to harness her she ends on the ground in a submissive heap, uneasy over the strange treatment at the hands of a stranger.
Polly notices and quickly comes to the rescue of us both, deciding to harness the pups their first time–that their initial experiences might be pleasant and assuring. This–plus the fact that I have harnessed Kipmik in such a tangled fashion… the harness lying along Kipmik’s white belly instead of on her back!
All are hooked in the traces and Hermes tightens up. Polly tells me how to place my feet, one behind the other on the runner. I grab the frame with mittened hands.
“Let’s go!” We are off over the crusty snow on a track already broken. I watch the dogs career through the snow. The track is eroded from last night’s rain, but the hard freeze has given the snow an edge.
The two pups, Kipmik left wheel dog, and Kango right swing dog, seem out of place and a bit bewildered running in the traces. Kango, especially, looks back nervously at the sound of Polly’s encouraging voice. As though it comes from the wrong direction. The voice should be in front, going on before, with Kango following in rapturous joy. Because, untrained, running behind, it’s that he’s used to.
One small part of me notices this as we zip and sway over the snow. The larger part of me is simply trying to hang on. This part is trying to avoid getting brushed across the eyes by the twigs of alders as we rush past. I feel the strange combination of working in concert while feeling out of place. I see it in Kango’s worried run. It’s the old frantic what-the-heck-am-I doing here feeling. I try copying Polly’s sled gait, kicking off with one foot to lighten the pulling of the dogs. My efforts are jerky, more a hindrance than help. Raising her voice a little, she advises me to swing my leg forward, after pushing back, to give the kick a more fluid motion. This I try but awkwardly.
We enter the woods and suddenly she warns of the turn of coming. “Haw, Hermes.” Wondrous sight: I see the redoubtable dark Hermes turn left and keep going. My admiration leaps after him. They move as one. Even the pups, while awkward and clearly worried, move well in the concert of the turn. I feel a sense of easy intelligence come back to me from Hermes, Hermes the Greek god, presiding over roads and messengers. Here, on this snow among the sudden trees, Hermes is wiser than I am. This fleeting arrangement of lines and straps and hooks and runners; flesh and fur. Hermes knows more than I do.
There comes a series of quick curves and a slender slat bridge we practically jump. I can only hold on, and not well. Finally we are exiting the woods, rounding the bend by the dog pens, coming to a full halt before them.
Kevin, bearded and wearing a stocking cap, is there, readying his team for pup-training. He calls out asking how we’re doing and Polly says the pups aren’t doing as well as she’d hoped. She turns to me. We agree they will run without me on the next turn around the woods. She makes a quick exchange among the puppies and off they go, leaving behind a grateful puppy-out-of-place person.
I stand a still moment, spread my legs a little, hoping to find my feet with a proper hold on the snowy earth. Gravity could take me down now. They are gone awhile for Polly stops to shift the dogs around again during the ride. Meanwhile I gaze on the scene offered to any sighted person who stands where I do. The clouds are a movement of gray and white with vague shifting blues weaving overhead. Out across the valley I see celestial rays, pillars of light at odd angles, standing down from the sky.
I look up to the mountains close above the distant house. The wind, roaring down from there has captured my attention. Gladly I eye the coniferous heights. I turn my vision upon the two men moving in and out of the pens, readying the dogs for training. I’m exhilarated by the panoramic nature and human experience. Full of meaning, metaphor and high purpose. And I, though without skill and certain knowledge, am part of it. For the time being.
Polly pulls out of the woods and around the pens and halts beside me.
Sheena has been moved into the lead position beside Hermes, and Polly is praising her in quiet dedicated voice. She has a feeling Sheena would make a good lead dog because of her confidence. She’s more responsive to Polly too because, while healing from an injured leg, Sheena was in the house with her.
Polly says we will double back and meet Kevin in the woods. Then he will follow us for our run down towards the opening of the Notch. Once again I position my feet on the wide runner and prepare to hang on.
It’s a long one for me. I try learning to run alongside, to stride easily on and off the sled runner. Polly teaches me to drag my foot on the downhill to slow the team and jump off to run alongside on the uphill parts of the trail.
I do all, but of course there is no grace or feel for what I’m doing. Polly is quick to say that I do well for my first time. It never seems so to me, however. At one point, after a brush-by collision with a tree too close to the path, I bail, asking Polly to pick me up on her way back.
By this time Kevin is in the woods with us, following fairly close with his team. I stand among the trees, watching them disappear, grateful to be off the runner. My breath is ragged and forced from the unaccustomed exertions. Then, suddenly, standing among the strange trees is a pleasure. Their brown linear stems and uncounted multitudes of twigs deepen. They gather in the thickets on the other side of the white pocked track. I stand thinking of my failings, making excuses for my poor physical condition. Excuses might be all lined up and delivered with an apology for Polly.
They race into view and I cross behind to jump on again. Off we go, with Kevin coming up behind. On the next hill, I find myself falling away. The last downhill is tricky and I am yet too short of breath, nearing exhaustion. Polly suggests I ride in the canvas sling and I accept gratefully.
“Keep your arms inside. We’ll be on the downhill and able to fly over the last stretch.”
At first I think the ride will be more terrifying because, in being a mere passenger, I have no recourse for control. But my fears ease as we speed along, and I can rest truly. How good it feels. Relaxing.
I form an artist’s frame of my fingers and hands, cupping the view of dogs and trees, half-visualizing making an illustration of the view from just this position behind sled dogs. Then I see, hands cupped, a mountain with numberless naked trees coming into view above the dogs’ heads. If only I had the camera. But wouldn’t the picture be blurred? It would need a very fast film.
The pace picks up as we go on the downhill and the dogs sense the nearness of pen and pans. Pans full of food and water, the leavings of butchers from the next town.
The field of view opens, full of ice particles as I breathe bits thrown up by the eager canines on their way to food. I close my eyes against the particles, relaxing yet more.
Hermes is on his way. Knowledgeable. He needs no help from me.
I hope to edit this past experience for a book. For one thing, there are way too many “the’s” in this piece. Maybe I can get Hermes to help me tighten up.
Then I will try to query the Maine Metaphor publisher this spring about putting In Winter out in time for late 2017. No guarantees!