Aliy spent days setting live traps, which the dog outsmarted one by one. She paid out hundreds of dollars in damages. Finally, Skunk found a trap he couldn't fool.
"When I saw him in there I walked up and I said, 'Okay, if you growl at me I'm going to have to shoot you.'" Aliy recalls, "But he wagged his tail. So I had to keep him. He's in my dog yard now, he's my pet."
By chance the region around Bettles, lowlands south of the Brooks Range, is some of the best and most historic dog country in the Far North. Old-time breeders insist that almost every good dog carries blood from just a few native villages scattered along three hundred miles of the Koyukuk River downstream from Bettles: Allakaket, Hughes, Huslia, and Koyukuk itself. Naturally, as Aliy traveled the region and expressed interest in dogs, she picked up other people's rejects and some pups. She rescued a few more when the river flooded and villagers fled in panic, leaving dogs behind. Their owners let Aliy keep what she wanted from those she saved.
She did her duties for the government, then took time off to run her team, explore, trap, and camp out in the vast emptiness of the Alaska Interior. As she tells it, she learned the subtleties of mushing from an old lead dog that was also given to her, a dog now dead.
One spring night, she mushed into the Brooks Range, the northern-most mountains in America. She looked up and the sky served a dazzling delight for her. Night after night, the sky blazed. She returned and saw Time magazine, with a cover story about Comet Hale-Bopp. How surprising. The whole world was fascinated by something she figured only she had paid any attention to. She had been so far removed as to believe in the uniqueness of her encounter with the heavens, impossibly far from what others know as "reality," and the thought filled her with pleasure. Out here it is still possible to have experiences unscripted by science and the media. Once in a while, it is even possible to reawaken ancient feelings that one might actually discover something, a sensation that sustained the curious mind through millions of years of evolutionary history.
"I can't explain why I like it out there other than it's challenging," Aliy says. "It's about freedom, where you can grasp at life a little more. You want a hamburger? Go shoot a moose, don't go to Safeway. That's a cop-out."
She's not posing, either. I've been in her tiny cabin, where three wolf pelts dangle from a nail on the wall. One afternoon, she sorts through them. Which will it be for the fur ruff on the hood of her new mushing parka: silver, black, or brindle? She chooses the silver because the fur is especially plush. She cuts the skin and sews it to her coat by hand. Despite the marvels of modern fabric and gear, the guard hairs of certain northern furbearers - wolf and wolverine prime among them - are the most reliable cold-weather protection known for exposed skin around the eyes. The guard hairs shield against incoming wind and resist freezing into a blob from moist, outgoing breath. What is unspeakable Outside is lifesaving here.
Aliy looks like this: thick flaxen hair to her shoulders, dimples, and big, shiny matched teeth behind a contagious smile. She has a girl's small nose and a roustabout's square jaw. She owns two skirts and one dress. She is six feet tall with broad shoulders and doesn't feel the need for high heels. Most people wouldn't recognize her dressed like that anyway. Her hands are like Vise-Grips. When she speaks of others the quality she judges first is not success but toughness. Ten days before the Quest she brings her dogs to a veterinarian for a required prerace inspection. Two dogs erupt in a fight, and as she yanks them apart, I see she is nipped on the hand. I ask, How bad is the wound? She glowers and stuffs her bleeding hand into her 38-inch-waist jeans.
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