by Zinta Aistars
A cacophony of howls rose into the wintry air as I drove into Fort Custer State Park, near Battle Creek, Michigan. It was easy to find Mary’s camp site—she had a bright orange banner stuck in a drift of snow that said: Backyard Mushing.
Mary and I have shared a few mushing—or dog sledding—adventures already. We’ve traveled together to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to bring back a retired Iditarod dog for her own dog sledding team. We camped in a blizzard three winters ago, on New Year’s Eve, and spent the next day dog sledding through the snowy woods. When Mary calls with an adventure that involves snow, dogs and the northern direction, I am always ready to join in.
We had meant to repeat our New Year’s Eve winter camp bringing in 2011, but the weather did not cooperate. It was a miserable and rainy weekend, with temperatures creeping up close to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, so warm and rainy that there was an occasional clap of thunder. Not exactly prime mushing weather—just too much mush.
This weekend was perfect. The day was white and bright with sunshine, temps hanging around the freezing mark. Some mushers would even tell you it was too warm; the dogs heat up pulling sleds and prefer something around 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
I pulled into Mary’s campsite and there she was, beaming smiles and waving, dogs bounding around her. Left and right, dog mushers everywhere, in tents and RVs or just pulling up for the day. At the trail head, dog sleds were taking off one after another, as if on a runway, flying into the woods uphill and away.
Mary’s three were with her: Willow, Shasta and Naboo. The first two were tied to a tree, Willow barking joyfully in greeting, Shasta curled into the snow and napping, but Naboo was wandering around the camp site, wearing a Technicolor fleece dog-coat to protect her shaved belly. She’d recently had surgery, and was along for the company, no longer pulling the sled. As soon as I got out of my car, she came up to place her long, slender head into my mittened hands for some loving.
The howls all around us were so loud at times that I could hardly hear Mary talking. This was dog joy, no mistaking it. The dogs were singing. Those in harness near the trail head were restless to run, eyes ahead, muscles rippling in anticipation.
To our left, three Malamutes, my favorite dog breed, threw back their gorgeous heads, nose to the sky, and howled in harmony. They were in their element. Their thick, long fur was perfect for the cold of winter. I’d once owned a Malamute, named Suni, and he loved the winter but suffered in southwest Michigan summer, so I promised not to get another of the breed until I could move up north to the Upper Peninsula, where weather was more suitable for these wolf-like dogs … and for me.
I’d left my own old chow pup at home, although I’d considered bringing Guinnez along. I’d brought him to dog camp once before, when Mary ran her dogs with a summer rig on wheels down the trails, but Guinnez quickly let us know he didn’t appreciate being in harness. I suspected the touch of arthritis in his aging bones prevented him from enjoying a good run. He preferred now to curl up by the fireplace at home rather than the camp fire.
Mary was busy with other dog mushers, always the hub of mushing activity. She’d been mushing for a few years now, catching the obsession on a trip to the Upper Peninsula years ago to watch a dog sledding race near Marquette. She would still go north to volunteer on the trail, although her own mushing was more for pleasure than racing.
I started to unload my gear—my tent, my new winter sleeping bag, clothing to layer and unlayer as temperatures rose and fell. As soon as I started to pitch my tent in the snow on the other side of Mary’s camp site, I realized I didn’t need my coat. Off it came, off came the mittens, the scarf. I worked in flannel shirt and snow pants and boots, and even that was a bit warm. I could understand why the mushers said that temps in the 30s were already too high.
And the champagne bottle from New Year’s Eve … that I stuck it into the snow. Seemed we were closer to Valentine’s Day, but we would call it our new year and celebrate. Always a reason to pop a cork. I dug a hole in the snow for a dish of frozen strawberries, too, to plop into the bubbly later.
What a glorious day. My tent up, my cot set up inside, my winter sleeping bag unrolled and a second one laid across it for extra warmth, I was ready for the weekend. Mary appraised my setup.
“Summer tent,” she said. The tarp cover on the tent flapped in the winter breeze, revealing screen windows on all sides. Not much to keep out the cold of night later, I knew, but was reluctant to buy a second tent just for the occasional winter camp. The night would let me know if I was a fool. At least the bag was thick and warm. That much I’d learned from my last winter camp: a three-season bag just wouldn’t do. And sleeping on the ground, even though last time I’d shared Mary’s tent and Mary’s dogs for body warmth, making it a three-dog night, was a chill my bones could still remember this many years later.
“But I’m off the ground this time, and the bag is rated for 20 below,” I said, full of hope.
“If you need to, knock on my tent door tonight,” Mary offered. But I was determined. I was trusting in that winter bag.
We gathered to watch the dog sleds take off. I was as restless as the dogs, waiting for my turn. Mary was encircled with other mushers, however, busy answering questions, giving advice, trading harnesses, helping out. It was almost too much noise and bustle for me, and I set off in the opposite direction for a while, just to walk in the snow.
For me, camp of any kind means communion with nature. Campgrounds in general were a turnoff for me. Summer? Forget it. RVs and tents side by side, multi-colored paper lanterns hanging on strings, antennas up for televisions, community chatter, children shouting and running between sites, towels hanging on lines strung from tree to tree, cars pulling boats, coolers crammed with grocery store fare … ah no, no, no, I’m outta there. I avoid camping in summer entirely, if I can. Or find a forgotten private park in some off the beaten track location. Or camp out of season, best of all, when nights are too cold for most.
The dog mushers, though, were a breed of their own and made for an entirely different kind of camp. I enjoyed the howling of the dogs, but was a little unsure about the constant socializing. That these were people in love with their dogs and sleds was clear. I respected the passion. I found I had to walk away from time to time, however, for a bit of peace and quiet.
As the day wore on, bright sun beginning to dip behind the bare limbs of the trees, most of the mushers gathered their dogs and went home to wherever home might be. By evening, only us diehards gathered around our campfires. I’d enjoyed an afternoon of snowshoeing the trails, getting to know other mushers, eating grilled sausages and warming my hands around a cup of hot chocolate, and a short run with the dogs on Mary’s sled.
Quiet enveloped the snowy woods.
A moon wrapped in mist tangled in the tree tops.
A soft and lazy snow began to fall.
It was cool enough now that I was back in my hooded coat, and my mittens were back on. The tarp over my screened tent windows flapped in a random breeze.
“Mary! Z! Dinner’s on!” It was Connie at the next camp site, poking her head out of her RV door. She and her mother, Carol, and their three Malamutes and little black dog Sophie, were the last ones left on this stretch of trail, alongside us.
Mary and I looked at each other. We had enough food to feed a small army, but the chill of the night was quickly growing an edge. I grabbed my champagne bottle out of the snow drift, the dish of strawberries, and we headed over to the RV. A sweet warmth enfolded us as soon as we climbed in. Connie and Carol had prepared what they called taco potatoes: baked potatoes with taco meat, cheese, onions, bacon pieces, lettuce, tomatoes. We popped open my champagne bottle, plopped strawberries into everyone’s cups, and poured the bubbly. Connie brought a big bowl of shrimp out of the fridge, and we were well into a gourmet camp meal.
“Happy New Year!” I held up my blue tin cup.
“Happy New Year!”
Bellies full and warm, hearts brimming with cheer, Mary and I didn’t want to go back to our tents yet after our meal. The snow in the moonlit night was too pretty. The dogs were still restless. Mary leashed them up, letting Naboo still run free, and we headed down the trail with miner’s lights strapped to our foreheads. I’d borrowed mine from my son, and it was ideal for hands-free walking at night.
In the distance, perhaps not so far away, coyotes howled. The three Malamutes behind us howled in answer. Willow, Shasta and Naboo stopped for a moment in their tracks and listened. I wondered if something called in their dog hearts. Called for the freedom of the forest and the night.
We walked long and far, catching up on each other’s stories, travels, dreams for the future. Mary told me the stories behind all her dogs, others that weren’t with us tonight, rescue stories and stories of adventure, and stories of grief at a good dog’s passing. I talked about my northern dream, still holding true if bounced around a bit from time to time. We all have our passions, our driving motivation.
I was ready for sleep when the night was deep. I lay my coat across the foot of my cot, slipped off my boots, but kept my snow pants on, and pulled on an extra sweater over the one before, flannel shirt beneath, and kept a woolen cap on my head. In I go, winter bag, do me right tonight …
And it did. I didn’t even remember falling asleep. Only the occasional waking, hearing the coyotes in the distance, the night breeze tangling in the trees, a bit of snow slipping down the tarp over my tent. I curled up deep inside my bag, head below covers, and slept, deep and well.
Morning already? But it was still dark? No, it wasn’t. When I poked my head out from my bag, I realized the day was already bright through the canvas of my tent. I could hear Mary rustling up breakfast, a first crackle of a campfire, tin dishes rattling.
“It is!” I crawled out of my tent. Naboo trotted over to give me a kiss.
|Mary with Naboo|
What could beat this? Coffee steaming hot, eggs scrambled with what was left from last night’s dinner, Connie kind enough to bring over the remaining cheese, onions, bacon bits, all now stirred into our eggs. I didn’t even have to unpack my food. Mary had thought of everything. She always did. It was a joy to watch her in the woods, prepared for any circumstance, undaunted by anything. While she cooked, I went to hunt for more wood for the fire.
This bright morning was mine for the dog sled. Too early yet for other mushers, after breakfast Mary and I harnessed up her dogs and set off for the trail. The dogs looked for her direction, and at first she stood on the sled rails behind me as they took off, but then hopped off and let us go.
I was coatless, mittenless, hatless, tangled hair blowing in the breeze, and laughing in the wind as we sped down the trail. Joy! This was! I could understand the passion of these mushers. Such a ride was like nothing else. The day was waking up around us bright with sunshine again, winter warm, snow glowing in light. I didn’t want this ride to end … this was my season, my heart racing ahead with the dogs, and I wanted to head north, north until I got there, that place where snow melted away for fewer months, and the crowd stayed far behind.
Hike! I called. Woo-hoo! Yee-haw! I howled into the wind, feeling the same joy as the dogs did when they howled for the trail. The trail stretched out white and shining all the way to the farthest horizon.