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Dog Sled Diary: Training

Updated: Jan 31

Friday, 20 January 2023, Healy AK


Over twenty dogs. Running, jumping, barking, yipping.

Such was the canine cacophony as JJ snowmobiled me to his off-the-grid home and kennel. The dogs cavorted about, sensing the coming adventure, begging to be chosen for today's team.

But first things first. JJ got me outfitted for the day, tucked into a red snowsuit, oversized rubber boots, mittens over my gloves, neck gaiter over my balaclava. I resembled a brightly-colored Michelin Man.

A crash course in the mechanics of dogsledding followed: The back of the sled had runners the driver would stand on. Stretched between them was a pad brake

- a rubber mesh pad with bolts sticking out of the bottom to dig into the snow, which I could stand on to slow the dogs. In front of that was the bar brake, a bar with a more emphatic hook on each side. Standing on this gave the driver even more braking power. Hooked onto the back of the sled I found the anchor, a major claw to drive into the snow once the sled has stopped, so that the dogs can't suddenly take off while you take a break.

JJ showed me the ropes - the main line which all the dogs connect to, the tug lines connecting the 'drive chain' (i.e., the dogs) to the main line, and a neck line to keep the dogs in place. He demonstrated the harnesses that each dog wore. "Some of the dogs get real excited when you harness them, and they may jump up and hit you in the face. If you'd like to tomorrow, I can let you hook a few up, the mellow ones, or I can hook them all up if you prefer."

To start, JJ ran the team and sled a few dozen yards, past a tricky turn, then had me climb in the sled. For twenty minutes or so I watched how he handled the sled, when he hit the brakes, how he got the dogs to turn. He mentioned four basic commands: 'Up up!' to get started; 'Gee' to go right; 'Haw' to go left; 'Whoa' to go nowhere (i.e., stop).

JJ then stopped the team, and we traded places. I now stood on the runners, picked up the anchor, and my education had begun.

The landscape mesmerized me. To my left, the foothills of the Alaska range rose from the plains, eventually getting bathed in Alpenglow from the low-hanging sun. At times we crossed a white expanse dotted with trees, at others the trail led through a pine forest with branches on both sides squeezing us. (When I asked who first blazed these trails, JJ said the one we currently plied was cut during mining days, by workers heading to the Stampede Mine.)

The sun, never rising far from the horizon, cast a warm glow on the snow.

Temperatures hovered a few degrees either side of zero, and we climbed out of cold pockets up to warm ridges before dropping again. My snow suit kept me warm enough, though my toes (and occasionally my thumbs) got chilled.

We saw no wildlife today, though they certainly were close. JJ pointed out a meadow where he seen caribou recently. A few minutes later, he pointed out wolf scat sitting on the trail. When we stopped for a break before turning back, I asked him what made the tracks a few feet from us. "Those would be moose tracks." [No, not the ice cream flavor.]

On the well-packed trails, I began feeling slightly competent. In short order, I learned when to slow the dogs before JJ could suggest it. I learned how to reach over, lift the deployed anchor, and hook it on the sled in one somewhat fluid motion. (This was important, since as soon the tension on their lines eased, the dogs would take off. For the most part, 'Up up!' was unneeded.) Still, it took effort standing on the runners, balancing myself, moving to the brakes - moving at all in the cumbersome suit. Even in the chill, I worked up a sweat.

Clouds thickened late in the day, a precursor to forecast flurries for tomorrow. Though Denali lay fifty miles south, I regularly glimpsed it, oft capped with mists. The head outfitter said the peak appeared more often during the cold season than in the summer months, when clouds over the peak rarely parted.

As we neared his kennel, he had me stop to switch places again. "They know they're almost home, and they'll go full bore from here." I felt good about what I'd learned thus far, but happily stepped aside to avoid testing myself on the tricky final stretch.

All put, we had a productive session. Tomorrow starts my 'final exam', as I'll follow behind JJ, mushing my own sled for three days.

I enjoyed another relaxing evening at Dome Home, savoring the excellent food (fresh halibut tonight!), then teaching Nick and Angie my favorite card game. A check outside revealed that a cloudy sky had set in, so we had no chance for Northern Lights. Maybe when I'm at the cabin...

NOTE: A month ago, I started reading a book that had hung in my bookcase for a long time: Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. It speaks in great deal about life in the Arctic (much further north that Denali), with interesting insights into Eskimo culture. It talks about emotions they experience: "Ilira is the fear that accompanies awe; kappia is fear in the face of unpredictable violence. Watching a polar bear - ilira. Having to cross thin sea ice - kappia."

I can't say that I've felt kappia here in the wilderness, but ilira - the awe of the landscape, the constant unease of whether I'm up to this adventure - accompanies me on the sled.

NOTE: I took the chance to interview JJ while at the cabin. Since the interview covered some ground, I will include portions of it in each of my four blog posts on the experience. First up: on customers...

What is the oldest client you've taken out? I took one guy out who was 85 years old. He'd always had a dream of mushing, and this was his time. Granted, he didn't move real fast, and he mostly rode in the sled, but I did let him stand on the runners for a stretch. By the time we finished, he had the biggest smile on his face.

How about the youngest? They have to be at least 13 or 14 to guide their own sled. As young as 7, they can ride in the sleds. But for the trips with kids, we take an easier route.

Have you ever had someone that should NOT have tried dogsledding? Oh, yes! I had a portly fellow, burdened down with a C-PAP machine. He had to take a rest break every five minutes. Nice guy, though. I still keep in touch with him.

I know you packed a satellite phone to the cabin for emergencies. How often have you used it? We rarely use it. The connection is usually intermittent, fading in and out. Instead, I use InReach. That allows me to text people - for instance, if I wanted to hook up with them somewhere in the park - and it includes your GPS location.

What advice would you give to someone planning to try mushing? Keep your hands and feet warm. Wear warm gloves!

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