Togiak whined excitedly as we fishtailed into the parking lot. The snow was falling heavier than before. As she anxiously offered her best “malamute howl,” we trudged through the perfectly light Rocky Mountain powder, arriving at the snowmobile that would (we hoped) carry us the remainder of the journey home: two miles up a snowed-in road that wouldn’t be passable again until the mountain flowers were in bloom, sometime in July.
Fortunately, the snowmobile started right up. Unfortunately, the trail had become nearly impossible to see. Sighing with uncertainty, I was distracted by Togiak, who happily stuck her head in the snow, smelling for, looking at … who knows.
I called for her and gunned the heavy Polaris sled forward. She sprinted behind me as usual.
Fifty feet later I stopped, grabbed my goggles out of my backpack, placed them in the more useful location over my previously blinded eyes, and started the sled forward again.
Fifty feet later, I stopped again. The snowmobile, having no regular headlight setting, was always set on high beams. The combination of bright lights and the now-heavy snow made the trail virtually impossible to distinguish from the ravine that led so suddenly, and so definitively, down to the frozen stream below.
Still warm from the heat of the car, the pulls of the snowmobile cord, and the eagerness to get home, I wondered for a moment what to do. I tried to imagine the trail in my mind’s eye. How many turns were there? How many steep inclines up a hill? Togiak caught up to the stationary sled, leaning in to sniff my leg, making sure everything was all right. Was everything all right? A cold wind slapped at my face. Time to get going.
Still searching for answers, I stared dejectedly at my seemingly more menacing surroundings.
Togiak was a little ahead of me now, still sniffing about, looking every bit the sled dog that had made her ancestors famous. And I began to wonder whether she might to more than just look the part.
I had never taught her a command to lead. Or even the famous “go home.” Who teaches their dog to go home? And what dog would actually go home and leave her people? Togiak would just look at me, confused. What do mean go home? she would wonder. My home is wherever you are. I am home.
About a month earlier, I had tied her to a plastic sled to see her demonstrate that instinctive pulling trait that I had read so much about. After a few minutes spent desperately trying to get away from the intimidating piece of plastic that continued to follow her wherever she went, she gave up and lay down.
But now, lost is the snowstorm, what else could I try?
“Go on!” I yelled to her.
She looked back, confused.
“Go on!” I yelled again, this time motioning my hand outward, toward the trail, like I was shooing away starving mosquitoes.
I accelerated the snowmobile toward her. She jumped forward a bit.
“Go on!” I stuck with my mosquito-shooing motion.
Togiak jumped forward a bit more. I slightly accelerated again. She trotted a bit, looking back for approval, or at least to make sure I was following her. I accelerated a bit more. Her trot turned into a gallop. I followed on the snowmobile. Slowly. Steadily.
Though I couldn’t see her furry white tail too well, I could make out her paw prints in the powder that briefly dotted the trail separating us before being covered by snow. Those paw prints, alone, became my road map. As long as I concentrated on her temporary trail, the blinding snow diving into the high beams didn’t seem so blinding.
Imagining a snowmobile to be a bit more intimidating than a plastic sled, I was careful not to get too close. Togiak was careful to look back, making sure I was following, making sure she was going the right way. Was she going the right way? At this point, I had no idea where she was leading us. I only knew that as long as I could manage to follow her, we could cling to the hope of getting home unscathed.
Togiak seemed to understand what she was doing, though. A little.
We climbed up a steep incline, winds blowing in every direction. It was disorienting, as if we were driving in circles — the trail hidden somewhere under the snowdrifts. But Togiak’s paw prints continued, and like a sailor lost in a storm on a foggy night, I continued to head in the same direction as her trail — and the promise of safety. A slight turn to the right. A heavy bank to left. I squinted to see her marks in the snow. Onward and upward we went. Slowly. Cautiously. Hopefully.
It seemed to be working. Was it really working?
With each stride, Togiak was running faster and faster. I imagined her crossing the Yukon River, darting over the tundra, howling toward the finish line at The Iditarod. Nose to the wind. Heart pumping. Muscles flexing.
Suddenly, she darted left, onto what appeared to be a rough road now covered in snowdrifts. I careened the snowmobile behind her and cranked the accelerator. The heavy machine managed to spring up, back on the trail. We rounded the final bend, and at last the cabin came into view, appearing like a mirage through the storm.
I passed the shack, headed out onto the frozen pond, turned the snowmobile around (always facing downhill, especially with tonight’s storm), cut the engine, and just sat there. Smiling. Stunned.
We had made it home.
Togiak wandered over to find me sitting there still. She sniffed at me, wagging her big furry tail. I wondered if she know what she had just accomplished, or if she was merely happy to just sprint through the snow.
(Originally appeared in My Dog Is My Hero: Tributes to the Companions Who Give Us Love, Loyalty, and a New Leash on Life.)