YESTERDAY, I RAN the dogs for the last time this year. April 28th, and there was still enough snow on the ground to do it! Lloyd thought I was crazy. He'd put sleds and dogs away two weeks ago. But I had to have one more run, just one more, 40-degree temperatures or not. It was perfect -- alone with my six favorite dogs, the trail was soft but without any bad moose holes or glaciered ice. The woods were full of squirrels and chickadees, and my friend Mary who I hadn't seen all winter was home with a hot pot of coffee on the woodstove and stories of a spring trip to the Brooks Range -- north of the Arctic Circle -- with her dogs.
I took a long time coming out in the late afternoon sun, encouraging the dogs only to trot those last 13 miles, to make it last as long as possible. If only it were possible to freeze a moment in time. But then, we were at the truck. I unhitched dogs and watched them play in the mud puddles of the plowed roads before loading them into the truck. All of a sudden I realized that it really is over, another winter is gone. It's time to take the dog box off the truck, hang up the harnesses, and tend seriously to the business of planting seeds and getting ready for summer.
This is a difficult time of year for me -- the transition from a time when the dogs are the focus of everything we do and think, to summer when they laze on their chains and we think of other things. For them -- 20 hardened athletes in peak condition -- the season is over, just like that. One day in harness and the next on the roof of a doghouse soaking up spring sunshine. Once the transition is made, they're happy to be fat and lazy all summer, chewing on bones and playing with the puppies. But for a few brief weeks it must be hard for them -- it certainly is for me!
The dogs are part of what makes Alaska for Lloyd and me -- and a way to coexist with cold and snow. Instead of mourning the last days of summer, we relish the first nip of frost in the air, hope for the first snows, and look forward to the cold. Even though the winter takes away the sun, it's never dark like it is in September or May. The white snow catches moon, or stars, or northern lights, and reflects them back, making flashlights at our house only an item of transition.
And now we wish for the snow to linger until the last possible moment.
"Sled dogs in Alaska" sort of followed on the heels of "log cabin in Alaska," a la Robert Service or Jack London. We were given our first team, harnesses, houses, and sled, in March of 1978. The first day we hooked them up we didn't know a lead dog from a hound dog, a "gee" from a "haw," nor did we realize how many unused muscles could be stretched in such a seemingly simple task as riding a sled.
Initially, our dogs were used strictly for recreational purposes. We'd run them together on weekends, taking 10-15 mile trips around our neighborhood. The next step was a few more dogs (nine instead of six), a second sled, a litter of puppies, then a "dog box" for our truck so we could take them with us and run other trails.
For the first few years we used to watch and follow the races -- the long grinding endurance contest of the 1,000-mile Iditarod Race from Anchorage to Nome, and the pure unadulterated speed of the Open North American Championship sprint races in Fairbanks. And then one day we wanted to know how fast our dogs were, just what it would be like to be racing instead of just watching. That was five years ago.
These last few years have been incredible highs. We have a really small dog yard for a racing kennel -- a total of 15-20 dogs including pups. And most of them are either pups or grandpups of one of the original giveaway females. For the last three years, in every race he's entered, Lloyd has been in the top four, and usually first or second. And in February this year I won the Women's World Championship race in Anchorage! It was like a fairy tale -- me, our homegrown dogs, all the training and dreaming Lloyd and I had done.
I used to think about running the Iditarod -- not winning like Libby Riddles did this year -- but just finishing. Then somewhere along the line I realized that I "endured" -- faced the challenges of cold and winter -- as a routine part of my job as a marine-mammals biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. My colleagues and I spend months on the ice and at sea every year studying ring seals, or walruses, or beluga whales, from the Aleutians to the Arctic Ocean.
But sprint racing was something else indeed -- it provides an exhilaration that I've experienced few other times in my life. I wanted to be good, for the dogs to be good. But never, ever, did I really believe that I could win a really big race.
I'm not sure I'll ever be real comfortable with microphones in my face and newspaper reporters writing down anything I say. Dog racing is a funny sport -- so many people capable of winning and such a combination of factors involved: The dogs themselves and their innate ability and desire to run and willingness to do it faster or harder at your command; your training to make eight or 10 individuals work together as one team; the driver's fitness and ability/motivation to work hard; and mammoth attention to detail -- mostly by Lloyd in our household -- so that feet are groomed and medicated, sled runners properly waxed, and tack all in good order. Proper diet, proper weight (it matters down to the pound), being watered at the right hour. It provides endless hours of conversation on long winter nights (and spring and summer and -- ).
What a different race it was this year than two years ago when I first ran in the Women's Race. That year I'd just finished radiation therapy for the Hodgkin's disease I'd been diagnosed with in spring of 1982. I think the dogs sensed I couldn't help them much and worked extra hard. We placed third even though I was so stiff and sore I could hardly walk.
I think part of my finish that year was for all the folks pulling for me on the sidelines -- my doctors and nurses, friends, other people who had gone through some sort of illness. Much of Anchorage was my "family" that year. This year was so much better! It was such a treat to be able to kick an entire race and be without muscle cramps, to have breathing come easy. Modern medicine is amazing! They never pronounce you cured when you've had cancer, but you have to believe it is over and done, that you'll be healthy evermore. Sure feels a lot better on the back of a dog sled that way!
I can't say very much about three years ago, and what it was like to learn that I had Hodgkin's disease, go through treatment, and come out the other side. It's one of those things that you find the reserves for when they're needed and later wonder how you did it. Mostly you do it with the love and help of your friends and family. That year is hard for me to think about now -- it's a set of memories that are too close to the surface, yet so very far away.
It certainly puts one's life in perspective in a hurry. Suddenly it seems much more important to concentrate on the big things in life and sort out the trivial problems that sometimes get the best of all of us. It's also probably the first time I really thought about how vulnerable people are, how very mortal I am. We all expect cancer or illness in older people, in other people, but it is always unexpected to be young and have it happen to you or yours. I've been so lucky. I hope I never forget what a gift life is.
A friend of mine had cancer -- she's also in her 30s -- and we both realized that we'd lost an innocence, a sense of frivolity, or something we couldn't really name while going through all this. At first, you think about it a lot. It was almost easier to be in treatment because then you knew something was being done. There was something concrete to fight. Afterwards you just wait, and wait, from one check-up to the next, always hoping.
It really bothered me for a awhile. I was (am?) still anemic with a crazy lump where it shouldn't be. My doctor spent much of the fall and early winter last year worrying himself -- and me -- with weekly or monthly appointments and tests. That's not a good way to live. We declared a truce. We (I) decided to pronounce me cured and proceed on that assumption. It's much better.
When we moved to Fairbanks to work for Alaska Fish and Game, we had no idea what we were coming to. I had lived all over the Lower 48, since my father was an exploration geologist for Shell, but that had not prepared me for the place. Neither had the graduate school in marine biology in California that Lloyd and I were both just graduated from. Yet over the almost 10 years we've been here, we've built a lifestyle that structures our daily and seasonal activities.
Our first year, we didn't feel like we were living the "real" Alaska -- we were in a duplex, and had a postage-stamp yard. So one year later we bought land -- 3 1/2 acres, 13 miles outside of Fairbanks -- because, in a place with as much land as Alaska, it seemed the thing to do.
A year later we built our house. Of course, when I grew up, "building a house" meant going to a contractor, picking a floor plan, and choosing wallpaper and carpet. Up here we quickly realized that "build a house" meant hammer and nails in our own hands, executing plans we drew ourselves on graph paper or yellow tablet paper.
I was quite sure, with only the building of a rickety treehouse behind me, that I couldn't build a real house. But Lloyd convinced me that a house is really a basement, then a floor, then walls, and finally a roof, and that we could do each of those things. Guided by storybook ideas of and constrained by a lack of dollars and expertise, we nonetheless built a very comfortable and functional log house. (To this day the outhouse remains a reminder of my first lesson in the importance of levels and squares!)
The rhythms of such a life rapidly begin to determine themselves. In March we order seeds and chicks after figuring out how many frying chickens and laying hens we'll need next year. By mid-April we wake to the click of the automatic timer on the grow- lights, as tiny broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, parsley, and all the other things that need a headstart on Fairbanks's short growing season begin to sprout. And I can't forget the 20 dozen (yes, 20 dozen!) marigolds and the alyssum that will decorate flower and vegetable gardens alike. I think we try to make up for a June 1st to September 1st growing season by cramming as many flowers and green things into those few short months as possible.
The greenhouse is ready to use in May (although this year May is here and there are still 2 feet of snow on the ground), and early June brings garden planting, summer building projects, and the first few loads of next winters' wood supply. We heat only with wood, and between our house, the sauna, and the guest house, burn about 5 cords a winter. Much to Lloyd's dismay, I'm never happier than with yet another load of wood -- you just can't get too far ahead!
In August and September I rediscover the real "harvester" streak in me and begin compulsively making pickles, freezing vegetables, drying herbs, and picking berries for jams and pies as fall approaches.
September is time to put meat in the freezer -- two years ago Lloyd shot a big fat black bear and a friend sent us a not-so-big caribou. The year before, a friend and I got a moose. The year before that, Lloyd drew a bison permit. Last fall, we were kept busy doing aerial surveys for walruses and closing in a house for our dog handlers. That preempted hunting, so we ended up trading fresh eggs, chickens, and salmon for red meat. I have to admit, I just don't want to eat anything but game meat anymore. I'm spoiled.
My Mom and Dad worry that I work too hard, that it's a hard lifestyle. But there's something really satisfying about remembering how to provide one's own necessities. We're warm in the winter with wood we cut, and (too) well fed with meat we caught and cut and wrapped ourselves (even bear can be cut up into the standard cuts including roasts and chops and bearburger) and veggies we grew in our own gardens.
I'm proud of the rows of pickled carrots, beets, zucchini pickles, salsa, canned salmon, blueberry-raspberry preserves and dried parsley, basil and "marjoregano" that came about when I mixed up the labels in the garden and never could tell which was which. There are a few weeks in August when I wonder how we'll ever get it all done between the end of work and midnight, but we always do. It's a comfortable structure to things -- the leisure hours are there, but the tiredness from a cord of birch, or three quarts of berries, or a round of logs on the sauna is a satisfying tired and busy.
I'm still not sure I'm ready to let winter go. I can't believe the dogs are really tied up, that the broccoli starters are ready for transplanting, and the begonia bulbs have sprouted already. It's hard to believe that things will really be green again so soon. The coffee table is a muddle of seed catalogs, my garden journals, dog records, race results, the last trophy of the year.
I'd like another March -- my favorite month of the year. The light comes so fast then. One day the sun is there but lends no warmth -- and then, almost by magic, it's warm. A dog's fur is warm when it stands in the sun, the cats seek a sunny window rather than the stove hearth. Evening chores of gathering eggs, bringing in wood and feeding and watering dogs are done in the light for the first time since October. Everything seems to sparkle during the day and glow at night. The northern lights are just incredible in spring, and I am sentimental about the April moon and stars being the "last" until September ends a season of light.
If there's a single thing about Alaska that draws me -- and determines the character of so much that's here -- it's the extremes. There's nothing half-hearted or half-way about anything that's here. Where else do people talk about the day the leaves came out in spring -- was it May 17th or 21st?
I'm much more tied into the seasons here than ever before in my life. Seasons used to mean swimming in the summer, skiing during winter, and autumn drives in the mountains to see fall colors, spring fruit blossoms. They still mean those things, but we also now live the rhythm of the seasons.
Someday when racing is over I'm going to take a long spring trip with the dogs. Not a race but a trip, maybe with my friend Mary. I think it would be nice to pack up the sled and just take off for a couple of weeks. See some country I've never seen before at a leisurely pace, enjoy long spring days and warm weather, a spring moon and lots of stars.
Not this year though, or last one either. Last year it was spending six weeks for Alaska Fish and Game on the ice in the Chukchi Sea using "seal dogs" to sniff out the pupping lairs of ringed seals under the nearshore landfast ice cover. We were studying these animals' habitat prior to oil and gas exploration there.
This year it was three weeks on a Russian ship (part of a cooperative U.S./U.S.S.R. marine-mammal research exchange program) studying walruses and seals.
That had to be one of the most interesting things I've ever done. New science, new people, and most of all living in a world of a different language. Talk about total immersion -- and the things it teaches you about yourself. Trying to share not just day-to-day events, but thoughts and philosophies with folks whom you want very much to understand, but for which you just don't have the vocabulary. Remembering what you always knew but sometimes forget, that people are people the world around, no matter what the politics of their governments.
Our last day working in the sea ice along the Siberian coast, as I stood on the work deck amidst knives and axes rendering walrus carcasses into scientific information and then ground and frozen meat, a little bit cold and a lot dirty and tired, I told my friend John, the other American on board, that I figured I'd rather be right there at that moment than anywhere else I could think of.
Better there than on last fall's vacation to Greece and Egypt, as exotic and interesting as it was, as magnificent as the Pyramids and Parthenon really were.
John looked at me, nodded his assent, and commented "Kathryn, most people in the world would think us really strange . . . .