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.