It should be obvious enough that we are dog people. Our life revolves around our dogs: In the morning we wake to water and feed them, Then there is scooping the yard, running them, feeding them again, and if we can, running them again. At least that’s how the days go by this time of year. In the heart of winter it’s different, the days go by slower and longer, and in the spring it’s different too, perhaps more relaxed, but it’s not much different. Still even so time passes, not so much in the changing of the seasons but in the life cycle of our dogs.
We watch the puppies transition, first away from their mothers, then into the dog lot, and then, finally into harness. We watch their goofy progression as they learn how to manage their lines in the team and how not to chew on the gangline or their neckline and finally we watch as they come into a steady, rhythmic gate, their legs moving so swiftly and effortlessly you could balance a glass of water on their back.
The playful puppies Travis had when we first started dating now have the look of hardened athletes who know what competition. They are steadfast. They give their heart and soul on each and every run. They are more disciplined this year — and so are we. As they grow up and learn the rhythm of training, we grow up and learn how to train and live and balance running dogs with running a home and managing two businesses. I am honestly still not sure how we do it. I guess the way you do anything hard: one step at a time, then another, then another, then another. Progress seems slow but we are always moving forward.
The older dogs who once ruled the dog lot — Pilot and Hope — have gone on to help a neighboring musher and have left our yard for the winter.
When we dropped Pilot and Hope off Travis said few words, his sadness greater than my own for as many times as they had come to my rescue, I knew they had come to his more. Together they have travelled countless miles not only across the frozen wilderness but also across his childhood; Pilot and Hope had run almost every junior race with Travis and had helped him qualify for the Iditarod.
Last year, when picking out his Iditarod team, Travis choose to take Pilot despite the fact that he thought Pilot wouldn’t finish. “He always has my back,” Travis said when I questioned the decision. Pilot, sure enough, ran 700 miles with Travis and then broke out of the checkpoint when Travis left him behind. “I guess he wasn’t as tired as I thought,” Travis told me. “Some guy from the checkpoint had to go out on a snowmachine and bring Pilot back. He wanted to keep going with the team. I thought he hadn’t been feeling well. Guess I was wrong.”
As we drove away from Pilot and Hope’s new home, my eyes were full of tears. Travis told me, “Pilot and Hope are teachers.”
I nodded, thinking of all the fantastic dog runs I’d had with them both and everything I’d taken away from my time with them. How do you measure what a dog has taught you? Pilot and Hope got me through my first 200 mile race, The Tustumena 200. They were the old solidified backbone to my otherwise young, rookie dog team. They encouraged not only the young dogs who would later form the core of Travis’ Iditarod team to keep going, but they also encouraged me: I was intimidated by the intensity of what I had undertaken — two hundred miles of unending hills, without sleep, with only my dogs.
He continued, “They need a new musher, new dogs to teach. They know they are getting old. Would you rather sit around remembering all the awesome times you had when you were younger or would you rather keep having them? They aren’t fast enough to keep up with the young dogs they’ve trained anymore. I think they will be much happier here feeling like they are still A-team stuff.”
We’d seen this throughout the summer on tours and we’d seen it last winter too, especially with Hope. They weren’t running in the front anymore and though excited to go anywhere in the team it was always obvious to me that lead dogs, even when not up front, never stop leading.
Our dogs grow up and grow old and one day, we always hope its a long ways off, they pass on. We measure our lives by our dogs presences and their subsequent absences. Pilot and Hope are not gone; they have simply moved on to another kennel but I can’t help but feel that we are growing up and growing older too: we are no longer uncertain in ourselves or our young team — we are confident in what we have built.