Evening, a short distance east of the Hoarfrost River, about 30 miles north of home, on a small pond.
It is clear, cold but not bitterly so, and today there was no wind at all. Beautiful winter weather. This is night three of our five-night second outing, with a group of four students plus Joe Sartison and me.
It is night three, but it is also night 88. Starting with the first of these courses in 2005, I have been out on so many of these “night three of fives” that they all blur together. Faces, campsites, dogs. Tents set up, dogs staked out, coolers of dog feed buried in snowbanks for morning, firewood gathered, meals mostly good, a few not-so-good, all devoured with that best of sauces: hunger. A range of winter dusks and dawns: starry nights; cloudy nights; windy nights.
I may sound like I am waxing sentimental, writing this, but I am not. Just reflective. There’s a difference. After all, these courses have been a major theme running through nearly the past two decades of my life. We – Kristen, Morten, and I – have been pulling this off for more years now than I was racing, and yet I still view the fifteen racing years as the defining years in the “dog musher” facet of my life.
Tonight I ponder, “Why?” Why out here, all these nights and years, roaming around in this harsh, often unpleasant, sometimes hostile and deadly corner of the world, guiding these little troupes of neophyte mushers, fledgling arctic winter campers, along with legions – entire generations – of barking, yapping, chewing, tugging, mostly happy and, yes, sometimes unhappy, huskies? Why? Why out here, on this little network of rough-hewn snowy trails? (Where, it is worth noting in bold letters – in all these miles and all these years on all these courses – we have never, not once, encountered another human being.)
The reason to be out here, I think, is not the hard practical skills we teach and learn. It matters not one iota whether twenty years from now these students remember how to tell a dead tamarack from a dead spruce, or how to string up a picket line for the hounds while waltzing around on snowshoes. We don’t come out here just to endlessly refine our systems of winter travel, although over the decades there has been plenty of refinement. And, let’s be honest, it is not just to have “fun,” because there is simply too much “not so fun” already built into any wilderness journey in the subarctic winter taiga. Trips like these are never going to catch on as the next fun fad, not in February and early March.
The why is in the moments that each, or at least most, of the nearly 100 students now carry tucked away, as memories. Moments of facing adversity as a small team, pitching a snug camp on a threatening night, slogging through the morning chores of breaking camp, loading sleds, harnessing dogs and counting down to the nervous instant of departure. Moments of floating along on good trail in sunshine, toes and fingers warm, parka hood cinched down, the only sounds the whisper of sled runners and the gentle chuff-chuff of panting dogs.
It is fitting that tonight I don’t know precisely where we are. We spent the day scouting a new route and wound up a bit baffled when it came time to camp. So be it. I “kind of sort of” know where we are.
We are up the river from home, and just east of the river valley. Close enough, because hey, I don’t know precisely where I am in my life tonight either. What I do know is that there are some lumbar-region hints that this chapter of my life may soon grind to an end. At sixty-four, the “warranty” on moving parts is expired. (As if our bodies came with such a thing.)
A recent quote in the Economist Espresso, from one Hubert de Givenchy (whoever he was; best guess he was not Norwegian): “Life is like a book. One has to know when to turn the page.”
Maybe. Maybe not. (Stubborn denial of the inevitable might make for an interesting chapter.)