All eight of my dogs are stretched in front of me in pairs along the gangline. They claw the ground in frustration as the loudspeaker blares.
“Here’s team number five. Our hometown girl, fourteen-year-old Victoria Secord!”
A male voice booms out my racing stats while my lead dog, Bean, whips his crooked rat tail. He tries to lunge forward, and then catches my eye and screams with a pitch that shoots up my spinal cord and electrifies my teeth.
“Easy!” I grip the sled with shaking hands. I freaking hate starts.
With close to a hundred dogs here, the energy in the air is frantic. The bawling of the dogs in the team behind me echoes in my ears while the distinct odor of dog doo smeared under my runners assaults my nose. I try to focus on my dogs and the race chute ahead. Not the burning need to win. Not the fact that there’s no one here to cheer for me.
“We gotcha.” Two burly guys kneeling on the start line struggle to hold my bucking sled stanchions.
“Three, two, one, GO!”
We leap forward and shoot through Wicker’s parking lot.The main race sponsor insisted we start at his feed store, even though it’s three blocks away from the trailhead.They trucked in snow to get us through the streets, but as we skid through the dirty slush, I can tell this is a bad idea. Mushers need a real snow base for any kind of control.
My frozen eyelashes stick together, and I swipe at them as I peer ahead.We fly to the first corner, my heart pounding.
“Haw!” I shout.
My leaders swerve left, and the dogsled skids sideways. We’re gaining momentum. With the wind cutting into my face, it feels as if I’m being sling-shot out of a jet.
A red Chevette is the last in a line of parked vehicles along the other side of the road. I crouch lower, stick my left foot out, and dig the heel of my mukluk in to carve a tighter turn.
The sled continues skidding—closer, closer.
I jump on the brake, smashing the two metal points into the ground with every ounce of my five- foot-nothing frame. Still we skid.And then we careen into the door, my teeth rattling with the impact. A metal screech announces the collision to everyone. I hear a grinding pop.
We clear the car, and I look down to see a little extra weight in the sled bag—a side mirror. Glancing around to see if anyone noticed, I grab it and nonchalantly toss it away.The cold wind whistles through me when I grin.
I turn my attention back to my dogs. My leaders, Bean and Blue, dig for the trailhead with matching strides. Blue’s classic husky coat, with his black and white facemask, is even more striking next to Bean’s rusty-propane-tank shade of fur.
We hurtle down the middle of the street that’s been blocked off for the race. Now that they’re running, my dogs are all business, focused ahead with tight tuglines. My heart squeezes with pride. They don’t glance up as they barrel past a crouched photographer with a telephoto lens.They even ignore the smell coming from the hot dog stand next to the coffee shop.We catapult past a truck with its doors open blasting country music, past the historic log building that is the trading post with the two moose over the door. Someone had found the two sets of antlers locked together and the scene of how the animals died is forever replicated.When I was young, I could hardly stand to look at it, imagining what the moose had to endure, stuck together in battle, helpless and starving to death in the bush.
Finally we’re past Main Street, and we slip by the snow fencing that funnels us toward the trail.
I feel an instant calm.
The din of the crowd fades behind us. It’s just me and the dogs and the sunbeams breaking through the spruce branches stretching across the trail like cold fingers.The runners slice over the snow making their familiar shhhh sounds. I breathe in the tang of spruce pitch and the icy air is sharp in my throat.
But the most important thing is the dogs. It’s always about the dogs.
I watch the way Whistler paces with her lopsided gait, the way Bean flicks his ears back to check on me, and how they all run together as if listening to the same beat of a drum, like a dragon boat team paddling in sync.
Bean and I have some kind of soul connection that I can’t explain. I have a connection with all of my dogs, but Bean just gets me. I like to imagine we were friends in another life. Not that I believe in that, but there’s no other way to describe that day when he was a pup and we looked at each other. Recognition. It’s Bean who I greet first in the dog yard every morning, or when I get home from school. We have conversations. Sarah Charlie calls it crazy. She worries that I’ve changed too much since the accident.
“It’s not healthy to just want to be with your dogs,Vicky. Life is about more than racing.You need to try to get back in the game. Remember when we used to have fun?”
I shake my head and lightly touch my good luck mink. It’s a narrow pewter charm as long as my hand that’s hung around the handlebar of my dogsled since Dad gave it to me when I was nine. I’ve secretly named it Mr. Minky.
I pat the base of my nose with a shaky mitt, and call to the dogs.“Good dog, Blue, attaboy! Easy, Dorset.Who’s a good girl?”
Their ears swivel back, but they keep trotting ahead.The sled bumps and skips over dips in the hard-packed trail. I pedal my foot to help the dogs pull faster. I want to win this race for Dad. I glance at Mr. Minky, and then concentrate on the trail.
As the dogs take a corner, I lean out from the handlebar. We skid, snow spraying out from the runners. Tears squeeze out the corners of my eyes and freeze in lines across my temples. I blink rapidly to stop my eyelashes from sticking together again.
Some mushers wear ski goggles, but I don’t like how looking through goggles separates me from my environment. I like to see things clearly.
The dogs have good speed coming out of the turn. They’re really pulling, as if they know we need to win. But they should drop back to their trots—we have a long way to go yet.
“Easy. Easy, dogs.”
They run faster, smoking around a poplar stand. When we get to a straight stretch I look ahead. And then I see the wolf.