Don’t Bother Researching and don’t read any books cause I’ll tell you everything you need to know. I don’t need you learning any bad habits before you get here.
There was much imagining over the next month and half before the kennel. How do you mush? How do you get the dogs to run in a straight line and not go veering off the trail? How this, how that? It was easy to fill my mind with musings since I knew next to nothing of running dogs, let alone training dogs. Growing up, I took pride that our dogs didn’t know tricks nor a leash. I guess that’s a bit of an exaggeration—the dogs knew to sit if they wanted a snack and they knew to come running when you called their name round supper time but no way they were changing directions once they got a scent up their nostrils and if you didn’t have a snack you weren’t getting much back. Once in awhile I read a few sentences about the Iditarod come early March like the rest of the country but really I knew jack all about what I was getting into. I never really experienced a winter. Sure I lived in Madrid and Washington DC where there are seasons and I saw a bit of snow here and there on vacation, but I never lived in the mountains. As a kid I went skiing in Vermont and once when I was 25 I spent a week in Vail getting high and going way too fast down slopes I had no business being on, but this would be different. The biggest difference being my entire day from sun up to sun down would be outside under whatever the sky stirred up. Fellow raft guides that worked as lifties in the Rockies suggested all manner of nylon and polyester ski gear and most figured I would go through hundreds of hand warmers. No one at the river had ever run dogs and to the credit of my friends not one of them allowed their own reservations of the musher/dog relationship at commercial businesses bleed into our conversations—there was nothing but happy thoughts for me from the river folk. I have a feeling they knew I would figure things out eventually.
A last minute stop at a thriftstore turned up a book about Siberian Huskies which I bought for a dollar. It was dense information on the breed that I suspected would be useless but for a dollar you never know. Two years later I gave that book to another thrift store. Never read more than a paragraph. Hours of Internet research suggested that the best boots would be either Steger Mukluks or Sorels. I got the impression Sorels would dry out faster so I bought a pair of glacier boots but eventually I bought mukluks. No wet boot will dry out over night without a being stuck over a boot drying machine anyway. The Sorel boots were also incredibly clunky—it was a nightmare to interact with the dogs with such massive boots because I spent most my time trying not to step on their feet with the hard rubber soles. After liberal applications of bear grease the soft soled mukluks became waterproof and even if I stepped on a paw it didn’t matter with the soft sole. However the soft mukluk eventually deformed from standing on the sled runners and the boots had to be thrown in the trash at the season’s end. To keep my fingers and toes warm I splurged on a pair of Outdoor Research Gore-Tex mittens and several pairs of Patagonia wool socks. A brand new ski jacket, a down mid-layer, an old pair of ski pants, a couple polyester base layers, and an old pale red nylon beanie that I figured to replace at the local thrift store rounded out my wardrobe. I anticipated wardrobe and gear switches once I got working but also didn’t want to show up with nothing and look unprepared. Since I was working as a raft guide I was able to get everything with my outdoor pro deals which meant I was only half broke after buying it all. Yeehaw.
John told me not to bother reading how to run dogs. He would tell me everything I need to know. It was incredibly difficult to obey but I did. I didn’t read a single piece of sled dog literature aside from that husky paragraph. In the month leading up to my departure I soaked up all the sun and Chattooga water possible figuring that in the dead of winter I could use the warmer feelings. Soon enough it was October 31st, the evening of the best raft guide wedding in the history of Halloween, and the next morning I hit the road. Thirty-five hours later I pulled off the highway into the Evergreen River Recreation Area (a fictional place) and drove up the hill to the kennel. An incredible feeling of excitement had spurred me along all through the night save for three hours sleeping at a rest stop in Kansas, but after all those miles I was fighting to keep my eyes open. Steinbeck was right, you really can drive across the United States and never see a thing. Night had fallen hard. It became difficult to read the road signs. To keep from missing the road I took to pulling over at every turn off since the road signs tended to be just far enough from the highway that my headlights failed to illuminate them. Hell, I expected to miss the turn off and end up driving all the way through to the next town before realizing my mistake. My road map didn’t show the recreation area, or the road, and I don’t carry a smart phone, so it was good old fashioned eye sight or nothing at all. All that caution proved unnecessary because there was a giant wooden billboard of a sign alongside the highway marking the Recreation area. I turned off the highway and my headlights lit up patches of snow, the snow sighting boosted my adrenaline, and sent me into an awake but loopy state of sleep deprivation that felt sort of like doing a headstand for too long after drinking too much coffee. Outside the car window I saw the head guide Daniel and Katie, fellow musher-turned girlfriend, they were smoking cigarettes on the front stoop of the Guide House. Katie had guided the year before but this season she signed up to be the race team’s handler. As they tell it I had no sooner said “Hey, how are ya?” when my eyes tracked to the starry night sky and my voice trailed off into a low “whoaaaahhhh.” Daniel says I sort of stared at the stars and when I eventually began unloading the jeep he claims that my eyes stayed glued to the sky throughout. The heavenly stars that night were many and brighter than any I had seen in a good while back on the east coast. Cleaner air. Oh and no light pollution. We didn’t talk much except to say see you in the morning and can’t wait to get started.
One of my roommates was inside. Her name was Clarissa. She arrived two nights prior so she already had two full days of work done and I found myself envious that she got to meet the dogs before I did. Our third roommate Ann arrived eight days later. The three of us shared one of the apartments. The other two guides, Samantha and Bennet, rounded the guides out to six. In the forest that winter there was six tour guides, a husband/wife cook duo, the boss John, Sheri who ran the race team with Katie handling, and Matthew who ran the office. There were twelve of us calling that corner of the forest home. Oh and around 180 sled dogs and who knows how many other animals and plants.
At the river, our company had about thirty five raft guides plus the two other companies on the river, so while we didn’t live in a town per se if one company threw a party it would be a lively one. Most of the time I avoided those parties—they could get rambunctious and I was trying to leave my past rowdiness in the past. But, you see, there were options if one was so inclined to get rowdy. At the kennel, there was just two single girls and I shared a bedroom with both of them. Our mattresses were laid flat on the floor spaced about four feet apart. Cozy. The nearest cowboy turned resort town was thirty or so miles away but I knew I wouldn’t be entertaining ski bum girls from the slopes when I was done with work. A hunch told me that there would be sexual tension with at least one roommate—primates being primates and all the mindless carnal chasing that goes with a millennia of evolution. Otherwise Daniel was dating Katie, Matthew had a previous fling with Samantha and spent the winter rekindling it in a cabin eight miles down the highway, the two cooks were married, and John and Sheri were single. In a group email Ann mentioned she was a raft guide in Colorado so I figured she would be fun and we had that in common. All I knew about Clarissa was that she had a pet rabbit and was new to the big wide world: i.e. she was five months out of university. Clarissa sent Ann and me an email asking if we would mind a rabbit sharing the apartment. My friend Eric, who goes by the name 92, was looking over my shoulder when I read her email. 92 agreed that a rabbit would be a terrible idea but also agreed that I should tell Clarissa to bring the rabbit so we could see how Ann reacted in the email chain to my rabbit enthusiasm. He and I figured that since I would be living with two girls it was understood tension would exist so might as well jump in feet first. All my raft guide friends were eagerly awaiting dogsled stories but they were also eagerly awaiting any and all stories of my living arrangement.
That first night I spread out my sleeping bag on the odorous and stained thrift store mattress Clarissa had generously rescued from the dump pile for me behind the thrift store and proceeded to pepper her with outrageous stories of misspent Fraternity years, adventures on the Iberian Peninsula, and whatnot-in an attempt to learn her boundaries. What was she OK with? I told her about the time my best friend Fitzgerald missed the ladder while attempting to climb off the top bunk causing him to hit the ground like a dead horse from Gettysburg. I could only tell Fitzgerald to shut up as he lay moaning and naked on the filthy astroturf floor. I told her about the time Frandy came flying through my unlocked door and head butted the bunk bed ladder because he thought the door was locked, though it should have been because I was watching a dirty movie and was quite indisposed. The time Fitzgerald was jumped by eight twelve-year-old Spaniards when he tried to buy hash from them under a plaza gazebo in the rain during Carnival. They stood around him in a circle kicking mercilessly at his body till I saved the night by running at them and hollering like Donkey Kong. The rambling years of my mid-twenties, were a shotgun blast of lust, sensual desire, materialism—fire mixed with gasoline—I figured it was best for the two of us (Clarissa and me) if we learned boundaries quick, and I love telling stories. I don’t recommend that method.
For her part Clarissa was fresh out of school with a degree in journalism and spent her first summer working as a wrangler for a dude ranch in Colorado. We both maintained blogs about our adventures. I have mixed feelings on blogs. I started mine because I thought I would have liked to read it were it someone else’s, but is that because it was mine or because my ramblings might have genuine use? Eventually, I shut it down, unsure of the base emotion behind my blog. Course, now I am writing a book.
Like me, Clarissa had worked for a newspaper. She was younger though and clearly wary of living with a boy—her hesitant laughs at my tales seemed to support my suspicions that living here would be more difficult for her than for me. Oh how wrong I was. Clarissa was striking with eyes that drew you in, long legs, great curly hair, and brown skin. It was clear though that the two of us were not compatible. I was stoked. To be stoked means to be pumped up with enthusiasm, you know like a fire. That meant half my potential roommate… minefield? Eliminated. After all I was there to run dogs and getting romantic in a seasonal job was not on the agenda. Such relationships were notoriously difficult. Take two people that live on adventure and thrive in uncertainty—enough that they left their family and friends to go wander the world—throw in a whirlwind romance and then before you know it the season is over and both return to their summer job or maybe they go elsewhere but for sure they are not likely to be in the same locale. My own love life pre-Chattooga ended after two years of arguing over my own wanderlust and her wish to live around the corner from her parents. She wanted a bulleted list and I wanted a blank sheet. Off to the mountains I went.
It was that breakup which helped lead to the Chattooga River, whose simple beauty and simply terrifying dangers led me to rediscover my soul. For too long I was either running full speed to nowhere or over-indulging alcohol and weed till I got nowhere and my gut told me that I needed to get outdoors to rediscover myself. Nature, I believed, would be my medicine. My biggest problem was that I had no faith in the divinity, or magic, of humanity, of the Earth. If there was no Good Spirit, if we just lived and died for one pathetic life time, then why bother with a greater purpose? Might as well get drunk, smoke cigs and weed, do the occasional line of cocaine, and keep up with the Jones’. But back to our story: There was a phone number in my pocket given to me by my buddy Will to use for a rainy day. You gotta meet her he gushed. She’s right up your alley. Tall and sexy he said. And as for Clarissa’s pet rabbit Rufie, that first night would also be his last night sleeping upstairs because the next morning we woke to find rabbit poop balls bordering me like a dead body chalk outline and he was banished to the first floor.