I have been asked many times over the years how my husband, Jeremy, and I met and how long we courted. (Wow, did I just use the word “courted”? Hold on a moment while I pull up my rocking chair.)
Courted is really too soft a word for the events that ensued when Jeremy and I took interest in one another. As it turned out, or unusual first date typified what was to come in the following months and years as we embarked on a life together at the edge of the wilderness.
Love at first sight? Eh….not really.
I am particularly fond of the fact that I can visit the exact spot where I first met my husband. It is an unceremonious patch of dirt surrounded by the once dilapidated buildings of the historic Kennecott Copper Mine. The buildings have all been restored since then but the dusty road remains as it has always been since its creation at the beginning of the 20th century.
Every once in awhile I take the kids to Kennicott, stand with them on that very same patch of dirt and try to instill in them some of my sentimentality. “Hey kids, this is the very spot where our little family began. Your very existence began right here when a young drifter, passing through town, ran into me.”
They always stare back at me totally uninterested.
The truth is, even though Jeremy and I did meet on that dusty little street in 1999, it would be another three years until our unborn children would become a twinkle in their father’s intense, green eyes.
I first came to McCarthy in May of 1997, a free-spirited young woman looking for a summer adventure. In the autumn I resumed my life in the lower 48, but McCarthy had gotten under my skin to such a degree, that I returned the following year. I settled back into McCarthy and considered myself home.
Meanwhile, Jeremy was literally drifting about wondering what was next in life. He had spent a number of years hitchhiking around the country and eventually to Alaska. In the spring of 1999, he decided to drift back out of Alaska to Yellowknife, a remote outpost in the northern reaches of Canada. On his way, he decided to make a quick detour to McCarthy where he knew a good friend of his was working the summers.
That friend happened to be my boyfriend’s roommate; they were living in one of the privately owned historic buildings in the middle of the Kennicott Millsite. I was there the day Jeremy strolled in, dusty and jovial with a pack on his back and two Akitas in tow. I distinctly remember his intense eyes and happy demeanor, but that’s about it.
Jeremy decided to take a job and stay for the summer. McCarthy got under his skin too. He never made it to Yellowknife and by July of that same summer, he placed earnest money down on a remote plot of land in the Nizina River Valley, 12 miles outside of McCarthy proper. His hobo days had come to a close. Over the next three years he established a rustic camping lifestyle on his property and built his first sled dog team.
In the spring of 2002, I found myself making a big life change. I ended a four year relationship with my boyfriend, packed my bags, and with my dog Bona, moved out of the cabin we had built together. My first attempt at living the dream had failed. Unhappily, I moved into a rental cabin near downtown McCarthy to lick my wounds and start anew.
The odds are good, but the goods are odd.
Now, you should understand something about these small, remote Alaskan towns. For obvious reasons, and especially over the winter, single women are in short supply among a relatively bachelor-rich population. This makes her odds quite good.
However, we have a saying up here in Alaska: the odds are good, but the goods are odd.
When a woman becomes available in a town like McCarthy, the bachelors gather at the local watering hole for a debate. The question on the table is how long will she need to get over the break up before it’s considered safe to make a play? I guess when the competition is high, you’ve got to strategize.
Jeremy was in the saloon when he first heard the scuttlebutt about my break up and listened to the proposed estimates. They ranged anywhere from six months to one year, all rather generous amounts of time. Jeremy uncharacteristicly kept his trap shut and chuckled as he thought, “About 18 minutes ought to do”.
And so it was that flirtations began between Jeremy and I which led to an invitation for a dog sled ride. I had never been on a dog sled before so I jumped at the opportunity.
That ride turned out to be our first date.
Not your typical first date.
We agreed to meet first thing in the morning on the road just outside of town. As you might imagine, Jeremy did not show up on our first date with something so conventional as flowers, but rather with a bouquet of exuberant mutts, their long pink tongues flapping out of their mouths.
The dogs, each wearing a brightly colored harness, were loose and excitedly running around while Jeremy strung out the gang line in front of the sled. It was time to get started and Jeremy had a job for me.
He walked me over to the back of the sled where he took a large, scary looking two pronged metal hook which was tied to the sled by a thick rope, and firmly planted it into the packed snow. “Put your foot on this,” he instructed me. “Put your other foot here, on the brake.” This job seemed simple enough, but he warned me, “Keep a tight hold on the sled’s handle bars and if the sled breaks free, don’t let go.” He said this with such seriousness, I was beginning to worry.
You see, a sled dog is not your average, run of the mill pup. A true sled dog is bred to do one thing and one thing only. You can witness this truth in a hook up. I’ve witnessed this many times over the years. As soon as Jeremy would walk into the dog yard with harnesses in hand the dogs came alive with untethered excitement because they knew it was time to do what they came into this world to do. Pull.
Jeremy began to call them over to the gang line, one at a time. Each dog trotted over exuberantly in response to its name, eager to be hooked in. As soon as Jeremy hooked the first dog to the gang line, a jolt ran through the sled as the ambitious and amazingly powerful animal tried to take off running. Not every dog reacted this way, some stood still but exploded into intense barking. No matter what, every dog was wagging its tail. It was getting loud with all the barking. The excitement emanating off of them was palpable.
I have to admit, I became very nervous at this point about my position at the brake. I was beginning to question the durability of the packed snow to hold the metal hooks against the will of these incredibly intent and capable animals.
Jeremy was completely unconcerned however, content in the act of managing what looked like total chaos. He remained fully focused on his team, quickly getting them into line with confidence and grace. Observing him, I could see how the musher is just as much a part of the dog team as the dogs themselves. Jeremy, in that moment, with his team, was also being who he was born to be and it was a pleasure to witness it.
“As soon as I take the brake from you, be ready to hop in the basket as quickly as you can,” he yelled to me over the cacophony of dogs yapping in anticipation. The rope between the sled and the hook was taught and I could feel the force being exerted on it under my foot.
I began to imagine the hook popping out, me hanging off the end of a runaway sled with a 10 lb. hook bouncing around threatening to impale me. (I have a tendency towards imagining the worst-case scenario). My adrenaline was rising as we neared the moment of exchange. I had no idea it was going to be so intense.
With the last dog hooked in, we completed a successful hand off, Jeremy at the brake, me in the basket. He pulled the hook with a firmly spoken “aw’ right” and we broke free from the cloud of intensity the dogs had created with their exuberance.
Once we were in motion the dogs fell silent. All the raucous energy of the hook up vanished immediately, replaced by a hushed stillness in motion. My anxiety quickly melted away as we swiftly glided up the snow covered road to the Kennicott Millsite on a beautiful morning in early May.
A dog sled ride is amazing! The only sound comes from the runners gliding across the soft snow and the padding of happy paws upon the trail. The road was relatively straight and mostly up hill, keeping things mellow and allowing for conversation. Once the dogs were tired, we switched places so I could drive for a little while. The whole experience was shaping up to be the best first date ever but it was about to get particularly memorable at the top.
A first kiss.
We arrived in Kennicott where Jeremy gave the dogs a break. He unhooked them and I watched in amazement as this happy little troop ran about investigating the scene and flopping around in the snow to cool down. They stuck together and stayed close. Clearly they were a cohesive little family.
Jeremy and I sat down in the snow to watch the dogs run about. The affection Jeremy has for his team is obvious in the way he interacts with them. Kisses are encouraged and I was about to get my first kiss.
Sitting next to Jeremy on a romantic little perch overlooking the entire Kennicott Valley, one of his over zealous mutts came right up in my face and planted a big wet one right on my mouth. I like dogs but I’m not too fond of dog slobber. I’m just thankful my mouth was closed. So, technically, I did get kissed on our first date, just not from whom you’d expect.
Once the team was assembled we headed back down the road towards McCarthy. Not too far down the trail we ran into an acquaintance and stopped to say hello. This was when Jeremy realized his mistake.
Reaching the point of commitment.
He had stopped just shy of a sharp downhill turn and when you pull the hook on a rested team, they have more power and, subsequently, you have less control. He knew when he pulled the hook we were going to take the turn at a high speed. There were other choices he could have made, like having me get out of the sled or unhooking a few of the dogs to reduce power.
Instead, he chose commitment, commitment to the uncertain path looming before us. We said our farewells to our friend. Jeremy pulled the hook. “Hold on!”
So I did, but I mistakenly wrapped my arms outside the sled basket in order to take a firm grip of the framing. We hit the turn and slammed onto one side, pinning my arm under the sled. We were drug in the this position for a short ways until Jeremy could get the team stopped.
Once I got my heart out of my throat, I was so thankful my arm wasn’t broken. “Whew!” I learned a valuable lesson that day, keep your arms inside the sled at all times. Looking back now, I see how our first date was a reflection of the relationship that was to unfold from it. I can also see how a marriage is a lot like a dog sled ride.
We show up in all our eagerness and expectations willing to take a ride into unknown territory with another human being. The courtship is the hook up, filled with exuberance, anticipation and anxiety. The marriage is the pulling of the hook, ushering in the sweet, smooth ride we call the honeymoon phase. But the trail ahead is long and uncertain and how we choose to weather the mishaps will shape our experience for good or ill. Either way, it’s imperative to remember to enjoy the ride. It’s why you got on in the first place.
Jeremy returned me to McCarthy in one piece and I like to think that because I handled the crash so well, it earned me a second date.
From that moment on, our “courtship” was rather fast and wild, a lot like pulling the hook on a rested team pointing down a steep, twisted hill. Two weeks into dating he looked at me in all seriousness and said, “You should know, I’m not looking for a girlfriend. I’m looking for a wife.”
My response? “I should be scared, but I’m not.” I was committed, all I could do was pull the hook and hold on.
By summer’s end I bartered labor for rent in an incredibly cute and cozy little cabin in the Nizina River Valley near Jeremy’s property. I wanted to see where this crazy ride was going and living in the same neighborhood would ensure we’d spend more time together.
By February, I started hinting pretty heavily that I wanted a fall wedding. I let Jeremy know that if he wanted to ask me anything he should probably get around to it so we could make plans. Not too romantic, I know, but it came time to up the ante on his bold proclamation made two weeks into our affair. Besides, as a 32 year old woman ready to get on with her life, it was a sh*t or get off the pot kind of deal.
Being the highly independent man he is, he did a little obligatory hemming and hawing. But I wasn’t worried. I knew I had him hooked. In March, he proposed to me in the cozy little cabin I called home that winter.
Many years later I would take our young sons, Bjorn and Liam, to that same cozy cabin I’d rented and attempt, once again, to instill in them some of my sentimentality. “Hey kids! Your dad asked me to marry him right here in this little cabin!”
You guessed it. They just stared at me, totally unimpressed.
I wasn’t getting through. I thought I’d try a different tact. I told them our first date story and I finally got a response.
“Cool! When can we get a dog team?” they exclaimed with the exuberance of young sled dogs in harness.
Uh oh. Not quite what I had in mind.
Please feel free to leave comments and, especially, questions.
Warmest regards from the farm,
Nizina Homestead, Alaska.
1 photo credit: Amaury Laporte <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/8283439@N04/16910025992″>Kennicott Ruin 07</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a>
2 photo credit: Amaury Laporte <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/8283439@N04/16723873780″>McCarthy – New Golden Saloon</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a>
3 photo credit: Ranger Gord <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/43219717@N00/113448744″>Super starters</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>