Falling in love with Alaskan sled dogs and a chance at Fjallraven Polar
If anyone had told me 15 years ago that I would be dreaming of spending all my free time up north in the snow running sled dogs I would have laughed in their face. I never considered myself particularly outdoorsy – I grew up in a big city, never owned a car, spent all my free time going to the movies or art shows and translating Latin poetry throughout high school. All of that changed a couple of years ago.
At that time I had been focused mostly on raising my two kids, balancing parenting and working and trying to figure out where my life was going. Living in Silicon Valley offers many fantastic benefits – it’s beautiful, full of opportunities, smart people, sun and big plans. But it’s fast. So fast, in fact, that at some point I realized that I lost myself somewhere along the way in the chaos of everyday life.
And then, I went up north. Going to Alaska in the winter was supposed to be just for fun and strictly touristy: hunting for northern lights, soaking in the hot springs, walking with reindeer and a brief tour with sled dogs. In a true Silicon Valley fashion, we crammed a lot of experiences into a few busy days. I had a great time, took some great pictures and then we went back home.
Something changed though. I keep thinking of the snow-covered peaks, the piercing cold that wakes you up and freezes your eyelashes, of standing on the runners and being one with nature. Needless to say, I returned to Alaska a couple of months later for a few days of snow camping and mushing along the Denali Highway and then again a year later to explore McCarthy and the area near Wrangell St Elias National Park.
I’ll always remember the feeling of excitement when we were getting ready to take off with the dogs after 9 hours of driving. It was a thrilling experience but once the excitement and adrenaline wore off I realized that I signed up for something that I had never done before and knew absolutely nothing about. I was terrified. There was no turning back.
I was hooking up a team of super hyper Alaskan huskies, packing up the sled with straw, tent, food, extra gear and learning on the fly. Before I knew it I was on the runners behind a team of happy dogs doing what they were meant for – pulling a sled through the snow. I had never driven my own team – I’ve been on the runners before and knew what to do more or less but now, I was on my own.
We were near McCarthy, AK, in the middle of the forest, it was pitch black and all I had was a headlamp and a team of very excited dogs. A few last-minute checks, snow hook up and off we went. It was the most intense and exhilarating feeling I had ever had. I had never been so focused: on not letting go of the sled, following the trail, not taking turns too tight. We were going on top of the Nizina River and I barely managed to stop before getting a really cold bath when I noticed the ice was breaking up.
I had so much adrenaline going through my body that I don’t think I realized what was happening. I was in my element. After a few more turns I calmed down. I was exactly where I was meant to be and the world around me was calm and beautiful. Nothing else mattered. It really did feel like an alternate reality.
After a few hours, we decided it was time to set up camp. We were close to a river that was already breaking up which was great because it provided us with unlimited water for us and the dogs. Slowly, we stopped and got to work. Surprisingly enough, it was harder than expected. Dark, cold, everything covered by a few feet of snow. It took us forever to set up camp, feed the dogs, start a fire, make dinner and ensure we were all safe and ready for the cold night.
Both of my trips were full of beautiful, hard to describe moments: visiting the old Kennecott mine by dog sled, camping on the Nizina River, the entire two teams howling to a full moon or a young pup barking at his echo in the middle of the night. Sunrise coffee and the most intense white and blue everywhere. Or a breakfast with a good friend when one of the dogs decided to join in with his newfound snack – a moose leg.
Alaska has become much more than an amazing outdoor adventure for me. It was a time for self-exploration and reflection. Being out there and stepping way out of what I thought was my comfort zone taught me a lot. I found a new sense of peace and self-confidence in my own decisions, plans and feelings. I was full of joy and realized I was much stronger, both physically and emotionally, than I had given myself credit for. I could do hard things. It was like waking up from a long dream only to find out that reality can actually be pretty amazing too.
Since that trip it’s been a challenge finding that sense of peace, balance and confidence in everyday life while taking the kids to school, commuting, navigating work drama and career decisions. When in doubt, I try to go back in my mind to time spent on the runners behind a team of happy dogs, where everything felt right and the world around me stood still.
I’m very fortunate that so far I’ve been able to balance my everyday life in the Valley and parenting two young kids with my need for adventure and self-exploration. I’m hoping that one day this can become a much bigger part of my life, but I’ll take what can get for now. I’d like to someday do a race or a long distance trip like the Fjallraven Polar, a 186.4-mile expedition in the Arctic Circle. The team consists of 28 people from across the globe with little to no arctic experience. I applied for the April 2018 trip and hope to get enough votes to make the team.