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.