Teri Wilson
September 13, 2015 12:00 pm

There are a lot of reasons to not get a tattoo. Ask anyone. No really, ask people. Someone will be all too happy to talk you out of it, and chances are, this person’s argument will revolve around what your ink will look like when you’re older and your skin isn’t as smooth as it is now (and somehow you’ve also aged into a tattoo-hating person).

Permanency is the heart of the matter, and for me, it’s more of a pro than a con. It’s also why I have an Alaskan sled dog tattooed on my ankle.

In the beginning, traveling to Alaska was a fantasy. I came up with the idea after first hearing about volunteer vacations on a Today show segment. I’d just returned from a trip to Mexico with my church, where we’d built a playground at an orphanage, and I was stricken with a furious case of wanderlust.

I turned to my friend, Renee, who was sitting beside me at an obedience trial where we were competing with our dogs. (For the record, her dog will always be more obedient than mine. There’s really no comparison.) “We should go somewhere amazing and work with dogs.”

“Where exactly?”

I’d already considered the possibilities—either Puerto Rico to help save strays or Alaska, to help care for sled dogs racing in the Iditarod Trail sled dog race. We were in the middle of a 100-plus degree Texas summer, and I was only half-serious anyway, so Anchorage in the dead of winter sounded perfect. “Alaska.”

I’m pretty sure Renee’s initial reaction was an eyeroll. And probably laughter when we got on the Iditarod website and found out we would have to take a training class (in Alaska, obvs) in order to work with the dogs, because “dog handling is a strenuous activity with inherent risks,” although there was a suspicious lack of information about what the job actually entailed.

It sounded sort of insane, and I’m not the type of person who does insane things. I like reading, writing and ballet, none of which are particularly adventuresome activities. And let’s not forget another fave of mine—knitting. So yeah…heading to Alaska to be a sled dog handler (again, what exactly did that mean??) wasn’t me.

“Let’s do it,” I said.

We bought tickets, made plans and registered for the sled dog handling class. I had to sign a release form that said I UNDERSTAND THIS IS A PHYSICALLY CHALLENGING AND POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS ACTIVITY. In shouty caps, just like that. I still had no clue what I would actually be doing. The most likely scenario seemed that a really excited dog could potentially bite me. That sounded not great, but also not the worst thing in the entire world, so I signed my name.

I was excited about seeing Alaska and being buried in snow, but most of all, I was curious about the dogs. I love all animals, and dogs are my favorite. Part of me worried about sled dogs, about whether or not they actually enjoyed what they were doing. After about five minutes in Anchorage, I realized the answer to that question was a resounding yes.

The dogs were nuts. Happy, energetic, strong…and if they caught a glimpse of sledding equipment, they just about went out of their minds in anticipation. At the training class, we learned that our first job as sled dog handlers was to keep an eye on our assigned dog team and keep them as calm as possible at the start of the race. (Impossible TBH.) We also learned that the biggest danger wasn’t, in fact, being bit. Rather, it was getting run over by a team of 16 dogs. Even that was downplayed, because getting trampled by 16 excited huskies might sound bad, but it was really nothing compared to getting run over by the sled itself. If you fall down, roll out of the way was our training in a nutshell. We practiced in a parking lot. I fell down a lot. I rolled out of the way. A dog named Demon ate my hat.

My time in Alaska was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I couldn’t have possibly imagined the things I saw. Nor could I have imagined the things I did—running through the streets of Anchorage being chased by a herd of reindeer, slipping and sliding across a frozen pond to collect a doggy passenger from an airplane on skis, sitting beneath the Northern Lights with a dog’s head on my lap at midnight on a night so cold that my can of Dr. Pepper froze in my hand before I could drink it. Alaska is cold, you guys. It’s also unspeakably beautiful. Beautiful and wild, like no place I’ve ever been. I’ve been back two times since that first trip. Each time I worked closely with the dogs of the Iditarod, caring for them alongside volunteers and veterinarians from every corner of the globe.

Alaska is part of me now. I’ve written five novels set in there. I’d been writing for several years before that first trip, but it wasn’t until I came home and started writing about how being there made me feel that I found any kind of success. I wanted to hold onto that feeling. I wanted a reminder. A permanent one.

And now I wear a reminder on my ankle. Yes, my sled dog tattoo will still be there when I’m old and wrinkled. What will I think when I look at it? I’ll remember a time when I took a chance, when I stepped out of my comfort zone and did something few people ever get to experience. I’ll remember the dogs and the snow and the Northern Lights. I’ll remember that Alaska is wild and when I went there, I was a little bit wild too.

A tattoo is forever, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

[Image via author]

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