Friday, December 17, 2010

Do It Again: To Mush Into 2011

by Zinta Aistars

Our camp site, mushing in 2008

This time I will be better prepared.

Three years ago, on New Year's Eve, I received a phone call on the morning of December 31 from my friend Mary the dog musher. She asked if I wanted to join her for a camp-out in the snow, complete with three dogs and dog sled, to greet the new year of 2008. I was in my toasty warm office when I received the phone call. I didn't hesitate for a moment. You bet, I said. Count me in.

It was a remarkable experience, and I've often thought of it since as one of my best New Year's Eves. Sure, I froze myself into an icicle. Sure, that night saw one of that winter's fiercest blizzards. Sure, Mary's car battery died in the morning. Dang, it was fun.

I didn't hesitate this time, either, when Mary started in with, "Remember that New Year's Eve in the snow?"

"How can I forget," I replied.

"Wanna do it again?"

"You bet. Count me in."

Mary with Willow, Naboo, Hannah, Moose Tracks
 Only this time, I'd learned my lesson. Lessons. The first and most important was that a three-season sleeping bag will not do for that fourth season, even with extra blankets below and above. I have carefully avoided any and all shopping during the holiday rush -- I boycott Christmas, restoring sanity to my winter season -- but I will venture out this weekend to shop for a winter bag. Not just for 15 degrees above. I want one for the big Zero or better. If it hadn't been a three-dog night three years ago, I would surely be frozen solid still. Mary had slept on one side of the tent, snoring cozily in her Yukon winter bag, hound dog curled at her feet, the second dog lying between us, her breath a puff of white above her cold black nose, and the third, Willow, glued to me, my arms wrapped tight around her for body warmth. Brrrrr, it was cold, and the ground felt like solid ice beneath me, the chill rising up and into my bones.

So why do it again?

Because it was obvious to me, from observing Mary, that the right equipment for winter camping made all the difference. She was snug as a bug in her bag, cheeks rosy with warmth when she zipped out of it in the morning.

My next lesson was to never leave any of my clothing, not even for a short while, outdoors. While pitching our tent in the blizzard, I'd warmed up enough to take off my coat and laid it out on the tent. Minutes later, it was so wet from the snow that I could have wrung me a river.

And there were a few more lessons. I made careful note of each, for future reference. The overall lesson, however, was that this was one heck of a memorable way to spend a New Year's Eve. No drunk drivers here, deep in the snowy woods. No crowds. No noise. Only the stillness of great white snowflakes floating down like cool kisses on the morning of January 1. The world had never looked more beautiful. When Mary had me get up on the back of the dog sled and called Hike! to her three dogs, all girls, then let me loose onto the trail, I caught my breath with wonder. We were racing at top speed, yet our movement was utterly silent. The dogs ran with obvious joy, the sled skidded across the white surface, and the white-laced trees of the forest hung over us like a shimmering canopy.

I would never forget that experience, and I wanted to experience it again.

Mary mushing
 This time, Mary and I would take two tents instead of one. Not only do I plan on having a new winter bag to keep me warm all night, but I will have the foldout cot I bought a couple summers ago to keep me entirely off the ground. We are having a generous stack of wood delivered to our campsite for a campfire to keep us warm and set the night aglow. We are starting the trip earlier and staying later. I am taking five pairs of woolen socks instead of just two, an extra pair of boots, and I am considering bringing my own old chow pup along, too.

What the heck, this time I will bring two bottles of bubbly instead of just one. And I have some frozen strawberries in my freezer, picked last summer, to toss into that tin cup of champagne for breakfast. Camping in style.

Trading emails with Mary as we plan our adventure, Mary reread my essay about our New Year's Eve three years ago. She wrote:

"Well my friend, rereading your essays brought tears to my eyes for so many reasons ... We had such a great trip to get Ivy and then on New Year's. Your words had it all flooding back. Thanks for being such a great writer and putting it down so that it can be revisited.

"The loss of three dogs -- all great and still missed. Shasta is a lovely girl but doesn't have the exuberance of Hannah -- well not many could. She is quiet and well mannered, but does love to run. The genes run deep! Willow has mellowed some and Naboo is showing her age -- wants the comforts of home and warmth and shorter trips..."

Our three dogs on the sled that year were Hannah, Naboo (a retired Iditarod dog), and Willow. Ivy came later, another retired Iditarod dog that Mary and I drove to Michigan's Upper Peninsula to bring back. We both fell in love with this small, wise dog immediately. Just a few months later, a car veered off the road near Mary's house and hit Ivy in Mary's back yard, killing her. Hannah has passed away, too, old age. Naboo and Willow will join us again, and I will meet Shasta, Mary's newest, for the first time.

It will be a new and different experience. We have all gotten a little older, a little wiser. The craving for nature and its beauty, and the itch for adventure remains, and will carry us into the New Year.

I can hardly wait.

Ivy, RIP

Mary's Facebook page for those interested in learning more: Backyard Mushing.

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