The Best Time I Lived With 100 Sled Dogs in Alaska and Learned How to Be Alone

by Catherine New

photo 1 (1)

May 26, 1994: “It’s only been two days [since I arrived]… and I am in charge of Lot A dogs. Susan had to go into town for a few days so she showed me how to do everything and now I am here by myself.”

Twenty years ago this summer I was living just south of the Arctic Circle, taking care of more than 100 sled dogs. Their care was relatively simple. It was summer, so the dogs were off-season and mostly just jumping around on their six-foot chain leads, sometimes breaking loose and getting into fights or running off into the woods. My job was to feed them, give them water, and pick up their poop twice a day.

I was 18, on a gap year, and working for a well-known dog musher named Susan Butcher. Most of my time was spent in her bush kennel near Manley Hot Springs, 150 miles to the west of Fairbanks. When I tell people today in my life today in New York City that I once worked in Alaska in a sled dog kennel, they can’t quite wrap their minds around it. I barely can.

There was no power, except the generator I would crank up now and again. Sometimes it wouldn’t work, and I’d haul the battery out of the Ford Ranger to jump start it. I was by myself for weeks on end, seeing no one. I took care of all the animals myself. Grizzlies were a minor threat — and Susan had shown me where the rifle was kept.

The Internet didn’t really exist yet, the phone only worked when the generator was on. I read books, and listened either to the Grateful Dead or Reba McEntire’s “For My Broken Heart” on cassette tapes. That June, in a phone conversation when the generator was running, my mom described a car chase with OJ Simpson in a white Bronco. She kept raving about how no one could look away — she had spent hours glued to the television. I couldn’t understand what was so interesting about that.

It never got dark in Alaska. That was pretty cool, I told her.

But while the external details of my life then and my life today — where I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and work for a growing tech company, worrying about my 401k and teeth and deciding whether I should use Amazon Prime or Netflix for my movie delivery — couldn’t be more different, I have never felt more connected to my 18-year-old self. Twenty years apart, my two selves still have much in common: I am still crazy about dogs, rescuing the ones that no one else wants. I am still single and hopelessly romantic. I am still journaling. I have still failed to read Anna Karenina. And I am — like I was then — struggling to understand the outer limits and corners of what it means to be alone, and my love-hate relationship with the feeling.

July 4, 1994: “Fourth of July spent, well, completely alone. I have the place to myself, which is kind of nice — not all that scary.”

July 12, 1994: “There are about a billion things I feel right now, the most overwhelming feeling is that of being alone.”

Aug. 4, 1994: “I feel so safe here… I feel like the wilderness, or at least being far away, insulates me in some way from being unsafe … maybe it’s being with a dog — I feel that although I intrinsically seek out company I could manage alone with a dog.”

When I was 18, I felt driven out to the solitude of the wilderness for a garden variety of Gen X reasons: divorced parents, alcoholic stepfather, my own substance abuse, body image. Back then, I thought that safety was the welcome byproduct of being alone rather than the very thing I most wanted. And I found what I was looking for, or a version of it. For a long time, my draw to the comforts of solitude kept me from recognizing that this comfort was a double edged-sword. Solitude kept me safe, which was what I wanted; it also distanced me from what I needed, which was to make real connections with people.

The summer was to the prelude to my own double-length Odyssey on two coasts looking for the cure. I didn’t find it in college or graduate school or the jobs that followed, or in my travel to more than a dozen countries with a backpack, or in my marriage or the divorce — or in the countless bottles of wine and whiskey, bong hits, and lines of cocaine I consumed along the way.

I found safety again, where I both most — and least — expected it: in the daily dog walks I take with my dog Wayne today, who shares my one-bedroom New York City apartment with me and waits patiently every morning and evening for his walks. My job is to feed, water, and pick up his poop twice a day. Not so much has changed since 1994.

Aug. 23, 1994: “Yesterday winter came…The birch and the aspen are seriously turning yellow, the tundra is reddening and the dogs are howling at night because they’re so happy it’s cold out.”

This summer, late one night, I was walking around Central Park’s Great Lawn. I arrived at the northern end to gaze south at the hanging garlands of lights from the city’s towers. Wayne poked along, in his three-legged way, jabbing at potential eats with his nose.

And I felt alone, but not like I did that summer in Alaska. I felt an aloneness separate from loneliness, a feeling that quickly shifted to a sense of comfort and ease and love. Solitude was only ever the temporary safety that I needed to lead me here, I realized, to this sense of intimacy with life that has nothing to do with circumstances — just the satisfaction of being with another creature with a beating heart, tending carefully and closely to its needs, even and especially when the creature I’m tending to is me.

This understanding is not perfect. It’s been a long road to not run for relief in isolation (or some other form of twisted comfort) when I feel that I am not winning at the game of life (the new girl at work who is a “rock star” according to my boss, or the fact that my bank account never seems to get bigger.) It took me years of yoga, meditation, and daily meetings in a 12-step program to understand that there are no quick fixes. Even today, after an icky online date, I’ll spend a morning scrolling through Facebook and letting loneliness and self-despair creep into my mind.

But then, like I always do because a dog’s bladder demands it, I headed to Central Park with Wayne. We wave to the doormen we pass by every day. We say hello to Tater, Ajax, and Skye and any other creatures we encounter on the way to the park.

And we’re alone, and the feeling of loneliness fades away.

Catherine New is a writer living in New York City. She has a three-legged rescue dog named Wayne.

Photo via Jenni Konrad/Flickr