January 21, 2015 by cleanwatt
The Fall of ’13 I came across the ad on the internet. A strangely named kennel in Snowmass Village, CO that was looking for “Rookie Dog Mushers”. Interested, I pursued.
I had recently finished a book by the name of Winterdance by Gary Paulsen (you know, the author of Hatchet, an irrefutable staple in any young mans syllabus). A true story, it chronicles the relationship that blossomed between him and dog sledding, eventually leading him to partake in the hellish endeavor that is The Iditarod. Brilliant book.
First thing in the brisk mornings is to start hydrating the dogs. Standard water gets boring, and quite solid overnight in the mountains so we break the ice out of their water buckets. Concentrated leftovers from the previous nights dinner are ladled into five gallon buckets and diluted with warm water (called it “baited water”). Slipping around with a pseudo soup, you’d dole out portions to the dogs on your team. The dogs that were dubbed to have a “fast metabolism”, or the skinnier hounds, were given a chunk of food. Otherwise, the dogs running in the morning wouldn’t be served anything to keep their systems free during the run. Then, you grab a shovel and a bag and start picking up after your dogs. I reckon I personally shoveled somewhere around 1.37 tons (commonly referred to as a ‘Shit-Ton’) of dog feces. The upside is that given the colder climate, they freeze up nicely and you can rapidly chip them up with ease. Golden rule: Never shit the kennel with your mouth open. Invariably, flak comes at you hastily.
Beautiful sleds handmade of Hickory wood and bound with Elk hide are our chariots. You attach the gangline to a couple forward stanchions on the sled, get a cushion & some blankets for the guests, and tie a rendition of a quick release knot to your assigned launching post. Another golden rule: Triple check that knot.
You put a team together in your head. Factoring a few variables such as: Snow conditions, temperature, are you feeling cautious, confident, or crazy, number of guests in sled (1-3), where are the guests from, guests estimated weight (Kansas heifers or Japanese youth), when the dogs ran last, how were the dogs acting that morning, how much did I eat for breakfast, etc…
Typically, we’d run ten dogs a team. Eight or nine if it was icy or you had a single, small guest. One day dictated twelve dogs thanks to an epic dumping of snow (much more resistance for the dogs).
You’d get to know the harness sizes that fit each dog (we had eight sized harnesses, color coded on their tug line), and lay out your harnesses for that morning’s team. You get the call from the coordinator. You start by getting your Lead dogs first, harnessing them up front, attaching their tugs to the line and connecting them both together via a neck line (a foot or so). Next are your Point dogs, then your Team dogs in the middle, then your Sub Wheel dogs at row four, and finally you wrestle a couple of leviathan Wheel dogs in front of the sled. This whole process is a controlled chaos. As soon as one person gets their first leader and walks them to the gangline, the kennel erupts. The dogs recognize the process of you straddling them to put them in their harness, but they’re sure to make it trying at times by turning over, nipping at you, barking directly into your ear canal, maybe even pissing on your foot a touch just to let you know who you’re messing with here.
Meanwhile, as the kennel is a cacophony, the guests have finished watching a small training video telling them a little of what to expect and after they’ve signed a liability release form, obviously, they are lead down to your sled. You’ve got saliva all over (some of it the dogs), smell a bit of shit and hog fat, tears in your clothes, hair is disheveled, and you shake their hand with a maniacal smile brimming with confidence. You ready for this?
The dogs love to run. It’s immediately obvious. You triple check that knot because they start throwing themselves into their harness, literally rearing to run. Knots have pulled through, ropes have snapped, and a team has taken off without a musher. Funny, but not funny. Third golden rule: Never ever let go of the sled. Ever.
I flipped once, but never let go. Got drug a bit before I managed to right the sled.
Guests loaded and mummified in blankets, you get the all clear ahead, then pull the quick release and give your Lead dogs a goading “ON UP!”. The guests are screaming, you’re giggling, and you haven’t even gone ten feet yet. I won’t go into details about the route, but right out of the kennel you get to power slide through two hairpin turns. The first, is directly through the middle of a black diamond run in the Ski area. You cross a few more runs, trying to avoid amateur skiers the whole time before things mellow out. Aided by gravity and fresh legs that sled gets moving. It was about a 10 mile round trip tour. Halfway, on a massive ranch in a beautiful valley we’d stop the team, tie them off and let the guests get out to interact with the dogs and take some pictures while giving the dogs a little breather.
The Leaders are special in a few ways. All the dogs are smart, but these are a cut above. They are aware of the team behind them, they keep the line taught setting the pace. They obey turn, speed, and stop commands (mostly…). They know the route, probably better than I did. They cut corners knowing the racers line being the fastest, most efficient. Most of my lead dogs were bitches (gotta use the correct jargon). And when the females went into heat? You put 8 boys behind them and set land speed records.
The Wheel position is also massively important. In the high speed turns, in addition to my footwork coercing a heavy sled around, they can pull the sled in a perfect arc keeping things tidy. They can also pull like a train on the uphill. Harley or Triumph could, and often did, jumpstart the entire sled themselves on an impressive incline if they were so inclined.
The dogs respond to the intonation in your voice more than the content. A high pitched, fast cajoling was met with a burst of speed. Whereas a slow, quieter command would ease or stop them. I was partial to “ON UP!, UP UP UP UP!” for a start, run like mad command, and “eaaassssssyyyyy, whoa, whoa, whoa, please for the love of all things holy, whoa…” for a slow, stop command. A left turn command is “HAW” & a right turn command is “GEE”. Praise following a prompt (and correct!) turn command was common, as well as general applause of those wonderful dogs the whole way out and back. Also, should a dog need to drop some weight en route, they did so gracefully “ON THE RUN”. The whole team wasn’t going to stop so Ben Frank could jettison his supper. You try and steer the sled away from such sins as the dogs following could kick it up after….not pretty. You constantly scan your team, watching for a single dog slowing, slack in the line which could cause a tangle, making sure each dog was getting along with their partner in that position.
The blood pumping 1,000ft decent downhill is met soberly in reverse as the dogs pull a sled potentially weighing nearly a thousand pounds back up to the kennel. I’d get off and run alongside the sled, pushing when capable to help the dogs. They could sense if you were loafing, standing on the runners as they did all the work. A knowing backwards glance would spur you to hop off and lighten their load.
Arriving back at the kennel you immediately get some baited water in front of them. Their internal body temperature is high enough that they can grab a bite of snow and use it as a viable source of water (unlike humans), but we try to keep them hydrated at all times. Giving each dog some loving as you unharness them and take them back to their home.
Then you start thinking about your afternoon and twilight runs ahead.
During high season, typically the dogs would be fed one large meal at the end of the day, in addition to snacks throughout. We would render down about 60 pounds of hog fat, procured from butchers in Denver, in a 50 gallon drum over a perpetually scalding wood fired stove (Don’t think that fire went out for 4 months, & was the centerpiece of the kennel shop), then split it up evenly between another drum, adding 4-5 bags of a high quality (rich in protein and fat) dry kibble between the two. The kibble breaks down in the boiling fatty mixture and gets slopped in large quantities to each dog. We figured the dogs were getting fed between 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day depending on their size and regimen.
Here’s a slew of images from my time there.
Here’s some footage of a joy ride where I took Ryan out, a fellow musher. The HD option is worth the time for the video. Also, here’s a Youtube Link: http://youtu.be/biVIPqERPcE
I had never really worked with animals before, besides a short stint vaccinating hogs at a confinement in Iowa during school, but I’d rather not dwell on that one. My tools changed from a wrench to a scratch behind the ears. Those (all) dogs are amazing, and I count myself lucky to have been given the opportunity to work with them at Krabloonik. They were my co-workers & my friends, in addition to some amazing human ones to boot. I went back to the wrench for sustenance after that season, but am fortuitously a short drive away from the kennel still, to go and silently reminisce while rationing belly rubs…
“Their tails are high and tongues awag-the twin banners of sled dog