Chapter Three

Welcome to RDS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, no, now works.”

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

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

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

“Of course” I nodded slowly in agreement.

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

“Sounds good to me John, thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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