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.