Dogs in Paradise

I'm standing in chaos. Twenty-some Alaskan Huskies lurch and leap amid a morass of trucks, trailers, sleds, and riggings. Kennel doors open and close; rope, webbing, and harnesses line the ground; blankets and duffel bags pile up. Binding together this sprawling salmagundi of gear and activity is the blaring cacophony of two dozen barking dogs.

Jason Matthews, sled-dog racer, mushing guide, and owner of this canine and material maelstrom, moves easily through the tumult. He calmly and efficiently checks ropes, ties knots, fastens buckles, and reprimands canine troublemakers. All the while, he casually interweaves instructions for us, his guests, with tidbits about the sport of dogsledding.

"Mike, put Chief in that harness over there," Jason calls from the far side of the truck, where he's pulling a dog out of its crate. I unclip Chief from the trailer and guide the high-strung pup to his designated spot. "Hold him tight," Jason calls out. "These dogs can pull a sled 100 miles a day for a week straight. They're a lot stronger than they look." His voice smacks of experience, of time in the mountains dealing with just such eventualities.

And Jason looks the part. Brawny and bearded, he's dressed in Carhartt overalls and a worn down coat. A contemporary Montana mountain man, Jason started Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures to fuel his dual passions for guiding and for working close to the land.

Eventually the sleds are set up and anchored, the dogs are tied into the ganglines, and we've all been sufficiently briefed on how to control our teams. The dogs are going nuts now, digging in and straining against their harnesses. With no outlet for their increasing intensity, they lash out impulsively at each other. Jason's harsh rebukes are having less and less effect; the dogs are just too damn fired up. It's time to go.

One by one, we mount up and release our brakes. The sleds lurch forward as the dogs take off, still growling and snapping at each other as they sprint down the trail. I white-knuckle the handles and hang on for dear life.

And then, all at once, everything goes quiet. The dogs settle into a brisk but even stride. The noise and commotion evaporate like so much morning mist. Nothing remains but the rhythmic breathing of the dogs and the steady hiss of runners along the snow.

We climb. The broad, sage-flecked slopes of Tom Miner Basin rise above us; we zigzag our way up. The dogs seem tireless, breathing heavy but pulling strong even on the uphills. Jason, with a guest in his sled, has to do a bit of kicking on the steeper sections to help his dogs out. My six-dog team needs no such assistance. I just hang on and try to pay attention to my gangline. Too much slack and the dogs will get all tangled up.

Up and up we ride. This is big, beautiful country: the undulating terrain before us gives way to vast, forested slopes high above and ultimately, rugged alpine peaks. Below us, the basin spills out toward the Yellowstone River and Dome Mountain. To the north, Paradise Valley stretches long and wide. Everything is white.

Finally we top out on a broad plateau blanketed in Douglas fir. We work our way through the trees awhile until Jason signals for us to stop. A wide bend in the trail provides the perfect rest stop. After a hearty lunch of elk chili, sourdough bread, and cheesecake, we pack everything up and set about turning the dogs around.

Changing directions in the middle of a trail is no easy task, I soon discover, despite the quick work Jason makes of the other two sleds. By the time he comes over to help me, I've got all the dogs wrapped around each other. With some fast-handed ropework, he straightens my team out, and we're ready to go.

"Everybody up!" We call the dogs to attention. They're calm now, but far from tired, and they quickly stand up, ready for action. "Line out!" comes next, and they all pull against their harnesses, straightening out the gangline and bringing it taut. One last look around, and we yank our grappling-hook brakes out of the snow. "Let's go!" we shout, and the dogs take off. Once again, we glide quickly, quietly across the snow.

Down and down we go. We're moving fast now, racing effortlessly down the switchbacks we'd labored up earlier. The trees rush by; the sled launches over bumps in the trail. I feel the cold wind against my face and the dynamic power of six strong dogs in front of me. Everything coalesces: the intensity of the dogs and the quietude of winter, the racing sled and the inert forest, my rapt attention to the team and my calm, relaxed detachment from everything else. I've extinguished my cares and activated my senses; I'm both tuned out and dialed in at the same time.

And that's when I feel it. Like that first artful fly cast or perfect telemark turn, when you briefly yet completely tap into the essence of a thing. I'm mushing! I feel like I'm in Jack London's Alaska, whisking across the tundra, toward a distant and unknown fate. Man and beast, working together toward a common purpose, each driven by something innate and inexplicable. Something pure.

It's a moment of paradise. Not a place, but a feeling. And as I look at the dogs striding vigorously, intently before me, I'll be damned if they don't feel it too.

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