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Life lessons learned on a dogsled

Hold tight and don’t let go.

 

A dog-sledding expedition in a storm on the frozen Arctic Ocean.
Gordon Wiltsie/ Getty Images

We’re making 10 mph across the frozen Chukchi Sea when Geoff spots a suitable ridge. “Whoa!” he calls to the team of dogs pulling our sled. I jump off and hold the brake for him as he fishes a hammer from his bag and pounds a snarg — a boltlike anchor — into three feet of solid ocean. Our ride secured, he stoops down to it and lifts a slight form in a shroud of blue tarp. Our three companions pull up on snowmobiles and dismount. Geoff places the still bundle on the crest of ice rubble. The huskies lined up in front of the sled seem to sense what’s happening. They let out a chorus of wails: Diamond was born to lead, and today was her last run.

Seventeen years is a long life for a dog, on or off the Arctic Slope. In his eulogy, Geoff, a retired biologist, attributes her longevity to a diet of fish and blubber — and, he adds, “She didn’t smoke.” He relates how her infallible compass propelled her from fourth position to swing, and eventually to lead. She liked pulling sleds full of kids during the spring festival, he tells us, especially when she got to wear flowers in her harness.

But today, it’s just the five of us: Geoff; a bowhead whale expert; a technician at the nearby NOAA station; a marketing manager at the tribal college; and me. We’re part of a loose, rotating squad of volunteers who assemble most Sundays at Geoff’s kennel to run the last dogsled team in Utqiag˙vik, Alaska, America’s northernmost city.

It’s a quiet ride back to town. The 20-knot wind that scoured our faces on the way out is our silent ally on the way home as we circle around near Point Barrow. It’s hard to feel blue in February, when sunlight finally roars back to northern Alaska, but the rocking-chair creak of the sled as glides over the unmoving sea promotes reflection.

In San Diego, two years earlier, I dabbled in surfing, played tennis, slugged craft beers. My wife, citing Homer, called it the “Isle of the Lotus-Eaters.” Life was a series of pleasant inessentials in a sunny place nearly unmolested by the passage of time.

Not long before we laid Diamond to rest, on a trip back to San Diego, my father told me he had stage 4 colorectal cancer as we stood in a theater parking lot, waiting to see Star Wars. The five-year odds weren’t good, he said, but he didn’t want that to trouble me. For a moment, the sun’s warmth faded, and time reasserted itself.

The American Kennel Club’s age conversion chart tops out at 16 dog years, but it seems safe to say that Diamond attained the corresponding 120 human years. My father spent his 64th birthday in Alaska in April. We knew it’d likely be his last. Near Anchorage, we marveled at moose and melting glaciers from our rental car; he pronounced the collected sights “the trip of a lifetime.” But when he stepped into my glittering otherworld, laying hands on the same wooden sled that has carried my friends and me over countless miles of ice and tundra, I hope he was able to see something else.

Life in a place like the Arctic Slope forces curiosity upon you. You come to carefully observe the natural world because its vagaries bear on all that you do, from a run to the store to a flight to the next village. The cycles of seasons, weather and climate all play into a sense of steady chronology, but also one of wild wonder and possibility. “What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?” Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote of the fevered weirdness of the midnight sun.

For all the attention I’ve paid it, though, time does speed by, faster here than anywhere else, it seems. In October, my father died. The best I can do is find reassurance in nature’s signs and schedule, as I do when the sun returns after two months of polar night, or migrating birds make their spring debuts and startle me with their song. This is balance.

But sometimes, as when permafrost thaws or coastlines erode or you get grim news from loved ones, balance collides with chaos. This is where I find the first principle of driving a dogsled useful: Hold on tight, and don’t let go.

The Sunday after my father’s visit, I again ran dogs with Geoff and crew, 18 miles out to the extremity of the continent and back. There’s nothing mystical about the experience; it’s the same weekly routine of snow, fur and slobber, but something about it lifts my spirits and sorts my sorrows. As usual, we set out into the wind, pressing our bundled faces against time, for time moves like the wind out here, and the wind is never still. 

Griffin Hagle is the executive director of a regional housing authority and writes from Utqiaġvik, Alaska. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.