LAKE MINCHUMINA - “Meeter, no! No! NO!!”
Too late! The hysterical husky’s sharp molars finished shearing the dogsled’s towline right behind my lead dogs. My over-enthusiastic team had to wait with escalating impatience while I knotted the frayed lines and finished hooking up my dogs.
With a team full of young dogs and ex-race dogs, things were shaping up to be an interesting 12-day trip out the trapline. Yesterday’s run, to the first line cabin, was so fast I worried the dogs might burn out.
Three-year-old Meeter had already made a two-week trek when my sister Miki took our more seasoned trapline dogs out to open cabins and set traps along 65 miles of trail. He should be nicely settled by now, but clearly he didn’t know that.
Leaving Kraki and Coco loose to slow the team, I left the first cabin with Jiles and Keta in lead, young Dragon and Meeter in swing, the brothers Fiji and Tokelau in the team position and powerful Spoí in wheel. I should have had a fun, efficient team. Certainly the six I’d been training while Miki went trapping had clicked really well. But my dogs just weren’t meshing with the three I’d added from Miki’s team.
Keta lacked impulsion and kept falling back. Meeter pulled so hard he overtook the leaders. Inexperienced Dragon repeatedly tangled in the slack lines. Every time I stopped to work a set or untangle the dogs, Meeter went ballistic, screaming and lunging to go. I had worked hard to train my youngsters to remain calm during stops, but with Meeter egging them on they reverted to puppyhood.
Because of my young dogs and the rough trails, I planned a 10-mile run with an overnight at a small tent camp. Three miles short of camp I stopped to pick up my first marten, and Meeter pulled the snow hook that anchored the team. I grabbed the lines, fell, dragged, slid under the sled and shrieked and shouted until the dogs reluctantly stopped.
I’d had enough. I turned Fiji loose and moved Dragon back to Fiji’s spot where he was less likely to tangle. I turned Meeter loose, moved Keta back to his spot and put Coco in beside Spoí. That left Jiles in single lead, which he didn’t like, but Keta worked better and wouldn’t get tangled. We slowed down, but ran clean after that.
In the morning I put Meeter in wheel with Coco, where he wouldn’t get tangled. A heavy-gauge wire twisted around the towline discouraged chewing a bit and we had a pretty nice run on to the West Line cabin.
For the 16-mile run over to the Spruce Cabin, I tried leaving Meeter loose. Now Meeter won’t quit when he’s hooked in the team, but he does like to play and harass the leaders when he’s loose. I found myself once again untangling dogs and trading them around, trying to find an arrangement that worked. With Meeter clogging the front end, the first few miles were frustrating. Then Fiji got tired, so I replaced him with Meeter. That solved my problems until the loose pup stepped in a marten trap.
It was an ideal set-up to teach him about traps. Usually one toe-pinching teaches our young dogs that: A) I can rescue him; and B) don’t be messing with traps. In this case Fiji learned B), but not A) because when he started screaming for help my wonderful dog team folded back on itself to see what the trouble was. By the time I had wrestled them under control, Fiji had pulled out of the little #1 longspring by himself.
I arrived at the last camp feeling tired and frustrated with the dogs, but pleased to have picked up nine more marten. By now Dragon had developed gut problems and quit eating. I was so fed up with Meeter that I left him with Dragon when I ran a 15-mile loop out of the cabin. Despite the -24 degrees chill, my seven-dog team and I had a lovely, easy run. Everyone stayed in place, pulled well, and cooperated together. Even Fiji, toughening up, managed to pull nicely the whole way. We added six more marten to the growing pile, and enjoyed a day off to rest and skin furs while waiting for -30 degrees weather to moderate.
I planned a three-day run home with no more days off. I knew the dogs could do it, but with the rough trails and their inexperience they might not enjoy it.
Despite the heavy wire, Coco and Meeter together had chewed apart the half-inch poly rope that made up the wheel section of towline, so I replaced it with an old hunk of green rope. My wheel dogs wouldn’t have necklines, but that probably didn’t matter.
Three miles into our three-day journey, we rolled down a muskeg flat edging Whisper Creek and turned to make the creek crossing. The dogs burst through some brush and almost crashed into a wolverine trapped at a set beside the creek.
“Jiles, no! No! NO!!” I bellowed. The dogs, thinking, they’d caught one big marten, all piled onto the snarling bundle of energy, and just as quickly rolled back, tumbling in a massive ball down to the creek ice. They stood in a heap staring bug-eyed from a safe distance at the dervish, which I dispatched with a .44 pistol.
I stayed up late that night at the West Line skinning the critter, impressed by his sheer size and deep mostly-healed scars on his head, but disappointed by his brown color. He’d make nice ruffs, but not with the valued white diamond markings of a select fur.
Expecting a day off, the dogs expressed surprise at being hooked up in the morning. From his wheel position, Meeter soon whipped them into a raging frenzy.
For once I was glad to see the dogs eager to go, because a few yards from the cabin we’d have to cross Little Shell Creek with its ten-foot span of thin ice and shin-deep water and I worried about the youngsters balking at the water’s edge.
We’d just hit top speed when my leaders sailed over the water, breaking ice without losing impulsion. “Go across! Go across!” I shouted. The rest of the dogs, held in place with necklines, bounced along after Jiles and Kraki. All except Meeter.
Without a neckline, my wheeler felt free to dodge, and he did so without warning. He darted around a tree and his tugline jerked tight, snubbing him against the tree.
I jumped on the sled brake. “WHOA!” I hollered. But no, Meeter was getting pulled free of the tree. Unbalanced, I lost my footing and fell, but I didn’t want the team to lose momentum now. “Get up! Go across!” I shouted. Dragged by his harness, Meeter slithered around the tree upside-down and backwards, into the water, over thin broken sheets of ice and up the bank before he regained his footing. I was falling, on my knee, then on my face in the snow, still gripping the handlebow.
“Go ahead!” I muffed into the snow. The sled splashed into the water, dragging me behind. Like Meeter, I slithered face-down through water and ice, then up the bank. My feet were wet, and my waist and neck. Luckily the temperature had topped zero for the first time in 10 days so I mushed on down to the tent camp and dried off there.
The rest of the journey was anti-climactic. On the last day I put Coco in front beside Jiles, and with Meeter in wheel and my pups on a familiar trail, we cruised on home in good time. The 26 marten and one wolverine made the trip profitable, and with the new dogs gaining experience I felt my team was starting to come together in a good way — as long as Meeter ran in wheel, with a neckline.
Julie Collins is a trapper and freelance writer who lives near Lake Minchumina.