Friday, August 11, 2017

Simply Sled Dogs

This past week, with August upon us, I shuffled around some dog equipment to get ready for Fall Training.  While hauling an armload of old harnesses to wash up to sell, I hoped none of the remaining six dogs would notice as I tip-toed past the dog yard.  Anyone who has had a sled dog, or a dog for that matter, knows how just a “jingle” of a leash will send a dog into a frenzy of excitement.  It’s that way with sled dogs.  Even the sight of a harness will stir them into action. 
I, too, get excited this time of year, especially when a full moon approaches.  (Hello to my full-moon musher friend Shannon…J) 
It is nearly 9 years ago that Iditarod/Yukon Quest “Mega” Champion Lance Mackey (from the incredible Mackey family of mushers) was here for a full-moon weekend, giving his testimony about all things dog.  His presence still lingers, and I hope someday it would be possible for him to return.  Lord willing.  {Lance is truly one of a kind, as is his record in both the Iditarod and Yukon Quest.}
Once I sorted through the maze of harnesses, I ended up with working harnesses for four.  (Two of our dogs are going on 16 years of age - their pulling days past.)  I took the semi-clean harnesses out back to my cabin in the woods and hung them by the front door, under the protection of the porch.  There  My cabin was complete.  My hickory rocking chair sat in the opposite corner, across from the harnesses that brought plenty of memories.  Inside the cabin is the bunk I now sleep on - the same bunk Lance Mackey slept on when he visited for 3 nights.  Some nights I lay in the darkness and hear my sled dog Skunk let out a sigh of contentment from her comfy dog bed near the front door.  I wonder if her dreams are like my dreams…of the incredible life of sled dogs and folks like Lance Mackey, who fill our hearts with an amazement and awe of a lifestyle like no other.  Once you have experienced it, it’s hard to let go…but you still have the memories.
Memories like this…
Waking at 5, I beat the rooster’s demands.  I attempt to shake the hold of a good night’s sleep, as I scheme a plan to stay warm.  After deciding there is little I can do from my vantage point, I leave the comfort of warm flannel sheets and heavy comforters.  Scooting off the end of the bed, I take one step to begin my early morning decent down the sturdy cabin ladder.  Knowing each rung results in a five degree temperature dip, I grit my teeth and make a hasty departure from the loft. 
Once in the heart of our small cabin, I scramble to throw on my morning clothes.  I hold each article of clothing next to the open door of the wood stove, hoping the smoldering embers will provide some heat to my chilly wardrobe.  Again, I grit my teeth as I decide this process is getting me nowhere and I should just get dressed, sans fanfare.  Layer, layer, layer, cotton kills, cotton kills, cotton kills runs through my head as I hastily dress for the cold winter morning. 
After fidgeting with the woodstove, I’ve managed to create a good fire.  Two fat and aged lab-mix dogs are happy with the results as they settle closer to the woodstove and uncurl.  Not being a coffee drinker, I have to rely on rote skills to get me started in my sequence of chores.  Breakfast will wait.  The rule in this house is…animals eat first.  I grab my headlamp from the hook by the cabin door, fit it over my fur hat and begin to venture out into the dark snowy morning. 

I stop to fill two five-gallon water buckets at the spigot on the cabin porch.  It’s a relief to hear water surge up through the pipe.  My city-turned-country 15 year-old cat greets me by raising her head from her porch bed. 
Once outside, I’m amazed at the snow received the night before.  My warm bunny boots are silent, but clumsy, walking on the fresh powder.  The only sound is the small plastic red sled, floating behind me in a serpentine fashion as I glide over the wind-sculptured snow, carrying two buckets of sloshing water.  The quiet is interrupted by the first howl of greeting as I exit the woods and approach the dog yard in the clearing. 

The dogs knew I was coming, before I even put my foot on the last rung of the cabin ladder.  Astro, our blue-eyed Alaskan “gate keeper” can peer the 100’ from his sentry by the dog yard gate.  He sees through the naked deciduous trees and into our main cabin window.  Once he sees light and movement in the cabin, he announces my arrival to the others.  {We put Astro by the front gate so he could overcome his shyness.  It worked.} 
Now the dogs can hardly contain their exuberance as I fight with snow to gain entry into the front gate, knowing the snow would be too deep at the feed room door.  Once inside, I can scan the 30 dogs in the dog yard, and make a light beam contact with each pair of eyes.  10, 20, 29…where’s the 30th dog?  Oh yes…one pair of eyes fail to beam back.  Our current blind dog, Buddy Jr.  However I can still see his excitement of being “shined upon” nonetheless.  (We have 14 more dogs…they are up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, running the trails, with Russ riding the runners - training for possible future races.)

Side Bar:  So many things have changed.  The two “cabin dogs” (Satch and Hootch) have long sinced passed.  Satch at 18 and Hootch nearly that.
The cabin kitty also. 
And on a brighter note…I now drink coffee – started late in life.  Wish I had started sooner….  I wish a lot of things.  But the memories linger...
Until next time, should the Lord tarry -