The first member of the team was Bear. We picked him up as a pet from the Kotzebue Police Department. Having moved from Seattle to the wilds of Alaska, my family thought it might be good for a boy to have a dog. Bear was affectionate but a little too energetic to be a good pet. And so he joined the team.
We bought six of them from a nurse who would be leaving Kotzebue hospital soon and needed to find them a new home. They came with a sled and some other mushing equipment. Wilson was the lead dog. He was old and and tired and he came with the condition that when his mushing career was over we would send him to Wisconsin. A former owner with whom he had run the Iditarod would watch over him in his retirement—travel was to be at the Iditarod musher's expense. My mom drew a parallel between Wilson and Pooh's friend Eeyore. Ralph was big, young confident and very strong. He was rather stiff for a dog, but overall one of the better looking dogs on the team. Crow was as old as Wilson. He was probably named for his black fur. He was calm but a little intense; he had black eyes like a raven. Lady was a small and bright eyed, like a spring loaded german shepherd. Badger was long and thin and a little awkward. A submissive animal, he had a pathetic quality although it was hard to say exactly why. Sandy was the sweetest of all the dogs. She would have made a much better pet than a mushing dog, but she was raised to be a mushing dog and didn't have the manners to go in the house.
We bought Kieler, a partially trained younger lead dog, from our neighbors. He was very intelligent. Our neighbor told us a story about how Keiler, who was part hound, had turned from the main trail one time when they weren't sure where they were. The trail he followed led them right into a moose. If you can't guess, mushing into a moose is not what you want to do. As I said, Keiler was only partially trained. It could be hard to manage him when he was excited. I remember one unusually warm, snowy evening mushing near the edge of town where there's a little bit of Tundra at the end of the spit and being lost (I know, in Kotzebue?) and frustrated with Keiler. I don't really remember why, but I'm sure it had to do with him having a hard time with my directions.
Mushing is more exciting when your lead dog is not properly trained. Like a horse (at least how I imagine a horse, I don't know much about horses) a good lead dog knows what's good for you and in a pinch keeps you out of trouble even if you don't understand. My lead dogs knew what they wanted and tried to work their plans into mine. Wilson was old and tired and really just wanted to get back to his dog house and rest his bones. If there was any doubt about what I wanted from him he would take it as an order to turn the sled around and head home. When we came to a turn, if one way seemed like a good way to get home but I asked him to go the other way, he would stop or keep going straight. It was a variation on the old gee-my-hearing-aide-is-acting-up trick. Kieler, as near as I could tell, would really rather have been tracking large game. He would often spontaneously pick a side road that looked auspicious to him; I would have to lift the sled and drag the team backward onto the main trail.
Ralph and Bear, being the biggest and strongest were the wheel dogs. Ralph had a few years on bear and Bear was naturally less dominate. They would squabble once in a while while I was getting the sled ready. All the dogs would be very testy and excited until the exercise started to mellowed them out. If you don't know what dogs look like before they start a run a quick search I just did turned up this video of the start of the Yukon Quest. Give that video about 30 seconds and you'll get the idea. It was very rare for any of the dogs to get grumpy with each other after we had been running for more than 15 minutes or so. Any time we stopped later in the run, they would sit happily panting and looking around. One time we made it all the way to the mouth of the Noatak river, something like 10 Km from Kotzebue, and an all out fight broke out between the two wheel dogs. That day Bear and Ralph had what you might call an exchange of words while I was getting the sled ready. They had been aggressive enough that I had scolded them. At the mouth of the Noatak, the dogs all looked completely calm as we came to a stop. Bear and Ralph were relaxed and smiling. In what looked like a friendly gesture, Bear stepped sideways, closer to Ralph, and leaned into him, just like he would lean into me if I was rubbing his back. In an instant Ralph was snarling and the two were at each other. It's frightening to see friendly dogs in a fight. One minute they look like over-sized plush toys. The next minute they're a couple of killing machines straight out of Aliens. I had a powerful urge to stop them from hurting each other. Each had a big mouth full of the nape of the other's neck and they were trashing violently. I stepped in behind them and grabbed Bear's neck to pull him away from Ralph and to stand between them. Just at that moment Ralph went for a new purchase on Bear's neck. All of a sudden both dogs stopped and Ralph stared at me with a horrified, submissive look in his big eyes. Ralph had found his purchase on my hand instead of on Bear and had immediately recognized his mistake. It hurt but apparently the leather insulated gloves I used when handling dogs had saved me from a puncture. I wanted to get the dogs moving again right away so that a fight wouldn't break out anew. As the snow crunched under the runners and my adrenalin reaction tapered off, I realized that there was blood trickling down my arm. Looking under the glove I could see that Ralph's bite, although it had not punctured the leather and Thinsulate insulation, had nevertheless been hard enough to drive the glove itself under my skin.
Another time at the mouth of the Noatak, the dogs were looking tired just as we reached the place I had planned to turn around. At the same time the wind crossed over from strong to harsh. I think there was already blowing snow when we left town. It must have been a spring day; I can remember clear bright sunshine. As we turned for home the sun was nearing the horizon. The dogs preferred way to weather a storm was to curl up in a ball and tuck their noses under their tails. When I gave them a break because they seemed tired, they immediately bedded down. I tried to get them going again but they gave me confused reluctant looks and although I could get them to move forward, they wouldn't pull the sled. As the evening darkened I could see the lights of Kotzebue in the distance. I ended up pushing the sled all the way back with the dogs stumbling ahead of me.
We once invited my friend Tom to accompany my Dad and I on an early fall mush. Tom and I would start out riding the snow machine and we planned to trade off mushing. My dad mushed down onto the lagoon a couple blocks from the house we were living at the time. The surface of the lagoon was mostly glass-like ice, polished by the wind. What little snow had fallen that fall was packed into hard wave shaped ribs. The conditions turned out to be surprisingly treacherous. The dogs, still energetic having only mushed for a minute, were moving fast. The sled hit one of those hard ribs of snow. It popped over the obstacle and slipped sideways in such a way that my dad was tossed into the air, landing shoulder first. Assuming my dad was fine, I raced after the dogs, hopped off the snow machine and with some difficulty brought the team to a stop. To keep them from pulling me across the ice, I had to wade right into the middle of them. Tom took the snow-machine back to pick up my dad. As he headed off we both realized that my dad was still lying on the the ice. The fall had broken my dad's clavicle. Tom swung by on his way to get medical help. Fifteen minutes later I saw a Kotzebue ambulance drive down a ramp of snow from the road onto the ice of the lagoon. By this time the dogs, still wild with excitement, were in a hopeless tangle around me. I had to drag them back, something like a quarter of a mile, to the dog lot. They yelped and snarled in frustration with each other. Some of them probably made the trip sideways; they were that tangled. When I finally caught up with my dad at the Kotzebue hospital he was out of his mind on pain killers. Later he told me that he had quickly become cold laying on the ice alone. I was hundreds of yards away and could see him, but he couldn't see me. He felt differently about ravens after that. He didn't appreciate the way they had wheeled above him in his incapacitated state.
Maniilaq counseling services, my father's employer, occasionally hosted a visiting psychologist. She was from Anchorage if I remember correctly. One time, my dad invited the psychologist for a dog sled ride. He asked me if I would mind taking her. The weather wasn't that great for it. The road in front of the house was treacherously slippery. We had to cross that and continue down equally icy roads 50 yards to the point where snow machines had worn a saddle popping up over the snow berm between the road and the pack ice of Kotzebue Sound. The dogs hadn't run for a while and so were going to be unusually excited as we started out. My dad and I agreed that it would be best for me to drive the sled across this hazard and that we should weigh down the sled with bags of dog food. In addition to slowing down the dogs, the bags of the dog food would also serve as a more comfortable seat for the visiting dignitary in the sled. We usually tied the sled to the telephone pole in front of the house while we were getting things ready. When I released the team, the dogs and sled skittered down the road. The dogs flew over the snow berm. The front of the sled popped into the air. In my imagination the sled completely left the ground. In reality it probably just leaped and jerked. In any case, the dog food and dignitary were thrown from the sled. I lost hold of the sled but somehow managed to sprint a few steps to lay hands on the handle before being dragged for 50 feet. The dogs finally understood that things were not going the way I had planned and stopped pulling. I had to pull the sled and team back to where the accident had happened and set the hook before I could once again arrange my cargo and passenger and we set off. I think the rest of the trip went more or less according to plan.
My family recently bought a dry cabin from a dog musher out on the Old Nenana Highway. The previous owner left a lot of musing equipment behind in the shed. Besides harnesses and a sled bag, I found the same kind of metal dog bowls that we used for our team back in my mushing days. We used to mix the food in a 5 gallon bucket every night. We poured in a measure of dog food then added hot water from the tap. In the winter we added calorie supplements: Tallow came from its own 5 gallon bucket. Sometimes we poured salmon oil from a gallon jug. Both of these must have come from some mushing supply catalog; they were clearly feed grade. Outside we ladled the food into the metal bowls and carried them to each of the dogs. The intention with the metal bowls was probably to avoid the dogs chewing up their dishes. A bored sled dog can do a lot of damage even to a metal bowl.
At one point we ordered a tonne (literally) of dog food by barge. That would be around 50 40lb. bags. It was cold the day the order arrived. The barge company delivered it to the house in a pickup truck, which they left to give us time to unload. I remember the task of carrying something like 25 bags of dog food into the house seemed like an onerous task as a teenager. We put the food in the spare bedroom, which we kept closed to save heat. Before long the whole room had a heavy oily smell. I want to say the order involved Span Alaska, of which my family were loyal patrons for bulk peanut butter, tang and pilot crackers, but I'm not sure it wasn't arranged directly with the barge company.
Badger was a sweet dog, bless his heart. He was also scruffy and dirty looking and had the most disturbing habits. Notably, badger would pee on the entrance to his house. This would probably be a little bit gross anywhere. In Kotzebue in the winter the result was a slowly growing pee glacier that gradually threatened to block badger out in the cold. At one point the entrance was constricted enough by the smooth orange mass that I was dispatched by my parents to clear the obstacle. If it had been made of water, such a structure of ice would have been very difficult to chip away. Urine has different properties. I was able to quickly separate large blocks of the frozen substance from Badger's plywood dog house. The instant the stuff came apart a horrible chemical oder filled the air. The inside of the block was grainy. A lot of the water must have sublimated away—though I can't imagine why the middle was dry and grainy while the outside was hard and smooth.
One night in a blizzard we heard a loud crash from the direction of the dog lot followed by a miserable crying coming from one of the dogs. We hurried out to investigate and discovered that the top of the box where we stored the dog bowls had blown off in the wind. It had flown several feet through the air and struck the back of Sandy's house. Sandy was standing outside in the cold whining and whimpering. We comforted her some and went back inside. The crying continued. Half an hour later she was still crying. Looking out the window we could see that she had still not gone back into her house. Finally we conceived of an experiment: we traded spots between Bear and Sandy. Sandy happily entered her new house and curled up. Bear was perfectly happy in his new house although it had been completely unacceptable to Sandy a moment before. Sandy, sensitive soul that she was, couldn't trust her house after it had frightened her so badly.
None of the dogs were spayed or neutered. Canine family planning was not the tradition in Kotzebue. When our neighbor's lead dog went into heat one year, Ralph slipped his collar to romance her. The escape act was repeated several times. Not long after, the lead dog's owner found her to be expecting. Her career in leadership took precedence over motherhood and the neighbor took the risk of dosing her with the dog version of the day after pill. A few months later she died of cancer. I suspect the day after pill for dogs has some dangerous side-effects. When our dog Sandy went into heat one time, we put her in a special heat pen — a large wooden cube with chicken wire on all sides. We were suspicious that the chicken wire had been insufficient to stop the passion that developed between Sandy and a local dog that frequently ran loose. Sure enough, in time I discovered a litter of puppies in Sandy's dog house. I was stupid enough to react with happiness; in a town of 3,500 people and 20,000 dogs the birth of a litter of puppies does not leave many options. My Dad was stuck with the dirty work of course. I'm not sure how he handled it. He may have outsourced the problem to the Kotzebue police department.
When we got the dogs, my Mom, Dad and I all made a solemn promise to share the work of caring for them. We rotated the responsibility daily; the calendar was marked with a code on each day to indicate who would do the feeding and poop shoveling. When my parents marriage ended, the dogs and I stayed with my dad. When I left for college less than a year later the dogs stayed with my dad. For at least a couple of years, although he was hardly mushing, my dad did all the work we had promised to share. Finally, as my dad slowly prepared to leave Kotzebue himself, he brought most of the team to be put down by the Kotzebue police department. Bear stayed on as a pet. My dad discussed Bear with me on one of my visits to Kotzebue. I said I was interested in bringing him to Fairbanks. I talked about it optimistically although it wasn't the wisest idea—even in Alaska dogs complicate searches for housing. The next time I visited, Bear was gone. I walked around the house to be sure but didn't ask my dad about it. My sister, who was still a kid, told me that dad had Bear shot. We were walking in some light snow falling through the light of street lamps on a dark winter evening. I think I was able to convey something of both the sadness I felt about the situation and the responsibility I had for it.
Mosquitoes are like weather in Alaska. Sometimes they are bad and sometimes they are horrible — though I must admit they have been very easy on us this summer in Fairbanks. I remember one week when the mosquitoes savaged the city of Kotzebue; looking out the plate glass window in the kitchen we could see the dogs snapping at the mosquitoes or trying to lick them off of their muzzles. We had the feeling that something needed to be done for the poor dogs. My dad took action. My mom and I watched from the window as my dad carefully applied 100% DEET from a little plastic bottle onto the noses of the expectant dogs.
At one point I convinced myself that every night, after feeding them, I would spend five minutes giving attention to each dog. I neglected to do the elementary arithmetic, but I discovered through experimentation that my lofty goal of patting each of seven dog heads for five minutes would require a total of 35 minutes of head patting. With poop shoveling time and slop sloshing time, the nightly dog care routine was already overwhelming. I always did some quick behind-the-ear scratching, but I dropped the idea of time quotas.
Shoveling poop is an activity that makes one thankful for the long Alaskan winter. Dog poop in the winter can hardly be smelled. It doesn't stick to the shovel and it doesn't squish into the treads of your shoes when you step on it. When you are feeling lazy about poop scooping during the winter, the fact that snow drifts over the poopsicles and hides them can be encouraging — until you think about how those hidden poopsicles will make their reappearance during break-up. We collected the poop into a tattered old plastic feed bag of some sort using a standard garden shovel. I don't remember where it went from there; I suspect it ended up at the Kotzebue dump. Sometimes the poop was frozen into a pee puddle that had to come along with the poopsicle if it was going to go anywhere. Sometimes extracting the poop would take a bit of digging into the Styrofoam textured snow, packed down as it was by a winter's worth of prancing paws.
The sound of break-up was the drone of the small engines that powered a hundred or so water pumps. The most stable surfaces in Kotzebue were thick, sloppy mud. The rest was dirty rotting snow drifts that would give way under your boot to land you in a couple of feet of water. Between those were enormous puddles. The dog lot, and all the poop hidden by winter snows, became a series of lakes and (if we were lucky) islands. In the worst cases we had to move the dogs to dry land because there was nowhere for them to stand; we would wake up in the morning some break-up day and see the dogs sitting on the roofs of their houses. It is not with fondness that I recall wading through the freezing puddles of poop tea to handle the dogs, water threatening to spill over the top of my rubber boots. The floor of each puddle was typically polished ice.
As the walls of the house warmed up in the spring, the flies came to life. I guess they crawl into the insulation during freeze-up. When they reanimate they head for the warmth — that would be the inside of the house. During warm spells a few flies usually crawl out to buzz around the house, but during break-up I remember killing 30 flies an hour which would continually accumulate in my bedroom window. One particularly bad night, I woke up several times to kill flies and stop the horrible buzzing that disturbed my sleep. In the dog lot, the nasty water slowly drained away and left behind, at first, thick red algae. Then when the puddles were gone all manner of wild plants would grow. The highlight of spring in the dog lot was three exquisite wild irises that grew a few feet from the nearest dog.