Armchair Musher: A Bit About Dogs

Monday, February 10, 2020

From time to time during this process, & likely during my time on trail as well, my tiredness begins to inform my perception in curious ways. Our two kids have mounted a full-on assault on our ability to sleep for the past half of a year, & consequently, the smallest of biological processes appear miraculous to me: sleeping for more than three hours, eating a meal without interruption, drinking water from a tap for the first time in ten years. & then I watch our friends rolling into checkpoints with their dogs after days out in the wilderness. Questions barrage them, a beehive of details for them to parse & splice & analyze in a language grown slow on their tongues all these hours. In the end, here are the things that are of utmost importance to the dogs & the humans: sleep, food, water. That’s it.

I think this is perhaps one of the central draws of the sport in general & something exemplified by its pursuit down such long & meandering dreamscapes as the Quest provides—it is something entirely absent of dissembling. It functions strictly when handled honestly, & it otherwise falters or stumbles or seems heavy-handedly & unnecessarily ornamented.

Driving this, of course, are the dogs themselves. There is no lying to a dog. You can try, but you will be met with a Medusa-like stare that finds the most immediate pathways to whatever part of the brain it is that regulates shame. You will, if you are halfway decent as a human being, hate yourself the moment you make any such attempt. Dogs require earnestness, purity & unsullied interaction. They demand complicity, empathy, respect, straightforwardness. They will take you at your word only if its syllables were forged somewhere in a crucible between head & heart. I think of every movie or book or show that ever featured a stranger in a strange land kneeling before the despot & offering up some truncated greeting in a foreign tongue that will be measured for a gravid beat before it meets a response. Dogs learn to trust you only when you present something trustworthy, & as such they are an incredible barometer of a human’s value & worth. If a dog does not like you, I likely will not like you either. If I trust them with my life on the banks of a massive river, poised on top of Eagle Summit, over tenuous ice or in overflow to my waist, I will trust their judgment on damn near everything else.

& so it is that we are bettered by our dog teams. When we all have adequate reason to tuck tail & turn from our fears, they inspire us instead to forge into them instead & map the contours of their outer reaches. They permit discovery by demanding its honest pursuit. If we believe in our purpose, it is because they command that belief in us. & if they command that belief, it is because our capacity to conjoin our trust & our heart & our will & our lives is founded on something that is simple & genuine & true.

Similarly, every act along the trail connotes this same stripped-down sense of that single-minded bond. A musher may answer a dozen questions from a dozen different reporters pulling into a checkpoint, but their eyes are steady on their dogs, their thoughts traveling down the trail already, their minds humming with the susurrus cutting their wake in the snow.

A strange thing happens after a race. The physical constancy of the dogs ceases because the musher is permitted to sleep a full night maybe, or take a week off from running dogs, or rejoin some of the normal activities of the civilized world. But that instinct ghosts the mushers. Every action finds unconscious preamble in reaching for a dog, in scanning the mental checklist for who has a wrist wrap on or who needs emu oil before bootying or who lay their muzzle on your chest last time you camped under the swirl of northern stars. Every slight move seems pregnant with the possibility that it will not cease for a hundred miles, every door closing behind shudders forth through the musher that attenuated need to be prepared for the trail. A few days after this race ends, watch these people try to leave their rooms. The dogs have become so richly & firmly & physically intertwined with the entire architecture of their days that the shock of sudden autonomy renders them almost helpless. The absence of the enduring fact of dogs wrests a fissure into their sense of selfhood. They are their dogteams. Absent the teams & they are a tool without a purpose, adrift in this strange new sea of people. We all ease back in at some point, but who we are, our composition as humans capable of witnessing the purity that only a dogteam can exhibit in places only a dogteam should be are changed forever. That sanctity, that honesty that compelled us all down those thousands of miles, an inviolable thing, & a compass for every step we will ever take.

The Official 2020 Yukon Quest Armchair Musher is Yukon Quest veteran Andy Pace, 2016 & 2019 finisher. You can follow Andy, along with YQ veteran Kristin Knight Pace and their family on Instagram at @heymoosekennel.

Andy Pace