Summer is the bane of a sled dog’s existence. It is hot, mosquito-ridden, and boring. They lay around waiting for the next meal, which is about the only thing they have to look forward to. Some are diggers or chewers; when it is hot they will start digging holes to get some cool dirt to lie in, sometimes excavating under their houses to achieve a little shade as well. The chewers start working on the corners of their houses and the edges of the doorways; a hardworking chewer can eat half his house in the course of a summer.
Training dogs through the summer is always a goal, but one that is difficult to achieve in this area. In the lower 48, and in the Interior of Alaska, there are lots of abandoned logging roads and double-track dirt trails that can be used to run a dog team pulling a wheeled cart or 4-wheel ATV. Runs must be kept short so that the dogs do not overheat, but regular exercise is possible to maintain strength and endurance.
Around here the problem is that we have no old abandoned dirt roads or trails. We do have plenty of low-lying, marshy tundra that stays ankle-deep in water for most of the summer, and in the past Henry has used these areas for summer training. We call it "swamp mushing". He hooks the team up to an old beater sled and lets them drag it through the marsh. He wears hip waders for these outings, and still comes home wet and muddy from head to toe. And usually exhausted. As you might imagine, it is not a smooth and easy ride on such terrain. The sled gets caught on tundra tufts and shrubs, requiring the musher to do lots of pulling, pushing, and lifting to keep the sled moving.
As long as I have known Henry—almost nine years—he has been talking about loading sled dogs in the boat and taking them upriver to a large island which has a good beach, hooking them up at the water’s edge, and letting them pull the boat. It always sounded like fun, but somehow we never got around to it. Yesterday we did, and it was a blast.
When Henry’s boat is loaded on the trailer, the gunnels are about five feet off the ground. We used two 20’ long 4x12 planks to make a ramp and walked the dogs up it. For dogs with agility training, like Pepper the Little Dog, this is no big deal. For sled dogs whose feet never willingly leave the ground, this was a challenge. But they made it fine and were hooked to drop chains that Henry had attached to the grab rail. We drove to the small boat harbor and launched without difficulty, despite the very low water level which is being a particular challenge this summer.
Once the boat was floating, the dogs were a bit nervous, but they got over it quickly. By the time we were up on step out on the river, they had heads in the wind with ears flapping and tails wagging.
The skies were looking like a south front was about to move in on us, which always brings rain, and sometimes lots of it. So we decided to do our trial run on a shorter beach a little closer to home. We were on the right bank, so attached the gangline to the right grab rail on the boat about a quarter of the way back. Hopefully, this would make it easier to prevent the team from pulling the boat up on shore. The dogs were quickly harnessed and hooked up.
There were two of us in the boat, myself and Peter, a young Scandanavian man who has been helping Henry with training for the last few months. We had poles to push the boat out from shore. Henry was in the water in his chest waders to help control the boat from there.
He said “Let’s go, dogs” and holy cow! They took off like a rocket. It is amazing we didn’t all three fall over backwards. Eight dogs were pulling that 26 foot boat so fast it created a wake. Controlling the boat was difficult at that speed; we needed a brake. And then, for some reason, the less experienced leader decided to go left and took the team straight into the river. No command to “gee” (go right) would get through to them once they were swimming, and we just watched while they swam all the way around and started climbing in the back of the boat! It was chaos.
We got them sorted out and decided we had too much power. Who’d’ve thought? For the second try we only put five dogs on the line, and that turned out to be just the right amount of power. The second trial went great; they towed the boat smoothly up the beach until we ran out of sand.
It was starting to rain, so we decided that was enough for one day. We loaded dogs back in the boat and took them home. They had a great time, and so did we. It was way more fun than getting dragged through the swamp. This promises to be a very fun summer for sled dogs.
Labels: Dog Mushing