Comfort doesn’t win races.

After a few fleeting days of cool weather, October’s temperatures have stayed stubbornly above seasonal. And while this has made for an exceptional autumn – dry, warm and vibrant with colours – it has made some of the Fall’s most anticipated events difficult to pursue. For example, Moose season opened with daytime highs in the mid- to high twenties: not a very good temperature if you are one of the lucky hunters to shoot a moose and then have to field dress it and cart it out to your vehicle. Spoilage would definitely be of concern. I am not hunting this year due to neglect on my part. My gun license expired and I noticed too late to have it renewed in time for grouse season, moose season and probably deer season, too. But it isn’t really hunting that I am missing out on. It’s Fall training.

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A new section of trail that we found last weekend.  With this, we now have a solid 40-mile trail.

After our winter season of mushing is done, the races are over, the training is over and there is no longer enough snow to have fun runs and camping trips, we hang up the harnesses for another year. A week or so goes by in which the we and the dogs relax, no longer bound by schedules and enjoying the time off as Spring makes its way through the melting snow and dying winter winds. But it is a short lived span, for in no time we are back assessing our winter: could our training have been better? What were our race results like? Who were the best dogs? Who were the slack-liners? Where and what can we improve for next year? And it’s here – on our aspirations and expectations for the coming year – that we hang, for six and a half to seven months of the year; waiting for the cooler weather, eagerly anticipating our revamped training schedule or a new dog or two.

Walks and free runs during the summer alleviates some of the pent up urge to run, both in the dogs and us, but it’s not the same. We all want to be part of that team – the one whose dogs still look fresh after forty miles of running; who are not at all finished running by race end. But more importantly, we all want to be out with our dogs, watching them do what they love to do. And this is why we have had to start training at night.

Now I’ll be honest here: I am not a huge fan of running at night. Bad things happen in the dark. I’m not talking about the things that go ‘bump’ in the dark, either. I’m talking about dogs getting loose and disappearing (despite it never happening during the daylight hours); animal encounters, tangles that you don’t see (despite an awesome headlamp and the two headlights on the training rig, so how can that happen? Well, it can’t) and so on. By the time it comes to load the dogs up and drive off into the darkness though, I have psyched myself out to the point of dreading the run. But I go because I have to. We have a responsibility to the dogs and, provided it’s cool enough, there really is no excuse for not going; hundreds of dreaded instances running through your head or not.

So far, I have trained more at night than during the day. It is getting easier in some ways and in others, not so much. I still dread the animal encounters. Two runs ago, on a foggy night, I was on the way to the trail with the dogs in their boxes and we rounded a particularly sharp corner. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of something white which at first looked like a reflection on my window but then, almost instantly, transformed into the figure of man, at least six and a half feet tall, clothed in a white hoodie and sort of floating, in a bobbing sort of way, along the foggy road. Ghostly, almost. For a moment I thought “What the hell is someone doing out here at this time of night, walking along the road?” But as I looked harder, the outline of a moose began to take shape. I had been staring at it’s hind end, thinking it was a tall man, floating along the road. Of course it was a moose. That made so much more sense, but my mind had jumped to the less likely ghost-like figure right away. And this isn’t the first time it’s mistaken a very obvious moose for something else. Last year on a run, we topped a hill to the surprise of a pair of antlerless moose on the side of the trail. “Where’d these horses come from?” I wondered. But then, “Oh, right. Moose.”

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Roughly ten o’clock at night and our world is all you can see.  I know it’s fuzzy, but you get the idea.

We passed by the moose in the fog, the dogs catching its scent and suddenly sounding like they were going to come through the doors of their boxes to give chase. By the time I got to the trailhead, they had all but forgotten about the moose. Their excitement turned to the run ahead. Unlike me, the dogs love to run in the dark. I hooked them all up without incident and we took off. It was a ‘slow training day’ so we stayed below eight miles per hour and with my MP3 player in my ears and the complete darkness around us, it was easy to just live in the pool of light that the training rig cast: our little bubble, moving through the velvety darkness. Almost halfway into the run every dog’s head snapped to the left at once and all ears went up. “Oh, no” I thought, but the dogs trotted ahead still, kind of like that old military footage of a corps of soldiers marching past their leaders all saluting and looking at the podium as they go. A quarter mile of this, this sideways-looking-but-progress-making behaviour. We are nearing a clearing, a big, open pit where our turn around is and as we emerge out of the bush, the dogs seem to either lose interest in whatever they were looking at, or lose its scent as all of their heads are now facing forward again. We start to go downhill to the turnaround and we gather speed as we go. I ease my foot on the brake and slow them a bit but now they are loping, despite my foot on the brake, and our speed at around ten miles an hour. Without warning, every dog veers to the left and nearly drags the Ranger through the shrubs and grasses on the side of the trail before I can react and stop them. I call to my leaders to get back on the trail but they don’t listen, which is unusual because they are normally very responsive. I try again. Still nothing. Every dog is straining against their lines, trying to creep just a bit further ahead. I get off the Ranger and go to move the leaders back onto the trail. They go, but like a fighter taken away from an unfinished fight: trying to get around me and back to the action. I’ve been in situations like this before and resign myself to several attempts at convincing the leaders to follow the trail and act like sled dogs, not a pack of wolves. Surprisingly, it was a one-time thing. Once they were on the trail, we resumed our run with no further attempts to chase whatever was in the darkness. Only little Fable stayed in hunting mode: ears up, tail up, head up and looking around. She settled back down and finished the last mile or so like a proper sled dog, though.

The more I run at night, the more accepting I am of it, but I would still prefer to run during the daytime. The important thing is that the dogs are getting out.

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Our run over, the dogs await their water and snack back at the truck.