LAKE MINCHUMINA — Five pairs of soft brown eyes and three pairs of icy blue ones riveted on me as I stood looking speculatively over the dog yard on a pleasant day last winter. I had to run the six miles across the lake to the Post Office and needed enough of the hopeful huskies to get me there. I only needed a couple for skijoring, so a whole bunch were about to be bitterly disappointed.
Five leaders stared back at me, three of them mentally projecting “ME! ME! Oh, please pick ME!” My main leader Clarence looked as if he would just DIE if! didn’t pick him, but a recent wrist injury scratched him off. Tall white Kraki wailed and moaned in anxiety, stricken when he realized he didn’t make the cut. A 12-mile round trip would exacerbate his shoulder problem.
Spoi, as handsome as his father Clarence and almost as tall, stared at me with big round dismal eyes, but his recurring back problem would keep him home as well. The fourth leader, dear old TooKay, handsome slack-along from the “Litter of 13,” put on the skeptical air of an aged dog; at 10 years old, he really didn’t want to work. The last one, striking black Merlin, hid in his house on the assumption that if he couldn’t see me, I wouldn’t see him. He was just as old, but as soon as I left he’d be out of his house shouting in indignation at having been overlooked.
Trails were hard on our dogs last year. Little snow padded the tussocks and ditches, banks and bumps, logs and stumps. Running a snowmachine over some of our 70-mile trapline smoothed the surface somewhat but left it hard-packed but punchy. Wind packed it further, leaving rock-hard bumps with little give beneath pounding paws.
Only a few of the 16 sled dogs Julie and I kept had been sound all winter and most of those were out on the long trail with my sister. Of the eight dogs remaining home, only three were sound. A gentle yearling, Tokelau’s work ethic could almost make up for his lack of experience. Diesel was a goofy, happy-go-lucky wheel dog whose joyfulness made up for his occasional inability to figure out just what was going on. Tall, lean, blue-eyed Jack seemed sound but hadn’t been working well since he came to us a few months previously. He’d had some time off to see if that would bring back the strong worker he’d been for his former owner.
Not a trained leader in that bunch. I only needed the power of two dogs, but maybe three would be more likely to get me where I had to go.
Optimistically I harnessed them up, hooking Diesel and Jack together and putting on my skis. Tokelau, running loose at first, could motivate the other two so they’d head the right way. By the time my skis were on, Diesel was wrapped around my legs. As straightened him out Jack wandered to one side. Both dogs twirled and grinned excitedly.
I waited patiently, and after a minute or two of jumping and lunging, both happened to point down the trail at the same time.
I instantly released the towrope. Diesel and Jack exploded forward, their power surging me along behind. With Tokelau speeding ahead, I let them race for a mile before stopping out on the lake for a quick breather.
Diesel threw himself to the snow, rolling gleefully. Julie had been giving Jack short runs this far, and from habit he turned for home. As I encouraged him forward, Diesel ran around behind me again. As I untangled myself from him, Jack doubled back again. By the time he headed forward once more, Diesel had returned to show his affection by wrapping his lines around me again.
Once again I had to wait until both dogs faced forward before telling them to go. As they lunged ahead, the towrope started slipping through my hands. I scrambled for it but missed, and the pair went galloping away without me. I waited for two seconds to let their initial rush of physical energy burn itself out. Then I hollered, “Whoa, whoa!”
Diesel’s people-oriented personality paid off. He hesitated, looked back, and seeing I wasn’t keeping up, he slowed and stopped, halting Jack as well, and politely waited for me to catch up. “Good boys,” I praised as I caught the towrope. Jack immediately headed for home, and Diesel wrapped himself affectionately around my legs. Up ahead, Tokelau waited impatiently until the dogs straightened out and we took off again.
When Jack started falling back, I traded him out for Tokelau. The youngster’s youthful drive kept everything on track as we flew across the frozen lake, my skis skittering loudly across icy hard-packed drifts.
Even though none were trained leaders, the dogs all knew the trail. For the last mile, where I might run into other people, I hooked Jack in as well, even though I didn’t need him. After visiting and picking up mail, I readied the three dogs to return. The dogs always have a lot of impulsion when we leave for home, but Diesel still had to come back and twirl around me one last time before we could go zipping on our way. Back out on the lake, I let Jack loose again. He seemed a little slower than the other two, and I knew he’d enjoy a free run.
Halfway home, I stopped again. The dogs appreciated the chance to catch their breath, roll, and grab some snow, and Diesel took advantage to tangle himself again. I was still putting my gloves back on when the dogs lined out, and I didn’t want to waste the opportunity to make a clean start.
“Hike,” I sang, and as we shot forward my right glove fell to the ground. Oh no! Stop for it and have more tangles, or just use the liner glove from my lefty to protect my right hand? The day was warm, and by virtue of indecision the glove got left behind.
At least, that’s what I thought. After a 100 yards, I looked back, and here came long lean Jack, carrying that glove in his mouth. He packed it along for half a mile, when, at the risk of yet another tangle, I finally stopped to collect it. Good thing I brought three dogs, after all.
Those of you wondering about the black wolf we shot in September may be interested in the autopsy. Dr. Beckman of the Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game found no obvious problems other than confirming that he was “emaciated and starving,” and she wasn’t surprised that he would hang around our yard looking for something to eat. She also confirmed the presence of lice, and yes, he did have a “hard substance of animal origin” in his gut, almost certainly bits of my favorite saddle!
Miki Collins is a trapper who lives near Lake Minchumina.