FROM EARLY OCTOBER:
It is good to be back with the dogs again. During the month of September, we ferried the dogs down the Yukon from Circle to Fort Yukon, six at a time, starting with the females, then the race dogs, then the yearlings, and on down until slowly, the dog yard in Two Rivers emptied into a silent and lifeless void that I almost couldn’t even look at without turning my head. The last trip even Cosmos, my Jack Russell Terrier jumped a ride in the little 14 foot skiff 90 miles down the mighty braided river, off to the bush to wait for my arrival. The chickens and goats were farmed off to the neighbors. I was packed and ready.
Those last couple days I felt amputated and lost. No jingling collars or the ribbed sound of chain drug across a dog house door when I went out to the outhouse early in the morning. I missed the quiet rumble of the dog yard. The bleating demands of the goats. The needy following of the chickens at my feet. All gone. It was like I didn’t exist. The night sky was especially brilliant with thousands of stars and the dusty milky way swirling, seeming even higher, more distant. At this moment I was a tiny point in an infinite expanse, not a Goddess in my own universe, a realization that almost gave my soul vertigo.
I flew over on a little six seater Navajo plane, though I was the only passenger. The plane was so packed with mail I had to wriggle my way through the boxes and bags to just get into my seat. I had been to Fort Yukon at least a dozen times but never travelled by plane, only by boat and dog team. It was a beautiful flight over. The sun glancing off the wings, the clouds gathered around, over the White Mountains, and at the last minute over the wide river plain, in an arch turning over the tiny village and onto the airstrip.
The plan is to put in some quality early season training in the bush for both the dogs and myself. A simple life where I can focus on the dogs. Where I can travel, off into the wilderness, unlimited miles, and have trapper’s cabins every 30 miles to camp at. I plan to stay until race season begins, running first on an ATV then as soon as the rivers and lakes freeze, on a moosehide toboggan.
I settled in quickly. It took me just a couple hours to turn the tiny shack of a cabin where I’m staying into a cozy little haven. The kids, young and old alike to stop by now to see what magical things the miniature stove, originally destined for the dump, can produce. Only one burner works, the oven can barely fit one pie pan, and a stump needs to be propped against the door to make the seal to get up to temp. but still I have been baking biscuits, cakes, bread, and cookies on my off time. Strategically placed scarves and a little bit of wrapping paper give the 12x14 cabin a little décor. Before it was just a little shelter, now it’s almost homey.
The dogs were already training hard. Now I vary their training alternating between fast runs with the whole outfit hooked up and hard slow runs with smaller teams. There are wood roads and meadows we can loop around, through golden grasses turned silvery with frost and down dirt paths patched with fibrous ice. Into the glowing morning, glistening, everything bright and sugared from the overnight freeze. It rained a couple of evenings then got colder through the night. Now every tip of the diamond willows have a tiny sphere of glass, frozen in anticipation, waiting for the sun to give fall that probably won’t come until spring. So now even the twisted rabbit willow patches border the swamps and creeks look like regal, magical places. The rosehips are plump and frozen into sweetness and make the perfect syrup for morning pancakes. They trim the edges of the trail, their valentine red standing out amongst the gold and silver.
On wood hauling days, I hook up 8 dogs and head out to the wood yard with the little wagon. The dogs have their camp spot, where I give them water, and they take a nap while I help Jay and a couple local kids cut and load up the truck. They deliver that firewood to elderly, single mothers, and others in need as part of an energy assistance program. The money earned is split and I send my share off to the bank to be put away for the race season. I then cut up the scrap wood and trees labeled too small for sale and load them up into the wagon. We haul it back to be used to fire the dog pot and the barrel stove in the cabin.
We live pretty close to a subsistence lifestyle. The dogs are fed salmon caught in the fish wheel this summer and fall, bear, beaver, moosescraps, cabbage from the garden, rice, and used fryer grease. They have gone through less than 2 bags of commercial dog food in over a month. Still, they are fat, and muscled up, sleek, and eat up trail like mad. They can run hard and fast, or haul heavy loads steady and strong. Their shining fur glistens in the low sunlight, and sheds the cold river fog.
A couple local kids cut wild grass and hauled it over on a wagon with a four wheeler. They earned some extra cash to buy junk food and pop at the AC store, and now all the dogs have a good little bundle of grass lining the bottom of their houses for insulation. The rest was stored under the high cache to replenish the houses throughout the winter.
We too are living off moose, caribou, ducks, goose, grouse, salmon, and rabbit. For breakfast we have bannock or pancakes. And my favorite whitefish eggs. I put up garden vegetables, and berries, jams, ketchups, bought some honey from my neighbor. We also have lots of potatoes and cabbage stored away. The humans eat good around here too!
Many evenings I run a couple of miles, past the graveyard that holds the resting bones of Hudson Stuck, around the airstrip and out to the Yukon River. I like to time it so that I can watch the sun set behind the islands out in the river. It feels good to stretch the lungs. Stretch the mind.
So far the season is coming along nicely. And so is the team. This whole adventure was a good idea for our bodies and our souls. We are impatiently awaiting what this winter will unfold. But one thing we do know we will be ready for anything.