For seven straight years, my life was devoted to the dogs. I spent all of my winter holidays, such as Christmas and New Year’s, training sled dogs in the Montana backcountry; I was a very lucky girl, I know.
But now, things are different. I no longer have a dog team. I live in a small apartment in the middle of town. I have three dogs as roommates. I’m trying to make a career of writing. So when the Holiday season rolled around again this year, I realized I was going to be a fairly normal person, doing fairly normal things. I wouldn’t be spending my Christmas day on the runners of a dog sled, or my New Year’s eve curled up with my huskies in the straw by a campfire.
Actually, the idea of doing normal things again was exciting to me; I would go to parties, drink spiked eggnog, linger under the mistletoe, even spend time with my family who was visiting from Indianapolis and Denver. I especially looked forward to hanging out with my 5-year old nephew, Ivan; I only get to see him a few times a year.
On the first day of 2008, my brother, David, and I decided to take Ivan up to McDonald pass outside of Helena to go cross-country skiing. My entire family was moving like squashed snails that day, the result of staying up way past our bed times to watch the big ball drop - I hadn’t done that in years. When it came time to load the skis on the car rack and hit the open road, only three humans and three dogs were excited to go. That was fine by my big brother and me; living so far apart, we never have enough quality time together.
The snow was thin up on McDonald pass. Right away, we realized it was going to be a challenge to find a good, safe place where the dogs could run free and skiers could move out. We finally parked the car in a crowded parking lot full of people coming and going with snowmobiles, skis, snowboards, plastic sleds, and dogs galore. Ivan and my critters were getting antsy; it was time to make a move.
David and Ivan wanted to ski. I decided to jog alongside of them. As always, the dogs would do laps around us.
I have very little experience with children, especially when it comes to taking them on backcountry adventures. Right away, I realized that dressing and gearing up a squirmy 5-year old boy can be just as challenging, chaotic, and time-consuming as hooking up a 16-dog team.
Finally, when David and Ivan were decked out in their layers and skis and backpacks, I opened the back of the car and released the hounds.
Borage and Jigs leaped out of the vehicle and were off like bullets up the trail. Pig, my 10-year old retired Iditarod lead dog, hopped out the door and landed in the snow next to us. She immediately lifted one leg and then another and another, prancing in place in the snow, balancing on just one paw at a time.
“Oh, that poor dog,” a woman walking by with several kids, all carrying sleds, said to me. “She’s freezing to death. It’s too cold out here for her...”
Pig continued to dance a jig, raising her legs like she’d never seen or felt snow in her life.
“Maybe she needs those little booties you put on their feet,” another woman said to me. “Some dogs have sensitive toes...”
Finally, Pig fell to the ground, and laid round-backed like a watermelon - all four legs tucked under her body, her head curled up tight to her chest. She shook all over. I didn’t even bother to try and explain that this tiny, trembling, highly dramatic dog led my Iditarod team 1,100 miles across Alaska - twice. Pig was putting on such a good act (the dog deserves an Oscar), they’d never believe me.
I opened the back of the car. Pig sprung to her feet and hopped right back into place, parking herself in the middle of her cozy, new Cabelas dog bed. At least she likes her Christmas present.
Skiing only lasted about a half hour; the throngs of kids tearing down the side of the mountain on plastic sleds were too big of a temptation for Ivan. He wanted to be part of the the action. I couldn’t blame him.
My brother and I spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out on the hill, talking and watching Ivan slipping and sliding his way down the slopes. We didn’t ski, we didn’t run, even my Iditarod lead dog refused to get out of the car because the snow was too cold.
“Things sure change,” I said to my brother.
But, still, we had a great First Day. When you’re spending time outside with those you love, it’s all good.
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