The relationship between man and dog can be as strong or weak as people desire. I’ve talked with plenty of folk that couldn’t care less about dogs and some folks that are clear nutcases when it comes to their pup. You’ve got that one friend who thinks it preposterous to bring a dirty animal into his house, let alone his bed. Another who sleeps with two dogs in her bed and one on the floor because unfortunately the bed just isn’t big enough for everyone. Some folks chain dogs up and breed them to fight. Some breed dogs to race around oval tracks, others to pull sleds. Dogs are bred to hunt other animals. Many want nothing to do with dogs and are downright afraid of them. Then there’s the guy down the road who would never think of spending money to buy a dog, but he’ll take in any stray that wanders his way. At the moment he cares for two dogs, former strays with signs of abuse, like they are his own flesh and blood children. Next door to the Good Samaritan are folks who honk and yell at the strays while shelling out a thousand dollars for an inbred dog with a paper trail of ancestry. All the colors of the rainbow.
I grew up in a Florida family that always counted on a dog or two to round out the family and there are strong memories for every dog that shared our home, or more often shared our cement patio. The pups we fed and played with every day were our friends and just as deserving of kindness and loyalty as our friends at school. That doesn’t mean that our dogs always received kindness and loyalty. We often prefer remembering what pleases us so it would not surprise me to learn that my magnanimous kid-self was not always so.
Consider that my younger years at school were often spent awkward, shy, and embarrassed by any degree of attention. So there should be no surprise the first sight my eyes looked for upon arriving home from school was our pups stretched out on blankets of spanish moss and st. augustine grass under the shade of the big live oak out front the house. No matter what happened at school those pups would always be there, always be thrilled and ready to greet us with their version of hugs and kisses—dirty paws on the front of your chest and wet sloppy dog tongues on top of your nose and in your ear. Some dogs just love licking that salty ear wax. When my brother and I would take off running into the swamp or go climbing up those sprawling oak trees along the property line, the dogs would be right behind us or ahead of us and waiting or following us whenever and wherever.
As kids our biggest responsibility lay with making sure the dogs were fed and had fresh water. That meant our biggest failures and successes in childhood met with our parents’ ability to make us kids feel shame when we forgot to feed the dogs because we were outside climbing trees or scrambling to play a video game before dinner. The dogs ate before us. Or they were supposed to. They always slept outside on the porch, unless of course it was too cold outside, then it was our job to bath the dogs so they could sleep inside. For our dogs, too cold meant any temperature that my siblings and I couldn’t walk outside without shivering and running to grab jackets and being Florida swamp kids that meant cool, not cold, weather, or chilly willy as my Dad would say. I remember being impressed when even Dad would tell us to go bring the dogs inside because if Dad thought it was cold, it was cold. Now that we are on the subject, the first time I saw my dad cry was over Chelsea. She was a fiery cocker spaniel that loved her romps through the swamp out back—behind our house lay a wildlife refuge stretching twenty miles. It was common for Chelsea to be gone for a day or three at time. This time though was different. She was gone for a week. Dad went out looking for her. He found her stuck in the muck. Nature, it seems, had taken her for dead, as maggots had already been laid and born in her fur. I still remember dad slowly walking out of the swamp, the half-dead Chelsea draped over his shoulders. She was eleven years old that day, but recovered and lived another two years. Back to the story...chilly weather and all… of course our dogs always jumped at the opportunity to be inside. It was clear they loved to share any and all experiences with us. I bet it didn’t hurt that the house was warm and the carpet soft. We kids loved to let the dogs in the house, but like I said we also bailed on the dogs if it meant having to give them a bath when we had something more fun planned, like climbing trees and playing video games or playing fort in the swamp. People can be awfully selfish.
According to folks who spend their lives researching this sort of thing, there is evidence from excavated burial grounds that humans and dogs have been friends at least since the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years past. Some scientists claim the relationship dates much further back. But we’re talking more than just friends, right? More like complete members of the family, since dogs have been discovered buried with their human companions. How dogs and people joined forces is like anything up for debate but there is thought that wild dogs initiated the friendship by hanging out around camp, having been drawn by the smell of hot meat on a campfire. The more docile ones hung out and followed roaming bands of humans around the landscape—breeding and over time leading to progressively more docile dogs—until there became a clear line between wild dogs and domesticated dogs. An alternate theory suggests people acquired wolf puppies and raised successive generations in the care of people till they became domesticated. The core disagreement being whether dogs domesticated themselves or if people domesticated dogs. After living and working with dogs, I refuse to assign either moniker, wild or domestic, to any animal. Wild or domestic makes no difference except in the language of Man. My intuition says dogs and people have been friends since the first day we met.
Thousands of years of co-dependence have gifted dogs with an uncanny ability to read human facial expressions and scent. Dogs can tell when you are anxious or afraid or happy or sad before you’re even aware of it yourself. Part of their ability to sense our emotions is because we smell different when anxious, scared, or what have you, but I believe it’s because dogs were never told magic isn’t real and they’re more aware of energy fluctuations. Diabetics have dogs trained to alert them when they smell a change in blood sugar levels. We have bred pups to look more like us—unfortunately to the physical detriment of the animal—with flat faces and big round eyes. How many pug dogs suffer from breathing problems because humans bred out their snout? We use dogs to help blind people see, to find skiers buried under snow, sniff out land mines, catch bad guys, rehabilitate prisoners, and entertain us for hours playing fetch. The list goes on. What would it be like to work with these amazing animals?
These were the memories and thoughts filling my head one warm August morning while staring at a National Geographic picture of a guy being pulled by his sled dogs through a stand of evergreen trees draped in snow. It was a perfect day in the photo with blue skies and dogs that looked thrilled to be pulling a sled, with tongues hanging out and the corners of their mouths pulled up and back in excitement. Those dogs looked like they were having the best day ever and the photo caption declared as much. It was number so-and-so in a list of the 50 best adventures you should do in a lifetime. Ironically, when I bought the magazine a few weeks before and belatedly realized the magazine didn’t contain any articles—some special edition with just big pictures and two-line captions—I got annoyed and nearly threw it into the trash. Since when did Nat Geo start selling magazines without proper writing? The magazine cost well over $10 and now seemed destined to sit on the coffee table where it would be glanced at half-heartedly by sleepy-eyed raft guides clutching steaming mugs of weak coffee, absentmindedly rereading rainfall reports and predictions on their widescreen smart phones. But instead the pretty pictures were going to help me find a job. I flipped the magazine over and showed the image to my friend Christina sitting cross-legged on the sagging couch opposite me. We both were wrapping up the summer rafting season and on the hunt for a winter job. She eyed the photo I was holding and remarked that she read about dogsled tour guide jobs in Alaska earlier that week.
“You know you can actually be a dog sled tour guide right? I read about it on the internet. You live at the dog kennel and take people on day trips through a forest.” Christina shared this information nonchalantly, like she was relating the weather back home.
“That’s it? What else?” My eyes widened as I sat up in my chair.
“Yeah I didn’t really read into it. Didn’t seem like my thing.” Christina’s eyes fell back down to the outdoor gear magazine resting in her lap, oblivious to the lightning storm firing off in my brain.
“Oh. Hmmm. I’m going to the G-Store to look this stuff up. Thanks Christina.”
I topped off my coffee, grabbed my laptop, and drove to the Long Creek General Store where I could get on the internet and search for dog sled jobs. Though Christina’s monotone speech did little to excite emotions, the magazine’s picture lit firecrackers. How epic would it be to get paid to hang out with dogs in a winter wonderland? Probably at least as cool as being paid to take people down class V whitewater and way more fun than staring out windows while anxiously fidgeting behind a desk. I feared a return to the office if I failed to find a properly adventurous winter gig. Jack London whispered into my ears and White Fang crept slowly forward. White Fang had taken my kid imagination by storm. The dog’s tumultuous life—the highs and lows—the beatings, killings, and the sunshine happy ending—swept me along. London’s motive for the novel, to dehumanize dogs some say, was lost on me. I used to spend hours on the front stoop or laid out on my belly beneath the live oak on top those brown fuzzy squiggles talking to my dog Checkers. Back then I knew Checkers could think, could feel, had dreams, and needed friendship as much as I did. I spent hours watching him sleep in the shade, snorting and whimpering and twitching in his dreams, just like me. I felt we were more alike than different. Perhaps if my kid-self knew of magic in a similar light as the Native Americans, who once played on the same bit of earth, I would have realized that what I was seeing inside Checkers was his soul or spirit. Our relationship was brought to an early end when our neighbor shot Checkers with a 12 gauge shotgun because he caught Checkers chasing after a farm animal. My friend Checkers and the other neighborhood dogs lived unrestricted on the edge of the wildlife refuge, right next door to a man who bred farm animals in captivity. It was too sweet an opportunity for the dogs to pass up. When Checkers was killed my parents knew it was just as much their fault as the neighbor—they wanted the dogs to have freedom but did not know how to train the dogs to ignore fat juicy farm animals—they knew the death was shared—their lack of training and the no mercy neighbor’s poor fencing and stockpiling of prey animals in unnatural confinement—my parents feared that telling me the truth would cause me to take revenge so they told me Checkers was hit by a car. That day I swore I would never love another animal. Five or six years later they told me the truth. I lost a considerable amount of faith in my parents that day--faith that they would tell me the truth in a given situation. How was I expected to trust they’d give me the truth in light of their admitted dishonesty? But the totality of the experience was healthy. All children must eventually learn their parents are not perfect and that we all work towards a brightness which becomes brighter as we learn from each other’s and our own mistakes. That experience, and many other instances of relatives telling lies for entertainment or to spare hard truth, taught me the unparalleled value of truth. Truth should always be sought and always given, especially if the truth is feared to cause pain on the listener, or to hide guilt by the speaker, because to hide pain is to deprive both speaker and listener of life’s beauty. And no one likes to be lied to.
At the G-store as we call it in Long Creek, I ordered some butter pecan ice-cream and started researching dog sled tour guide companies. I didn’t have to look far in the search results. The third result seemed the most promising.
Everything I read online about dog mushing suggested it would be the most physically and mentally challenging activity I could get paid to do for the winter, which was perfect because that was the criteria I was using to rate jobs by. My winter job had to be the hardest job I could get my hands on. I wanted to experience a real winter. This Florida boy needed to prove to himself that he could do it all. My job search prioritized authenticity of the guided trip (through a forest versus an oval track), harshness of weather (Alaska versus New Hampshire), and paychecks.
I was excited to guide again, guide anywhere really, because no matter how often I return the corner frown with other guides when faced with the average guests’ insensitivity to nature—or stressed out that I may have to pull 300lbs of fat back into the raft lest the person drown—at the end of the day I’m honored to take strangers into a world far removed from their urban walls. Raft guiding is great. It is fun for me, most of the time anyway, and most of the time it is fun for the people paying for the trip. The natural world is sacred and beautiful and though part of me rebels at the dirty raft buses, the plastic bags we pack lunch in, rubber and plastic rafts and paddles, the only way contemporary society will protect nature is if we feel connected to her. We have become a fragmented, spiritually weak, and insular nation that prides ourselves on temporary conveniences and our material accomplishments. The percentage of folks willing to go outdoors and explore is declining. At least that is what my bosses at the rafting company said. So yeah, it’s amazing to spend the day taking people outside. People interested in going outside. The rafting company does an admirable job considering the constraints our culture saddles people with. We take people down rivers that they would otherwise never see, never experience. Though you could also say the rafting companies do too good a job and send too many people down the rivers, overcrowding the rivers and sometimes acting like they own the river.
The reason I returned to guide is because from the back of the raft I watched kids and adults, who have never been in a forest, never been on a river, look around in awe. If I was still enough I could feel their energy connect to the river. By the end of the trip some folks stood straighter and felt more confident. At such moments I’m overcome with happiness as those folks form a bond to the outdoors. It is that connection that we count on when people return home to the cities. When they go to vote, or choose to recycle, or walk instead of drive their car. By sharing the Chattooga’s sublime with city folk, all the plants and animals throughout the river corridor benefit. All people benefit from clean and free flowing rivers. We can always make progress on diesel fumes and plastic bags.
A great raft guide keeps the river protected so what would a great sled dog guide do?
The all-knowing internet told me that most tour guide jobs were at race kennels and most everyone at least paid you room and board. Some paid you a small stipend in addition to room and board. Some only paid you by the trip. All said it was common for guides to be tipped cash. Some operations were day trips through forests, others around a track loop, some were multi-day trips and the kennels were spread through New England across to Washington and up through Canada into Alaska.
That third search result was a race and tour kennel that offered guides a guaranteed paycheck in addition to subsidized room and board and since it was located near a popular ski resort town, I bet it offered the highest cash tips. Another hour of searching and that third result was still the only one I could find that paid their guides a monthly salary regardless if they were guiding or not. Compared to my pay as a raft guide where I was paid by the hour and only if I was on a trip, it was a no brainer. The search also turned up reports of animal abuse at sled dog kennels: Reports of sled dogs being murdered in old age or if they weren’t fit enough to pull the sled, reports of dogs dying during races, and reports of inhumane living conditions. Mostly I ignored those search results—they were all linked from animal rights groups who must be biased in their interpretation of what constitutes abuse, right?—but I couldn’t ignore them completely because spiritually I already believed people should only eat plants, pardoning dire circumstances, and that animals are often exploited by humans via perceived convenience and tradition. I told myself that the only way to know if dog sledding was inhumane would be to become a dog musher.
Generally speaking, since childhood I have been wary of using animals for selfish purpose. When I was a kid me and my brother put a frog in an ant pile to see if the ants would be able to kill the frog before the frog jumped free. Thinking it over we figured the frog would just jump away no problem if placed on a calm ant hill so we stirred the ants up first before placing our lab frog atop the ants. The frog was immediately engulfed by fire ants and began twisting in what we both perceived to be agony. I couldn’t handle the frog’s pain so I yelled that we had to save him and quickly prodded the frog out of the hill. Except the frog was still covered in fire ants. Richie acted first. He picked the frog up began and kicking him through the air in an attempt to knock the ants off. At first I supported his method till I realized we were just killing him faster. You can probably guess that the frog died. We were shell-shocked. It was the first time I was directly responsible for the death of another creature.
A few years later I was hunting deer with my grandfather. It was the first time I was allowed to carry a gun on a hunt. We woke up way before dawn and pulled on layers of warm camouflage clothing. Grandpa heated up a bit of instant grits for us to wolf down before grabbing our rifles and hopping into the golf cart. It was chilly and frosty except for the heated smoke of Grandpa’s cigarette. If you squinted just right the cotton fields on the way to the tree line looked like fresh snow. I was excited beyond belief. All the men in my life hunted and this would be my turn to participate in the tradition. I was an expert shot by then and knew I would hit my mark. We sat in the tree stand and waited and waited till the dawn light and finally saw a deer walk into the baited field. But when I saw the deer through the scope I realized that if I pulled the trigger the deer would be dead. Just like the frog. A wave of guilt washed through me. A pain rose up into my throat as I made my decision. I closed my eyes and shot into the trees. The deer disappeared. My grandfather’s disappointment radiated out and enveloped the cramped tree stand we were hiding in. We climbed down in silence and strode past an automated feeder to where his lifted golf cart sat. Back at camp I heard him mumbling to his friends about the shot being close. Later that night I saw the older men were skinning a deer. They invited me outside to help. The skin was half removed and hanging over so that the upper half was exposed muscle and the lower fur. I began to cry and backed away. The men laughed. My grandfather looked embarrassed. I turned and ran back into the doublewide trailer. I never went hunting again. For years I have replayed those memories in my head, searching for the truth beneath the events. My kid heart told me that it is wrong to kill animals for food if you don’t truly need to. Society told me it was ok. My parents ate meat and my dad even slaughtered our pigs, hung them beneath our tree fort no less, Dad was quite nonchalant about it until I ran outside yelling and crying at them. Yet, I was always troubled by the frog and deer, more so than the pigs. From time to time I’d think back on the hours I stood gazing into the eyes of my uncle’s cows, his and my horses, and dogs and cats. My mom and others would say I was gifted with animals. Animals seemed to trust me. Horses that were supposed to be unruly would soon cooperate with me. Animals and me just get along.
Those experiences didn’t stop me from eating meat that other people killed. We were raised in a typical United States household where you ate eggs and sausage or eggs and cereal for breakfast, a meat sandwich for lunch, and meat with a few token vegetables for dinner. While working as a Congressional Aide up on Capital Hill I began experimenting with diets. I tried the Paleo-craze, just meat and veggies. I tried only plants. I learned that a 100% plant-based diet gave me the most energy and strength, the most vigour. Did you know that the word vegetarian comes from the Latin vegetus, meaning “whole, fresh, lively, vigourous.” Curious how I always assumed vegetarian was derived directly from vegetable.
Peer pressure being what it is—most people in the South stare at you in surprise and disbelief if they see you pass on meat, I mean the other day at a pizza place I ordered a cheese pizza with all the veggies and the server leaned in conspiratorially to whisper, “are you a vegan?”—it wasn’t till I was working in my mother’s bistro that I took real look at vegetarianism. The restaurant provided a new perspective into the ridiculous amount of meat that American’s eat, the outrageous amount of resources used to produce that meat versus plants, and the huge amount of waste inherent with modern fishing practices and industrial agriculture. Combined with my discoveries that I could run farther and work out harder on a plant-based diet, I began questioning how much meat my body really needs. Those memories and experiences met with research into all forms of agriculture, the pollution thereof, and shook my meat eating tradition to its core.
Ultimately, my life experiences have shown my body can thrive on plants alone and that it is not my unquestionable right to eat the flesh of another animal. While I recognize the potential strength and sacredness of the relationship formed between a Man and the deer he hunts, I have not felt that it was a relationship intended for me to experience in this lifetime.
But I got a bit distracted there. Back at the G-store, I simply remembered the frog and deer and allowed that if animal rights groups were against dog sledding there must be a reason. That alone would be worth investigating. My research into the sled dog world suggested that Real Dog Sled Tours (RDS) run by John Updike was among the most respected in the industry for dog care. It seemed a natural place to go. You might say I was pulled to John Updike’s operation. I wrote off an email and left a voice mail before driving back to the river to guide the afternoon trip and in the pools between rapids my head filled with visions of me on dog sled with happy huskies lined out ahead. There was a sureness in my Being. RDS was my destination.
But I heard nothing from the kennel for a week and half. Then I called and left another voice mail. “Mr. Updike, I am very interested and want to speak with you about the tour guide job. Thank you for your consideration. Yadda yadaa” The next day I received a call from Mr. Updike, John, who apologized for the delay but wanted to arrange a time for a proper phone interview. “Call me at 2pm in two days”. Short and to the point. I thanked him, and a couple days later in a grocery store parking lot in Small Town, South Carolina, called the kennel and spoke to John and his head guide Daniel for ninety minutes. It was different from most job interviews. John spent an hour telling me all the reasons I should not apply for the job. “It’s physically demanding. The mountains here create weather like Alaska There will be days of -30F and you’ll be working long hours. The dogs demand absolute loyalty. It’s a huge responsibility. Working with dogs ain’t like working with people and you’ll be doing both. You don’t have the luxury calling in sick or have a bad day. You have to be ready to rock and roll at all times. You gotta be tough. It’s going to challenging. You have to want it. I want you to call me back in three days and tell me you want it. You got to want it.” It felt like I was speaking with Doc Holiday after a long night of sipping whiskey at the saloon and Doc was inwardly debating if he would share his extra cigar with me or shoot me outright. I told John that I had dislocated and broke my middle finger but that I had kept raft guiding and the physical therapist said I should have most of my movement back by November. That won’t be a problem he said. A guide last year had her finger nearly snap off in a dog harness while working and she was back on the sled after a couple weeks. Then I spoke with Daniel who said that the best part of the day would be when the steam from my coffee mug melts the icicles hanging off my mustache. He asked if I had any questions. My one question for Daniel was short but his answer would tell me everything I needed to know.
“Why did you return for a second season?” I inquired softly.
“For the dogs.” Was his simply worded reply but the dead honest what-other-answer-could-there-be emotion carried through the radio waves and I knew that I would be going for no other reason than to see for myself what put that emotion in his voice. The universe was pulling me into the mountains. There was no doubt in my mind that I would be a dog musher. Three days later I called John Updike back.
“Hey John? I want the job. I want the challenge.”
“Alright. I’m glad to hear it. Now this is a verbal handshake. I don’t do contracts or crap like that. Get here between Nov 1 and Nov 12.”
“Yes, Sir. I’ll be there. Thank you.”