I hiked out over the sled as far as I could, jutting my butt out over straight legs, feet planted at the base of the right stanchion. I tugged bodily a the handlebar. My hands and biceps ached with long effort. My eyes fixed on the sled’s bow as it crept through deep snow toward the raised, packed trail from which we’d just fallen. I willed the sled toward the track with every fiber of my exhausted body. Instead, it slid to a halt.
I stood up and panted. Jeff straightened from where he’d been pushing the bow. Sweat dripped from both of our faces. It was warm enough to ditch my hat, and the shin-deep snow melted against my pant legs.
“Fuck this,” I exhaled. Jeff looked at me, agreement in his eyes. It was our fifteenth mile of the day, and we were drawing close to home. It felt like we would never get there.
We’d started the day in fine fashion. We mushed from the US Forest Service cabin on Kekekabic Lake to the west end of Knife Lake, some 8.5 miles, in two hours. Our nine-dog team pulled hard and fast, and their wagging tails and few growls suggested they were happy for the work. We loaded building materials into the sled where another mushing team had left a cache for us to retrieve. One sheaf of shingles (60 pounds), ten sixteen-foot-long one-by-eight cedar boards, and seven rolls of roofing tar paper fit awkwardly in our short sled bed. The boards extended a few feet beyond the plastic brush bow, hanging just behind Horatio, our solo wheel dog. It was supposed to be a light load.
Rising wind and blowing snow obscured our morning tracks, which began our undoing. The overhanging boards finished the job. Loma and Otter, our two lead dogs, had trouble following the hard-packed trail. Our eyes saw even less clearly, which prevented us from making the necessary minute course corrections to keep the sled on track. The heavily weighted bow reduced the effectiveness of the corrections we did make. We learned firsthand that elongating the sled’s center of mass slows the turning process considerably. Six of the same miles back to the cabin had already taken twice as long as the full 8.5 miles had the first time today. And now we were stuck again.
Our radio crackled with a man’s voice. I pulled it out of the sled bag. “This is Garwin — Maher, was that you?”
“Yuh, it’s Maher. How’s it going back there?”
“We’re slogging through, going slowly. How ‘bout you?”
“We’re stopped at the point. Want us to take some load? We can wait and rabbit you.” Jeff looked up from where he laid his chest on the sled load. He shook his head slightly. Our dogs didn’t need another sled (the “rabbit”) to chase–we just needed to keep the sled on track.
“Nah, Maher. I think we’re okay. Rabbiting won’t make much of a difference. Go ahead to the cabin. We’ll see you there.”
“Copy that. We’ll have dog water ready for you when you get there.”
“Thanks. See you there!”
With Maher’s sign off went our chance of rescue.
Jeff stood up straight and put his hands through the webbing loop tied to the brush bow. I gripped the handlebar, put my feet on the right runner, and crunched my body into a spring. We made eye contact and nodded to each other. Jeff snapped the dog’s gangline on “let’s” of “Ready dogs, LET’S go!” as he tugged the bow toward the track. At the same moment I sprung my legs into my torso and arms to tug the handlebar toward me. The sled angled toward the raised trail, the right runner caught, then the left runner. Jeff shoved the bow to the left, and I stepped on the left runner so we wouldn’t tip over the right side of the track in an overcorrection. Jeff hopped on the sled’s load. I stood with a foot on each runner. It was our sled, our dogs, our load. Our mission. We would finish it, despite the suck.