Friday, February 5, 2010

Musings from the Road Crossing

Last week the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon passed through our neighborhood. They start in Duluth, follow the North Shore of Lake Superior, and make a loop up the Gunflint Trail. Most of them pass this part in the middle of the night, and since we have roads--- volunteers are posted to make sure the teams cross safely.

I like to sit at the road crossings,watch the dark night and the moon, and think about how lovely it really is, and wonder why it is that the winter beauty feeds my soul. So, I signed up.

Earlier on Monday evening Shelby and I passed the Trail Center checkpoint, where teams are required to rest. We saw teams and hay bales and handlers and dog trucks and...much action. We saw a nearly-full moon, and a hint of the northern lights-maybe. And Shelby remembered when she memorized The Cremation of Sam McGee. It wasn’t required for anything, she just liked the sort of rhythmic cleverness of Robert Service combined with humor and mild horror in that poem. I memorized it too…sort of…but it is very very long. And I’m finding that,although she can remember something from 6th grade to 9th grade, I can only remember it from 6pm to 9pm. She began to recite it...because it really was a perfect match to the night...except for the dead guy part

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

..

and it continued to ring in my head through the rest of the night.

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee........................

My alarm went off at 3:30am, and my throat was mildly sore and my head full of grumblings at myself for volunteering. I filled my coffee mugs, pulled together my headlamp and other stuff and headed out to the truck. When I got to the Cross River, I turned off my truck headlights because 3 teams were passing across the Gunflint Trail. And then, just like that, I was glad I was up. All this energy in the neighborhood, and I just would have slept through it.... how would I have known? I remembered what an an intriguing sport it is.

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.

If our eyes we'd close, our lashes froze, til sometimes we couldn't see.

It wasn't much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

I spoke to Bob Baker briefly, about the progress of the race, and his eyes were sparkling because he was excited. And I felt like…I should have never let my kids sleep through this.

I got to my assignment on the South Gunflint Road, John Silliman filled me in on the protocol and in a few minutes, those 3 teams came by us. We stood in the road with our reflector vests on and our arms out—on either side of the trail. We turned off all lights, so that all we could see were the little red blinkers on the lead dog collars, and the musher's headlamp.

Even so, the dogs often tried to run up the road, confused a bit by the crossroads. We were quietly trying to be big calm fences, not wanting to startle the dogs. It was kind of fun to hear the mushers gently urge the dogs back on the course with a “Gee” or a “Haw” or an “On-by” These dogs really knew their left from their right, on command. (This amazes me especially, as I have a little bit of a directional disability, and it takes me a second to think which is left and which is right)

After John left, I continued to do the crossings, mark my sheet, radio them in and then get back in my truck. My mind began to wander back to a sled dog trip I took once. Ingrid and Chris had a new team, and they wanted to try them out. The three of us were teachers; we had the week between Christmas and New Years, our friend Toby, an artist had flexible hours and eclectic jobs. We were a congenial group, having spent plenty of camping time together in the summer BWCA wilderness, but not so much for me in the winter. From Ely to Seagull Lake, along the border, really fun.

videoDogs are one of those things that I love about life. And when they are all together in a team, smiling, pulling because it’s all they want to do, well, I have a little happy sigh inside. Fluffy stuffed animals padding along in little booties on, athletes breathing audibly, but pulling easily, doing the one thing that makes them happiest. This is one of the reasons I volunteer.

And that very night as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow

And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’er head were dancing heel to toe.

On that camping trip we were trying to make good time so we rode into the night---two of us on the sled runners and two skiers ahead. We went through the narrows on Ogishkemuncie. Those campsites that are so close to the water previously had only ghosts of summer memories for me. It was an amazing night on the runners, with the my friends, watching the little bobbing headlamps wayyyy down the lake, hearing just the shooosh and padding of the dogs breaking the silence. By then, I knew who would fight and which ones were getting a little tired. We had a routine; our most efficient way to keep them on track was to have our two fastest skiers ski ahead,….and I NEVER qualified that job, so I got to know the dogs really well. Lucky me. To compensate for the semi-slacker status, I really tried to do the dishes, and the dirty work in camp at night, with the few extra leave-no-trace duties that comes with dog travel.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear; But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;

.....And then (back in my truck) my memories were interrupted by the radio traffic. At each crossing, the volunteers called in the bib number and time. And there was a little back and forth about the number of teams on the loop.

The Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department is a competent bunch. They are trained to work together and the official radio protocol is part of that. Sometimes it still cracks me up. I've been on the department long enough to be trained and honor it—still I remember playing walkie talkie with my cousin, and we were just as good as these guys, almost. I call in too. I follow it. Copy that.

He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee; And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

After 3 hours of relative action, I heard that there are only one or two teams on the loop, my level of concern drops, I started getting sleepy. I pulled out Shelby’s portable DVD player, and the 1st season of Glee (I’m sad to admit, she hooked me on that show), and I slipped out of my world of deep-woods magic, and…into the world of media. Daniel joked with me the other night when I asked Shelby not to return C.C's boxed set. He warned that all the dogs and sleds would be staked on the South Gunflint Road, while the mushers would be in the truck with me, blue faces illuminated by the screen, hooked on the Glee series.

I probably shouldn’t admit it, because it ruins some of the romance of the scene, but 6 hours is a long time, and I REALLY REALLY wanted to see what happened to the Glee Club at sectionals. I don't want to spoil it for you, but it was all turning out splendidly. All of a sudden I jolted out of my Glee daze and remembered…a few minutes ago…how long ago did the Moosehorn crossing call in? Oh, shoot, what if they silently shushed by me…oh, rats, I’ve failed in my duties…


I slipped out of the truck just in the nick of time---as they glided up the landing and into the parking lot toward me on the road. This particular musher allowed me to sit on my heels by one of his lead dogs as he switched up a dog in the sled and gave another a rest. He didn’t actually need me, but I was glad to get close enough to touch the dogs, have them all look at me...with the...."what do you want us to do do next?" look.

By 10am most of the teams had come through, and also Michael, my relief guy came to take over the crossing. I was feeling fuzzy headed and full of coffee by then, and glad to move on to the rest of my day. And the mushers---and the dogs...well, they must've had another 200 miles to go..


There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee........................