Armchair Musher: Northerners

Friday, February 7, 2020

Plenty has been written in the past about the merits & wonders of the Spirit of the North. But plenty has been written about love, too, & faith & self & how we fit into the world around us, & we still don’t quite have a sense of those, do we? & today, while the first mushers have pulled into Dawson already & others skirt across that quiet, untended border, it seems an appropriate thing to address anew.

If you’ve not had the pleasure & pain of spending time in the true north, I hope that someday you can find yourself somewhere within its compass, with a woodstove burnishing its soft glow, the flicker & glimmer of flame casting dancing shadows on the log walls, a cup of coffee balanced on your knee while you sit calm & quiet, scratching a dog errantly behind the ears. I hope you can find in the comfort & company of its denizens of whatever nationality that same calm & quiet. That disposition that happens when you’ve chosen lovingly a life riddled with challenges & hardships & obstacles that don’t merely affect your day but your actual capacity to survive. Hands weathered by the maul or raw from the cold, the smell of diesel soaked into the creases of the pants, or birch smoke, or that clear unperturbed breath of a winter gale that appertains however briefly. To find in those people the same hearty welcoming of work, the same inevitability of tasks at whatever pace, the same ability to keep at bay & at close rein any of the wide-swinging reactions to adversity that presage its ultimate triumph.

There are so many people of ludicrously accomplished histories quietly leading their lives along these remote arterial riverbanks, or tucked into dense groves of spruce or birch, or along the highways that bisect each town. They all, it would seem, share similar qualities: a robust sense of self-assurance, quiet confidence, humility accrued from numerous encounters with death-defying circumstances, a gallow’s humor & an unflinching commitment to help one another, regardless of every wall that could exist between us.

One story comes immediately to mind. If you are a musher in Alaska, you know Claude & Jen Bondy. They have been for a decade the patron saints of interior mushers, perched above the Susitna Valley at Alpine Creek Lodge, their doors always open at whatever the hour in whatever the weather. One Thanksgiving, years ago, Claude & I thought we might bust open the 60 mile trail between his lodge & Cantwell, which had been snowed in at such a rapid & hefty rate that experienced snowmachiners & mushers alike had been turned away in their attempts to break out even the first vestiges of trail. He took the wide-track with a Sigland sled & I took Bob’s little mountain machine & off we jetted, mile after mile, over wind drifts & cornices curving around each bend. The snow was deep. Then it was absurdly deep. Finally, I tried zooming in front of him around Mile 118 (mushers, you know every one of those damned mile markers by heart), dolphining atop the snow. I looked back to check in with Claude & saw instead a twelve-foot flame belching up towards the sky. My attempt to turn around promptly pitted me into a deep hole, at which point I abandoned the machine & waded through waist-deep snow as fast as I could, calling out his name, worried that I had in that brief moment missed my friend’s demise. I gave wide berth to the flaming machine & its black smoke & crackling maelstrom of melting plastics, spying Claude on his back twenty feet back along the trail. “Claude! Claude!” I yelled, that metallic taste budding in my mouth, worry & terror & utter bewilderment all. & then I got closer. I saw that his feet were crossed, casually. I saw his hands were tucked behind his head as if in a summer’s reverie. I saw a faint helix of smoke lazily winding up from the cigarette hanging from his lips, a smile on his face. “I thought you were dead! Damnit Claude!” He sat up, poured us both cups of coffee from the thermos he had rescued, & we toasted to his burning machine. “There’s no sense getting worked up about it. There’s nothing we can do at this point but enjoy the fire.” We laughed, sipped our coffee, made a brief video elegy for the machine. & then I laid down in the Sigland sled behind an RMK & was promptly buried in snow for the fifty mile ride back to the lodge. When we got there, whisky & chicken-friend moose awaited us. It was, somehow, one of the very best days I’ve had.

That may not directly pertain to the Quest, but nonetheless it’s perfectly illustrative of the capacity of a northerner to go through an experience that would perhaps leave another crestfallen or crushed or desperate without so much as a single complaint. There was never even the slightest concern that we were in any kind of trouble, in spite of details that in hindsight very clearly seemed to announce its presence. Claude delighted in the whole thing, so I delighted in the whole thing. “Can because must,” we used to say. Or our midwife Dianna’s line that I love: “you can wring your hands or you can fix the plow.”

That same easy come, easy go attitude pervades the trail. It has to. There is no room for panic, nowhere for errant energy to go when dealing with dogs. Everyone at every stop along the way opens the door kindly & downplays what kindness there is in that act alone for the duration of your stay. These are people’s homes, with your wet socks & vile sweaters & gloves caked in dried feces hanging above their stoves. These are people feeding a procession of zombies incapable of normal interaction, teetering above their plates heavy-lidded, retaining those last shreds of their focus to think on their dogteams. Not ideal company.

The red lantern has come to symbolize something particular to the last musher on the trail, but remember, that lantern gets lit before the first one arrives & burns as brightly all the while. There is no remunerative reason for all of these kind people to lose sleep & clean up after the traveling clustercuss that is each team, no reason to toil over moose stew or bake fresh sourdough, or cast out the last dregs from the percolator to start a new pot. There’s no reward in relinquishing their beds to strangers, burning through their firewood, working in shifts to make it from the first musher to the last. But they don’t do it for the reward. It’s just how it works in the north. It’s just who northerners are.

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