Above all, you are humbled by the dogs. They are up there tugging, heads bobbling like ping-pong balls on a vibrating motel bed, lugging your lard up, down, and around the frozen wilds of northern Minnesota, while you merely offer encouragement from the back of a sled lumbered with the equipment required to coddle and keep you alive through the subzero nights. The dogs, of course, will simply curl up in the snow, tuck their noses beneath their tails, and wait for morning, when they will lug you again.
Make no mistake: The dogs are happy to pull. To believe otherwise is to remain willfully blind to their demeanor. Perhaps because I was raised on a farm where my father taught us to treat animals with respect but not confuse them with long-term family members, I am not one to get anthropomorphic. And yet, when we pull off trail for a cheese and hot cider break, I feel compelled to move from wheel dog to lead dog, kneeling to pat and scratch each one, looking into their eyes in an attempt to convey gratitude.
When it is time to run again, I step to the back of the sled and, with one foot on the rail and one on the brake, say, “Ready?” The dogs jump up and lean eagerly to harness, tails wagging. I wait, and they glance back over their shoulders. “Ready?” I say again, in the tone I might use before giving a child a push on a swing. The dogs whine and stamp their feet, and the tug line tightens.
“All right,” I say, and release the brake. We fly away into the woods.