When it’s 15-below and the woods are lit only by a headlamp and the gibbous moon, the most wonderful sound to break the silence of the arctic night is the sound of sled runners on the snow and the panting of your dogs.
Bare trees become decorated with new leaves of snow and their limbs grow thick with crystalline hoar frost which picks up the light of the moon and your headlamp and turns everything into an ethereal wonderland of reflections and faery lights and the dogs’ breath freezes on their flanks so that they shine and sparkle as well.
And I, doing my best to keep cool enough not to sweat but knowing that I have to work just as hard as my dogs to climb the little hills and skid around the stumps of trees while keeping my fingers and toes from freezing, marvel at the silence which overwhelms the sound of my dogs and my sled and I lose myself in the wonderland I'm traveling through.
Disaster strikes. A bull moose steps from behind a stand of willows into the packed snow of the trail. I stomp on the sled’s brake, snow hook in my hand automatically but the moose is too close and the burly lead dog, a huge male named Sitka who is too smart for his own good and aggressive to match, has its scent and is urging the twelve dogs in the traces behind him to pounce.
I know the moose will win because the dogs are in harnesses and traces and are tied to the sled so I do the only thing I think I can do to try to save their lives, hence my own; I slam the hook into the packed trail, rip off my right glove and run to the front of the sled to cut the main line, letting the pack have its way and attack on the moose less hindered. I break the rime of ice off of the little utility bag slung from the sled’s handle bar and pull out the .357 I hope will drop the moose before it stomps too many of my dogs to death.
Running, again, mere seconds between the time I stopped the sled and cut the line and the time I freed the pistol, I charge the moose as Sitka clamps his massive jaws onto its shoulder. The other dogs are tangled but not enough that they can not dodge kicks and stomps and the bull begins to teeter as they bite its haunches again and again. Sitka has latched on, working the bite open wider and wider without letting go, tearing and gashing the moose's shoulder and neck.
I take aim. I squeeze the trigger. The pistol’s resounding boom shatters the night and the moose goes down right on top of my lead dog and my heart begins to sink. Without Sitka at the front of the team, killing the moose may have been the equivalent of signing my own death warrant.
Hard work, now, stripped to my waist in spite of the cold because I'm pulling each dog off of the kill one at a time and re-attaching them to the freshly-spliced main trace. I get to Sitka’s still form. It takes all my strength to haul the moose’s head and neck, as big as a man, off of the dog, who whines weakly, still alive but badly damaged. I scoop his 80-lbs into my arms. He feebly licks frost from my beard and I know he can’t survive the night. His chest is caved in and I can see the ends of ribs poking through his fur and smell the blood in his feeble breath. I don't want this. I don't want to lose him, but I can't let him continue to hurt.
Better to end his suffering.
The pistol’s bark shatters the night again and my heart shatters with it. Sitka was my first dog. He was my best dog. He'd sired most of my team. He was always there by my side.
I realize I can’t dig a hole for Sitka because the ground is frozen solid. I wrap him in a blanket from the cargo bag on the sled and dig out an axe and a bow saw from amongst the other survival items usually zipped into the heavy canvass sack. I begin to dismember the moose, knowing I’ll never be able to move it intact and that my dogs need food if they’re going to get home home without their lead dog. I hack. I saw. Chunks of still-steaming meat go to the surviving dogs. One of them is limping. She’ll have to ride back in the bag with Sitka’s body.
Finally I'm ready to get the team moving. A rope, tied to the moose’s torso, then run around a series of tree trunks off the side of the trail and back to the carabiner that holds the traces to the sled, will pull the rest of the remains off of the trail as the dogs move forward. I’ll have to stop again as soon as the team is past to untie the rig, but it will get me back on trail. If I can keep my swing dogs focused, they should get me to the next village, another 200 miles up the trail.
I stop to load Sitka, the bitch with the broken leg and a 65-lb shoulder from the moose into the sled and tell the new lead pair to “hike”.
15-below and a gibbous moon reflecting through the trees wrap me back into their wintry embrace, I break the icicles from my mustache, beard and eyebrows as I glide back into the night. Tired. Cold from the moisture evaporating from my sweat-drenched body and worried that I might not make it ten more miles, let alone 200.
I have never felt so alone, so heartbroken.
I have never felt so alive. I have never felt so in my element.
Causes Joaquin Juatai Supports
Autism Speak; The Parkinson's Society of America; Navy and Marine Corps Relief Society