LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska — Our Little Bugs have undergone another metamorphosis.
The squeaking little deaf, blind “larvae” born more than seven months ago rapidly changed into bouncy, happy little puppies. They’d find secret places to sleep only to come tumbling out from here and there at a “Puppy-puppy-puppy!” call.
We watched the four “keepers,” Cricket, Beetle, Skeeter and Junebug, grow into bigger puppies. They dragged drying clothes down from the line, packing them off to the impenetrable recesses under the floor of the workshop. They eviscerated the cute stuffed toys the relatives sent for them to play with, spreading fuzzy white innards across the lawn, and shredded, into the tiniest pieces possible, the foam from an aging snow machine seat.
At 4 months old, their destructive behavior peaking, the young adolescents learned how to be dogs tied in a dog yard, although they still had hours of free time for running loose and getting into trouble. Beetle found himself on the wrong side of a creek and had to be rescued on a dark and rainy October night. In November, Cricket tripped on breaking shell ice and gashed the gum line below his lower incisors; his lower lip is still a little droopy. And somebody dragged my beaver mitts from the dog sled under the spruce tree and chewed the thumb off. Again.
By December the youngsters were running up to 10 miles loose with the dog team, and by the middle of that month, I decided it was time for them to learn the real purpose of life. The females seemed a little more mature, so I tried them first.
Some youngsters can be hitched in with a team and know just what to do right from the get-go. Others, overwhelmed by the neckline pulling forward while the tugline is holding back, think they’re about to be ripped in two. That’s what Skeeter did. She fell to the ground in an overwhelmed heap. Junebug wasn’t much better, and rather than stressing them out by a sled run instead of enjoying it, I put their team training on hold.
I brought Skeeter out alone, with a drag just heavy enough for her to know it was there. The pup and I spent the first one or two training runs tangled in the brush. By the third run she was blazing around with a heavier drag, chasing after pets Quigley and Ellie, running so fast the drag bulled right through almost everything.
When she galloped in a tight circle, the 20-pound poly bag of frozen fish played crack the whip behind her, threatening to mow down any disgruntled dogs in the way. Racing down the hill to the river once, she zipped past me on one side. The bag slingshot past on the other side, the towrope efficiently sweeping me off my feet. Bag, Skeeter and I went tumbling and rolling on down to the bottom of the hill. It didn’t hurt her.
Each of the other pups had several days of drag training. At first Junebug went out of her way to tangle in every bush she could find. Then she figured out that if she pulled faster and harder, the bag wouldn’t stick. Pretty soon she was off in the brush chasing rabbits and never getting hung up once.
Big Cricket hardly felt the drag. He gallumped on a quarter mile ahead, then left the lake trail for the beach several hundred yards away. A week earlier I had walked him this way, and he’d gone to the beach and apparently found a grouse nested under the snow, caught it, and brought his prize back to me. (Not FOR me, just TO me.) Now he went looking for another one, and promptly got stuck in brush. Instead of screaming for help like some pups, he simply waited calmly until I could reach him.
I tried Skeeter in a small team again. She still wasn’t sure, dragging on her neckline for a while, not crashing onto the ground, but just protesting gently. By the end of a two-mile run, she was pulling fairly well. Her second run went much more smoothly. Over the next few days I started each of the others in a team as well.
Not knowing how to pace themselves, pups get winded easily, so I stopped frequently during each two mile run. For the first couple runs they rest breaks standing quite still, mouths closed tightly. Not until they began to pant and “smile” and interact with each other did I know they were starting to relax and really have fun
Now, with a couple weeks of harness training and half a dozen runs behind them, I’m running each one in a team with one or two siblings, every other day. The well-grown pups stand eagerly in the team as they wait for me to release the snub rope. Then we fly down the hill, pups pulling hard.
The impact of working in a team has hit them: the intense emotional bond a good husky has with his work, that feeling of speed and coordinated power, knowing that together as a team they can do more than any one alone can do. The drag taught them that the pull from the harness is theirs to overcome, and the team gives them a force and focus and pack mentality they had never experienced before.
Of course we’ve still got a few “bugs” to work out, but our little ones have morphed into their adult form, and pups and I are all loving every minute of it.
Trappers and life-long Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books, which are available at Gulliver’s Books in Fairbanks. They live in Lake Minchumina.