I’m standing behind a team of roiling, screaming Huskies and hounds. The air is crisp and cold on my face and it is about to get colder. As the gunshot rings out, the team of dog handlers let each sled dog go and jump back.
The sled lunges forward, sending my pounding heart to the back of my throat. The world is suddenly quiet except for the cutting glide of the sled.
The race is on.
All of a sudden, everything gets interrupted by an ear-splitting beeping. It’s my alarm clock, and I’m transported back to my tiny apartment in the middle of a city, many miles and years away from that race.
I always thought I’d grow up to be a professional dogsled racer. Maybe it was because I read too many Jack London novels as a kid. It could also have been because my childhood neighbors in the upper peninsula of Michigan had a dogsled kennel and I thought it was the most amazing thing ever.
More likely, it was because I’ve always had a tough time bonding with people, and my dog friends were always the best escape from a less-than-stellar family life growing up. They always understood me better anyway.
My sister is disabled and understandably required the lion’s share of my parent’s attention. In contrast, I spent most of my childhood playing in the woods with books, frogs and sticks, Mowgli-style.
So, after many years of my pestering coupled with their feelings of guilt, my parents finally agreed to let me do the unthinkable at age 14: start my own dogsled team.
Luckily for me, the dogsledding world is full of people trying to find homes for dogs that don’t quite make the lineup for the main racing team and I easily found someone willing to help me set up my fledgling kennel and start racing. That’s how I ended up with my first group of dogs—a fluffy triad consisting of Jonna, Beast (an unfortunate name for such a lover) and Silver.
Silver was a big bruiser of a dog. She was covered in thick, black grizzled fur and had the most piercing sky-blue eyes. Silver weighed almost as much as I did, which made it difficult because she loved to jump up and shower me with kisses.
She was my wheel dog, which means she ran directly in front of the sled, helping to guide it around turns and footing the brunt of the pulling force. It was a job she was born for and that she loved with all of her heart.
We competed in many races across northern Michigan. By the time I graduated from high school, she was too old to be on the main racing team, but I still took her out for runs as often as possible just because she loved it so much.
She was my first choice to go with me on my next adventure to Alaska to work in a competitive Iditarod kennel. I knew it was a crazy thing to do (and in hindsight I didn’t realize how crazy it was), but with my old sidekick Silver, I knew it would turn out okay.
I spent nearly a year living in Alaska and helping with the kennel, even running on a second sled behind the main racing team at the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in Anchorage. I learned a lot about responsibility and what it means to wear grownup pants as I helped to care for and train other Iditarod dogsled teams.
But as the months ticked by, I realized that being a professional dogsled racer wasn’t exactly the job I’d hoped it was as a starry-eyed kid in rural Michigan. I’d have to give up everything to make it work, and then some. I’d never be able to travel and see the world. And most of all, I wanted to do what I could to help change the world, but as a full-time dogsled racer I was just running around in the woods in the winter with my dogs (even if it was extremely challenging and fun).
I slowly came to the realization that I needed to do something else with my life. I needed to focus on going to school so that I could get a good job when I got out. If I was lucky, maybe I’d even make enough to support a very small racing kennel so I could continue running with my pups on the side.
By then I’d accumulated more sled dogs, and with much sadness, I found homes for them in other racing kennels. Ramey, Nova and Kruger went to another young kid who wanted to start dogsled racing, too. Another racer took Jiggle and Crate. I kept my oldest friends, Taz, Jethro, and of course, Silver.
Over the years, my other two dogs passed away and I was left with just Silver. We’d moved away from the dog kennel and into a small cabin near the university where I was going to school.
I tried housebreaking Silver many times, but she never took to it. She was never happy in the house and would always ask to go back outside to her comfortable, straw-filled doghouse despite my protests. She would not agree to be a house dog; she was something wilder.
Silver knew we weren’t running anymore, but I spent a lot of time with her outside, reading and taking her for walks (or rather, her taking me for walks). I felt lost in a lot of ways; I didn’t know who I was now that I wasn’t a dogsled racer, and I think Silver felt the same way.
Then I met the man who would later become my husband. He was much taller than me and the perfect size so that Silver didn’t knock him down when she showered him with dog kisses too.
A few months later Silver started stumbling and falling over while walking and refusing to eat. I rushed her to a vet, where she was diagnosed with vestibular disease. The vet assured me that most dogs recover, but she didn’t. Days passed by, and then weeks. She grew thin from not eating. Gradually and gently, the vet suggested euthanizing her.
The day I took Silver to be euthanized was one of the worst days of my life. She’d been one of my best friends for years. She’d stuck with me through my awkward teenage years and into even more awkward adulthood. She was there when I started dogsled racing and when I’d gotten out of it. She was always there.
I didn’t know how I would go on without her. But Zach was right there next to me, sobbing as well, even though he’d only known her for a few short months. I like to think that Silver knew it was okay for her to go. She handed me off to Zach once her job was done.
Zach and I will be celebrating our tenth anniversary this year. I miss Silver and dogsledding every day, but I will always be thankful to her for supporting me until I could support myself.
Images via: Jan DeNapoli and Linda Douglass