Chapter Eight

I can read a person as well as I can read a dog and I think we got a great team here and a great season ahead of us.

Thanksgiving dinner was up at John’s house. He had a restaurant cater food—the standard hor ‘doeurves, turkey, prime rib, and all manner of sides that us guides requested—I asked for brussel sprouts--the spread was worthy of a king’s feast across the pond. We drank wine and beer, smoked cigarettes, and ate till our bellies burst. There wasn’t a clear head in the house. No one thought twice about dog sewage or dog fights or wet house straw.

Of course we did talk dogs. But what about in particular I don’t remember, though I can assure you we did not talk about the ethics of dog sledding. Whenever more than one musher is in a room the talk always centers around dogs. Debates over proper weight. How much fat should a dog have? How often should you feed dogs? RDS fed dogs in the morning, snacks on the trip, and in the evening. The sprint racers that cooked for us only fed their hound dogs once a day. John argued those hound dogs were kept starved, though he saved that strong language for when the cooks weren’t around. Several times I heard his voice thicken with emotion and crack when speaking of the hounds. Yet late that season John bought hound dogs from the very kennel he criticized, and for whom our cooks trained dogs to race, and then handed his race team over to one of their mushers (who had started her career with John). Why the change of heart? Perhaps he was envious that his dog team never won his own sled dog race. In our conversations, his envy of the hound dog’s sprint capabilities was obvious enough. As far as feeding is concerned, the hound dogs being fed just once a day was more to do with the different needs that tour dogs, endurance racing, and the short sprints the hounds were used for. Our tour dogs covered more mileage in a season than sprint dogs, and with more weight on the sled, so we needed to feed twice a day. I also suspect that keeping those hound dogs at the bare minimum level of body fat ultimately creates a higher strength:weight ratio but at what cost? What right does Man have to take total control over a dog’s life?

One night heading back from the bar in town that gives you a free tin pale of peanuts to snack, I asked if running hound dogs vs huskies was more to do with the desire to win a race than the dog’s well being. The question was posed to our cook, Betty. I wanted to open Pandora’s box and knew she would lay it all out if pushed. I got an ear full. Clarissa, Ann, Betty, and I were crammed into Clarissa’s compact car. Betty was drunk off gin martini’s and I gave her a push.

“What’s up with running these hound dogs Betty? From an outsider perspective it looks selfish to run dogs without winter coats just because they run a bit faster than Huskies.” I injected as much innocence into my voice as possible.

“Are you accusing me of not loving my dogs?” Her voice rose sharply and her hands flew up in the air, palms facing out in a gesture to stop. Betty wasn’t having any of that. Whoah. Better back track.

“No. I..”

“I’ll have you know that I love my dogs. Deeply! I care for them. I feed them. I build them small houses and paint them black. I put coats on them. You RDS guys don’t even have coats for your dogs! I love my dogs. They aren’t cold. They’re dogs!”

“Easy Betty. I’m just asking. What about their paws? I thought their paws aren’t suited for snow and ice?”

“We put socks on them of course. You just don’t understand. I love my dogs. Yeah, they aren’t huskies. They’re hounds. So what? They’re my dogs.”

“Ok. But why choose them over Huskies?”

“Because they run faster of course. I race dogs. I race to win. You don’t get it.”

“That’s why I am asking. I want to learn.” It was time to calm her down. She was… fired up. Clarissa and Ann glanced at each other in the rear view mirror, as if to say “nice going Alex…”

“Look Alex. I love my dogs. Don’t you dare doubt that. You just don’t get it.”  

From her rant, I learned that just because a person races dogs does not mean they do it for the dogs. You can do something for yourself or for others or for both and I was beginning to see that many of the mushers I knew were doing it for themselves, because they love competition. They are obsessed with allure of winning. Winning takes precedence over everything else. You can look at running dogs like coaching a sports’ team. I bet you’ve seen a coach more concerned with winning then for their own health, or for their players’ health? How many football coaches have sent concussed players back onto the field, against sound medical judgment, because they want to win? How many team medics have thrown handfuls of pain pills at players just to get people back on the field so they might win? How many youth sports coaches have been spotted yelling and screaming like lunatics on the sidelines? Speaking with Betty revealed the same attitude inside dog mushers.

Betty runs hounds because the hounds run faster over short distances, and she believe hounds are better able to adjust to the life of a sled dog. One could argue takes less effort to form a strong relationship. Hounds are more docile than an Alaskan Husky. The amount may be miniscule but it exists. Floppy ears, flat faces, shorter snouts, long thin tails that don’t curl up—all are child-like (puppy) traits. A puppy is more easily trained than an adult dog. Puppy like facial features are therefore connected to a higher level of docility. Classic has a curly tail, pointy ears, long snout, a decidedly wolf-like face—all traits of grown up canines. Thus, hounds are bred to be dependent while Alaskan Huskies are bred to be tough. While intense training can “create” a dog to suit near any requirement, there is no doubt that strict breeding births dogs with intentioned mental traits. Said another way: Intentional dog breeding is intentionally birthing dogs with specific mental and physical imbalances. There are more differences than just looks and temperaments between hound and Alaskan Huskies. Classic can run all day in the snow and not tear up his paws. His fur is thick and long enough to withstand sub-zero temperatures and harsh winds. He was bred for that weather. Hounds like my pup Spike, unless they are actively running, are constantly shivering to a degree more than the Huskies. Hounds have to wear socks, or their feet will turn to sliced meat. Socks don’t grip as well as paws, socks slip more, that means wearing socks increases chance of injury. I wonder how much of the skin and bones look the racing hounds have is “on purpose” or because the dogs are simply freezing their butts off and burning fat to stay alive. A dog can only eat so much fat before they become sick.

But back at dinner, we talked about which dogs were our favorites, who was the best puller, the best cheerleader, and who gave the most trouble. We talked about how to get dogs to stop chewing and how to best break up a dog fight. We definitely differed on how to break up a fight. Daniel and Katie favored going in feet first and kicking hard. For me that was failure. I’m not a violent person. You might say I believe that violence begets violence. I would rather risk bodily harm to stop a fight without kicking my dogs than run into battle guns blazing. I preferred going in calm and separating the dogs with my body and voice. John would say whatever works, works. My method shows the dogs I’m the leader who will always keep my head on straight while running in kicking and screaming shows the dogs that I’m a crazy son of a bitch who might beat you senseless. Though both methods can stop a fight, both methods do not achieve the same mental patterns. by the end of the season I could stop a dog fight by radiating calm strength. I could will the dog’s anxiety away—with my dogs and even those of other teams—while fights that were broken up by kicking and throwing dogs around almost always intensified before ending. It’s all about good vibrations. Once, while stopped for lunch, I broke up a fight among Samantha’s dogs by calming walking towards them with my palms upturned and one utterance of the dog’s name whom started the fight. The two backed away immediately. It was my first interaction with those particular dogs. A guest loudly proclaimed to the group “I wish everyone could stop a dog fight like that”. The few mushers I have spoken with, whom are among the best in the business, advocated shock and awe methods, not necessarily kicking dogs, but shock and awe still falls short of calm strength.

 John reminisced of the glory days racing through Alaska. He told a story of the first Iditarod race he competed in. The weather was bad with wind chill temperatures of -60F. He saw a man on a snowmobile pulled over on the side of the trail as he climbed the last hill before the finish line. John couldn’t see the top and tried asking the man how much further. The dogs were exhausted and he was nearly beat. The man ignored him though. He yelled out again and was ignored. The guy didn’t even turn his head when John rode passed. What a prick John thought. At a bar after the race he related the tale of the rude snowmobiler and was informed that the man had frozen to death. He was a human popsicle when John saw him. John chuckled as if to say what a weakling that guy had been.

He told us about the time he was running his team through Evergreen River late one night on a training run. A snowmobiler came speeding towards the trail at high speed, perpendicular to John and the team. He tore onto the trail turning opposite John’s direction and nearly ran over his leaders. The team spooked. John grabbed his snow hook, and using the back of it, clotheslined the mystery driver straight off his machine and onto his back as he attempted to cruise past. John never knew who the guy was. Till a couple weeks later. He had been wondering why the boss of a snow mobile tour outfit hadn’t been returning his calls so he asked one of the snowmobile guides what was up? Was the guy sick? Was he ok? Turns out he was the driver that John clotheslined. He was busy nursing his wounded ego. John chuckled, winked at me, and told us not to use our snow hooks that way.

By then I already had my own experience with speeding snow mobiles. Ann, Clarrisa, and I took Ann’s team for a training run. It was Ann’s second or third time driving her dogs by sled. Clarissa was in the basket and I back on the runners with Ann. We were approaching a blind turn on the trail where the canyon walls close in and stand tall above the trees. It was one of my favorite stretches of trail because of the steepness of the walls, off to your right bubbling along and dotted here and there with little icebergs, the river was picture perfect. Everything was going smooth. The dogs were trotting along and the world was quiet save for that soothing rhythmic breathing and the pitter patter of dog feet. We were less than 100 feet from the turn when we heard it. It started as a faint purr but within the span of a single second morphed into a piercing wail that reverberated off the canyon walls. Dog ears stood tall and aware. I heard the sound of a down shift and the wail increase in pitch but it was too late. Before any of us could react the snowmobiler was sliding around the corner through the middle of the trail heading straight towards the team. He was moving fast. I saw his mouth open to scream when he realized he was fixing to collide with our team. He swung the machine to his right in a violent skid just missing the leaders—then he swung it back to the left towards the team when his right runner skipped off the mountain side—our ears were filled with the sound of the two-stroke that was somehow dwarfed by the man’s own scream as he swung the machine back to the right to avoid running over the three of us on the sled. He continued his violent swerve twice more before straightening out and sliding to a stop. He was still screaming. Finally, he fell silent, his chest heaved in and out as he turned his head and yelled an apology. We each cursed at him.

“I’m sorry! Are guys alright?”

“What the **** are you doing? **** you!” You get the idea.

“There’s one more behind me!” He warned as Ann saluted the man with one finger.

I told her to hike the team up to get around the corner before the other came swooping down. As close as we were to the corner it was better to go for the safety of the other side than sit where we were. The dogs took off. Ann let them run full out. We all leaned forward. I could feel all of us, dogs and people, willing us faster. The noise of the other machine echoed off the canyon walls as we made the turn. The other snowmobiler was about thirty yards out and moving fast, but he slowed down to a crawl and threw a single fist into the air to communicate he was the last man in the group. That was the closest call I experienced all season but many times snowmobilers would pass the teams upwards of forty/fifty miles an hour on the straight aways. The forest service road has a 15 mph speed limit during the summer, none posted in the winter. Most everyone travelled at a slow rate of speed out of mutual respect for hikers, skiers, and machine powered users but some folks treated the multipurpose trail like their personal speedway during the winter. I’m sure many snowmobilers thought we were just as out of place on the recreation trail as I thought they were. Most days I succumbed to thoughts deriding their chosen mode of recreation, assuring myself that a snowmobile created more noise and pollution than my dogs.

Eventually, I realized that dog sledding is no different as my sled consumed resources and each of those dogs required a continuous consumption of resources, as do the vehicles that transported each of my guests deep into the mountains for their short vacation. Then, I accepted that I loved exploring the canyons whilst on foot more than by dogsled or snowmobile. On foot put me in touch with the Earth. On foot put me at the grace of the terrain. This naturally led to considering how whitewater rafting fit into this dynamic and the following contemplation of rafting a river, versus swimming or walking along her banks. I saw myself as both raft and snowmobile. By rafting, I partially disconnected myself from the river. Every piece of gear was yet one more layer between myself and the Chattooga. The raft disconnected me from her water--from her furious boils to her tranquil pools--the helmet from the strength of her rocks--the paddle from her awesome power. Hiking and swimming in the river really was my favorite way to experience the Lady. The body is the ultimate conveyor of sensations. Everything we need to be happy and fulfilled in life was created before we took our first collective breath and can be experienced with what we are born with. Why bother with a raft or dog sled? When you are level with the Earth what more can you ask for? Yet, I remember that it took all of these motions to come full circle and it would be foolish to look poorly on my rafting or dog sledding memories and judgmental to look down on anyone’s chosen mode of recreation because every step we take is a step toward good because every step takes us along the circle of life. It’s like yin and yang: to truly love life you must love all facets, the sharp and smooth.

John finished dinner with another speech about how He and Daniel picked a great team, and we had a great season ahead of us. Soon, it would be full steam ahead. It was too late to scratch. He might make dog mushers out of us yet.

By Thanksgiving we were barely a team. A month wasn’t enough time. There were glimmers of friendship but mostly we were too busy adjusting to the environment to have energy for much else. That short dip to the natural hot spring, Thanksgiving dinner, and the hot tub after dinner were the first real opportunities for everyone to socialize. Save Daniel and Katie, we were all doing something for the first time and that’s the sort of experience you never forget. Soon we would find ourselves in absurd situations far removed from the average person’s life and trying to talk about our days with outsiders would only result in confusion. You find yourself disproportionally relying on a small circle of co-workers/roommates/friends who in all honesty you probably don’t get along with and wouldn’t choose to spend time with, except you all live together in the middle of a forest. For better or worse our training was over. It was time for our real work to begin. Six new “friends” were embarking on a new adventure together, and with only each other to relate to and to rely on, emotions would run hot.

 

 

Chapter Seven

 I call it Kennel Blindness.

Late November brought a warm spell that saw Nanook, one of Bennet’s pups get sick, throwing up everywhere and incurring diarrhea. There were a few inches of snow packed down but the snow in the Lower yard was deepest and suffered most from the warm weather. The Lower was first to feel the winds ripping up from the canyon and the snow drifts naturally piled up highest down there. Snow depth in the Lower yard averaged twice that of the Upper. Strong storm winds could surround a dog house overnight with snow drifts and blow buckets of snow inside the house itself. You would wake up in the morning to find your pup shivering inside her house underneath a shimmering sheet of powder; a portrait of yin and yang frozen beauty. Two days of warm weather and full sun put a hurting on the snowpack. The Lower yard looked like a lake dotted by decrepit house boats. I ignorantly joked it looked like the West Indies. From my perch in the Upper it was easier to joke about the water than admit it was a problem. That changed when I walked over for a closer look.

The frozen piss from a month of freezing temperatures was now mixed with the water into a potent brew and the poop dropped overnight could be seen floating idly around the houses. Some of the Lower dog houses were completely surrounded by sewage water—giving the feel of my home state after a slow-moving hurricane drops an ocean on our heads—their occupants staring mournfully at the septic lake rising and sending looks of desperation up at any passerby. The water did not soak into the ground because the ground was still frozen. Daniel said there’s nothing to be done about it. What? Are you saying this is normal? Dogs trapped in their own sewage?

 In the upper yard, my girl Palenque’s house mirrored the lower sewage. She had a little stream flowing from Knox, to Hermit, to Pooh’s, to Classic’s, and finally into her six foot domain. The combined urine and fecal matter of each dog East of her house pooled together at her door step. The wooden spools still sat on their ends so there was a little bit of porch, or door step, for each dog. Later in the season, when the snow was really building up we flipped the houses on their sides so the house was above the snow and resting on its “wheels.” This made it easier to shuffle around and dig out around the houses when the snow dumped.

Poor Palenque stood with her hind legs inside her house, her front paws carefully placed on her porch, looking every bit an abused and abandoned street rat. She reminded me of those kids from developing nations, with the huge bellies, you see advertised with the phone number flashing across the bottom of the screen asking you to call and donate a bit of bread. Palenque’s eyes met mine and my heart melted. The first day at RDS I swore there would be no dogs coming home with me. I needed nights to clear my head—fat chance seeing how my dreams were mostly of dogs running or nightmares of dogs not eating—I further rationalized the pups lived in the yard their whole lives and will die at their houses long after I am gone. But Palenque’s near-freezing septic lakefront house reached deep inside my chest and squeezed hard, so I marched back to the locker room, grabbed a couple spare tug lines to fashion into a leash, and marched on back to my orphan little Annie. The dogs I passed by jumped and howled and barked to grab my attention. Their vibrations shouting at me rescue them. Instead of bringing them all home I kept my head down and zeroed on Palenque till I had her in my arms. Once we were free of the yard I clipped the tug line to her collar and led her safe inside our warm--and dry—apartment. The two of us curled up together on the denim fouton. Palenque was a bit nervous—as if she didn’t think she belonged there—but after a few minutes she settled down and looked for all the world to be the happiest sled dog alive. That night, as I lay atop that old mattress, I thought of the metaphor where the frog is placed in the pot and the water is slowly heated till the frog is boiled alive. My mind and my heart going back and forth over the good of the dynamic. Is it good for the dogs to be chained up if this filth is a regular occurrence? Who is the frog? Is it the mushers, so caught up in the action that we overlook the life? Is it the dog, who having known nothing else can have nothing to compare?

It wasn’t all happy endings for the sled dogs during that mini-melt. As I said, Nanook had it the worse. There were multiple brooks of sewage water flowing from other houses to hers. Her lake was a good half-foot deep and completely encircled her house. Of course the pup got sick. Everywhere she went she had to walk in a septic tank. There was little Bennet could do about it. Most of his pups had similar conditions and there was nowhere to move them. In fact, not once all season did I hear from John that we could do anything, or that anything has ever been done about the melt conditions, aside from moving houses around to expose hidden ice to speed up the melt. The vibe I got from management was that it was a part of life to soldier through. For grizzled dog mushers a challenge was nothing to change—especially if there was high cost attached to the fix. No one at RDS knew how to fix the flooding problem, yet Bennet still received flack over Nanook being sick and comments were made to the rest of the guides that he didn’t care as much as he should—you could almost hear Sheri say that he didn’t love the dogs as much as he ought too. As if a seasonal worker could, or should, love a group of animals that he will only know for five months, that don’t belong to him, but “belong” to a man who does not even know names of each dog. I was surprised how quickly John brushed his responsibility for the dog yard onto a novice musher a month into his first season. How can you blame Bennet for his dog getting sick because the snow melted, especially if it is your kennel? Your design? John said he should have brought the dog inside, which may have worked, except there wasn’t enough room inside for every dog. The Kennel needed to point a finger anywhere but at itself. People get in over their heads chasing their “dream” up on the pedestal and before you know it, they’ve put carriage blinders over their eyes so they might go about their daily lives without too much reality being let it. As John blamed Bennet, I remembered Daniel’s warning about the Spring melt.

 The November melt was also our first insight into straw upkeep. Changing straw was dirty work, time consuming, and often could only be done at the end of the day when you happened to be exhausted from a ten or twelve hour work day. It seemed basic: Every house had straw for bedding and that straw had to be dry. Damp straw meant sick dogs. Snow melt meant wet dogs bedding down onto straw that would not be dry for long. Snow blown into a house where a dog was sleeping meant wet straw. By late November we had been fluffing the straw every other day. It was an easy enough process but one that did not have uniform standards. Ann was the most dedicated to her straw and could be seen fluffing it every morning regardless of whether or not the straw had become matted down after one night’s use. Being in the lower yard meant she had to change her straw twice as often as those of us in the upper. Some guides used only their hands while others used a rail road spike to dig into the corners and cracks to really get at the straw, or a handheld garden rake that while great at fluffing straw, was unable to dig deep into the cracks where the mold and wetness began. Clarissa put the least effort into her straw, and to the suffering of her dogs she was allowed to slack most of the season. Granted, her work effort rose and fell like the tides but the low tides were long. I remember fluffing her dog houses on her day off—my double chore day--¾’s of the way through the season and finding many of them damp, heavily packed, and Persia’s bedding was frozen solid. Finding Persia’s frozen bedding led me to push a trade, Glok for Persia. More on that later. For myself, besides damp straw, I also changed straw when it became too musty inside the house. Daniel had houses he only changed once or twice all season. The straw in those houses was almost saw dust and in my opinion was near as bad as damp straw. The lack of defined and enforced standards for straw upkeep was aggravating, and I often failed to hide my disappointment when it appeared that another guide was trying to take an easy way out. The cock may crow thrice if I didn’t admit that there was one night in the spring when I knew I should have changed straw for Johnny Cash and Hostage—it had rained that day, and though the middle was dry, the bedding was damp around the edges. My dark side rationalized the above freezing night time temperature was warm enough and man aren’t I dead tired? Instead of dragging straw from the barn, I threw in a handful of dry straw to soak of moisture and waited till the morning for a complete replacement. Took me awhile to forgive myself for that.

You can probably tell that dog care keeps a dog running. Judging others’ care seems common in the dog world but no less or more than contemporary society. John’s opinion of rival race kennels was well known and in tit for tat our cooks judged John’s care. By now the new guides were well aware of Sheri’s passive aggressive attitude when it came to dog care. She would often relate how much she loved every dog in the yard and how they were her dogs. Granted, many of the dogs were raised by Sheri or Sean (a former guide and racer) and it made sense that she felt strongly for them, but half the dogs on my team were not raised by either, and the ones Sheri did train to race rarely received more than a glance since being demoted to the tour yard. The reduced affection was a combination of Sheri needing to distance herself from dogs that weren’t under her direct care to give her more time for the dogs that were still hers, and to not step on the toes of the guides. Kennel politics are a real thing. Even guides like Clarissa, who purposefully distanced herself from her team, would become heated and downright angry if Sheri was seen around her old pups. It was feared that Sheri’s affection would interfere with the dog’s loyalty to their new musher. The dogs raised by Sheri were among my most troublesome dogs, exhibiting the most extreme mood swings and demonstrating the biggest penchant for at-house aggression. I suspect the behavior stemmed from the absence of Sheri’s unconditional care and love throughout the dogs’ infancy and youth, a love that seasonal workers do not usually dole out. The dynamic was further complicated because Sheri was going through a hard time in her life. She was beginning to realize that commercial dog sledding was inhumane (I suspect perhaps the entire sport too) and she didn’t know how to deal with it. She feared for her dogs that now ran tours and wanted to let the dogs know she cared, wanted the mushers to know how much she cared, but the politics interfered. From conversations we shared I know she felt the demand long distance racing places on the teams is abusive. It was the reason she preferred sprint races and why she didn’t race in severe conditions.

The weather had been all over the place, with incredibly low day and night temperatures, interspersed with snow storms and wind gusts that would send a food can clear across the yard and down to the guide house more than an acre away. I was telling Sheri how I got off on the harsh conditions and that I understood why the Iditarod appealed to people. My devil may care attitude struck a chord within her and she sat me down for a talk about running dogs. Sheri was concerned my excitement for challenges made me prone to placing my interests ahead of my pups’. She explained that just because I wanted to go sledding through blizzards and across frozen tundra doesn’t mean every dog on my team wanted to or should have to. While a dog may do near anything—push herself to the brink of death—out of loyalty, misplaced or not, to their companion—that willingness is not reason enough to ask it of her. Sheri was telling me something I had known as a child but in the endorphin high I rode since arriving in the mountains—that fundamental understanding of the equality tying together Man and the animal kingdom—was kicked to the curb in favor of the immediate sensual pleasure of being dragged across snow. During her chat, rather than recognize it for wisdom, I nodded my head and tried not to roll my eyes as I inwardly labeled Sheri a softie who wasn’t cut out for the sport. My ego traded blows with my heart over running dogs and loving dogs. I recognized Sheri wanted out of the kennel, and that she already suffered from survivor’s guilt. She was horrified of leaving the dogs she raised and loved from puppies in anyone else’s hands. She felt trapped. She both wanted to run dogs and free them. My ego succeeded with preventing me from seeing myself in Sheri. The universe offered me a mirror, in Sheri, but my ego succeeded with preventing me from seeing myself.

Most mornings Sheri would end the morning meeting with a plea for the guides to take their responsibility seriously. That the dogs couldn’t care for themselves. That we should be taking as many dogs home to our apartments as could fit so they could sleep in the warm apartment. She would throw up sorrowful disappointed eyes in our direction if we didn’t. She stressed we should be putting fleece coats on our dogs. No mention though, that we had maybe 15 coats that weren’t chewed up and 187 dogs with maybe another 15-20 that needed to be thrown out or sewed up. John was always silent on the issue of dog coats. The combination was frustrating and built a wall of resistance in my mind.

He was also noticeably silent on the connection between the extreme behavior of the dogs and their environment. After two weeks I connected the dots between the how the dogs lived and their extreme social behavior. The kennel was akin to a prison yard with dogs chained up to houses as tight together as possible. The obvious lack of reliable human love that dogs have been bred to thrive on clearly affected their personalities. This lack is due to the nature of seasonal employees coming and going. Then you have the stark reality that only one or two persons would care for the dogs during the 7 month off-season. My mind readily convinced my heart that running dogs is turning out to be so much darn fun. I know I’ll eventually find a solution, but now was work time. Somehow the early melt pushed past my rationalizing mind and told my heart center to remember John’s Kennel Blindness  speech which he gave during our first week.
           
“I call it kennel blindness” he had declared with his hands resting on his hip bones. “When a person sits too long in one place and becomes used to things, used to doing things his way, it helps when someone new comes along with different ideas.”

John was trying to encourage the guides to think of ways to be more efficient, to find better ways to train the dogs or organize the yard. I felt that it was my path to pay attention to the kennel operation. To know the kennel so I can know how to make it good for the dogs, whatever that may mean. Yet, this path was unknown and my rational mind said unknown was scary.

Nearly every time I looked out on the yard that little “Johnism”, as we came to call his nugget proverbs, burned brightly behind my eyes and a voice somewhere deep inside suggested I expand my view of the kennel. I feared what that might mean? Would I change my mind about staying here? What about the dogs I have begun to love? I stomped that voice quiet. There were dogs to think about and dogs to run. I was there to be a dog musher. The season was days away. Winter was coming.

Chapter Six

We might even make a dog musher out of you.

Bennet’s arrived three days after Ann, bringing our total to six guides. I was stoked for Bennet because he evened out the guy/girl ratio. Daniel said he was working trail crew for a National Park and we both hoped he would bring a good measure of strength and outdoors knowledge to the team. Say what you will, but I worried how the girls would keep up when it came to 12 hour days in the snow—dragging sleds and dogs through knee-to-waist deep powder would be hard. It wasn’t that they were girls either. I worked with girls at the river whose finesse with strokes and ability to read water was leagues above my own, but our bodies handle physical labor differently and another guy to help move the heavy houses and shovel snow would be welcome. This would be doubly so when I learned that Daniel would be suffering from serious back pain and taking cortisol shots just so he could carry feed buckets. Bennet was the oldest at 36 and looked ready to rock and roll but also wary. I got the impression he was scoping the kennel to see if he wanted to stay. He brought a collection of snow skis and was obviously hoping for free time to play. After the phone interview with John I figured there would be just enough time to sleep before waking up at five am to get started again, so I questioned how Bennet could hope for free time as a musher. For all I know John could have led Bennet to believe he’d have time for skiing, but that’s little more than wild speculation.

By the third week everyone was getting time with their pups pulling the ATV, and the snow was falling and daytime temperatures dropping which had everyone in high spirits. It felt like Christmas was approaching but instead of Santa Clause we wanted, we wanted snow for sledding. We spent our days putting finishing touches on our dog houses—chinking, changing out rusty chains, replacing food cans that were rusty or chewed up, and though we were encouraged to sew up old harnesses, Samantha was the only guide who ventured that way till Spring came around and we were forced to repair harnesses (the dogs had chewed up enough harnesses that we ran short). I think she only sewed up one or two before realizing no one intended to join her. Best of all, we were given permission to work on our sleds. Each guide would have two sleds. Daniel, Clarissa, and I would have first sleds between one and two years old, while the other guides’ first sleds were… older. Everyone’s second sled would be aging, except for Daniel and Clarissa. Ann nicknamed her sled the Caddy for its large size and even larger weight.

There was no uniform standard in sled upkeep until Daniel took over the head guide job. One of his goals was to make sure the guides kept up sled maintenance. That means checking the many nuts and bolts that held the sleds together. Checking the string lashing which wrapped around every connecting joint. Checking the brakes. Everything rattled mightily when the brakes dug into snow pack and the last thing you wanted was for your brake to rattle loose. I felt like a teenager with his first car. I remember when my grandpa gave me his barely used Jeep Wrangler, I had opened the hood and crawled underneath, and then asked my other grandfather, an auto mechanic, to show me what everything did and how it all worked. The sled was no different. My first sled was in good shape—the previous user only had a season on it—but my second sled was much older and was all sorts of trouble. All of the string lashing that helped to hold the sled together at the many connecting joints needed to be redone. This was good news because I wanted a fixer-upper. Soon every joint would have bright yellow lashing slathered in lacquer. The brake was bent up and the paddle bits worn down to nubs. The bolts binding the metal brackets , which held the sled basket to the rails, were stripped out and nearly useless. More screws bind the rails to the runners beneath but those were stripped too. The runners are hard smooth plastic strips on the bottom of the rails. Ideally, the runners are the only piece of the sled to touch snow and you replace them when they get too scratched up. But in my case and considering the number of screws that were stripped out, it was a miracle the runners didn’t fall off when I moved the sled from the barn. It was amazing to me that this sled went out in this condition, let alone it was the guest sled. Icing on the cake was the realization that the sled was a bit narrower than my first sled which made it prone to tipping over. I wondered how many guests had tipped over and gone flying into a snow bank. All the problems with my second sled gave me ample reason to work hard fixing it. An abundance of opportunity! Visions of chasing down a runaway sled with children falling out of it danced around my head while I worked on it in the feed room. Then John walked through my daydreams with four pizzas and a case of warm Budweiser to fuel our bellies. He told us that he only drinks warm beer, kept under the front seat of his truck, that way he can always have beer to offer, but never have to give any up. How has drinking become so accepted in our culture that people brag about drinking warm beer so they don’t have to share?

 Generally speaking, there was a never ending supply of work to be done and we prioritized based on our individual capabilities and how much work we were willing to do for an estimated average of $3.50 per hour. For example each guide would have one day off a week till the holiday rush started. During the rush we worked forty days straight. That’s six full day trips and one half day trip a week. After the rush each guide could expect one complete day off and one chore day. I took my day off the first week in November and decided I wouldn’t be taking any more. For one, I felt bad for the dogs who didn’t get a day off—they were always stuck on their chains and if their musher didn’t go spend time with them then no one spent time with them. I was in there to run dogs which meant that the pups on my team were my responsibility, and like my dogs back in Florida, that meant it was my job to care for them whether I was tired or not. Memories of choosing to play video games instead of playing with my dogs stood bright in the dark corners of my head and weighed heavy on my shoulders. The dogs were living animals no different from me, and since we were controlling every aspect of their lives it was clear they needed me more than I needed them—dogs are bred to thrive on human relationships—so the least I could do was go feed and scoop their poop on my “off” day and spend a bit of time with each pup to show them I cared. Sounds easy right? I had 25 sled dogs to care for. If I spent 10 minutes loving on each dog that added up to over 4 hours a day. Rarely did a work day run shorter than 10 hours during the Rush, so add ten minutes of dog time and you’re looking at 14 hours a day. Not sustainable. The best I could figure was if I woke up at 4:30am it would give me enough time to make breakfast, do calisthenics, and get to the kennel 45 minutes before everyone else. This created more time to do chores which I allotted to poop scoop time to spend a few extra minutes with each pup first thing in the morning. In the evenings I added on a couple more minutes per dog. This meant I was usually the first up the hill and the last down, but the pups seemed to react well to the increased attention and importantly I was able to rationalize the poor living environment of the pups by knowing I was doing my best to make their lives about more than just pulling sleds. Unfortunately, I also found it easy to resent the other guides for not spending as much time with their dogs. More on this soon.

Daniel did a good job by slowly increasing the workload over November, but all the new information we had to process left us mentally and physically exhausted. We didn’t spend much time socializing as a group. There wasn’t any energy left over for chit chat. Clarissa, Ann, and I would drink wine, Ann and I would get high, Bennet would sometimes walk over, Katie too. Matthew and Samantha usually went back to their cabin down the way. This was alright with me. I feared making good friends and then trying to stay in touch after the season. Could take too much effort, could be a hassle, or could be heartache. Weird huh? Anyway, Daniel kept himself aloof and my impression was that he meant to create space while he figured each of us out, and learned how to be the boss. He was responsible for nearly every aspect of the tour operation, from training us guides to organizing our schedules, and most importantly to keeping eyes on everyone to make sure the pups were being properly taken care of. Since none of us had worked with dogs that meant he had his hands full, and it being only his second season as a musher meant Daniel was still learning himself. There was a heavy burden on his shoulders. Several times I offered to help any way I could but we both knew there was nothing for me to do but care for my own corner of the kennel.

It was soon clear that John’s presence during training would be minimal. Not once did he take guides out on a sled nor did I ever see him hook a dog team up. Once or twice he would act out scenarios—demonstrating a deliberate walk for instance—and though he was always willing to tell stories or answer questions there was limited time for even that. The guides started work before John did and often he would be in the office making phone calls during chores. John would leave in the early afternoon to go drink at the bar and when he returned he was too inebriated deal with. A talk with John after the bar could become two hours of monologue that quickly ate into precious sleep time and dwindling patience. I went up the hill for drinks a handful of times that season—John’s house was part of the main building in between the office and the feed room—but even those few times I had to admit that losing valuable rest for conversation that often went nowhere was not in my best interest when I had 25 dogs counting on me to be full strength. Another reason I didn’t like going up the hill to talk to John was this: since I’ve recognized my own weakness towards drug abuse, being around just one drunk generates uncomfortable levels of anxiety. As I write this story, I have reached a point where I can remember my breath and breathe through the emotion and recognize the situation as another opportunity for mindfulness.

I do not believe our ability to run dogs was hindered by John’s lack of direct involvement. If anything it allowed our learning to flourish. People learn better when they have the freedom to truly experiment and learn for themselves. Had John micromanaged us I fear I may never have reached the level of understanding I came to share with my dogs. I suspect his distance was intentional, to let Daniel run his own show, to give us the chance to fail on our own, but perhaps also because he was tired of the game? Yet, he was always willing to talk shop and share experiences with me. The typical grizzled old man and the apprentice. I sensed he saw in me the future of his kennel. I felt needed and that felt good.

Shortly after Bennet arrived, and just before the trail was closed for the season to wheeled vehicles, the guides sans Daniel and Katie drove to the hot springs nearby. This was first time all the new guides spent several hours in a row socializing outside of work. Before leaving the house Ann, Samantha, and I smoked a bit of Ann’s weed with Bennet’s fake cigarette pipe. Now that my senses were dulled it was time to sit under the stars in water heated by the Earth itself. Strange. One minute I’m avoiding being around drunks trying to dull themselves to life, the next I’m smoking a small bit of weed to do the same thing. An abundance of lessons indeed.

At the pull-off for the springs there was a single-track trail with a bit of fresh powder leading down the hillside to the banks of Evergreen River. Across the shallow water would be the hot springs. Each of us issued short cries of surprise for snow falling onto bare toes as we hiked to the bottom. We stared at Evergreen River and the shadows past, where supposedly lay hot pools of water waiting to warm us back up. Bennet declared that he wasn’t exactly sure where the pools lay, it had been awhile since he was here last time, but once across he could find them. He of course assured us it was only ankle deep. We of course managed to cross where it was up to our knees. The water stung my skin and sent a rush of tingling communications to my brain that nearly cleared it of the fog left over from the weed. Clarissa yelled something about how cold the water was and Samantha told her not to whine. “It’s refreshing don’t you think?” she added.

Once through the creek we happily saw Bennett chose the right spot after all, and we undressed as he checked the water temp of the two pools. The bigger one was thankfully the warmer one. We had brought beer and wine and after strategically placing the drinks on rocks near the pool’s edge we crowded into the tiny hot spring on the banks off the river. The water was warm enough to fend off the cold, but only truly hot near the flow, and we had to lay on our backs with our feet all tangled up to submerge our chests but we didn’t care one bit. The sky was clear, snow was everywhere, the water was soothing, the wine was flowing, and the stars were shining bright. By a stroke of luck I had laid down at the mouth of the hot flow and thanks to the trifecta of marijuana, wine, and mineral springs, I was soon sweating and wishing I brought more drinking water. Ann noticed my forehead sweating and accused me of stealing all the hot water.

“Hey you! You’re blocking all the hot water, we’re getting cold over here! Scoot your butt over!”  I mumbled something about bringing the wine but moved a foot over to the left before Ann could point out she brought the weed.

Clarissa announced she hadn’t taken a shower in days … “Guys sorry if I smell like dog shit but it’s been a hot minute since I showered.” She was holding her wine up like she was giving a celebratory toast.

Samantha chimed in “Do I smell? I find my pheromones intoxicating!”

“I find your pheromones incredibly intoxicating. In fact, I may scoot a little closer to you.” Bennet dead panned in between sips on his beer and a short left-to-right shake of his head.

“Like a mosquito drawn to the blue light zapper” I added.

“No. We all smell like wet dog. It’s a real thing. It’s happening.” Ann joined in. Her face screwed up in mock panic.

“Can I get my glass topped off Ann?” Clarrisa pleaded “I can’t bear to leave this water.”

“No no, the cold air kills bacteria. We can’t smell. It’s physics.” I added to keep the banter going.

“Well, it must not be cold enough Alex. I live with you; I know you haven’t showered in like… three days. And you smell like dog too.” Clarissa said matter-of-factly as she raised her arm and pointed down towards me, like you might point at a dog to tell him to sit down.

“So what brought you out here Alex?” Bennet asked.

“I needed a winter job. Over the summer I was a raft guide, down in South Carolina, and needed to find something. Started looking through a National Geographic magazine for ideas, Saw a picture of dog sledding, and here I am.”

“National Geographic huh? Must have been a good photograph.”

“I like that.” Approved Samantha.

“What about you Bennet?” I asked back.

“I did the ski resort thing the last few years. Really wanted something different this winter. Figured what the hell. This is a great place to be though. Hopefully I’ll get some good cross country skiing done.”

“Yeah, I don’t know man. I think we are gonna be pretty damn busy this winter.” I said.

“You never know Alex” Ann remanded softly from her corner of the pool.

“Naw, he’s probably right. But if I get to go twice a week I’ll be happy. The Forest Service grooms the trail every night and we live right here. It’s a pretty epic set up. What about you Clarissa?”

“Me? I just wanted to run dogs, yo! But seriously, why not?” The wine had Clarissa loosened up.

“It doesn’t seem like you like the cold?” Samantha teased.

“No, I hate the cold.”

“Great job for you then huh? Probably hate dogs too huh? And Ann, you applied for the job last year, if I remember correctly.” said Bennet.

“Yep. But I was too late. Not this year though. I just wanted something different. This is different. It’s so beautiful out here. I love it.”

“You can say that again. And Samantha? Did you come here just to sleep with the office boy, Matthew, who we have yet to meet?” Clarissa said raising her glass once more.

“Hardly.” Samantha dismissed with a curt nod of her head. I’m here for the dogs. They are so freaking cute.”

“So you two don’t have a history?” I asked.

“Oh we have a history. But this is now. I’m not tied down. I’m here to have fun. All kinds.”

It was a good release to for us to share our reasons and our thoughts for coming here. From all over the country—New York City, Florida, South Carolina, Alaska, and Boston--to run sled dogs tours for an old grizzled veteran musher. Ridiculous. But there you have it. I wonder how much of our tenacity to believe we could do anything we want stems from society or our parents. But then our parents are arguably a product of society too. An Australian English Professor once told me that all Americans believe they can do anything they want and that if they don’t reach it than they believe to have failed. He said we put too much stress and expectations on our shoulders. This so called American Dream is more a Nightmare. That we don’t believe it is ok to fail. Failure after all is growth, he reminded me. We should believe we are capable of anything, we have everything we need to be the best, but if for some reason we mess up, that doesn’t mean we are destined to trip up. Back then, I was one of his many Teaching English as a Foreign Language instructors, over yonder in Madrid, Spain. He gave me the talk because I was having a difficult time adjusting to the role of educator. Despite never teaching before I jumped in head first with 33 hours a week of class and fell flat on my face under the workload. It was the first time in my life I didn’t excel and I was frustrated, angry even. I am grateful for that conversation. He would no doubt be pleased that I still draw on that conversation—every time I catch myself stressing out over job performance—as a raft guide where failure on the water has severe consequences yet also holds great reward and forward progress but also in the office as a law clerk, reporter, Congressional aide, construction worker, and line cook, yadda yadda. Anyway, I’m happy to continually test my limit with the awareness that mistakes equal growth, and that night in the hot springs I was pleased to find the company of like minds. Each of us wanted to run dogs because we believed it to be outside of our regular comfort zone. The job would require focus; the kind of focus that you can’t find sitting inside an office building but exists in spades for the outdoor guide.

Laying there in the water I let go of my earlier apprehensions towards friendship. I wanted friends. I needed friends. Why wall myself off? Better to have loved and lost than not loved at all, right? The season hadn’t even started yet but it felt like I had known these folks for months. Maybe we all can stay friends long after winter. We stayed under the stars till the beer and wine was gone before begrudgingly dragging ourselves out and through the frigid creek water and back up the hill to Bennet’s vehicle. I think we all hoped for more nights like that but that night together would be the last true night of relaxation till January, after the rush, save for brief dips in John’s hot tub on the kennel porch.

Not only was I willing to make friends but I became aware my eyes frequently settled in on Ann. In between her stolen glances at me. She was good-natured, had a great sense of humor, worked hard, and every night shared a bit of weed with me. Love at first sight. In the hot springs, I’m pretty sure she knew right where my feet were but somehow she kept accidently brushing over them in a manner almost caressing. Her blue eyes glittered under the night sky and I started to warm up to the idea of another romance. In the house, we would do yoga together while Clarissa typed away on her laptop and it was clear to us—and especially Clarissa—that eyes wandered. Oh Brother. Here and there I began helping her with her chores—like sweeping the floor when she was on floor duty—cooking extra breakfast to leave on the counter for her to find—and massaging her feet in exchange for shoulder rubs. Yep. Foot massage. My emotions were torn between keeping her at distance, which seemed best, or giving in to carnal desires that were tempting but saddled with warnings. I settled for telling myself to let her make the first move. I consoled myself that she took great care of her dogs even if I thought her snow shoveling could use a bit more umph.

While I was initially impressed with Daniel, Samantha, Ann, and Bennet’s work, I wasn’t impressed with everyone. From my vantage point in the dog yard I could see everyone, and since Clarissa and mine runways shared the same connector trail it was impossible not to be aware of her work. Daniel also made us yard partners which meant on her day off it was my job to feed and scoop her yard, so I began learning the names and habits of her dogs too. Everyone hated double chore day. It meant twice the time carrying buckets and more time outside freezing when you could be doing your own chores. Those days always seemed longer. More so since I didn’t take days off which meant Clarissa didn’t have double chore day. Even so I noticed she didn’t put as much effort as I thought she should considering these were living animals under her care and not just another newspaper article. I chalked it up her adjusting to the challenging workload and hoped she could handle the Rush. I wanted to like Clarissa. I wanted us to be friends, but wasn’t mindful of her or even of my own thoughts towards her and how I perceived her work ethic. I was annoyed with her because I have acted similarly in the past. At least I am mindful of my behavior now. Bennet was put off by the long hours and though he didn’t discuss it with me it was obvious he was second-guessing if he wanted to stay for the season. Nothing to do there but cross my fingers he would choose to stay.

Another week came and went and by the last few days of November there was enough snow for real sleds, but not enough snow to build the side hill, which meant we still needed the ATV for the steep side hill. If you are confused then imagine how we felt when told we would be hooking the dogs to the sled and the sled to the ATV, to slow the dogs down on the steep hill into the parking lot. Once clear of the parking lot we would disconnect the ATV from the sled. On top of that, the trail still didn’t have a solid layer of snow pack, so though we could use sleds we couldn’t take sleds solo because there may not be enough snow to secure the snow hook. The snow hook was the only way to keep a team from moving or at minimum give you enough warning to run back to the sled and jump on. The dogs still didn’t trust any of us. At all time there had to be someone standing on the brake.

By then I ran each of my dogs at least once. Most, but not all dogs, were conditioned for a half day trip, or ten miles. Clarissa and I would be going out at the same time; Daniel with Clarissa, and Katie with me. I hooked up the dogs without any difficulty. It helped that I picked all reliable dogs, mostly dogs above 8 years except for the dream pair of Nugz and Hostage. Classic and Elana were leading the team. These dogs were well-behaved dogs. They rarely snapped at other dogs while chained to the house, demonstrated they would run with any dog, but most important they seemed balanced. The dogs born and bred and RDS were usually the opposite. I suspected the sheer number of dogs on chains at RDS affected their minds more than at smaller kennels. Classic was a great looking dog, you wanted him to like you, but I could tell he hadn’t really warmed up to me yet, whereas Elana began batting her big raccoon eyes at me from the first supper. John said the pups will come around once they know you are their musher, and after you run them. So far that theory matched with my experience: The dogs who had shown shy behavior around me from day one still demonstrated that behavior unless I ran them, and the more times I ran them the more improvement I saw.

Little old lady Aphrodite was the first of my pups to show a change of heart but her enthusiasm to see me started and ended with the harness. When I went to hook her up that afternoon she stretched and pranced around once she saw the red harness dangling from my right hand. I smiled from ear to ear since it was the moment I had been waiting for. Even if you know in your head a dog is shy because you are unfamiliar it still hurts a bit when they avoid your affection. So long as I held a harness in my hand Aphrodite was all about me.

Despite early success with Aphrodite I still had two dogs—Hostage and Nugz—that ran away and locked up into balls of tense muscle when I attempted to show affection, feed them, or harness them for a run. Hostage and Nugz were both going out this trip. Katie watched from the ATV as I stepped along their chains and slowly slipped harnesses over the trembling brother and sister. Part of me thought I shouldn’t force it and that it was wrong to do so but the argument from John and Daniel was hard to dismantle. It was their job whether they liked it or not. Plus, my own eyes had seen dogs become friendly once I ran them when just feeding did nothing to win loyalty. Hostage and Nugz were hooked up separate on the line, and both sets of eyes were darting nervously from the other dogs to me and back again. My train of logic said that the two dogs would have to learn to run with other dogs and the earlier I forced them to adjust the better. Later, I decided to run them together unless I absolutely needed to separate them. They were damn nervous. Hostage was straining against her tug and neck line to put as much distance between her and Crow as possible. Her neck had somehow become elongated and curved like a flamingo as she struggled to break free. Nugz was more submissive with his tail tucked under to his belly with his ears tucked back and his shoulders dropped low. To look from Nugz and Hostage to the other six dogs was night and day. The rest were excited, gung ho, and impatient as ever to get running. It was disconcerting to see so much fear and trepidation from Hostage and Nugz but with reassurances from Daniel and Katie that their behavior wasn’t uncommon, I walked up to Classic and knelt to unhook him from the old tire anchor. Classic howled in my right ear and pawed at my legs in the doggie version of “Let’s go Running It’s my Birthday Let’s go Running!” I forgot about Hostage and Nugz. It was go time. I walked back to the sled and looked over at Clarissa as she hooked up her last dog and gave me a thumbs up as I shouted at her over the roar of the yard “I’m good to go!”

I looked back at Katie sitting on the ATV. She seemed to be enjoying this moment as much as I was. Katie clearly loved being a part our training—getting to see our reactions to running dogs. I turned back around to keep an eye on my team in case one of them started chewing a neck line in frustration. Even though I was ready, Clarissa was leaving first so my team had to wait a minute more before taking off. The dogs were erupting with howls and barks as they screamed their impatience at the world. I shouted Crow’s name as he bent his neck to snap at his red nylon neckline and he jerked his head back out straight at the sound of his name. I patted my side pocket to check I had back up necklines. In what seemed like ages—the few seconds waiting to run your dogs when you’re standing on the sled is an eternity—Clarissa hiked up out of the yard. I looked back at Katie to give her the signal but she was showing me the end of the snub line with a smirk and a thumbs up. I said “Go Ahead!” gave a short push of the sled and off we went.

The sled runners felt foreign and alien but in a month they would feel like an extension of my foot. I lifted one foot off and then the other as I played around shifting weight left and right. I danced from side to side to get a feel for standing on the left runner versus the right runner, and one foot on each side. Then I danced side to side just because I could. It felt a bit like skiing and bit like nothing else. My face hurt from a Cheshire cat sized grin. I looked over my shoulder to see Katie raise a fist into the air and hoot “Awwe whooo whoooo!” I was standing on a dog sled! But there was still that lumbering ATV behind me, throwing my sled around like a big weighted pendulum. A rope connected the ATV to the locking-carabiner in front of the sled that held the sled’s bridle and gangline. This meant I had to steer and brake the sled independent of the ATV down the side-hill. The ATV was hooked up to help slow the dogs down because there wasn’t enough snow pack on the hill for the sled brakes alone to do the job. Only about four feet separated the musher from the brush guard on the ATV. If the driver wasn’t paying attention he could run over the Musher standing on the back of the sled. Up ahead I saw Daniel and Clarissa disappear over the horizon above the side hill and looked back down at my feet to check that I knew where the brake was. Katie and I slowed the team to a crawl as my leaders vanished over the hillside. Now the middle of the team was going over and I could see Classic and Elana again as they lowered their bodies a hair to lead the team down. There were two big ruts from Daniel’s ATV so I tried to steer away by shoving my left foot into the snow to the left of the runner—forcing the sled to track left—but failed spectacularly. The left runner caught in a rut and jarringly forced the whole runner down into it. The dogs looked over their shoulders in annoyance and I felt my face redden. There wasn’t time to worry over it. The sound of metal crunching through snow, ice, and the rocks beneath filled my ears and fought for dominance over the combustion engine revving up in protest at the descent. Gravity and dogs, unfortunately assisted by thin snow, won against sled brakes, and our acceleration increased. Katie mirrored my sled’s motion to keep the ATV directly behind the sled and let the engine whine higher and higher to slow our descent. Seconds later we hit the bottom and made our way onto the trail. Daniel had already disconnected his ATV from Clarissa. I gave him a double tap on my head to signal we were OK as we pulled to a stop behind them.

Katie unhooked the ATV. Just dogs and a sled now. I was about to explode. The pups were too and each demonstrated by jumping and pulling at their harnesses. Never were eight dogs so eager to run. My mind flashed to when John lectured “never let the team go unless you say so.” This meant that even though I wanted to let the dogs run, I first had to show I was in charge. The dogs weren’t fooled. Once Katie turned off the ATV, and stepped onto the sled’s right runner, they leapt and dragged us a good fifteen feet before giving in to the paddle brakes scraping against the snowpack. I hadn’t learned how to speak to the team so my voice commands did little to convince the team to stop. My “whoaaaaaaaaah pups” was short and loud instead of drawn out and low. The opposite of the correct tone needed to slow or stop a team. Short and loud sounds lend towards increased energy and activity whereas low and long sounds suggest reduced energy and activity. Not my best start but luckily that didn’t matter—yet—the team was stopped so without waiting for them to drag us again I yipped out “Go Ahead!” and off we went.

An almost silence occupied the space vacated by their impatient protests. The only sounds being rhythmic breathing of dogs and the soft pitter-patter of padded feet on snow. It was a beautifully glorious sound. Better than a choir of angels. My ears were no longer offended by the brash whine of the ATV and the dogs seemed more relaxed. After a month of waiting, watching the dogs chained up, they were finally running. It felt like I was finally doing something. Laid out before us were two miles of rolling hills and all around ancient and the Evergreen River down to our right. Not a soul to be seen beyond the two teams. That night in my notebook I recorded that my first experience running dogs, on a real sled, brought the same outrageously feel good emotions as my first descent on the Chattooga. Was it the anticipation that did the trick? The novelty of new action? The uncertainty of a new activity? Rafting and dog sledding share little in common, except that in both cases I looked forward to it. It isn’t the action, but the hope, the eagerness to experience, that generates the greatest emotion which in turn inscribes the event into our memory bank.

I looked over and shared wild grins with Katie. My face was still hurting from the wide smile, or was it the cold air? Naw, definitely the smile.

Many of the dogs poop in the first mile so there was a bit of slowing down as each of the pups relieved themselves. Katie nodded approval and showed how you can rest your foot on the brake while still keeping your heel on the runner; place your weight on your heel and cock your foot up to rest your toes on the brake. This gives quick access to the brake if you suspect you’ll need it, like when going downhill. Tour dogs at RDS ranged from 1.5 years old to 13 years or more so we took speed seriously. If you have a wide age range of dogs you kept your speed achingly slow to keep every pup comfortable. Not to mention the two blind dogs, Tiger and Cabernet, on my team. Anytime you went downhill you slowed the dogs down to give them more time to place their feet. Sometimes the trail would be rutted from snow mobile traffic and an older dog is more likely to be injured from a slip and fall. The older dogs were severely bowlegged, from pulling sleds their whole lives, meaning rarely did an older dog run smoothly. Their bodies were simply too worn down.

A couple miles from the kennel was the fork to the training trail up Little Evergreen Creek. I saw Clarissa’s team make the left hander and marveled at how her dogs leaned forward and sped up when they began the turn, and how the sled leaned into the turn. Anticipation was building as I waited for my moment to yell “Haw!” Then, like air escaping from a balloon, my excitement deflated as my team sped up and turned without command. Classic and Elana had followed the other team’s lead. I took a deep breath and pushed aside my annoyance and looked on the bright side—the dogs were loving life—life was great because I was out with my dogs. I was upset because, for a moment, I wasn’t the one in control.

After the turn lay the first good size hill and the dogs tackled it head on. At the top of the hill I remembered that we were planning on stopping for a breather soon after the climb. I was about to ask Katie if we were close to the stopping point when Daniel radioed me on the walkie talkie:

 “Is Elana alright?”

“Yeah, I think so, why?” My gut told me she was fine but the questioning tone with a bit of concern gave me pause.

“She looks to be favoring her paw.” His concern was unmistakable.

“Really? Which one?” My heart dropped. How did I miss that? I didn’t see anything and I literally hadn’t taken my eyes off the team. My eyes were oblivious to the winter wonderland around us.

“Her front right paw, see how she favors it? Stop the sled and check her out.”

I still didn’t see anything but figured Daniel’s experience showed him what my novice eyes failed to catch. I stopped my team, set my snow hook in the snowpack, and asked Katie to step on the brake while I walked up the line to Elana. Quietly, Katie slipped my snow hook out of the ice and re-secured it onto the sled. Up front with Elana, unaware of Katie’s actions, I checked each of her paws. Nothing. I radioed Daniel and informed him.

“Nothing Daniel, I don’t see anything.”

“Weird. Well let’s get moving but keep an eye on her.” His voice betrayed doubt in my examination and I bristled slightly before affirming my belief that Elana was fine.

“10-4”

Before I could turn around the dogs leapt at their harnesses. The team was running! I raised my arms in the human version of STOP and sharply yelled “WHOOAAHH PUPS”! Too sharply. My cry startled the pups and Hostage bit wildly at Crow. The two dogs started growling and then two more dogs started growling and nipped at each other. Elise stomped on the brake as I tried to calm down dogs. My heart pounded and the team barked and howled in agitation. Great. My first run on a sled and this happens. I breathed deep and told myself this was ok, it was my first scuffle, and it was time to calm me down so I could reassure the team. My pups leapt against their harnesses and snow flew from beneath their padded feet amidst growls and teeth snapping. I had just made it back to Hostage and Crow when I heard Daniel yell “Go, Go, Go!” Katie responded by releasing the brake and commanding “Go Ahead!” The dogs took off again. Running became more important than quarreling. My hands reached out to grab the handlebar and I hopped onto the left runner. Katie patted me on the back.

“Hell yeah! That was your first test!” Katie shouted loudly into my right ear.

“Test?” I raised my eyebrows in disbelief. I nearly had a dog fight for nothing?

“Daniel’s idea”

“Some test”

The walkie talkie hanging from my neck crackled to life. “Hey this is Daniel. Good job Alex. That didn’t go exactly as planned but it worked.” He sounded apologetic but also pleased. “You were supposed to just have to jump on the sled. With no dog fight. But you handled it.”

Another half mile and it was Clarissa’s turn. Since everyone knew the gig, this time the plan was a bit different. Clarissa would walk up to her leaders. Daniel would hike the team up and Clarissa would jump onto the sled. Except Clarissa slipped getting onto the runners and found herself running behind the sled with one hand on the handlebar, legs kicking high as she struggled to keep up, before she lost her footing and went down hard, face first in the snow. Daniel stopped the team. Everyone shared a nervous laugh as Clarissa walked back to the sled.

Ultimately, the run-away sled scenario was the best way for Daniel to train us while keeping the dogs relatively safe. It tested our reaction to an unexpected situation and importantly presented a good opportunity to jump onto a sled. It wouldn’t be the last time I found myself jumping onto a sled as it sped past me— several times that winter I found myself leaping onto the runners of my second sled as it sped past my first team, devoid of any guest driver because the driver had fallen off and was still laying face first in the snow. John and Daniel drilled into our heads that no matter what happens out there, you always keep your dogs safe. There was no option for missing the jump. You simply jumped and you didn’t miss. Importantly, I learned how my mind “wants” to react given unexpected sled acceleration and dog aggression.

Both teams continued forward to the loop trail to set us heading home. The loop trail had been fun on the ATV but on a sled it was another thing entirely. I could see how John had been running dogs for three decades. There is something about a dog team pulling you up and down hills around and between trees. You get high off it. I believe part of the high is from being in a relationship with animals, no matter the makeup of the relationship, and part is related to an ego trip. These dogs are working for you, or with you, either way you’re moving from point A to B without moving your legs. And you are calling the shots.

We made it back to the kennel without further incident. The dogs in the yard heralded our arrival like royalty returning from a victorious campaign. I had never heard a warmer welcome in my life. There’s nothing quite like 180 dogs raising a crescendo as you arrive home by sled. I wanted to turn back around go out again. Instead I checked all the paws, thanked all the dogs, put my sled and gear in the locker room, and fetched them hot meat and kibble soup. After dinner I went around to the freezer and chopped up the next day’s meat with the axe. There was no exhaustion, no lack of energy, that night. I let the axe fly as I chopped up frozen beef and chicken with a glee that probably looked frightful to the average bystander. Pieces of meat flew everywhere. Afterwards I had to hunt around like a hen for all the quarter size chunks dotting the snow like corn in a coop. I slept hard that night.

The next day I went for a short run up Little Evergreen as a passenger while the other guides ran their dogs. The day after that, two days after the first ride with Katie, Daniel sent me out for my second training run.

Because I caught on quickly and handled pressure situations well, Daniel let me take my team out solo—with Clarissa riding passenger, no Daniel or Katie—on my second run. To my delight, neither of them watched me ready the team, AND I was running my boy Knox. The wait to run him seemed an eternity. All the emotions of the moment felt like I was leaving the parents behind to be off to school on my own. The time spent hooking up my dogs was getting shorter and shorter which was great news because I wasn’t getting much better with controlling my excitement, and getting the pups to the gangline while they were bursting with emotion was exhausting, not just physically but mentally. I was excited, anxious, a bit impatient, and so ready to stand on the sled runners and take off with my pups that I gave up with serenity. The dogs were going wild. I had just hooked up Knox in wheel, right behind Classic, when I saw the gangline curl up. I was so focused on hooking up Knox—the tallest and one of the strongest dogs in the yard—that I hadn’t noticed my lead out hook getting popped. The lead out hook keeps your leaders in place, which keeps the gangline tight and keeps the dogs separated. If the lead out hook pops then the leaders have free reign. In this case Johnny Cash turned around and started sniffing the dogs behind him which caused them to back up which led to all the dogs backing up. Elana probably tried to keep Johnny forward but he’s twice as strong, if not more. We were warned over and over again about the dangers of a dog tangle. Now that my dogs weren’t lined out they bunched up and began sniffing each other out. This wouldn’t be so bad except they were all connected to the gangline by a neckline and a tug line. All these ropes easily get tangled and soon the dogs become trapped. Trapped dogs are anxious dogs. They become frustrated and defensive and then aggressive. I knew I had to act fast before a fight broke out but I had no idea where to start. Do I go to the leaders and work at untangling them? Johnny Cash was already in the middle of the team and seemed oblivious to the danger he was causing with his sniffing about. Elana, to her credit, looked at me with pity in her eyes as if she knew was coming next and there was nothing either of us could do to stop it. What does she see that I don’t? My eyes drifted to Knox who was now inching over to sniff Classic’s hindquarters. I felt my stomach drop as I saw Classic look over his shoulder and snarl. Knox immediately lunged and grabbed Classic’s back right leg in an alligator clamp. Johnny began growling while Hostage—the pup next to Classic—tried hard as she could to separate herself from the fight. Elana just stood there peacefully. I fought the urge to jump between them and paused a second to think it over. Knox seemed out of control. The innocent puppy who put his paws on my shoulders, and licked my face, was now a demon hell bent on tearing Classic’s leg in two. Classic was straining at his neck line to get around and bite Knox, but since Hostage was trying to run forward she kept the gangline tight between Classic and Knox—Classic could not close the distance. Aware I was wasting precious seconds and worried the other dogs would join the action, I knelt next to the pups, and making sure Knox saw me, I took a deep breath and pulled his harness with my right hand. The action also pulled back on Classic’s leg which spooked him enough that he spun around, dragging dogs with him, and bit the first thing he saw—which was my left arm. Classic let go immediately and I felt a feeling of regret and shame flow from him as he lowered his head and dropped his tail between his legs. I felt a similar emotion radiate out from Knox and released his hold on Classic. I moved between the two dogs and started making low “shhhhhhhh” sounds to calm the team but it wasn’t necessary. The dogs, as whole, were sufficiently embarrassed by their actions that they were all standing still and waiting for my lead by the time I looked up to see Clarissa running over. Even Johnny Cash stopped his sniffing around. I continued to slow my breathing and felt the tension release from the air as our collective heartbeats slowed. The whole event lasted less than five seconds but if you asked me I would have said five minutes. Time had slowed to a crawl and I had never been so happy to see Clarissa. I asked her to take Knox while I untangled the team. A couple minutes later we were ready for sledding.

The fight presented another lesson in mindfulness. I knew the snowpack wasn’t thick enough to use the lead out hook and that the weak snowpack meant a hook could pop, yet I was eager to be free of the clunky tire. The tire was not as clean or romantic as the lead out hook. The egotistical voice in my head argued that my dogs wouldn’t dare misbehave and embarrass me. Hey, it said, you could be the first guide to use the lead out hook. In went the hook like I was trying to strike gold. The second lesson learned was Johnny Cash’s penchant for misbehavior but that lesson would be experienced many times over. Johnny was used to racing and it was clear he didn’t much care for the tour life, nor did he have any reason to respect my leadership so early in our relationship. He wanted to run and run and run and run and he wanted to have sex with girl dogs.

Clarissa drove the ATV for this trip and was responsible for slowing our descent down the steep side hill. I drove the ATV for Clarissa the day before and replayed the moment as we approached: though I knew not to use the wheel brake, to only use engine braking, I feared the engine would not be enough and did it anyway midway down the hill, and locked the wheels up into a skid. Clarissa had to let up on her sled’s brake, forcing the team into a run, or be steamrolled over. Perhaps I projected my fear onto Clarissa because we did the same thing. Halfway down the hill she panicked, fearing the engine wasn’t slowing the ATV down enough, and grabbed a handful of brake which sent the ATV into a skid. I heard the whine of the ATV dim as the wheels locked up and over my left shoulder saw the vehicle slide at an angle towards my left runner so I let up on the sled’s paddle brake to avoid a collision. The sudden release of brake tension startled the team and a couple dogs faltered while one dog fell to the snow before hopping back up. Since the pup was clipped front and back to the gangline he was dragged along keeping forward momentum and his place in line. My heart dropped when I saw the pup stumble but I was relieved to have learned the valuable lesson without lasting consequences. Those are the best lessons.

We stopped just outside the parking lot on the main service road, now turned snow trail, while Clarissa unhooked the sled from the ATV and parked it along the trail’s shoulder. Clarissa would ride on the runners with me to double as brake backup should I need to leave the sled to attend to the team—much as a guest would during the season. Since there is an art to reminding guests that we have to share the handlebar, she even had orders to act like a guest by slowly widening her grip on the handlebar to occupy a majority of space. I looked over at Clarissa to share a massive grin. All season long I had one of them grins on, but that day it was because there was just her and I on the trail. No pressure from Daniel or Katie checking our performance. Just doing some sled dogging. Our run that morning was smooth as silk and we returned still smiling.

Back at the kennel I was called into the office to speak with Daniel and John. They asked if I was willing to shoulder a bit more responsibility and be the “second guide” after Daniel. If Daniel wasn’t around, then I was in charge. John was happy with my work ethic, my unwillingness to cut corners, and my obsessive need to learn everything about dog behavior and mushing. Starting tomorrow I would help with training the other guides on the sled which mostly meant checking for proper speed. When we started taking trips, if Daniel was back at the kennel or elsewhere then I was head guide on the trip. I accepted. I don’t think the girls appreciated it. A year later one of the girl’s told me they all figured it was because I was a guy and John liked me. That attitude confuses me because John had long ago proved that he didn’t care if you were a guy or girl. Women have been running his tour and race operations for decades, and at the end of the season he would appoint women to again lead his race and tour operations. Nonetheless, there were negative feelings towards me as a result of being the number two guide. Enough that I was soon told to keep any observations to myself and report, quietly, to Daniel.

If I had known there would be trouble later in the season because I was asked to help check on the other guides I’d have agreed anyway. I was becoming aware that these dogs needed us more than we realized but to the detriment of myself and others I embraced frustration and annoyance, clearly negative energies, if I thought someone was slacking off. Compounding upon the negativity, I judged the other guides for not visiting their dogs on their day off. Did they not realize the musher was all these pups had? They weren’t John’s pups—he didn’t even know half their names—couldn’t they see that? Part of me recognized my behavior was self-destructing but still I looked outside myself for explanations of my attitude. My way of dealing with all those emotions, or truly my way of avoiding the emotions, was to throw myself ever harder into the work. I began to distance myself from the other guides. It would be easier to just focus on my dogs.

 

 

Chapter Five

You’ve got to set them up for success.  

Ann’s arrival heralded the first time we could run dogs. Not with sleds of course since there wasn’t yet enough snow, but via four-wheeler or ATV. So far the chore days kept us busy but nearly every minute I gazed skyward and prayed for snow. I was there to run dogs by dog sled! Plus, I felt guilty that I was walking around, doing yoga, and going for runs while the dogs were stuck at their houses. This was longest I’d seen any dog chained up and it was upsetting. I tried walking Johnny Cash. Felt like I clipped the leash to a runaway rhino. It wasn’t good for either of us, so I let him run free, except that early in our relationship he barely knew me, and barely came back to me when called. He took off like a rocket. I never saw a dog run so fast and was very thankful he turned around after a mile or so. I couldn’t go around losing dogs in the woods so that idea was put on the back burner.

Every day without snow was one less day of sled dogging. The ATV seemed stupid to me but I allowed it was be better than nothing. Clarissa was first to run because she got to the kennel first and her report of it being freaking awesome led to a restless night since Daniel said my turn would come the following day. I was up at 4:30 the next morning and probably had half a pot of coffee while I thought about which dogs I wanted to run. It was amazing I found my boots after all that caffeine. The feedroom was warm and empty so I sat down on the plank bench to ponder who to run.  I came up with twelve dogs, twice as many as I needed, or two dogs for every position on a six dog gangline. As soon as Daniel made it up the hill I cornered him and asked when we would go run. Later. After some chores. Blah.

After lunch it was finally my turn to hook up dogs. I checked the gasoline, oil, and tire pressure on the aging four wheeler and brought it around to my runway, picking a route gingerly between the dog yard that by now had risen to a frenzy at the sight and sound of the 4-stroke machine. Daniel told me to pick six dogs, after telling me which dogs I could run up front to lead, and advised against certain dog combos. Don’t run Princess with any girl. Don’t run the sisters Itza and Palenque. Don’t run Knox with anyone. Careful who you run Tiger with because most male dogs don’t like him. Picking where to place dogs was a game of Chess that never ended and during trips I would frequently stop and move dogs around to test combinations of temperaments—we were encouraged to try out combo’s to become familiar with our team. Once I was settled into my team, Daniel said I could experiment with any combo but the first run should be predictably easy. I wish I hadn’t lost the first few pages of the pocket notebook where I recorded nearly every different combination of dogs I ran that season… but I do remember that first run had Elana and Glok as leaders. I desperately wanted to run Spike but was told to wait till later since Spike was still untrained. Elana was up front because Daniel said she would be the leader I counted on most this winter and I should begin building our relationship ASAP. Glok was up there with Elana because he was one of the hound dog mixes new to RDS and was supposed to be a leader, but really I picked Glok because he was thrilled to have my attention from day one and I couldn’t help but like the pup. Both leaders were ten years old giving them a combined twenty years of experience over me.

Once the ATV was snubbed off to the post I carefully uncoiled the gangline to lay it out on the ground. At the front, opposite end of the ATV, I clipped a leader tugline to a chain wrapped around an old tire which kept the team from moving around—you don’t want the leaders turning around and sniffing the dogs behind them. We used a tire since there wasn’t enough snow pack to use the traditional snow hook. Then it was time to hook up the dogs. A dog team has four positions. (1) Leaders up front; (2) behind them is swing also called point; (3) the next section(s) is team; (4) and nearest the sled is wheel. Since I was running six dogs there was no team section—were I running eight dogs there would be one team section, ten dogs would have two team sections, etc… This was the first time in seven months that my dogs had left their chains and they were exploding with energy. I felt their vibrations to my core and my blood was pumping and endorphins flooded my brain as I did my best to walk each dog deliberately, not rushed, from their houses to the ATV idling in my runway. John preached there’s a difference between walking rushed, walking, and walking deliberately. The dogs respond to purpose and they look up to you to set the example. I pictured John stride across the snow as I hooked up the dogs but while I may have got the walk right, the random order I hooked the dogs up saw Daniel laughing, and offering advice lest a dog fight break out. It is harder than you think for a rookie to walk dogs through the yard to the sled. Dogs at their houses were lunging at the dog I was moving. Jaws snapped at tails. Every dog howled and barked. The air around you is electrified and soon you’re breathing fast and shallow and your heart is beating ever faster which increases the team’s energy. The pups know you’re a rookie and they act like it—biting the gangline or chewing their necklines— so you always carry extra neck lines, dangling from a belt loop or you pocket like red garland to replace chewed ones. All of it bounces around in your head and makes it difficult to think clearly. Self-image meets reality and your ego rears up chastising you for potentially embarrassing yourself, scolding you to do better. At least that’s what my ego did. I began to slow my breathing and thought of my yoga practice. My breath slowed and cleared my head of chatter. My vibrations calmed and I was able to ignore the wildness around me. Daniel’s earlier advice, delivered from his perch on a dog house while I laid out the gangline, popped into my head: Always keep your body between the team and the dog you walk to the gangline; don’t worry which side of the gangline you put a dog till they’re all hooked up (since a dog sitting alone would often switch sides in their enthusiasm to get moving). I realized I was wasting time shuffling dogs back to the side marked on paper only to look back and see the pup slide over to the other side of the gangline.

It would take multiple runs to keep a calm and deliberate mind when hooking up dogs. Another point to ponder: you haven’t taught them how you want them to act. For example, some mushers prefer their dogs to be in frenzy while some—like John—prefer their dogs to remain still as a glassy lake till the final cheer a moment before taking off. Anyone can pull off the former but it takes a strong relationship with the team to do the latter. It also takes a strong intention. You have to really want the dogs to be calm and project that thought with deep sincerity. Some people are better than others at it but anyone can figure it out. I heard you can train the dogs never to bark at their house if you take a rubber hose and whack their dog house with all your might at the slightest bark. Essentially the dogs are scared of you hitting the house—scared of the action and sound—and decide it would be better to not bark than risk you smacking their house with a hose. I went ahead and cut a piece of scrap hose but I never used it. Dogs communicate by barking, in addition to posture and facial expressions (and I later learned by telepathy), and a bunch of dogs who are scared to make any sounds—at their own house--doesn’t sit well with me. How much control are we going to exert over their lives before they lose all trace of being a dog?

The dogs got rowdier with every dog till the last dog was added. They knew it was time to party. This was what they lived for. Winter finally came back for them. Daniel climbed onto the ATV and motioned for me to unhook Elana and Glok from the tire. Elana was hopping her front legs a few inches above the ground and Glok was standing on his back legs. Since they were attached to each other by a neck line Glok’s actions pulled up on Elana’s head like a string puppet. Both dogs seemed oblivious to each other and only had eyes for me—the person who was about to free them to run. I felt powerful. The vibes from the two leaders coursed through my blood and I felt high as kite. I removed the tire and the dogs somehow got even louder. My face hurt from the ridiculous grin I sported as I walked very fast—forgetting about deliberate—and hopped onto the back of the ATV as Daniel yelled “pull it!” I yanked on the quick release truckers hitch I tied to the back of the ATV and gave him a double tap on the shoulder to signal “Go!” Daniel hit gas and the dogs all jumped against their harness and then we were jolted to a stop. The quick release I tied had stuck. I jumped off the ATV to examine and realized in my excitement over harnessing the dogs I made an error in the truckers hitch. Now the knot was pulled impossibly tight. Unable to fix it, I kicked at the loop around the ATV’s hitch till it popped off and barely jumped onto the ATV before the dogs pulled it away. We were off.

My orders for the first ride were to watch each dog and memorize how they looked when they ran. The idea is to learn how the team looks while running comfortably because if they ever looked different it was a clue that something was wrong. A warning sign could be a hitch in their stride or ears a half-inch more back than usual, a tail that was up instead of straight back or down, or a tail that was down instead of up. A head that was an inch higher than usual or perhaps they were glancing over their shoulder when they always kept their eyes ahead. The differences would be minimal and only time would give me the ability to tell. Possible problems could be exhaustion, or a snowball stuck in her paw, or a pulled muscle. The dogs were tough and many unlikely to give obvious signs of discomfort or pain while some made it abundantly clear. It was important to check every dog’s paws every day since some of the tougher pups may not give any sign that their paws were sliced up from sharp ice. Since infection was quick to set in the dog yard it was critical that you discovered potential problems before they became serious. Daily muscle massages would give clues to overly sore muscles. Speaking of sore muscles, I was very pleased with the seat cushion made from Styrofoam pool noodles which Daniel loaned me to sit on. He added that over the summer he and Katie used it to hold the chess board while relaxing in the hot tub. I asked if we were allowed to use the hot tub. He said you never know, but that last winter no guides were allowed. Never hurts to ask though.

We were only moving around six miles an hour which seems slow but remember these dogs had not left their chain in seven months, and letting them run as fast as they wanted would only result in injury. Plus, that was the suggested tour speed since we often ran teams of mixed ages, mixed abilities, and we weren’t there to race. I was having the time of my life peering over Daniel’s shoulder, but was also tempted to push Daniel off the ATV and drive it myself. A few hundred yards from the kennel was the transition point from John’s property to the forest service road that we would use to drag guests on down the trail. We called it the side hill. When the snow started piling up we would build a gradual ramp along the mountain side to avoid the parking lot at the trailhead, but in mid-November we took the ATV down the steep hill side straight into the lot. The trick is to engine brake down the hill to avoid sliding from locking up the wheels on the steep slope. This wasn’t a big deal because there wasn’t much snow or ice on the hill yet and you could use the hand brake the whole way if you wanted but it was sketchy nonetheless. Daniel took it like a pro while shouting at me to always keep the gangline tight. A tight gangline keeps the dogs safe. The quickest way to injure a dog was to let the gangline become loose and curl up. The dogs expect tension while pulling and if the line goes slack pups may fall. Picture tug-a-war where one team lets go of the rope while the others are yanking away. It takes constant vigilance because dogs always have to pee or poop which slows them down and allows the line to slack.

To my relief, once we exited the parking lot and entered the main trail Daniel turned his head and asked if I was ready. Hell yeah! He turned back front and said “Whoooaah” in a drawn out and mellow manner while squeezing the brake lever. The dogs turned their heads around in annoyance and I felt their annoyance radiate off of them like a hot oven. After all we had just gotten started! Daniel and I switched places and he told me to say “Hike Hike” as I dropped the clutch. The dogs leapt against their harnesses and off we went at the blistering 6 mph pace. Yes! I was finally running dogs. But this ATV... Bring me the snow! My eyes and thoughts ignored the postcard perfect mountain wilderness—rolling hills covered by sage brush, patches of snow, squared off by mountains dotted with evergreens, and the Evergreen River bisecting the canyon--and instead focused on keeping pace and watching the team. One of the dogs lifted a leg to pee so I eased off the gas a hair to keep the line tight. Daniel approved. I allowed a brief smile before returning to a straight-face focused with as much intensity as I’ve ever showed. We made it a couple miles before Daniel told me to stop so the team could take a breather. “Whoah” I said almost shouting. “Not so loud. You don’t need to yell at them. They can hear you and on a sled you can speak even quieter.” I nodded and locked the brakes before hopping off to go say hi to the team. The pups were ecstatic. All jumping up and down and pulling against harnesses alternating between looking at me with big grins and then staring ahead down the trail. All their expressions saying the same thing “get back on that thing and let’s go!” I squatted by my leaders and scratched their necks, then did the same to the other four pups on the way back to Daniel where he explained we would be taking the left at the fork before taking the next right, which would loop us back onto the main trail headed home. Sounds good to me. Let’s get moving! I did my best impression of “Hike Hike” and off we went. Not to quiet, not too loud, just right, says baby bear.  

At the fork I said “Haw!” and like magic Elana immediately took the team left. Glok seemed to want to go right but he deferred to Elana so I made a mental note of his decision. Perhaps he wasn’t as good a leader as RDS was told. Or perhaps he learned different sounds for right and left. We climbed a hill and then took the first right onto a much narrower trail just big enough for the ATV before looping around back toward home. This side trail was more hilly and curvy and weaved in and around trees. It was easy to imagine myself racing along the Iditarod or some such place. Back on Little Evergreen I yelled a GEE to make the right hander onto Evergreen River main trail though Elana and Glok seem to know we were already going that way. The old horse to the barn syndrome, mused Daniel. Before I knew it, we were almost to the side hill and Daniel asked if I was comfortable taking the team up. Oh ya, I’m ready! He said to drop into first gear and keep the gangline tight. The 4-stroke screamed as we climbed the hill and I grinned at another approval from Daniel. He told me that Elana will know which runway to take once we got to the kennel, but to be sure to stop the team with the leaders as close to the snub post as possible. The yard erupted as we pulled in and boy was I stoked. I locked the brakes and clipped the leaders to the post. I checked their paws and starting with the leaders led each pup to their home. The dogs who stayed home were jealous to say the least. My big 4 year old Knox was making the most noise as he barked and howled in my direction. I would have taken him but Daniel warned me that Knox was hyper-aggressive to all other dogs and it would be better to wait till I was more comfortable before running him. Strange I thought, because Knox seemed to be one of the most lovable dogs in my yard and I had instantly taken a liking to him. Daniel said the musher who had my team last year didn’t like dealing with Knox and rarely ran him. He was older, around fifty years, and some kind of scientist who wanted to spend a season moonlighting as a dog musher for a new thrill. In other words Knox—an impressively tall and fit looking pup—spent most of last season at his house. Obviously he would be hard to deal with. I found myself angry at this other guy who chose the easy way out by not working with Knox. This pattern could be found throughout the yard. Dogs that were troublesome, dogs that needed a careful and loving hand, were the first to be left at their houses. As a result their behavior worsened and perpetuated the cycle.

After I put the ATV and the gear away it was time to feed dinner. By now I was feeding the team two meals a day. A combo of dry kibble mixed with raw beef and chicken topped off with piping hot water. The hotter the better because the cold cans and frigid air would cool the soup quick. In November it wasn’t a big deal but in deep winter the hot soup could freeze solid in under 5 minutes. The first sub-zero morning you spend chiseling frozen soup out of 25 tin cans with an rusty old rail road spike, only to fall behind on your chores and scramble to get ready before the guests arrive, will be the last time you leave food in the can overnight. I bet most of the reason some guides chose to feed their dogs on the ground was to avoid the extra time and responsibility that proper feeding required. Most important John said was training the dogs to eat the food as soon as it was put in the can and to take it away if they didn’t.

John waxed on about the importance of how you fed the pups:

“You have to make it interesting. Feeding time has to be a happy experience because when the weather turns the dogs won’t want to eat. It’ll be too damn cold and these dogs have to work so they have to eat everything you give them. Don’t just dump the food in the can. Let them see you. If you have to play with the food then play with it. If they don’t eat it then take it away. A few days without hunger when the weather is warm like it is now won’t hurt the dogs but in the winter if they don’t eat because it’s cold then it becomes dangerous. I can take five pounds off a dog in one day but it takes a week to put those pounds back on.”

I heard this speech many times in November but despite all that my softer side demanded to give the dogs ample opportunity to eat and I would let food sit in the can over night or during the day. I figured the dogs would eat when they were hungry.

Before the guides walked down the hill to the house that evening, John pulled us all outside on the porch.

“Do ya’ll want to hear the dogs sing?” He asked us like an icecream truck driver asking kids if they wanted free icecream.

“Heck ya” chimed Samantha.


John smiled and strode to the edge of the porch like a captain looking over his ship before leaving port. He was dressed in his usual uniform of tattered farm jacket, blue jeans, and white canvas mukluks. The sweat stained ball cap was pulled down low and the shade it created worked to emphasize the canyon-like wrinkles worn into his face. Standing before the fence railing he appeared to settle into himself. He looked comfortable and sure of his place and his kennel. This was his life and he was doing the best he knew how. Ready for his performance, John cupped his hands over his mouth and let out a long mournful howl. A few dogs gave a short howl back. A few dogs let out a sharp bark. Then nothing. You could have heard a cricket scratching his legs in the still air. I traded a grin with Ann. John let out another howl longer and lower in pitch than the first that raised in pitch before ending. Silence followed. Then Johnny Cash returned with a long howl of his own. John howled again but this time the entire yard sang in return. It was beautiful. John dropped his hands onto the fence railing and leaned forward. You could feel the joy radiate off John’s back. I felt a chill run over my skin and the briefest of curiosity into its origin. What they were singing about? My eyes closed and I took a deep belly breath. Not one of us could deny the magic rising from the howling. Energy pulsed through the dog yard and up into the evening sky and we stood still as statues as near 200 dogs howled their songs together in the approaching darkness. I could get used to this.

Chapter Four

It’s the pack mentality—any sign of weakness and they pounce.

It was only a couple days before Samantha’s arrival and in between, Clarissa, Daniel, Katie, and I, spent the daytime feeding, scooping poop, and chinking dog houses. Chink is the sludge used to seal the cracks in the walls of a log cabin. John picked up expired chink from local developers, for free, for us to slather onto the dog houses. It wasn’t difficult work but you had to be persistent at it because the chink was old and degraded and therefore a bit dry and chunky which made the compound difficult to spread smoothly in the cracks between the wood planks. You started by peeling off any old chink that looked to be already peeling off and slathering the “new” on thick like cream cheese on top an everything bagel. I enjoyed chinking for the opportunity to interact with the dogs, learn their names, and give me peace of mind that I was helping to keep the icy wind at bay. Many dogs shied from my presence, but many also came and licked my face and wouldn’t leave me alone. Their behavior seemed normal enough to me but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. If these dogs spent their lives working with people and ferrying tourists around during winter, why were so many of them fearful of me? Most house dogs are not nearly so fearful of new people.

Samantha showed up next. Samantha wore blond hair cut straight above her shoulders and stood less than five feet tall. After seeing some of the dogs in the yard I couldn’t help but question the wisdom of hiring such a small person to handle the strongest dogs, pound for pound, that I’d ever seen. But despite her height it was clear this woman meant business. Samantha was all go and eager as anyone to get dirty and down to business and I was soon looking forward to working with her. Sam showed up with great energy about her. You know, she seemed fun. Clarissa, Sam, and I started hanging out in the evenings and since Sam’s cabin was about seven miles down the road, and Matthew, the office manager and her roommate, hadn’t arrived yet, we encouraged her to sleep on the fouton downstairs since the more the merrier. Samantha was intense—not in a scary way—she was always giggling, simply bursting with energy. She was a flirt too.

John repeated his short greeting for Samantha, confirming himself to be a creature of great habit, like most of us, though he added a joking bit about Matthew advising him to hire his “friend” to be a 4’10” musher—Matthew knew Samantha from sea kayak guiding in Alaska. John liked to say he never hired couples, but that he was a matchmaker, meaning his employees often dated each other before long. A few years back he married a couple of mushers in the sagebrush just past the dog yard.

Oh and most importantly, snow kept falling from the sky and teasing us ever softly with her bright whiteness yet oh so thin ground cover. We all clamored for a good blizzard but it would be another three weeks before we had enough snowpack to take the sleds out. However, the snow and dropping night temperatures meant that it was time to add straw to the dog houses. This bedding was the only insulation in the houses. Just enough straw to make a comfy bed but not too much because each guide would have to fluff their pups’ straw every other day or daily when the weather was bad and then change the straw out when it became damp or too musty. You didn’t want to waste straw, everything costs money. The straw chore doesn’t sound like much now, but later in the season I cursed the gods when storms blew snow into the houses and wet the straw. Having to drag a tarp full of hay through the snow after a 10 or more hour work day to change out 25 dog houses was the last thing any of us wanted to do. The process could take thirty to forty-five minutes. We were cold and tired didn’t want to be so any longer. In between it all a little voice in my head wondered at the morals of giving the dogs no bedding during the long off-season; sleeping on wood planks for seven months out of the year can’t be described as comfortable.

A group dinner down the road, at the only restaurant for fifteen miles in any direction, was the first opportunity for me to observe John be John, away from his kennel. All the guides sat down in good cheer, everyone but John that is, since he was nowhere to be seen. We sipped on water and talked about food till Daniel assured us Frank would pick up our beer tab and we asked for a round of pints. Daniel and Katie assured us the food was good but the pizza was the real draw. I nodded along but wasn’t paying close attention to the conversation. My thoughts were back at the kennel. I was running through a mental list of my dogs. Picturing them smiling up at me and remembering their personalities. From time to time I tuned back but quickly lose interest. I find most idle chatter boring. I don’t mean to give the impression that I am aloof, but perhaps that is not far off? Finally, we saw him, or more accurately we felt his presence. In swung the door nearest the bar and in came John, making a beeline for the bar and wasting no time to order a pint. Heck, he might have stayed at the bar all night had Sheri not gone over to get him. He ambled over to our table and dragged a chair out to settle down to. His eyes were glazed over. We new guides exchanged concerned glances as we learned our new boss has a drinking problem and I winced inwardly as memories of my own addiction, during my mid-twenties, and of friends’ and relatives’ flashed behind my eyes. Drinking destroys us, no doubt. It eats away at the brain. Eats away at mindfulness. Mindfulness, being aware of your feelings, thoughts, and actions—not reacting to them willy nilly—needs a clean mind and body to thrive and I feel that mindfulness is the Universe’s gift to humanity. I’ve seen friends and relatives destroy their lives with alcohol, I’ve seen myself come close too, and it was sobering to know my new boss and landlord and maybe even new friend, was well saturated. His mannerisms were abrupt and his breath reeked of beer. My thoughts turned towards being compassionate. Those thoughts pushed against thoughts of pity and annoyance. An inner give and take of ocean tides. Meanwhile, John launched into a series of monologues with himself at the top of the ladder but entertaining nonetheless. Perhaps I thought he was funny at his expense? Clarissa rolled her eyes. I felt the energy of my companions wane from good humor to slight annoyance with our boss. Perhaps John is just misunderstood. New relationships are nice like that, you don’t know a person well enough to fill in the colors, all you’ve got is an outline, and why start off on a bad foot? Besides, John seemed to be mostly honest and straight with his employees. He seemed to work hard and expected you to work just as hard which is something I can relate too. In Congress I was surrounded by ego’s taller than the tower of Babylon, so John seemed a breeze. Anyway, I really didn’t know jack all about John Updike except he was here buying us beer and pizza and telling harrowing stories of Iditarod races and sled dog lore. Hands down I was excited to work with him to gain insight into a notoriously tight-lipped corner of culture. How many Iditarod racers do you know?

Katie left for a two week vacation the day after pizza dinner. She was taking one of the puppies with her back to the East coast to live with her mom. The little husky, Adagio, suffered from an unknown disorder that affected his eye-paw coordination. The kennel suspected that Adagio and his brother Niaf Puk were the result of an unapproved incest litter, caused by dogs getting free and finding a partner for the night, and though Niaf Puk seemed fine it was quite obvious Adagio was not. He often fell over while walking and would bump into the wire fence of his pen like he couldn’t gauge distance. Adagio’s incredible cuteness offset the reality that he was seriously handicapped. Strange how part of me wanted to pity him while also thinking “but he’s so cute!” It was a bummer to see Katie leave—there were only so many of us at the kennel to socialize with, and though her first job was as race handler she helped out with tour chores too—Katie was also beautiful—but then my second roommate Ann arrived to fill in the gap.

Ann guided whitewater raft down the Arkansas river that past summer so I was eager to share river stories with her but that first night all I wanted was to go to bed, till Sheri knocked on our door and quite directly told Clarissa, Samantha, and I to stay awake till Ann arrived. If I didn’t like Sheri so much I would have probably ignored her and gone straight to bed but Sheri was good-hearted and most importantly she was right that the neighborly thing to do was to stay up. But really I didn’t want to disappoint Sheri--especially not since we began a morning Hatha yoga practice. And I knew Sheri was type of friend you would be lucky to count on in years to come. Part of me figured that Ann was a big girl and could figure out the cabin herself but that was selfish—I was just tired. To pass the time read up on newspapers on my laptop. What do we read those things for anyway? Every day they say the same stuff: so and so met with so and so, they didn’t agree on anything; so and so killed so and so; group A met with group B to discuss group C and agreed to disagree. Bah humbug. Finally, a knock at the door signaled Ann’s arrival. My first impression was of a friendly, chill, and easy going woman who would help keep the group grounded. A short thought that I could easily become involved with her popped into my head but I pushed it aside and stood up, offered a short greeting, and climbed upstairs to bed. Crawling into my sleeping bag I reminded myself that hooking up with a roommate was a bad, bad, bad idea.

The best part about Ann showing up was that Daniel finally showed us our dogs. Though we already started moving a few dogs around, we did it blindly and unaware whose dogs were whose with the exception of a few names that Daniel gave out to keep us drooling. No doubt he enjoyed the suspense he created by making us wait. Imagine my surprise that those first dogs I met on day one would be on my team! I liked Daniel and thought he was doing a great job so far showing us the ropes. It was the first time he found himself in the boss/instructor/ head guide role and though it was clear he was learning on the fly that did nothing to damper the quality or dedication of his work. Daniel was clearly committed to the dogs and he took the job serious. How serious he truly took the position would come out once we started to run the dogs and when the Holiday Rush was in full tilt. Though I was new to running dogs, I had been in similar authority roles before and offered to help him anyway I could—plus I wasn’t going to let any opportunities to assume more work or responsibility slip by me—long ago I learned that I thrived off of leadership and responsibility which is partly why I became so enamored with running dogs.

Sheri taught us how to make our ganglines, necklines, and tuglines. All items we would use to hook the dogs up to pull the sled. The kennel had bulk nylon rope in three sizes: red for neck lines, black for ganglines, and blue for tuglines. We used these metal sewing needle things, I’ve since forgotten the proper name, but we used them to thread the nylon rope into loops. Necklines and tuglines were easy. As a whole the yard would go through quite a bit of red nylon since it was usually the first thing to be chewed on by troublesome pups. The gangline though had a bit of steel cable threaded through the middle and that one was a sticker. There were clear steps to follow. You could not fudge those steps. When it was gangline making time I usually screwed it up at least once because I’d let my mind wander away, forcing me to start over. One day I screwed up three times. I cursed and cursed and then drank more coffee. Coffee didn’t help anyway.

Before I go any further it is time to introduce my companions through the winter. Initially, I went back and forth over how to introduce the dogs and whether or not to do so. But my family assured me that the mini dog-bio’s are their favorite part. These dogs changed my life. A year later they still occupied the lion’s share of my dreams. Here are my sled dog friends:

 

Dog Biographies

 

 Viking: The first dog whom I learned would on my team. Viking was always there for me when I needed him. He was one of the biggest and strongest dogs yet one of the gentlest. He didn’t like drama. He didn’t want to be up front. He was happiest when in the middle of the pack in team or wheel. Viking was around nine years old and he showed little patience for younger dogs that were still adjusting to being chained up. He preferred to run with older dogs. Every time he saw me he would begin leaping off his front feet with his nose up and his whole body straining against the leash; his every action telling me that he couldn’t be happier to see me and could I please walk faster? He always cleaned his food can. There was only one morning that he didn’t do that. He was sick. I believe he was overworked. It was towards the end of the rush and Viking was tired—all my dogs were tired—but I still had to run them. John needed to make that cash and the dogs were “bred” for this. I counted on Viking to help pull the second sled when the guests were obese—they were almost always obese. His presence was that of 2-3 average dogs. Every time we stopped on the trail Viking would sprawl out on the snow to cool his massive frame—Looking up at me expectantly—ready when you are boss. I brought him home once to sleep on the floor near the heater. Except he didn’t understand he wasn’t supposed to mark the legs of the furniture with hot piss. I tried a second time. Still didn’t get it. That’s alright though—he would have eventually. On those long miserable days during the spring melt when the trail was slush and the air 50F that pup would soldier on so long as I kept smiling, forced smile or genuine grin.

Johnny Cash Johnny was the hardest working dog on my team. He was ten years old and spent the first half of his life racing. Johnny still had the race mentality burned in his head. Stopped on the trail for a breather, the team would relax and catch their breath except for Johnny who would be straining against his harness. His legs shaking from the lactic acid buildup. I made him take breaks. He hated it. If left in the yard, he would stare at me with betrayal. For Johnny, nothing was worse than being on the chain. He won my heart early on in the season. He would spot me an acre away and begin barking. He would stare right into my eyes from 50 yards away through the maze of dog houses, and bark short and strong while tapping his front feet until I reached his house. When one of Clarissa’s girls got loose she went to Johnny’s house where he mounted her and a few weeks later there was a litter of puppies. Usually John would abort any litter he didn’t approve but Johnny was a special case. At ten years old he was as strong as he was at seven and pulled harder than any dog in the yard. Hindsight has given me a different perspective on Johnny’s “work” ethic. I now understand his preference for straining and pulling when he should be resting—his legs shaking under the effort—to be no different than brain washing. He was manipulated to never stop pulling. To override whatever instinctual mechanism told every other dog on my team to rest. He came down with an infection during the season that I suspect happened because his body was too tired to fight it. Johnny was bred for sprinting. His coat was no thicker than a Doberman Pinscher. It was difficult for me to look at him when it was subzero for all the shivering he did. He was also incredibly hard-headed. I couldn’t help but admire him.

 Kenga She was one of the two dogs on my team that was on the last RDS Iditarod team. She had been all of 18 months old when she ran those 1100 miles across Alaska and was 12 years old at the beginning of last season and she had a hitch in her gait to prove it. Kenga’s rarely raised her head above her shoulders, as if years of pulling had rendered her unable to gaze skyward. I was told she, along with Johnny, would be one of my go-to second team leaders. She wouldn’t be a good first team leader because she would test me. Her previous musher was never able to win her over so she stayed on the second team. One look at the old lady told me all I needed to know: she wasn’t going to take my ignorance. Despite towering over her, Kenga managed to look down her nose at me. I was nothing to her but another temporary “authority” figure in a long line of temporary nothings. Her attitude spurred me along to win her allegiance. The battle for Kenga’s loyalty could take a whole book. By the end of it we came to understand each other. I don’t believe that dog would ever accept anyone as her boss—but teamwork isn’t about bosses and underlings—it’s about working together and eventually we did.

 Knox “Watch out for Knox. He is super aggressive. The last musher rarely ran him and when he did Knox ran alone.” I heard those words but when I met Knox it was impossible to connect the warning with the dog. He was three years old, short toe-blond fur, a big square head, huge brown eyes, and the tallest legs of any dog in the yard. His eyes could break your heart. Knox was one of the newly purchased dogs and it was only his second year at RDS. You could feel the energy radiating out from him. My mother visited for a trip and before she left declared Knox her favorite dog. When stopped on the trail, Knox would hit the snow and roll around on his back in a puppy fit stuffing snow in his mouth and letting lose a howl to express his need to let loose. The warning was apt, though. Knox did not know how to deal with other dogs. He never had an opportunity to socialize—living your whole life on a chain prevents that—and I spent many nights agonizing over how to rehabilitate him. If I brought him near another dog he would innocently sniff their butts, as any other pup, but within seconds he would freeze. I could feel the tension building up inside him. His brain frantically trying to determine what the other dogs’ intentions were and what the next step should be? The energy in Knox would multiply till it was too much to contain and explode into snarls. When he cracked, the ferocity would shock you like a tailpipe backfiring. The other guides thought I was crazy for running him but I had to understand Knox. I needed to know what was wrong.

 

 

Hermit The smallest dog with the most energy. Little Hermit was barely two years old and came from the same deadbeat kennel that my pup Spike hailed from. Hermit had far too much energy for a chain and twice popped her it from the house. That means she ran out her chain till being thrown to the ground like she was hit by some blitzing linemen—over and over and over—until the metal S hook that secured the chain to her house bent open—the chain was attached to her collar which was around her neck. Think about that for a minute. She was hesitant to trust me and it showed through her eating habits. Most of the deep winter Hermit was underweight. I couldn’t run her as much as she needed because she didn’t eat. Not eating meant she wasn’t comfortable. So I spent more time with her. I worked on calming her down with a new pattern: Hermit wouldn’t be fed or led to the gangline until every muscle in her body relaxed. I rubbed my stinky-dog-saliva-generating paste on her gums to convince her she really was hungry. To start the season, she didn’t pull very well. There was too much going on for her to focus, but by the end of February she was coming around. Honestly, there was a good two weeks where I couldn’t stand Hermit. I was tired of her excess energy. I needed her to calm down and eat. It was -25F and my hands were on fire trying to calm her down so she would eat (she didn’t like my Gore-Tex mittens). One day I mentioned to Daniel that I hate that crazy dog and his surprise that I would ever use the word hate to describe one of my dogs that I clearly obsessed over woke me up to how impatient I had become with her. It wasn’t Hermit’s fault she was crazy but it was my job to help her.

Pooh Due to a miscommunication I started the season rarely running Pooh because I thought she was Kenga’s sister, which meant Pooh was also twelve years old and I didn’t want to over work her. A couple weeks into the season Daniel asked why I wasn’t running Pooh five days a week—a great leader and cheerleader—so I told him and he said no, no, no—Pooh was half Kenga’s age and not related at all. I felt like an idiot. It was a foolish mistake since any one with eyes could have seen that Pooh had abundant energy, and even if she was twelve we were instructed that the dog must run if it can run. No questions. I threw Pooh up on the first team to lead with Classic and was thrilled with her performance on the team. Pooh had ears that would flop around when she jumped and jump she did. The Jumping Pooh was how Daniel introduced her to me. Every time the sled stopped to rest Pooh would leap off her front feet—again and again—till we started moving, of course. Sometimes I tried running Kenga and Pooh together but would have to switch them out because Pooh’s jumping infuriated Kenga, since Pooh’s motion would jerk the elder Kenga’s neck around. Kenga may have hated Pooh’s jumping but the children on my sled loved it.

Classic  If I loved any dog in my life then Classic was him. We started out just two animals who wanted to run down the trail. He didn’t have any reason to trust me but he never turned down a massage. He was excited for breakfast, but not necessarily excited for me. By January though Classic and I had reached a telepathic level of communication. He became my best leader and the best companion dog I’ve ever had. I knew what he was thinking before he did and I swear the reverse was just as true. When we were running, I mostly watched him. His muscular yet lithe frame, the way he cocked his head, how he trotted down the trail, as if he had not a care in the world, and how excited he was when we went night running under the full moon—his howl—are treasured memories. Classic’s name says all you need to know about his appearance. His face was white with a bit of gray and light brown around the neck. His legs and belly where white and the fur along his sides and back was black, bordered with a touch of light brown. His tail was short—half the length of most dogs—his father’s tail having been bred to a stump by mushers who prefer dogs without tails—no tail means other dogs can’t bite it. That piece of information speaks volumes about the state of sled dogs in North America—if mushers worked to breed tails out of their dogs because they couldn’t stop dogs from biting them—the dogs must have behavioral issues that result in excess aggression and since all behavior is environmental….wolves don’t run around with bloody stumps for tails. For his part Classic could be counted on to obey my orders. I would later rely on him to muscle Persia around when she would test me. It’s a bummer we hadn’t reached that level of teamwork when Kenga was testing me but all greatness comes with time. Patience is apparently a virtue. Seriously, I could talk about Classic for days. It would be his downward spiral at season’s end that galvanized my desire to share the story of my sled dog companions.

My friend’s one fault was that he couldn’t stand other teams passing us no matter the direction they came from (ahead or behind). I especially had to work hard at keeping him focused on me when teams were heading towards us—during the week leading up to the Rocky Sled Dog Race the trail was full of dog teams conditioning up and down the trail. Classic couldn’t stand those hound dog teams, and when one passed he would bound towards them barking for all he was worth, taking the team with him. I learned that the best way to head off this behavior was to speak to him continuously when the other dog team was 20 yards out. I took Classic into town once and I believe he loved the new sights, new smells, new “things.” When the rest of the dogs were exhausted, looking longingly at their chains, I relied on Classic to keep us moving down the trail. He was my main leader for most of the trips I took that season. He and Clover were the two dogs I regularly brought home to sleep near the heater. Classic did not hail from RDS. He along with Clover and Elana—my three most mentally-stable pups—a bit like saying “my most mentally-stable kidnapped children” came from an individual who had just enough dogs to pull a race sled. I have been asked by many people which of my dogs I would rescue if given the chance—stupid question—the absurdity of choosing one friend out of 25 to rescue.

Palenque Movie star good looks. The girl was beautiful. Daniel told me she bonds very quickly with her musher. What he should have said was that Palenque suffers from extreme separation anxiety, but dog mushers don’t speak in terms of mental behavior. For a dog musher, the dog’s mental state is secondary to whether or not the dog pulls. Daniel though was more an animal person than a dog musher and asked me to watch her left hind leg for excess hair loss—a clear sign of a dog unable to cope with their existence. What I mean is that Palenque was starved for human companionship. Every dog at the kennel was starved for strong continuous and reliable human companionship, which by the way is the entire reason that people keep dogs, supposedly. Palenque was the way she was because she was one of the last pups that Sheri raised for her race team. Sheri showered select puppies with extra love and devotion and when those pups were demoted to the tour yard Sheri had to stop or offend the musher. But Palenque didn’t adjust. She was used to a level of care above and beyond what a seasonal worker is willing to do. Palenque went from year round care to five months of bare minimum. She couldn’t handle it. So she scratched her leg till hair would fall out. She would aggressively chew her food can—the one item that her musher was in daily contact with—till it looked like a shotgun found it—after just two days. Palenque’s eyes said it all. She needed love so I gave it to her. Towards the end of the season I noticed she chewed her can less and her leg fur was getting thicker. Palenque was also very female aggressive towards “dominant” females. She did however take well to my relax training technique where I trained my dogs to calm down whenever I said the word “chilllllllllllll.” While running down the trail she would pee constantly. Not usually a problem since girls mostly pee without breaking stride but Palenque would squat and allow herself to be dragged along till she was done. That meant she had to mostly run in the back of the team to protect her from being run over by other dogs which could result in a dog fight. Her and Itza are sisters.

Itza  Lovable, sweet, strong as an ox, ready to snap at any moment and rip into another female dogs’ throat… Itza. Itza was also a beautiful dog but she didn’t look like any sled dog you have ever seen. She was black and brown and white speckled and patchy with fur as short as a pit bull. Itza’s weight was hard to keep up because how short her fur was but then that’s the idea when you want to race dogs and the weather is far above freezing. I was constantly told that Itza’s weight was questionable but there was nothing I could do—she was eating the maximum amount of fat her body could withstand and I know this because several times I gave her diarrhea while learning her body’s limits. Itza pulled as hard as two pups. She was obsessed with affection. Sheri had taught her dogs to jump up and put their front paws on the roof of their house if they wanted loving, and Itza remembered. When I walked near her house she would preemptively put her paws on the roof and look over her shoulders at me, tongue hanging out and lips pulled up into the biggest doggie grin. She was incredibly affectionate. Daniel told me he almost put her in his yard just because she loved human contact. Itza always looked happy. Unless it was below zero. Then the dog that licked her can clean would stare at it like poison. Itza became frustrated and unstable around other females. In a snap of your fingers she would become the scariest most bloodthirsty dog you’ve ever seen. I became very good at sensing her trigger points. I was told to never ever ever run her near Princess, let alone next to Princess, unless I wanted two dead dogs to leave at the edge of the forest. That was a challenge I couldn’t pass up. Eventually I managed to run the two girls side by side without incident—while on the gangline at least. I’ll get to the Princess/Itza fight later in the book.

Elana The wise little old grandma who was loyal from day one. Elana would be the pup I counted on to get my team down the trail during the rush. Elana kept my first team moving no matter the conditions. There were no antics when she was leading. If her partner tried marking a snow bank, or wandered around, she would pull him back onto the trail. Always doing her job to keep the team facing forward. Elana had the skinniest legs and the tiniest of paws and though her torso seemed innocent there was real strength hidden beneath her fur. When the team hiked up she would jump against her harness and lean into it for all she was worth and then some. When stopped she would keep one eye looking over her shoulder at me. She had big round raccoon eyes capable of adopting the softest expression like your best friend’s baby after a full meal of breast milk. She was the only pup I could let walk on her own from her house to the team. She would gingerly pick her way through the snow deep as she was tall and sit at the front of the gangline waiting to be clipped in. Elana’s age, unfortunately, would catch up to her.

Hostage Daniel told me that if Hostage ever got loose we would never get her back, at least that was how she was introduced to Daniel when she was dropped three months before I arrived. The first time I approached Hostage to feed her, she backed away to the end of her chain and strained mightily against it in an attempt to put as much distance between us as possible. Her collar struggled to free itself from around her head as every muscle in her body locked up and twitched in her effort to escape my presence. Daniel said she had been doing that every day since her arrival. The first fifty times or so that I harnessed her saw the same reaction as that first day. It would be two months before Hostage came around to me. Her name “Hostage” was coldly accurate for her behavior and it was heart wrenching to see her react the same way day after day. Eventually, I won her over and she even licked my face in affection. It was the biggest reward and relief of the whole season. Hostage was terrified of her environment and never adjusted or fully relaxed to the aggressive air of the dog yard. She was hugely uncomfortable of running next to any dog but her brother, Nugz, nor was she comfortable with any dogs running behind her. As a result she mostly ran in Wheel unless we were on the way home, and when she was mostly relaxed from already running ten miles. One time she did get loose in the dog yard and I radioed Daniel in a panic. I was supposed to be harnessing my team as the guests had just arrived. She slipped out of my grip and right out of her collar. Daniel cursed loudly—not over the radio but I could hear him from 3o yards away over the howls of dogs—and replied that I was the only person she would even think about approaching so good luck. To my surprise—and a testament of how Hostage had begun to trust me—she came right over when I called her name—a far cry from when she was terrified of my presence. She never warmed up to any other humans.

 Nugz A hard worker and a lovable dog once he saw he could trust me. At first, he reacted like Hostage, albeit without the muscles locking up. That was the first sign that Nugz would come around to my affection faster than his sister. Nugz could run anywhere in the team except for leader—he was much too submissive and unsure of why he ended up at RDS—too uncomfortable with the sled dog role he was forced to assume—too unsure of the chaos which characterized the dog yard—to ever want to lead the team. I came to rely on Nugz when my older dogs were tired. Nugz and Hostage were 5 years old and the pair became stalwart second team dogs due to their youth and endurance. The two did struggle keeping up till the second half of the season, but that was because instead of properly conditioning them for the workload we threw them into the grind the minute we had snow.

Dagger Reliable and mellow. Dagger and his brother Musket were called the zig-zag twins for their love of zig-zagging left to right across the trail when leading a team. They were the cornerstone of my second team until I realized their bodies were failing from the extra effort required of second team dogs. Daniel advised to run them back there because they were unlikely to start fights or chew necklines or misbehave. But RDS didn’t take into account that the two brothers were aging. How could Daniel have known anyway? They were never his dogs. Dagger was nine years old and during the middle of the season he began deteriorating. When I realized my mistake in listening to outside advice over thoughtful analysis, I stopped running the brothers on the second team. Mistake may be the wrong word. In the beginning I had no choice but to run the brothers back there because they were among the few dogs I could count on to behave. Of course no dog only ran on the second team, but some did more than others. John warned us about that and advised to rotate dogs to the first team, because otherwise their obedience would regress. It wasn’t till late February that I had control enough of my team to run dogs anywhere I wanted without worry—except for Knox.

Musket Just like his brother Dagger, Musket was gentle and even-tempered though he hated Tiger but come to think of it so did Dagger and most male dogs. Musket was also bigger and stronger than Dagger. Despite his experience and strength his age had caught up. There were too many days during the Rush where I had to drag Musket out of his house, to drag yet more tourists down the trail, and it took a toll. When I noticed—when the forty day rush was over—I took to benching Musket more than he wanted but he never caught his breath. Eventually he succumbed to a shoulder injury and was benched for the rest of the season.

Spongebob Every little girl loved Spongebob. If Viking was Scooby Doo than Spongebob was Pooh Bear. Golden color and little ears that flopped up and down as he trotted. I was told he wasn’t a leader but late in the season I realized how foolish it was to take that advice without testing it and one day I ran him up front. Spongebob was amazing up front. He changed into a different dog. In the middle of the team he was subdued unless I was rallying the pups up. When he was leading he came alive any made a sound halfway between a howl and a whine when he was excited. Prior I never heard him make such an ecstatic sound. He was one of my favorites and if I could break into RDS and steal a handful of dogs he would be on the list along with Classic, Clover, Spike, and screw it, it all 25 of them. Clover and Spongebob became my dream pair of leaders towards the end of the season.

Princess Princess was one of my most complicated dogs. She originally belonged to a famous Iditarod racer from a dog mushing dynasty—we’ll call him Dick. Dick has had multiple dogs die while racing. He is known for pushing his dogs so hard they drop dead on the trail. He bred Princess to run John’s race and later sold her to John because she wasn’t good enough for him. John told me that Dick had broken her. Princess was pushed too hard too fast and cracked. When she felt too much pressure she would sit down and refuse to move. John said once you break a dog she is broken forever. Of course, I was told none of this until she quit on me while leading my team out of the yard. I had wanted Princess to lead my team, so occasionally I began leading her on the way home—apparently Daniel had never seen her lead and he never knew her story either. Princess always had an intelligence about her and a sassiness that won my heart. I had to have her lead my team. After a few times leading with Classic on the way home I tried leading her and Classic out of the yard. It was the second half of the rush. I yanked my snub line free and told my second sled to do the same. Both teams took off. Then Princess stopped. My swing dogs ran into her and Classic. My second team swung around my sled and began passing. I reached out and grabbed a hold of the wheel dogs and yelled at my guests to stomp on the brakes. The dog teams were barking and snapping at each other. I looked up and saw Classic sit down. Then the swing dogs sat down. Meanwhile every other dog was going ape wild. I tried to get Princess and Classic to run, but no go. I ran up to them and led them down the trail to get a bit of movement but as soon as I let go to hop back on the sled the dogs sat down again. John radioed me. What’s the hold-up out there? I told him my leaders wouldn’t budge and I didn’t know why. He ran over, saw Princess, and told me to move her back in the team. He said he would explain later. After the trip he told me about Dick.

 Cabernet 12 years old and veteran of the last RDS Iditarod team. He became blind the year before but could still run down the trail. He was like a big teddy bear and most of my guests would remark at his massive size and his gentle demeanor. Cabernet had difficulties coping with blindness—at times he was frustrated and almost defiant when having to resort to sniffing out his food--but he still had enthusiasm when it came to running. He was the biggest cheerleader on the team. His presence as the biggest and oldest dog brought a calming effect on any dog running next to him. I used Cabernet to help train Spike and Hermit and to calm down Hostage and Nugz. Every time the team stopped Cabernet would stand up on his back feet and slam his huge front paws onto the trail. He reminded me of an orca whale slowly raising his tail to smack onto the ocean’s surface. But for all that I hated having to run Cabernet for fear he would misstep and break a leg or pull his shoulder.

Tiger Blind at birth but the most loveable dog I’ve ever met. No other dog yearns for attention as much as Tiger and who could blame him? Every other dog had little patience for Tiger and most disliked running next him: Exceptions being most females, Classic, Clover, and Spike. Tiger would flop onto the ground or throw himself into other dogs—clearly enjoying life to the fullest extent possible for a blind sled dog who has never had an opportunity to be free of a chain or sled. If he heard you coming, he would erupt into a hail of barks and not stop till you visited him or five minutes later—whichever came first. He would melt into your legs or nearly knock you over as he leaned ever harder into your legs. The most scared I ever was that winter, perhaps the second most in my entire life—unsurprising for a sheltered middle class white male from DeLand, FL—was when Tiger slipped out of my grip during harnessing. He leapt and pulled and broke free of my legs with one big push. His reaction to being free spoke volumes. Tiger looked surprised and elated. I panicked that he would run into a male dog’s house, precipitating a fight, and started chasing after him. I called Tiger’s name but he wasn’t stopping for anyone—he was finally free—he ran right into Musket, knocking the older dog to his back. Musket growled but before he could get up Tiger spun around and took off running. Tiger was running out of the dog yard and straight to the guide house. I sprinted after him. Tiger was running fast through the sagebrush and headed straight for the hillside, oblivious to his surroundings and to the ten-foot vertical drop before thirty feet of steep hillside directly ahead. Every step I took sunk through the snow crust, slowing my progress, but if I had trouble so did blind Tiger and with twenty feet to spare I caught up to him. In my haste I forget to call his name before leaping and grabbing hold. He turned and snarled and nearly bit me before recognizing it was me. What can I say? I love that dog.

 Aphrodite Little old lady Aphrodite was shy all season and never approached me unless I knelt down to patiently wait for her to grace me with her presence. Unless I held a harness in my hand. A harness would see her become her namesake, a temptress, stretching this way and that, looking over her shoulder at me. Aphrodite didn’t pull hard and could barely manage a slow trot. Running her meant I had to keep my teams slower than the other guides liked but I would do anything for Aphrodite. Something about her spoke to me and I knew she had been through a long and difficult life. I had a feeling Aphrodite resented all dog mushers, and the kennel, but at least on a trip she could escape for a brief while.

 Crow I retired Crow early in the season when I realized he could no longer run a half day trip. Crow was 12 years old and half-mad. Being stuck in the yard for so long had driven him crazy and when he realized he wasn’t going to run any more trips he really lost it. Crow no longer cared whether or not he stepped into the sewage puddles that formed when snow melt mixes with feces and frozen urine. My observations of the retired dogs in the yard lead me to believe that is a clear sign of the deteriorating mind resulting from a decade or more on chains. I did run him for a few trips, scattered through the season, forcing my dogs to trot really slow. Crow had a lot of heart and desperately wanted to run. It was hard to pass by him every day while hooking up the other pups.

Nez Perce Nez was retired a couple seasons past for a serious leg injury and had not left his chain in two years when I arrived. He did not like me. Nez wouldn’t leave his house and would growl no matter if I had food or not. Then one day I dragged him out of his house and clipped him to a leash. We went for a walk down the trail. Nez changed that day. He became my friend. I wish I had taken him on more walks.

Glok Glok was a good pup, one of the few “Stable” dogs from the deadbeat kennel, but eventually I traded him for Persia. I still regret trading a loyal and good hearted dog to Clarissa. Glok deserved better. You’ll read more about Glok in the next few chapters.

Spike Of all my pups Spike hurt the most to leave behind at season’s end. Spike is not a sled dog. He is a little hound dog who is being forced to live in the mountains and pull dog sleds. He grew up more than any other dog in my yard, but that’s also because he was the youngest and hadn’t any opportunities to grow before I met him. Spike was a shy and nervous little pup who turned into a brave dog full of self-confidence. I did my best to train Spike for the pressures the kennel will throw at him. I wish Spike could be free.

Persia Beautiful. Persia is wicked smart but a pain in the ass. Katie once referred to her as the autistic sister. After three months of watching Clarissa throw Persia around, yelling petulantly at her, I traded Glok for Persia, betting that Glok would be tougher than Persia and better handle Clarissa’s attitude. I was wrong. Persia was tougher. We fought like dogs—an idiom I use to show how little the average person understands canines—more like we fought like people—the entire four weeks she was on my team was a game of willpower. Perhaps if Persia was with me from the beginning she would have trusted me, but with only four weeks she didn’t care a lick about me. I ran her anyway but always with Classic or Clover. My two best dogs would keep her inline no matter what Persia wanted to do, and she usually wanted to do the opposite of what I wanted. Course all that means she might have been the rare dog who is able to maintain her personality—her sense of will—despite being chained up and forced to pull sleds.

Clover Daniel gave me Clover when he noticed my team desperately needed another strong dog. Clover may have been eight years old but he could still pull for 20 miles like a dog half his age. He was one of the ugliest dogs in the kennel with an underbite and a snout that was constantly scabbed over and bleeding from what John said was an auto-immune disease. We connected immediately. The first chance I got I put Clover leading with Classic. The two dogs looked like best friends and they were: Classic and Clover came from the same kennel. Clover would turn out to be one of my best leaders, to the regretful surprise of Daniel, who never ran Clover in lead, and I would count on him many times over to lead the team when Classic needed a break, though I ran my two boys side by side as much as I could. He was one of the few dogs that regularly came home to sleep on the floor. Clover would go straight to the heater and curl up against it, and he wouldn’t move till I forced him to the next morning.

 Audoon Audoon receives her own chapter later in the book.

 

 Chapter Four continued…

The tour yard was divided into six sections, one for each guide, and each a slightly different shape. Mine was the furthest from the kennel and consisted of two long columns of dog houses, Clarissa was next door and was three columns of various lengths, Samantha’s was next to hers and was a bit funky looking spread out over several columns, Daniel’s was a big L that stretched from the back of mine over to Samantha’s, Bennet, who had yet to arrive, was between Samantha and Ann’s. Both Bennet and Ann were in the lower yard, so named because it was down a short hill from the upper yard and, to the detriment of the dogs, was most exposed to the powerful winds that rip through the canyon across the plateau where the kennel sat. Both of their yards were five or six columns wide but more box like compared with the rest of us.

Moving dogs around would prove to be among the most dangerous jobs. Not so much for us but for the dogs. Earlier Daniel explained that it took extreme caution moving dogs from house to house, or from house to the feed room, or from house to the sled’s gangline (gangline being the steel cable you clip dogs on to pull the sled). He provided a demonstration a couple days earlier where we each had a chance to move a dog, but merely to a neighboring house. Even so those first experiences stand out bright in my head.

There is only one sure way to securely move a strong sled dog—whom has not given you allegiance—and that is to first place a harness on her then lift her front upper body high in the air by gripping the back of the harness so that her paws cannot touch the ground and the she is standing tall on her hind legs. This removes most of her ability to pull by forcing her to hop on her legs in order to move. You keep her close to your side, usually your arm makes a right angle at the elbow, so you can use your body as leverage if need be and to keep your arm in a position of strength. Though Daniel warned us that other dogs would snap at the dog we held up, he especially warned us not to forget about the tail. Displaying naiveté, I was skeptical that all that was really necessary and didn’t see why the other dogs would care to snap and bite, but I never knew dogs that spent a life in chains. Daniel warned to never move a male past another male or a female past a female. You can move males past females but be wary of moving a female through a male’s house because he could nip at her and cause the female to retaliate. As I mentioned before it is common for mushers to breed dogs with nothing but a stump for a tail so they don’t have to worry as much over dogs ripping each others’ tails off. The first time Daniel moved a dog showed how little I understood dogs. As soon as the pup was unclipped from his chain the dogs nearest began barking and running out their chains in mini fits of hysteria which spread to the entire yard. In the space of two seconds all 180 were barking and howling and running in circles. The yard was a riot of noise and a chill swept through me. Why were they reacting like that? I realized the other guides were also surprised at the reaction of the yard. Daniel analyzed his surroundings, carefully chose a safe route to pass through, and strode off into the maelstrom of dogs furiously trying to attack from the flanks. Once or twice Daniel shouted the name of a dog to warn her away or body block a male from getting too close. Sometimes simply pointing at the pup would get her to back off but not always. Not every dog was snapping. Some dogs were content with barking their heads off and running in a circle. Some would snap at air—clearly wanting to convey the angst and frustration they were feeling but not ready to actually bite Daniel’s pup. I’d never seen anything like it but I damn sure wanted to experience it and was sure I could do as good a job.

Daniel chose me a pup that was an older veteran. I slipped a harness over him and gingerly lifted the old dog into the air. Once again the yard erupted into frenzy. Since I already knew the path I needed, I took my first steps in as best an imitation of Daniel I could muster. When the first dog leapt up and snapped I froze like a deer in headlights. It’s one thing to watch but another when you’re doing it the first time. What in the world was going on? What was wrong with these dogs? In all my life I had never seen such behavior before but there was no time to waste, the pup I was holding up was clearly frustrated I stopped moving and began barking defensively. I felt his energy boiling up my right arm and I waved my left arm in the air to offset the dog’s energy, like balancing on a felled tree. I kept moving and barely swung the pup clear as dog took a snap at his tail. The next two houses had males who backed up when I pointed a stern finger in their direction and suddenly we were safe by the empty house. I clipped him to the chain and realized my breath was short and shallow. A few drops of sweat beaded down on my forehead. I muttered a curse and shot the same look over to Daniel. He smiled and said good job getting the tail clear. The familiar feeling of success warmed me up and smoothed over the doubt. Next?

As crazy as that was it was nothing compared to the first dog I moved into my new yard. His name was Spike. Spike was located on the far end of Ann’s yard which meant I had to move him across the entire acre and a half through enemy territory. Spike had come from a bankrupt race kennel where he likely had never left his chain and only ever met one human till he was dropped off at RDS. He would not let anyone near him. Daniel said the guy lost interest in running dogs because of the expense and workload.

Spike arrived a couple months before me and looked clearly out of his element. Spike was a year and a half old. The first thing you notice about Spike is that he doesn’t look like any sled dog you have ever seen. He looks like a hound dog Labrador mutt with short thin black hair and floppy ears and since he was a puppy and never ran anywhere he lacked muscle definition. Daniel said it was a big deal for John Updike to buy hounds because John was known for sticking with Alaskan Huskies and for breeding tough ones at that. John got his start with endurance racing, meaning distances between 500-1000 miles where Alaskan Huskies are the norm. Dogs like Spike only recently became popular in short distance (20-50miles) because they average 3-5 miles faster an hour over huskies, can run in warmer weather, and are easier to manipulate. Depending on which musher you speak with it is smart and clever to run hounds or sacrilegious and cruel.

When approached, Spike looked at you with adorable puppy eyes that practically scream please pet me! But the closer you got the more he backed away—as if he wanted your attention but was wary of the unknown, fearful of human touch. Earlier in the month Daniel taught us what to do when dogs avoided you: Simply stand on their chain and step by step work your way towards the dog till you are within reach of their collar. Obviously this scares the dog--a tall stranger slowly stepping on your chain as you cower in fear with nowhere to run, however your job isn’t to coddle the dogs, but to run them.

Spike stood with his tail between his legs, his head on the ground, his ears back, and his eyes open in fear while I worked my feet along his chain. After what seemed an eternity, I gingerly unclipped his chain and picked up the distraught Spike by the collar to walk him through the yard. On cue the yard exploded. We made it six or so houses before Spike panicked and in desperation began to fling himselfin all direction in an attempt to free himself from my grip. His fear filled my nostrils like the stench from old gym socks. I nearly lost my grip. My heart told me to stop and drop. Meanwhile, dogs were going ape shit trying to bite him so I dropped to my knees in an attempt to soothe the scared pup. The sharp cracks of a 180ish dogs barking might as well have been gun shots piercing my ears. A quick glance around confirmed that none of the other mushers were paying attention. We already considered this to be normal behavior. Spike tried wriggling away from me so I held on tighter while figuring out a plan. I was afraid of scarring the pup and leaving him terrified of me for putting him through the ordeal of maneuvering him through another 20 or so rows of houses. I looked to my left and realized I was only three houses from the edge of the yard and 15 yards beyond was a dirt mound roughly seven feet high and 10 yards long that I could walk behind, skirting the edge of the yard till arriving at my runway. Knowing Spike was terrified I figured the only option was to pick him up and hoof it. I lifted him into my arms--immediately the surrounding dogs got even crazier—with Spike completely removed from his own power, leaving him more exposed, the pups became half again as aggressive and loud—and took off for the edge of yard and the safety of the dirt mound. Dozens of black and brown eyes, half-crazed from their own desperate attempts to either bite Spike or express their frustration that they’re not the ones free of the chain, glittered in our wake as we made our escape. Behind the mound Spike calmed down, clearly thankful to be clear of the yard, so I lowered his back legs to the earth where I could hold his upper body up and move him the traditional way. His eyes found mine and I felt his gratitude. He gave me the vibe he wanted to lick my face so I knelt down to accept the proffered kiss. Then it was time to keep moving. Spike  hopped along my side and soon we were at the entrance to my runway. The sight of dogs brought a bit of panic, but with the bigger space between my houses he remained calm enough and was clipped to the chain of his new house without further trauma. Before walking away I scratched and rubbed Spike all over his skinny body. A voice in my head told me that Spike and I were now friends. The moment binded us.

Yet, the whole experience felt frustrating and confusing so I asked John and Daniel why the dogs reacted so aggressively to another pup being moved through the yard. As I suspected they might, they answered that a dog off his feet was vulnerable and therefore the pack mentality set in. Other dogs, they reasoned, succumbed to their natural instinct and tried to attack the exposed dog. Since they were the experienced ones I accepted their explanation but I knew the answer was incomplete. For one, where was the pack? What little I knew of wild dogs or wolves suggested that packs were highly socialized and inter-pack aggression moderated in favor of cooperation to hunt, and to ensure that every pup got their share of food. In a wolf pack the elderly, young, and weaker members are not eaten for breakfast, but march in the front of the pack so they don’t get left behind. Wolves display incredible socialization skills. These dogs seemed anything but socialized. How could they socialize if they stayed on chains? You can’t be a pack stuck on chains and wolves, contrary to public perception, are not crazed killers. My thoughts turned to whether or not these dogs even knew how to play? (in fact they largely don’t understand the concept of play) And if the “pack” reaction was the result of an action (lifting a dog up on his hind legs) that still left the question of why. John was giving me 1 + 1 = 2 but not the theory, not the reason 1+1=2 instead of =3. It reminded me of teachers that teach from a book instead of teaching from their reflections. The more I think on it the more I am convinced that John never allowed himself the opportunity to reflect on dog behavior as a whole. Maybe for John, a dog musher, dog behavior began and ended with molding dogs into sled pulling machines? I told myself that by season’s end I would learn the true answer. For Spike’s sake if anything.

Chapter Three

Welcome to RDS

The next morning Clarissa generously fixed me extra of what she had, which was oatmeal, an egg, and sausage. The anticipation of walking up the hill to see the dog yard was killing me. Any animal rights reservations were buried underneath the excitement. I was about to start mushing dogs. Me, a boy from the swamps and beaches of Florida, a dog musher in the Rockies? What’ll be next?

Clarissa and me tied the laces on our boots and headed up the gravel drive. Clarissa was sporting the ubiquitous tractor supply beanie, a tan scarf, jean jacket, and tall lace up leather boots with rubber bottoms, so she looked like a cowboy musher out of a pop magazine. It would become a standing joke that Clarissa was always runway ready. My modern glacier work boots felt like ten pound weights on my feet and I figured it would be a miracle if I didn’t trip over my own two feet. My clothing was all plastic and made me sound like a bunch of grocery bags being rubbed together. After a month of sweating beneath the plastic ski jacket, I ditched it for wool. Wool would prove to be tougher against the dog’s toenails and friendly nips, better at regulating body heat, and much quieter. And no, I’m not sure how wearing wool fits into animal rights, so long as the sheep live better than a sweatshop worker I feel ok about it.

A little more than half way up the drive my eyes picked out the locker room’s garage door and left of that sat John’s big white truck, to the right the big white race trailer, and next to that a fancy enclosed bright orange Kubota tractor. I hurried up the hill till the elevation caught up to me forced me to slow down. My Smokey Mountain lungs not so quietly letting me know they were going to need time adjusting to 7500 feet but my brain stubbornly encouraged faster steps. I took big gulps of air and walked on the balls of my feet so my eyes could peak above the dirt berm to the right and I stole my first glimpse of the dog yard. A smile bloomed on my face but my feet stuttered when the dog yard erupted into a frenzy of howls and barks at our presence. The smile broke apart while I struggled to comprehend the scene. Crammed onto an acre and a half sat 180 giant wooden cable spools flat on their ends and chained to each one was an Alaskan Husky expressing his or her excitement, surprise, anxiety, impatience and who knows what else at the sight of us newcomers hiking up the hill right about the same time they expect to be fed breakfast. I stood still as a deer in headlights as Clarissa strode on past to the feed room. Slowly, I inched forward to the edge of the dog yard. The urge to befriend and scratch the first dog I saw barely registered against my gut shouting at me to wait till I knew what I was doing; I feared the dogs would back away from my attention and that was the last reaction I wanted for my first contact. How embarrassing for a would-be dog musher.

The houses were arranged in a checkerboard pattern but skewed as if someone grabbed the board and twisted. The hard packed dirt was strewn with rocks but dusted enough with snow from the previous night to give an almost a sterile appearance—at least where fresh snow lay. Scattered around the houses were little dark piles of poop that for one dog was minimal but given all those dogs it was more feces than I ever saw. My brain sped through a series of questions: Is the dog yard sanitary? Do the dogs always live on a chain? Surely that can’t be good for them? What in the hell am I doing here? I was so excited about mushing dogs that no energy had been spent thinking about how the dogs lived. It was the first time that I ever saw more than ten or so dogs at once and the first time I ever saw more than one dog on a chain--the effect was unnerving. Something inside me rebelled against the scene before me. Should I turn around and go home? Instead, I pushed those thoughts aside. I drove all the way out here to run dogs and experience the life for my own. There was work to be done and a lot to learn before I could hand out judgments, and besides my ears picked up Daniel and Katie’s footsteps heading up the gravel drive. It was time to get to work.

The four of us gathered in the feed room. A square smorgasbord of sights and smells. The main building at Real Dog Sled tours, or RDS as we took to calling our home, served as feed room, locker room, front office, and John’s residence. There was also a separate barn and walk-in freezer. Inside the feed room were all manners of tools, equipment, washer and dryer, bathroom, and for centerpiece an old wood-fired stove. One corner of the room held a metal table and medicinal tools, caddy corner sat two metal dog crates and another exit door and a counter-top for snacks, a long wooden bench occupied the wall that shared the feed room entrance caddy corner to the residence’s front door (John’s living quarters) nearest the office. The space was just big enough for 24 guests to squeeze into when they arrived for their trip briefing. My nose inhaled the smell of raw meat, dry kibble, dirt, and sweat. The feed room smelled like you would expect it to and I was chomping at the bit to get busy. Daniel explained the plan for the next ten days till the other mushers, Samantha, Ann, and Bennet arrived. In the morning, we would scoop (the poop) and feed the yard as a group before teaming up on chores for the whole yard. But Daniel what about my dogs? When do I get to meet MY team?

“Not till Ann and Bennet get here. For now just focus on getting comfortable with the routine. John should come out and give his speech by the time we are done feeding, but Sheri will probably be here any minute to scoop and feed the Race dogs. Welcome to RDS.” Daniel lightly admonished.

We split up for the morning scoop and feed with me following Daniel and Clarissa with Katie (Clarissa had followed Daniel around the yard the previous two days). Each person carried a five gallon bucket of dry kibble and one of hot water, one bucket per hand, and very soon I realized carrying these buckets would become one hell of a shoulder, wrist, and hand workout—once season starts we carry these buckets for close to 90 minutes each day, full to the brim with hot water and raw meat. Talk about building up your handshake. Our serving spoon was a giant metal ladle with an extended wooden handle secured with duct tape. Mine even had camo duct tape with bits of old meat and fat stuck to the tape seams. Authenticity was not lacking. Each dog house had a restaurant-size tin can which was horse-shoe nailed to the side of their house and one by one we filled them with kibble and hot water. Awe became the emotion of the morning as Daniel called every pup by their name and told me precisely how much food and water they needed.

“Johnny Cash gets a heaping scoop of kibble and two scoops of water. No, like this, a HEAP scoop” He dug the ladle deep into the kibble and brought out a mountain of kibble to dump into the feed can.

Johnny Cash stood there barking and tapping his front feet on the ground like he was Bing Crosby dancing in a Vermont bed and breakfast for the good general. You couldn’t help but smile at the pup. He was only dog in the yard who tapped his feet like that. Dancing was not his top priority though because the second I stepped back from his food can he lunged his head deep in and began guzzling. I felt a good vibe from Johnny and wanted to linger but Daniel had already left.

“Viking, the big white dog, gets the same, a heap and two scoops of water.” Viking was a tall 70 or 80 pound Alaskan Husky that looked to be bred with Great Pyrenees and was jumping off his front feet with his chain stretched to its breaking point. Viking was snow white with hair that was a bit curly and had double lidded eyes that always seemed a bit bloodshot. I instantly thought of Scooby Doo. We took to each other like a pooh bear to honey and Viking stood soaking up the back rub I was generously doling out despite breakfast waiting in his can. I felt a connection to Viking and my heart told me he would be one of my dogs. Daniel looked over at me after realizing I hadn’t kept following.

“You like Viking eh? That’s good. He might be one of yours.”

“Really? Who else? Can’t you tell me a few?”

 “Maybe later in the week. Just focus on meeting all the dogs for now.” Daniel spun back around. “The next one is Kenga. She’s an old girl and only needs a flat scoop of kibble and one and a half water.” Daniel spoke with an air of expertise like an old family doctor training up a rookie to care for his patients. I felt an instant bond to many of the dogs we fed that morning. Maybe not a strong one, but there was something going on behind the scenes. I didn’t know it, but Daniel had taken me to where my yard would be, to where most of dogs already lived.

“Hey Daniel, why the combination of kibble and meat? Why not just kibble or just meat?” I softly inquired.

“Ever hear the expression Kibble Kills? Kibble isn’t that great to eat, meat is better, its fresher and has everything the dogs need. Race teams with money feed their dogs all meat, they don’t feed kibble. John says he can’t afford to feed his dogs all meat, so we do a combo.” Daniel answered as if this is well known knowledge, yet I never considered that kibble could be bad for the dogs, or that kibble didn’t have the dogs’ best interest at heart. In fact I would later learn that kibble came about during World War II when the government told dog food companies they couldn’t use anymore tin to package dog food, thus they needed to find a way to create dog food that could survive years in a paper bag. Not necessarily dog food that was full of life energy, but crunchy things that stay crunchy. I wondered if all those old family dogs that seemed tired and sick in old age was because of their age or that they lived off kibble their whole lives? Sure enough the older sled dogs on my team, who lived off meat and kibble, possessed far more energy and strength of any old house dog I’ve seen or lived with. Are we unknowingly poisoning our dogs with kibble? Food for thought.

Daniel used the morning feed to teach me how to feel a dog a hair past the rib cage toward the hind legs to gauge body fat. You wanted to feel just a smidgeon of cushion over where the rib cage gave way to flank. Enough to help the dogs say warm, to give them fat to burn through the harsh wintery night, but not too much. He would show me perfect weight dogs and then overweight and then underweight. Most dogs were proper weight with some over and only a few under. I asked why there were dogs underweight and he rationalized that some dogs just don’t want to eat and that when they start to run again their appetites will return. He stressed that judging the body fat ratio would arguably be the most important job that winter. Dogs too skinny would be in danger of collapsing on the trail and dogs too fat would be in danger of excess strain on their joints leading to permanent injury. It would take till mid-January before I stopped second guessing myself on the weight of my team but even past January I occasionally sought his advice on certain dogs to reassure myself.

Daniel showed me how you could tap on the roof a pup’s house and say “up” to get the dog to put their front paws on the roof of the house. This made it easier to harness a dog without bending over and was an easy way to greet an excited dog who would otherwise have jumped up on you. I always let my dogs jump up on me though because they liked it and I liked and it’s clearly a dog’s way of showing her affection. It doesn’t bother me to have a dog put her paws on my chest so why deny it? For the most part only dogs raised by Sheri knew the “up” trick. I would eventually teach it to all my dogs but Viking who clearly had no interest, Kenga who was just too old to give a hoot, Elana who was far too short, and the two blind dogs Tiger and Cabernet. You’ll read about all those pups soon. Mirroring Daniel, I tried to memorize all the pup’s names but by the time we finished feeding I could only remember Viking. Brain overload. I was envious how easily Daniel could rattle out their names and needs and wondered how long it would take to learn all of them. Caught up in the excitement of new things, I barely noticed that many dogs avoided my presence as we walked around, often putting their house between us as I passed by.

We filed back into the feed room and saw Sheri filling up her red five-gallon bucket with hot water. Sheri was finishing her last year mushing the race team. She met John over a decade ago while working as a shuttle driver ferrying guests from town out to RDS. She fell in love with the dogs immediately and begged for job. A couple years later the race team needed a new handler, Sheri got it. The next year, the musher quit and Sheri was promoted. She’s now retiring from racing at age 50. The woman is genuine, if anything, and she for sure has the best bubbly energy of anyone. Happiness and joy literally gush out of her when she speaks to you and it was in spades that morning. Sheri told me how excited she was to meet me and be my neighbor and couldn’t wait to be friends and how excited she was for me to get to know the pups and how much she loved the dogs and how amazing dog sledding was and asked if I knew which pups were in my yard. I said I didn’t know who were mine but maybe Viking? She loved Viking—he was so cute and loveable. Then she was out the door giggling a goodbye with twinkling eyes and a bucket in each hand. I already loved her.

We rinsed out the buckets with water from the hose attached to an on-demand water heater and dumped the wash onto the floor in the center of the feed room where the drain sat. There was quite a bit of mushy and dried kibble and meat scraps already crowding the drain. Daniel saw my frown and explained that during season the floors and feed room are cleaned every morning after feeding and before the guests arrive for their trip. He said we wouldn’t need to mop the floors for a couple weeks at least, and wouldn’t do it every day till the first guest arrived, but I promised myself I would be scrubbing the floor much sooner. I was shocked to find so much kibble and meat scrap on the floor in various stages of rot. In the morning briefing Daniel said that the feed room would be where we took sick dogs or dogs that needed doctoring up, after a dog fight for example, so I figured the room should always be prepared and prepared meant clean. Back when I was a line cook, I worked hard keeping the back of the house clean and saw no reason the feed room should be different. I got the impression the feed room was usually filthy during the off-season—when guests were not expected. Much later in the season I heard stories of huge fly swarms that lived in the feed room for the easy access to food scraps near the drain and for the frozen food left in the buckets overnight to thaw. These swarms only happened when the weather was warm so by November they were long gone.

Next came poop scooping. We filed out of the feed room and walked around the corner to the left where the barn was. I saw the sleds standing on the ends of their runners, leaned up on the wall like wooden ladders, and felt a tug in their direction. If only there was snow I thought to myself. In the corner was a collection of poop buckets, shovels, and old shovel handles of various lengths that had half a square plastic bucket nailed to one end. Armed with a shovel, poop pan, and a five gallon bucket we split up and went to work. Believe it or not scooping poop would become one of my favorite chores. It was immensely satisfying to get every last bit of poop off the ground and into the bucket. Since it wasn’t cold yet (it was only in the forties and fifties during the day) it was easy to shove the poop with the tip of the shovel onto the scooper. After 15 minutes though I found my wrists getting tired and noticed Daniel was scooping way faster than me. I saw he used an entirely different method. Instead of using his hands and wrists to flick the shovel head into the poop he would place the shovel head next to the poop and deliver a quick tap to the shovel head with his foot, thereby sending the poop flying into the scooper. Genius. It’s the simple things right?

Daniel shouted for me so I followed him back around the kennel towards the barn. “Let’s dump it” he yelled over his left shoulder. I guessed, correctly, he was left-handed. Behind the barn and down the hill lay the pile. A pile of poop, straw, and leftover dog food that looked to be nearly 25 yards long, fifteen feet wide, and six feet tall. Daniel said to do the best you can to dump the poop on the top of the pile or the pile will get wider and wider till it blocks the race trail. The race team snubbed-off at the top of the hill next to the barn and John claims that, if you’re not careful, before you know it the pile will get as wide as it is long. I figured what the hell, I’ve got my boots on, so I took a few steps up the pile and dumped it near the top before stepping back just in time as half of the contents bounced all the way to the ground. Good thing the boots had rubber around the feet.

I caught up to Daniel and we gathered in the feed room with Clarissa and Katie chattering about chores and dogs. We were about to head back outside to move a few dog houses around when John walked in scratching his chin with one hand and adjusting his belt buckle, a blue cam strap, with the other. He was wearing a decades old duck-canvas jacket tattered at the sleeves and blue jeans tucked into ivory colored canvas Steger Mukluks complete with Eskimo looking tassels and embroidery. He wore an old khaki ball cap advertising the sled dog race he founded that read “LEAD DOG” on the back and his bottom lip was bulged out with a fat dip. The first thing I noticed though was his age. John looked to be in his 70’s but I knew him to be in his fifties. His skin looked worn and weather-beaten and his wrinkled face sported grey stubble. The ball cap however couldn’t hide the considerable scar tissue near the crown of his head. Picture the Marlboro man post-failed cancer treatment. Despite all that John had piercing blue eyes that suggested you best not underestimate him.

“Is now a good time to talk?” John directed to Daniel and spit into a Budweiser bottle.

“Yeah John, we just finished feeding and scoopin.”

“Well if you’re busy I can come back, you probably have more chores to do.” It was clear though that John never intended to wait till later for his speech.

“No, no, now works.”

“Alex, right?” John pointed at me with half of an arm-raise.

“Yes sir, glad to meet you. Thanks for giving me a chance out here.” I responded with my characteristic slowness like I were giving a speech and wanted to be sure all understood, but my eyes switched from John Updike to the meat juices slightly backed up over the floor drain and back to his.

“Of course, I hope you’re ready. Things are slow right now but soon as the snow falls we’re gonna hit the ground running. I’m sure Daniel already told you but I want to say that this feed room won’t look like this during season. We let it get comfortable during the summer but the guests wouldn’t understand. It’ll have to be spotless once we get going.” His tone suggested he read my concern over the filthy floor.

“Of course” I nodded slowly in agreement.

“You know Alex I can read a person as well as I can read a dog. And I can read a dog with the best of them. I think you’re going to work out just fine here. We might even make a dog musher out of you.” He said this with a knowing smile, a short single nod of his head, and the sureness that only oft-repeated phrases carry.

“Sounds good to me John, thank you.”

“Well, that’s it for now I guess. I’ll let you all get back to work. I’m sure Daniel’s got plenty for you all to do. The season’s coming.” John shrugged his shoulders like a man apologizing for something he cannot control.

We all chorused “Bye John”. As he reached for the door handle he paused and looked back at us over his shoulder.

“Don’t work too hard, yet.” He added shortly and with a wink, like we were now in on a secret joke.

Then he was out the door. I shrugged my shoulders and saw Clarissa roll her eyes in annoyance where John had been standing and felt a twinge of disappointment that Clarissa would roll her eyes at her new boss. There was something about our new boss that didn’t meet the eye, a deepness to his story, and I doubt she had figured him out in just two days. I chalked that up to being fresh from school. She was after all out in the big world with a mission to try it all. She loved writing and told me one of the best parts of her reporting job back East was that she kept tabs on the cops, which wasn’t too surprising. Clarissa is mixed ancestry—her mom is Jamaican and her dad Caucasian—and she didn’t take anybody’s shit. Coming from Central Florida where small town kids joined the Force so they could kill a guy, where a White cop can run a Black man over with his police cruiser without so much as hand slap, I’m all for keeping tabs on cops. But that doesn’t tell the whole story since I’m from the same small town. Now a days the media will have you believe that all police shoot first and ask questions later, or that all so-called liberals hate cops. Who listens to the advertising corporate monstrosity media folks anyway? I pretty much stopped reading the newspaper after writing for one since people will write anything to feed themselves and buy cigarettes--capitalism’s fangs don’t let up on nothen. Anyways, if Clarissa and I met anywhere else we might have been friends. As it was, my demand that she conform to my standard of dog care prevented us from forming a friendship. Twice in the first half of the season I would recommend that Clarissa be replaced. She didn’t understand dogs on the level that the dogs needed and did not seem willing to do so. Unbeknownst to me John and Daniel had already been debating her termination, but kept her employed because they feared not being able to find any replacement. To hell with it though, because that woman stuck it out all season long and no matter how any musher performed those dogs weren’t ever leaving the kennel. There were moments I expected her to collapse in exhaustion or quit because of the way her dogs threw her attitude back in her face. This season would provide the most physically demanding environment I had ever experienced and all of us fought through it tooth and nail. For that, if anything, I respect Clarissa. Hell of a lady. But then I remember that dog care isn’t about the person. Dog care begins and ends with the dogs and her dog care was abysmal. It’s not just feeding them. It’s speaking to them and showing genuine love in your eyes, and if you don’t you aren’t doing your job and you aren’t making the dog’s life better. It’s like John would confide to me the next day, tears in eyes and all: “The dogs can’t care for themselves Alex, so it’s our job. We have to take care of them.” None of that really matters though since running around worrying over what other folks do creates negative energy and all that negative energy is just as hurtful to you as to the person you are worrying and judging over. Though I didn’t like Clarissa’s attitude, my decision to judge her for it was worse. Turn that other cheek and get on with it.

Anyways, we filed back into the yard and began moving a few houses around. Yard organization. I still don’t know how much the bigger houses weighed but a few of them took every ounce of my strength to rock and slide over the rocky ground. The smaller houses were a cinch to move but some of the big ones took two of us to slide over the packed dirt. We were realigning the rows of houses so they were easier to navigate and move dogs along. Untwisting the checkerboard.

After a while we headed back around the barn to the refrigerated truck turned walk-in freezer to move the meat slicer out of the freezer and scrape the floors clean because the semi truck was about to show to deliver the season’s supply of frozen meat: 40,000 pounds of ground beef, ground chicken, and chicken skins in 50 pound blocks. The slicer was big. The slicer was heavy. It took four of us to lift and shuffle-step it out of the way with arms straining and blood pumping. Daniel said the good news was we only had to move it once a day. Figures, I thought. Daniel was joking but I took him at his word till the following morning when I asked if it was time to move the slicer again. The freezer floor had months of meat, chicken, and chicken fat smeared all over so we used a hoe to scrape it all out like you might take a quarter to a lotto ticket. The new meat sat on wooden pallets and we needed to move them from the truck onto our hydraulic platform and into the freezer. Of course many of the pallets were broken and John’s manual pump-forklift was malfunctioning—it wouldn’t lift—but the driver had one so we started playing Tetris in the back of the truck. The driver humored us for a bit before offering to help which was the first time I saw a truck driver help unload his own truck. I remember when working construction, sometimes you’d open the back of a truck to find half the pallets smashed to pieces and your precious cargo tossed all over and all the driver would offer was a I’m sorry or lo siento before heading off to the couch inside the office to wait while you picked up the pieces and cursed his mother. This guy though was my hero. With his help it didn’t take long to transfer the cargo and soon we were waving goodbye to our new friend. Since I know you’re curious: during season every single day the pups ate around 155 pounds of dry kibble, 50 pounds of beef, 50 pounds of chicken, and at least 50 pounds of chicken skins (and more chicken skins if the temp was below zero). It was up to each guide to figure out the best way to get calories into our pups and by the end of the season we each had our own recipe and eating plan. Some guides were better at it than others.

I love work that makes you sweat and tire your muscles—work that makes you feel like you did something instead of work at a computer desk, and that first day I felt I was in the right place. But before I knew it Daniel was calling it quits. He said we would be easing into the work day and not to worry, because soon we would be clamoring for rest and rest wouldn’t come. Better to start slow, and besides he knew I needed to go into town to buy a few things, so he handed me a hand drawn map marking where the thrift stores, grocery store, and farm supply store was. Clarissa offered to ride with me to show me where they were. We headed into town and stopped at the farm supply where I got a utility knife and thin liner gloves to complement my expedition mittens then swung by the church-run thrift store where we looked around for some clothes and left with a thick wool sweater smelling of wet sheep but shouting warmth. The grocery store was the last stop where I bought an ice-cold pint of amber ale to drink while filling my cart with eggs, veggies, tortillas, pasta, canned tomatoes, a couple of whole chickens, beans and a box of malbec wine. Back at the kennel I found myself dead tired sipping on wine and wishing I had a little bit of weed to smoke. Not that it would have mattered because I passed out like a rock.

Chapter Two

Don’t Bother Researching and don’t read any books cause I’ll tell you everything you need to know. I don’t need you learning any bad habits before you get here.

There was much imagining over the next month and half before the kennel. How do you mush? How do you get the dogs to run in a straight line and not go veering off the trail? How this, how that? It was easy to fill my mind with musings since I knew next to nothing of running dogs, let alone training dogs. Growing up, I took pride that our dogs didn’t know tricks nor a leash. I guess that’s a bit of an exaggeration—the dogs knew to sit if they wanted a snack and they knew to come running when you called their name round supper time but no way they were changing directions once they got a scent up their nostrils and if you didn’t have a snack you weren’t getting much back. Once in awhile I read a few sentences about the Iditarod come early March like the rest of the country but really I knew jack all about what I was getting into. I never really experienced a winter. Sure I lived in Madrid and Washington DC where there are seasons and I saw a bit of snow here and there on vacation, but I never lived in the mountains. As a kid I went skiing in Vermont and once when I was 25 I spent a week in Vail getting high and going way too fast down slopes I had no business being on, but this would be different. The biggest difference being my entire day from sun up to sun down would be outside under whatever the sky stirred up. Fellow raft guides that worked as lifties in the Rockies suggested all manner of nylon and polyester ski gear and most figured I would go through hundreds of hand warmers. No one at the river had ever run dogs and to the credit of my friends not one of them allowed their own reservations of the musher/dog relationship at commercial businesses bleed into our conversations—there was nothing but happy thoughts for me from the river folk. I have a feeling they knew I would figure things out eventually.

A last minute stop at a thriftstore turned up a book about Siberian Huskies which I bought for a dollar. It was dense information on the breed that I suspected would be useless but for a dollar you never know. Two years later I gave that book to another thrift store. Never read more than a paragraph. Hours of Internet research suggested that the best boots would be either Steger Mukluks or Sorels. I got the impression Sorels would dry out faster so I bought a pair of glacier boots but eventually I bought mukluks. No wet boot will dry out over night without a being stuck over a boot drying machine anyway. The Sorel boots were also incredibly clunky—it was a nightmare to interact with the dogs with such massive boots because I spent most my time trying not to step on their feet with the hard rubber soles. After liberal applications of bear grease the soft soled mukluks became waterproof and even if I stepped on a paw it didn’t matter with the soft sole. However the soft mukluk eventually deformed from standing on the sled runners and the boots had to be thrown in the trash at the season’s end. To keep my fingers and toes warm I splurged on a pair of Outdoor Research Gore-Tex mittens and several pairs of Patagonia wool socks. A brand new ski jacket, a down mid-layer, an old pair of ski pants, a couple polyester base layers, and an old pale red nylon beanie that I figured to replace at the local thrift store rounded out my wardrobe. I anticipated wardrobe and gear switches once I got working but also didn’t want to show up with nothing and look unprepared. Since I was working as a raft guide I was able to get everything with my outdoor pro deals which meant I was only half broke after buying it all. Yeehaw.

John told me not to bother reading how to run dogs. He would tell me everything I need to know. It was incredibly difficult to obey but I did. I didn’t read a single piece of sled dog literature aside from that husky paragraph. In the month leading up to my departure I soaked up all the sun and Chattooga water possible figuring that in the dead of winter I could use the warmer feelings. Soon enough it was October 31st, the evening of the best raft guide wedding in the history of Halloween, and the next morning I hit the road. Thirty-five hours later I pulled off the highway into the Evergreen River Recreation Area (a fictional place) and drove up the hill to the kennel. An incredible feeling of excitement had spurred me along all through the night save for three hours sleeping at a rest stop in Kansas, but after all those miles I was fighting to keep my eyes open. Steinbeck was right, you really can drive across the United States and never see a thing. Night had fallen hard. It became difficult to read the road signs. To keep from missing the road I took to pulling over at every turn off since the road signs tended to be just far enough from the highway that my headlights failed to illuminate them. Hell, I expected to miss the turn off and end up driving all the way through to the next town before realizing my mistake. My road map didn’t show the recreation area, or the road, and I don’t carry a smart phone, so it was good old fashioned eye sight or nothing at all. All that caution proved unnecessary because there was a giant wooden billboard of a sign alongside the highway marking the Recreation area. I turned off the highway and my headlights lit up patches of snow, the snow sighting boosted my adrenaline, and sent me into an awake but loopy state of sleep deprivation that felt sort of like doing a headstand for too long after drinking too much coffee. Outside the car window I saw the head guide Daniel and Katie, fellow musher-turned girlfriend, they were smoking cigarettes on the front stoop of the Guide House. Katie had guided the year before but this season she signed up to be the race team’s handler. As they tell it I had no sooner said “Hey, how are ya?” when my eyes tracked to the starry night sky and my voice trailed off into a low “whoaaaahhhh.” Daniel says I sort of stared at the stars and when I eventually began unloading the jeep he claims that my eyes stayed glued to the sky throughout. The heavenly stars that night were many and brighter than any I had seen in a good while back on the east coast. Cleaner air. Oh and no light pollution. We didn’t talk much except to say see you in the morning and can’t wait to get started.

One of my roommates was inside. Her name was Clarissa. She arrived two nights prior so she already had two full days of work done and I found myself envious that she got to meet the dogs before I did. Our third roommate Ann arrived eight days later. The three of us shared one of the apartments. The other two guides, Samantha and Bennet, rounded the guides out to six. In the forest that winter there was six tour guides, a husband/wife cook duo, the boss John, Sheri who ran the race team with Katie handling, and Matthew who ran the office. There were twelve of us calling that corner of the forest home. Oh and around 180 sled dogs and who knows how many other animals and plants.

At the river, our company had about thirty five raft guides plus the two other companies on the river, so while we didn’t live in a town per se if one company threw a party it would be a lively one. Most of the time I avoided those parties—they could get rambunctious and I was trying to leave my past rowdiness in the past. But, you see, there were options if one was so inclined to get rowdy. At the kennel, there was just two single girls and I shared a bedroom with both of them. Our mattresses were laid flat on the floor spaced about four feet apart. Cozy. The nearest cowboy turned resort town was thirty or so miles away but I knew I wouldn’t be entertaining ski bum girls from the slopes when I was done with work. A hunch told me that there would be sexual tension with at least one roommate—primates being primates and all the mindless carnal chasing that goes with a millennia of evolution. Otherwise Daniel was dating Katie, Matthew had a previous fling with Samantha and spent the winter rekindling it in a cabin eight miles down the highway, the two cooks were married, and John and Sheri were single. In a group email Ann mentioned she was a raft guide in Colorado so I figured she would be fun and we had that in common. All I knew about Clarissa was that she had a pet rabbit and was new to the big wide world: i.e. she was five months out of university. Clarissa sent Ann and me an email asking if we would mind a rabbit sharing the apartment. My friend Eric, who goes by the name 92, was looking over my shoulder when I read her email. 92 agreed that a rabbit would be a terrible idea but also agreed that I should tell Clarissa to bring the rabbit so we could see how Ann reacted in the email chain to my rabbit enthusiasm. He and I figured that since I would be living with two girls it was understood tension would exist so might as well jump in feet first. All my raft guide friends were eagerly awaiting dogsled stories but they were also eagerly awaiting any and all stories of my living arrangement.

That first night I spread out my sleeping bag on the odorous and stained thrift store mattress Clarissa had generously rescued from the dump pile for me behind the thrift store and proceeded to pepper her with outrageous stories of misspent Fraternity years, adventures on the Iberian Peninsula, and whatnot-in an attempt to learn her boundaries. What was she OK with? I told her about the time my best friend Fitzgerald missed the ladder while attempting to climb off the top bunk causing him to hit the ground like a dead horse from Gettysburg. I could only tell Fitzgerald to shut up as he lay moaning and naked on the filthy astroturf floor. I told her about the time Frandy came flying through my unlocked door and head butted the bunk bed ladder because he thought the door was locked, though it should have been because I was watching a dirty movie and was quite indisposed. The time Fitzgerald was jumped by eight twelve-year-old Spaniards when he tried to buy hash from them under a plaza gazebo in the rain during Carnival. They stood around him in a circle kicking mercilessly at his body till I saved the night by running at them and hollering like Donkey Kong. The rambling years of my mid-twenties, were a shotgun blast of lust, sensual desire, materialism—fire mixed with gasoline—I figured it was best for the two of us (Clarissa and me) if we learned boundaries quick, and I love telling stories. I don’t recommend that method.

For her part Clarissa was fresh out of school with a degree in journalism and spent her first summer working as a wrangler for a dude ranch in Colorado. We both maintained blogs about our adventures. I have mixed feelings on blogs. I started mine because I thought I would have liked to read it were it someone else’s, but is that because it was mine or because my ramblings might have genuine use? Eventually, I shut it down, unsure of the base emotion behind my blog. Course, now I am writing a book.

 Like me, Clarissa had worked for a newspaper. She was younger though and clearly wary of living with a boy—her hesitant laughs at my tales seemed to support my suspicions that living here would be more difficult for her than for me. Oh how wrong I was. Clarissa was striking with eyes that drew you in, long legs, great curly hair, and brown skin. It was clear though that the two of us were not compatible. I was stoked. To be stoked means to be pumped up with enthusiasm, you know like a fire. That meant half my potential roommate… minefield? Eliminated. After all I was there to run dogs and getting romantic in a seasonal job was not on the agenda. Such relationships were notoriously difficult. Take two people that live on adventure and thrive in uncertainty—enough that they left their family and friends to go wander the world—throw in a whirlwind romance and then before you know it the season is over and both return to their summer job or maybe they go elsewhere but for sure they are not likely to be in the same locale. My own love life pre-Chattooga ended after two years of arguing over my own wanderlust and her wish to live around the corner from her parents. She wanted a bulleted list and I wanted a blank sheet. Off to the mountains I went.

 It was that breakup which helped lead to the Chattooga River, whose simple beauty and simply terrifying dangers led me to rediscover my soul. For too long I was either running full speed to nowhere or over-indulging alcohol and weed till I got nowhere and my gut told me that I needed to get outdoors to rediscover myself. Nature, I believed, would be my medicine. My biggest problem was that I had no faith in the divinity, or magic, of humanity, of the Earth. If there was no Good Spirit, if we just lived and died for one pathetic life time, then why bother with a greater purpose? Might as well get drunk, smoke cigs and weed, do the occasional line of cocaine, and keep up with the Jones’. But back to our story: There was a phone number in my pocket given to me by my buddy Will to use for a rainy day. You gotta meet her he gushed. She’s right up your alley. Tall and sexy he said. And as for Clarissa’s pet rabbit Rufie, that first night would also be his last night sleeping upstairs because the next morning we woke to find rabbit poop balls bordering me like a dead body chalk outline and he was banished to the first floor.

Chapter One


 I want you to tell me you want it.

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 a dog or two under the table 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. 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. 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 and my heart 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 feel our energy change. 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. 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 a great time 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. 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. 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 had read about dogsled tour guide jobs in Alaska.

“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 were 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 as 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 for breeding 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.

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, and the incredible resources our company expends to take people rafting, 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. My innocence 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 go hunting. 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 that I cannot describe with words rose up into my throat as I made my decision. I closed my eyes and shot into the trees. The deer flew into the air and 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, they didn’t seem to bat an eye until I ran outside yelling and crying at them. Yet I was always troubled by the frog and deer. 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 did not feel that bond between my grandfather and the deer he shot. This was because he was not truly in need and the connection he searched for was not one of equal communion but of high to low, a conquistador and gold--this realization would soon return to me when winter waned.

Man being the highest species, should we not protect the lower species, instead of ravaging them? Any distinguishing characteristic between species is one that ultimately only exists in the mind. We humans create our own realities which is a gift to nurture or squander. Animal to animal, I see no difference between a cow and a dog. It’s really not that crazy: People already let morals bleed into their diets. Most United States Americans do not eat cat or dog. Most Man do not eat other Man, despite the flesh of a Man to be no different than the flesh of a fish. Plant foods are also cheaper, easier to produce, better for the environment, easier to cook, require less cleaning, store easier, less toxic thereby easier to digest, and if you grow your own fruits and vegetables you can eat them fresh. Two to seven hours after being plucked finds most fruits and vegetables losing half their nutrition. If you don’t believe me, you can taste the difference yourself with a simple experiment, grow a tomato, eat that tomato off the vine and then follow it with a store bought tomato. The ancient wisdom that fresh fruits and vegetables are life giving, all-around healing miracles, is not superstition, yet modern society has convinced itself that day and week old fruits and vegetables are fresh. The ancient wisdom of fresh fruits no longer applies to the grocery store. We have traded families caring and loving their own fruit gardens to industry enslavement and buying half-dead fruit and abused animals.

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 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.

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. 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.”

Introduction

Howling Through the Night: Relationships, Teachings and Soul Searching from the Back of a Dog Sled.

By Alex Perryman

Text Copyright © 2017 Alex Perryman

All Rights Reserved

This book is dedicated to Spirit.

Introduction

The story before you relates the events and experiences of my winter running dogs. My intent is to bring you into my being to share the perspective I came to understand—to feel--after throwing every last bit of my body and soul into the care of twenty-five race-bred Alaskan Huskies for one of the most sought after guided dog sled trips in the world. Why write about this? Because my heart tells me my story, and the story of my sled dog friends, needs to be shared. Before you read any further, I ask that you feel over, not think over, this mantra: Life, for all its pleasures and pains, is rarely as complicated as it seems.  

The names of people, places, and businesses have been changed. I did this because although I disagree with the thinking used by the dog kennel to rationalize the activity, the kennel folk, like all people, only do what they know. We aren’t on Earth to point blame. This story is not about right and wrong. You, me, and sled dogs… we are all products of our environment. Their experiences are your experiences are my experiences. You know, we’re all mirrors for each other.

Some other details have been changed. Some conversations in the story may or may not have happened at all. I did not take many notes throughout the winter—at the end of the day my hands could barely hold a pencil—but many of the talk you will read are honest recollections. A fellow musher joined in my effort to recreate the mood and events that took place over the winter. I think we did a good job. But then again I’m the author.

The mushers I met and worked with believe they have a strong bond to their animals, but to risk sounding arrogant, and though I promise that my intention is not to be so, their bond is different than the bond I came to experience. That winter running dogs gave me the opportunity to know that, like us people, dog’s too have a soul. As we humans hold the divine spark within, so do dogs and by extension all life on Earth--plant animal rock and water--share this cosmic energy. A magical and powerful spirit moves in all of creation. This was not my worldview when winter came. I didn’t believe in souls and spirits and magic. As a kid, sure, why not, but as an adult there was only what I can see with my own two eyes. But, oh my, how a view may shift if one is willing to change. There’s another mantra for you: I am willing to change. At the sled dog kennel, I knew I didn’t like what I saw—how they lived, worked, and died--but I also very much enjoyed being pulled along through the mountains. Anyway, these are work dogs. Yet, I experienced moments of deep connection with my canine friends as a result of caring for them and running with them. Those moments of connectivity caused me to rethink what I believe is possible. What I believe to be real. Slowly, my steadfast devotion to running dogs till the end of my days began to falter. The dogs I worked with showed me they are more than just dogs. They showed me that there is something glowing behind their eyes and whatever it is, I have it too. They showed me that a dog is not what you make of him, but of what you let him be.

When I first sat down to write my story, I did not fully appreciate the gift I was given by my canine friends. I only knew that I must write it all down if I wanted my nightmares to go away. The first draft was heavy on guided trip minuet and light on the soul stuff. I wasn’t sure others would believe me or care. Slowly, the story began to emphasize the relationships I formed with the dogs but still I hesitated to dive in. Then my partner, Gloria, confirmed that the best part of the story was my relationships, the best part was the soul stuff, and she encouraged me to keep writing. This is the result.

 

 “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Mahatma Gandhi.