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.
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?
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.