“It’s a lot like sailing,” Polly explained, as she arranged the complicated rope-and-harness system on the snow, and we started latching the dogs. The dogs were clearly anticipating takeoff. Even harnessed, they were rolling over, coating themselves in the cold white powder.
Before we set off, Polly unloaded a rapid-fire mushing primer that could be boiled down to “never, ever take your hands off the sled.” Many a selfie-snapping recreational musher has fallen off and lost the team while Instagramming.
As for commands, quiet and gentle was the goal. Sled dog hearing is finely tuned to human voices and moods. They are always listening to us. Once we started moving, we would speak low to them and not talk with human companions because that could confuse them. To stop them, we’d say said quietly, “whoa.” To go, first “tighten up” — the signal to pull their ropes taut — and then “Let’s go.”
I never lost my sled. I remembered the brake! The dogs responded to my foot gently pressing down on the brake, and to my commands. Woman and beast were in sync. I leaned the sled left or right as the trail wove between hillocks of snow-covered rock and birch trunks. The dogs followed their canine leaders and the guides ahead.
Eventually, we pulled into our camp, unloaded and hitched the dogs to low posts in a circle around the campsite. We laid fresh hay for each one. Curled on their nests, two dozen pairs of eyes watched us walking back and forth collecting buckets of icy water from holes in the lake, cutting wood, starting fires in the stoves. They didn’t make a sound until the next morning, when they howled in unison just before we were ready to leave.
As we settled in for the night, the Mahoosuc Mountains, across the lake, turned pewter against a pink sunset. Dusk fell, then total darkness. Orion wheeled cockeyed over the horizon, confusingly low compared to its customary place over the southerly latitudes.