LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska - Clarence rushed to my side, peering anxiously into my face as I sneezed a second time. “You OK?” his worried brown eyes asked. “You OK?”
I laughed at him. “I’m OK,” I assured my companion. “Just allergies.”
Clarence is a worrier. At 8 years old you’d think my big sled dog leader would know better, but a sneeze, a problem in the team, or a trail situation when he can’t figure out what I want him to do, all cause consternation or even deep anxiety.
His massive fluffy-white chest on a silvery-gray-black backdrop hint at his power, while his loyalty and concern for me have been both a blessing and a problem. Clarence is so anxious for my attention that, on the chain, he writhes around, nearly knocking me over with his massive body. In the lead, he can hardly restrain himself from turning back to greet me every time I walk up the line.
When he first comes inside, he careens around with blithe disregard for the fact that his back is bumping the underside of the table while his tail sweeps dishes onto the floor.
Once he settles in everything is fine, at least until I sneeze.
Julie named him when he was a week-old, looking more like a fat marmot than a puppy. “Clarence Boatman,” she declared, after one of the first white trappers in this country.
She named the middle dog Jiles after another old-time local trapper, and he grew up to be her leader. Tiny Quigley, named after Fannie of Kantishna, threw her hysterical glee into being a house-dog and bear-and-horse chaser.
The historical theme of the litter fit; 40 years ago their ancestors were trotting down trapline trails in front of trappers Tom and Mary Flood, while the other side of the family goes back to Andy, Rick Swenson’s famous Iditarod leader of the 1980s.
Quigley was too small for our team of big trapline dogs.
At 80 pounds, Jiles was just right. Clarence weighed 93 pounds at 10 months, and when he visited the vet at age 6, he tipped their scales at 108 lean, rock-hard pounds. Yet his height — nearly 30 inches — allows him to carry that weight without any excess bulk. Most dogs of that size can’t keep up with our team, just as our 80-pounders can’t keep up with small, light race dogs. Clarence not only keeps up, he sets the pace for my team.
We haven’t done much long-distance mushing the last few years, but in 2006 he did his share and more as a team dog when we broke trail through the mountains and later, clipping along on a good trail, covered up to 60 miles in 24 hours.
Clarence is the dog I want up front if the trail throws us a problem. Deep snow, pummeling wind, glassy ice, kneedeep water — if he knows I want him to go through it, through it he goes. For years now he’s been my go-to guy for opening up 50 to 80 miles of trapline trail in November, and he will drag an excited team right past a trapped animal.
He’s the one who led my team several hundred yards through foot-deep overflow last winter, with enough forward momentum and confidence that the youngsters behind followed right along.
In the springtime when melting runoff rims the lake ice with a moat of water, Clarence doesn’t care if it’s ankle deep or thigh deep.
When Julie and I had to make an emergency 15-mile midnight run home with wind gusting to 50 or 60 mph, we paired him with good old Pelly to lead the way. Between the two, their unwavering confidence got us through what could have quickly become a nasty situation.
The three siblings, with their matching masks and mismatched sizes, chased bears from spring camp last year, and later joined us on a five-week summer trek.
Selected because they never ran off in addition to their bear-chasing abilities, it was ironic that Clarence and Jiles disappeared for almost an hour as we saddled the horses to leave on the long trail.
They delayed our departure from another cabin by a full day when they went AWOL again. (That’s why we had time to replace the rickety old table that the bears kept tearing apart with a stout one of thick milled boards spiked to four-inch posts.) Still, they made an amusing trio, little Quigley, just-right Jiles, and massive Clarence, partnering up to send an intruding black bear into a rapid retreat when it approached one camp where we were repairing a cabin roof.
Clarence is so dedicated that he’ll do anything he can to stop a team if he knows I’m being left behind. That’s a difficult proposition for a leader, whose mates will happily mow him down if he falters. Leaving the sled to bait a trap once, I turned back to see my team had pulled the anchoring snow hook from the soft trail and gone on without me. I spied the runaways half a bend upstream, balled up in a wad because unbidden my big leader had doubled back for me.
Even when he can’t stop the team right away, Clarence always manages to slow them down and finally stop and wait until I can catch up. Always, he is peering back at me, anxious to know that he did what I wanted even though normally tangling the team or swinging back is a serious no-no. If I even pass a spot where I sometimes stop, he glances back for instructions.
The stress he puts on himself doesn’t always work to my advantage. When something goes wrong, he tries to take charge to fix the problem. If that doesn’t work, he tends to blame some other dog.
Heading out from home our dogs need to respond to a left-or-right command just as they reach Mach 3 going down the short but steep hill to the beach, 200 feet from the launch pad. For awhile one year Clarence started inverting his “gee’s” with his “haw’s,” and I finally smacked him, thinking that would straighten him out. I felt he knew better, and veering off on the wrong trail unexpectedly can risk a concussioncausing crash.
Unfortunately, the pressure was too great. The next time he led me down the hill and I shouted “Gee!” when he had headed “Haw!” he promptly doubled back and attacked the wheel dog, a somewhat aggressive ex-race dog that had been causing a few problems in the team. Clarence couldn’t handle the pressure and disapproval, and since he could hardly blame ME, he blamed poor Don.
I had told my sister that Clarence had one chance: the first time he attacked another dog I was going to have him neutered. He lasted six years, but the sight of him latching onto a dog that he outweighed by 40 pounds convinced me to stick with that plan. Fortunately, I had already gotten three pups from him who had grown up to be among my favorite dogs and who will be taking over as Clarence ages.
I’ve been expecting him to slow down; 8 years old is getting up there for a dog of that size, but he’s still my main man. He’s dropped back a bit at times in the last year, but most of the time if he’s in the team it’s like having an extra dog. When I turn him loose, he races and gambols about like a wildly happy overgrown puppy.
Unless I sneeze, of course.
Then he’s right there, asking if I’m all right.
Miki Collins is a trapper and freelance writer who lives near Lake Minchumina.