Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Love of Dog Mushing

There never was a time that I didn’t love dogs. They are just the most amazing creatures. In the animal-based pantheon of the Native American spiritual traditions, the dog symbolizes loyalty, and deservedly so. Dogs love us almost despite anything we do to them, and one of the highest goals we can strive for is to be the person our dogs think we are.

My experience with dogs before coming to Alaska was limited to having them as pets. My very earliest memories include a small standard Schnauzer named Hambone; he was followed by a succession of family dogs. It seems to me now that we always had one, as well as several cats.

My first dog training experience did not come until much later. After I graduated from PA training and settled into my first “real” job, I got the first dog who was truly all mine. Her name is Pepper, and she is now 14 years old and quite lively for an elder. We went to Dog School together, both in obedience—she is a Canine Good Citizen—and in agility. She is a smart, medium-sized (40 pounds) mixed breed with one ear that flops, and training her in agility was pure fun. She learned most of the obstacles quickly (OK, weave poles were hard) and she was almost as fast as the border collies.

Coming to Alaska provided my first experience with dogs as working animals and not pets. I fell completely in love with Alaskan huskies and the sport of dog mushing.

My first sight of a musher’s dog yard was shocking. Thirty dogs, each one staked on a five-foot chain with its own house next to the stake, and the stakes 12 feet apart in a small forest of four-foot-tall stakes. A newcomer to the yard (me) brought all thirty dogs to a frenzy of barking and running around their stakes, jumping on and off their houses. They calmed down after a bit, and the musher took me around to meet a few of them. They were exuberant, friendly, boisterous animals, and I just loved them.

They looked like just about everything, which is typical of Alaskan huskies: all different colors; some with long shaggy fur, some short-coated; some with brown eyes, some with blue eyes, some with one brown eye and one blue. This is why the Alaskan husky is not recognized by the American Kennel Club; there is no appearance-based breed standard. Most of the dogs were smaller than I expected they would be, in the 40-50 pound range. My knowledge of sled dogs was limited to the TV show “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon and his dog King” from my childhood. Those 150 pound Malamutes were a far cry from today’s recreational or racing sled dog.

And then the musher put me on a sled behind my own team of five dogs and I was instantly hooked. My team followed his out of the yard and down the trail, over small hills, across frozen lakes, around bends, to the large body of water known as Hangar Lake; and on through stands of willow, across frozen sloughs, until we came to the Kuskokwim River. It was sheer exhilaration. No sounds or smells of snow machines, only the quiet wilderness, the hiss of sled runners on snow, or a grinding sound when the sled crosses ice, and the steady panting of the dogs’ breath as they work together, a unified team. The dogs know their job, and they do it joyfully. As I have said in previous posts, you can’t make dogs pull. They do it because they want to, or they simply don’t do it.

Over the years since that first mushing experience, I have tried to explain to people who have never seen a dog team what mushing is like. Nothing can truly convey it like doing it. To give you a somewhat better idea, I am including here two brief video clips taken from the sled, but even these fall short of reality. They can’t convey to you the feeling a musher has that comes from knowing the dogs, raising and training them from puppyhood, and feeling the interdependent relationship between musher and team. When you are out in the wilderness many miles from home, it is the dogs who will get you back to safety; and it is you who must provide food and care for them so that they can. They are your best furry friends.

Four very frustrating hours later, I have been unable to upload either of the two short video clips I wanted to put with this post. Both are less than 50 MB, so within the limit Blogger states for videos, and are AVI files, a type that Blogger accepts. I will keep trying, but if any readers have suggestions on this, I’d love to hear them.

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5 Comments:

Blogger woman north said...

Perhaps you could upload them to YouTube first and then from the YouTube site, cut and paste the html links for the videos to your blog post?

Monday, January 28, 2008 8:16:00 AM  
Blogger The Tundra PA said...

Thanks, Woman North! I'm headed up to a village this morning for the next three days, but will try it when I return.

Monday, January 28, 2008 8:27:00 AM  
Blogger Future Homesteader I hope said...

Yes, if I could ever go back in time, I'd be a dog musher... Those thrills that you describe are the kinds I would love to experience... but alas, not in this lifetime... perhaps when I retire... Is it hard to get into it? I know it's very costly.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008 8:15:00 AM  
Blogger Future Homesteader I hope said...

Dog mushing has been on my mind lately, but I'll have to wait till I retire... Plus you probably have to know how to train dogs...

It would be my ultimate fantasy, but one that will have to wait.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008 8:25:00 AM  
Blogger The Tundra PA said...

Future Homesteader--thanks for visiting and for commenting! Becoming a dog musher, with a dog yard and all the gear, is a huge commitment. Most people start by apprenticing themselves to an experienced musher to learn how and to discover whether they have what it takes. Some go on to become mushers and some don't. There are plenty of commercial opportunities to experience mushing--places where, for a fee, you can either ride in the sled or drive your own team. That would let you get a feel for the sport. One of the great things about mushing is that it is not age-limited. One of the mushers in the K-300 this year is 81 years old.

Thanks again for commenting!

Thursday, January 31, 2008 9:19:00 AM  

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