A Musher’s Gamble

Gamble during fall training

Gamble lives in a modest house; a 2’ x 3’ x 2’ single story rectangle on stilts, located on a 120 square foot lot.  To the left of her front window…door? (there is no door per say, but rather a hole Gamble climbs in and out of) is a blue star with rainbow contrails.  Gamble’s neighbors are Volt, Hover, and Circuit.  Gamble is often seen socializing with Volt and Circuit, Hover, however, usually keeps to herself.

Gamble doesn’t have a perfect gait.  When asked to speed up, she breaks into a lope sooner than the other dogs.  A gait is the cadence with which an animal moves and a musher is always watching the gait of his or her dogs.  Gait determines the efficiency and the speed of the dog. Which gaits a dog is able to execute and how well it executes them are large determinants of whether a dog is capable of making the race team, or only employed recreationally.  Another factor is a dog’s coat, and Gamble’s is thin, a second strike against her.  It may seem both trivial and cruel to point out Gamble’s flaws in this way, but these are important factors a musher is wise to consider when deciding whether to breed a dog.  Gamble’s future as a breeding dog is currently undecided. 

Jumping and stamina are two areas in which Gamble’s talents surpass those of her teammates.  Gamble was once seen jumping from the floor of the dog trailer, straight up into a dog box on the upper level, about 4’.  And this was from a standstill, with no running start.   When a human who knows Gamble has ample amounts of time on their hands they can’t help but wonder, “If Michael Jordan were magically turned into a dog (leveling the playing field,) could Gamble jump higher than Michael?”  All of this jumping does little to tire Gamble.  In fact, no one has ever seen Gamble look tired.  Gamble is only two years old and has only run in one race, which was not very long.  Still, at the end of a forty mile run, when all of her teammates are recumbent and panting, Gamble is standing and ready to run. 

Gamble’s first and only race so far, was the Apostle Islands Sportsman’s Race; two consecutive days of twenty mile runs.  On both days while the mushers prepared Gamble’s team for racing, the dogs patiently waited on lines attached to the trailer.  Two small human girls became enamored with the dogs over the course of the two day event.  After the last day of racing the girls walked down the line, kissing each dog farewell on the forehead.  Gamble, easily distracted by life, was turned towards the trailer, examining something.  This is the day Gamble’s mushers will always remember as the day Gamble received two gentle kisses on the butt.

Dogs on Knife

There is perhaps nothing more disconcerting to someone unfamiliar with lake country in winter than to be standing on a lake and hear a deep crack of thunder run underfoot. These rumbling vibrations that shake your feet and then tickle your nerves are just the ice expanding and contracting in response to changing temperatures and pressures, but sometimes I imagine this is the ice flexing its power, reminding us that while winter allows us to walk on water, we should do so with reverence and a healthy degree of caution.

This particular evening in March is randomly punctuated by such sharp, deep rumblings. Far removed from the groaning of the earth floats a full moon; it’s tepid light dimly illuminating Shawn’s fingers as he works. A seasoned musher conditioned to colder temperatures than these, Shawn doesn’t even wear gloves while tying both our sleds off to the nearby trees. Shawn’s hands are muscular and callused, a string of scars running across the knuckles of his left hand where the snubline of a wayward dogsled burned a few years ago. For many generations hands like these have toiled in this landscape, first in the form of Ojibwe hunters, and later, European fur traders and loggers. My boyfriend’s hands are as much a fixture of this environment as the snow, huskies, or gangline.

Once the sleds are set, we begin taking the dogs out of their boxes. It is a humbling feeling- to note the power in a dog’s two back legs as he pulls you to the sled, and you don’t dare let his front feet touch the ground, less you end up with a bloody nose before your trip even begins.

Once in harness the dogs cry with enthusiasm and lunge forward to break the team free. I take my place on the sled, one foot on the runner and one on the brake. Shawn walks back to offer me a few last pointers before we depart. Our sleds sit atop a steep bank and once the sleds break free we will travel down and around a sharp turn before dropping onto the lake. Still new to mushing, this makes my palms sweat. If a sled is lost in the wilderness, there may be no way to catch the team. Shawn slides out of my field of view and it is my turn to detach from the anchor. In an instant the sled jolts forward, the team becomes silent, and we descend into the wilderness.

As a person who sometimes struggles to find happiness, and simultaneously feels that one purpose of my life is to strive to do so, I recognize happiness in an instant when it hits. Here I am happy. I realize that in this moment, and I remember happiness two days later when I am alone in my apartment and feeling that aloneness. Around me are the moonlit silhouettes of wilderness: the skeletal outline of a spruce swamp, looming granite cliffs, lone islands like solitary pillars rising out of a white canvas. And there are layers expanding outwards: my wandering thoughts, a couple of ice-cold toes, the rhythm of the dog’s panting and running, Shawn’s team stretched out in front of me, this lake, the cliffs,the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the moon, the stars, and finally, darkness.

Days later when I try to break it all down, to dissect and diagnose happiness, I know that some of what I am feeling is the excitement of novelty. This an adventure away from my normal day to day. I will try my best not to fall off the sled and to help Shawn take care of the dogs. I know that as long as I try to work as a productive member of our weekend expedition and I verbally acknowledge the beauty of this world that Shawn is trying to show me, then I really can’t disappoint anyone. I am here to be awed, perhaps not passively, but rather I am here to seek awe. In fact, my sole purpose on this trip is to pull up behind Shawn’s parked sled and shout up to him, “Oh my God, this is absolutely beautiful.”

This is not my first time in the Boundary Waters, nor my first time on a dogsled in the Boundary Waters. Shawn had me drive my own team over rugged portages on one of our first dates, a dicey move on both our parts: me, trusting a stranger to guide me through a frigid, isolated, and potentially dangerous environment; and Shawn, to gamble on the fact that I would want a second date, after running head on with numerous trees and almost losing a finger to frostbite.

Long before these winter forays however, I had ventured into the BWCA with my parents, foregoing more traditional summer trips to Disney World in favor of mosquito bites and rehydrated ramen noodle cups. I will forever be grateful to my parents for making this trade off. Now at family reunions we often discuss the climaxes and pitfalls of these family vacations: the time Dad left his leather boots on a portage, when we almost lost Mom to a mud pit, the time my brother Jason was stung by a bee on the lip and Mom wanted to call in an airplane to carry him back to safety, and perhaps most prominent in all of our memories, when Dad terrorized and traumatized us all by jumping off an impossibly high cliff, wearing just his tighty whities.

Tonight I experience winter camping for the first time. In the morning I lazily roll out of bed and step outside the tent. I look back at the our temporary home, perched on the ephemeral frozen platform of Knife Lake; the dogs staked out by shore, Shawn making me coffee that he doesn’t drink. The clear winter sun shines down on us all and the famous words of a fellow female adventurer, Isak Dinesen, run through my mind, “Here I am, where I ought to be.”