DAY TWO Something about the 9,000-foot altitude of Brooks Lake Lodge, or maybe the pile of blankets and comforters in my woodstove-heated cabin, or possibly the huge helpings of roast lamb and raspberry cheesecake served last night, makes getting out of bed difficult. There are eight cabins set apart from the main lodge; mine, Mountain Man, is decorated with steel traps, snowshoes, and a log-frame bed—somewhere between kitsch and cheerful appreciation of Western tradition.
I finally roll out and head to the yard, where the dogs spent the night leashed outside. It was bitterly cold, but sled dogs are bred to withstand low temperatures. During serious races, like the Iditarod, mushers run mostly at night, when it's 20 or 30 below, so their teams don't overheat.
Yesterday I managed to memorize about half the dogs' names. There's Kanobe, the headstrong leader; Curly, a big white youngster; and whip-smart Libby. My favorite is Rose, a beige female who's always the first to lie down with her head on her paw when the sled comes to a stop. Something about her slacker ethic appeals to me.
We set out after breakfast on a 22-mile southward course that winds around the shoulders of forested hills. In the distance the weathered rock spires of Pinnacle Butte emerge from behind a shroud of clouds. The only flaw is the recurrent roar of snowmobiles, their deafening robo-mosquito rr-rr-rr ripping the air as they lumber past in long lines, belching smoke. "Sled-heads," Aaron calls them.
I've begun to get a feel for riding, the way the back end of the sled slews out on turns, and have learned to help pivot it by dragging a leg in the snow. When the dogs are running fast, their sheer delight in speed infects us. Aaron takes corners harder and faster, and we whoop as we career down increasingly difficult slopes, the other sleds close behind.
"The next hill is pretty steep," Aaron tells me, but he doesn't ask me to get into the basket, so I figure I can handle it. The trail gets narrower, the descent steeper. We crouch low as the snow flies past and the sled starts to swing out toward the trees. We bounce, the sled kicks up onto one rail and twists sideways. Suddenly, I'm tumbling on the hard, icy snow, strangely calm until I realize that the team behind us is about to run me over. I curl into a ball just as a dog steps on my face. I wait for the sled to hit me, but nothing happens. I slide to a stop and open my eyes. Aaron is laughing. "That's the best I've seen all season."
Ah, yes, I think, brushing off snow and waiting for the pain to start: the Bonus Package.