SLED DOGS OF ALASKA

Since our seventh collection of animal stories has to do with animals of the North, our recent cruise to Alaska was a real serendipity. Reason being: we could thereby dig deeper into stories we were engrossed in. Thus when we discovered that one of the shore excursions offered by Royal Caribbean in Juneau would give us the opportunity to study sled dogs firsthand, we jumped at the chance.

Togo by Robert J. Blake

Togo by Robert J. Blake

I’ve attempted to capture that experience in the introduction to our upcoming book, Togo the Sled Dog and Other Great Animal Stories of the North; here’s a sneak preview of part of it.

Togo, image courtesy of Robert J. Blake.

Another contributing factor to the epiphany was a visit Connie and I made (during that same cruise) to a summer training camp for huskies in the hills above Juneau. I don’t know what I expected to see and experience, but it most certainly didn’t mesh with the reality.

As our minibus approached its destination, it seemed like all the dogs in the world were barking at once! Well, 150 huskies barking full-torque at once—suffice it to say, it’s an unforgettable experience. Until that moment, the dog-factor of sled-dog racing was just an abstraction in my mind. Suddenly, this collective howlerama blew years of misperceptions of what sled dogs were out of my mind, leaving me with a tabla raza on which I might construct a new template.

For it didn’t take long before I realized what all the howling was about. Just outside the circle of howling dogs (each one tied to a blue wooden hutch) was the beginnings of a sled-dog team. And each of the unchosen 150 dogs was belting out a canine plea: Hey there! Don’t you dare leave me out! Don’t you even think of not taking me along! Every last one of them harbored an all-consuming dream: To pull a sled at full speed somewhere. Had any of the 150 ever raced in the Iditarod, undoubtedly they were now dreaming of doing it again.

We were permitted to look at, and pet, those huskies (most with Sepphala Siberian ancestry in them) as we walked down the line. All the while, other huskies were being untethered from their hutches and brought over to the growing team. Believe me, each of those dogs was more than a handful! For the excitement over being chosen was so great they could hardly keep all four feet on the ground for the very rapture of what might lie ahead.

Who knows what goes through the mind of a wannabe sled dog? For starters, we must realize that since their life expectancy is only about one-sixth of ours (that they’re old by twelve), it means they have to cram into their moment-by-moment living six times as much intensity as we do.

At any rate, it took several dog handlers to keep them from tackling each other. Continually, they were messing up the lines attaching them to the tugline. And they’d leap high in the air in exuberant ecstasy at being among the elect. Just imagine trying to keep two dozen rough-housing little boys from tearing up a house—multiply that energy by at least six, and you have some idea of what it would be like to be a musher. Keep in mind that all this time the continual howls of outrage at being left behind from all the other dogs added up to an inimitable sound track. One that will remain in the archives of our minds forever.

At the end of this tugline was a cart large enough to carry up to a dozen people (total weight: a ton and a half). A wheeled cart because, though there was still snow on the slopes above, it had already melted down below. Someday I hope to be able to repeat the experience, but on snow. But mushers, in order to keep their sled dogs in year-round condition, yoke them to wheeled carts during the off-season months. And we tourists represent a serendipity: plenty of weight to pull [even more than normal, after getting off a cruise ship].

Finally—after what must have seemed an eternity to the fourteen dogs, it was time to move out. As we did, so excited were the long tied-up dogs that the musher had to keep the brake on to keep them from running away with us.

The rest you’ll get when you buy the book—that is, if my editor is kind and leaves all the words in.

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for the interesting article and the lovely pictures.

  2. Great write up! It IS amazing isn’t it? I think they holler “Take ME! Take ME? No, ME?” Then, after you are gone down the trail, the dogs in the yard left behind always howl and howl in a mournful song. “Come get me! Come back!” Their howling song, all those voices in unison, is memorable and beautiful as well. Come visit! Linda at Husky Power Dogsledding in Western MD (www.HuskyPowerDogsledding.com)

  3. Dear Linda,

    Good to hear from you.

    Amazing that you find enough snow in western Maryland to race sled dogs in!

    Blessings,

    Dr. Joe

    • Hi there,

      Yes, it is amazing that we run dogsledding tours in Maryland… however, we don’t “need snow” and we don’t care to race. Sled dogs will pull anything… and “dryland mushing” is a huge sport– anything with wheels on dry land being pulled by dog(s). Wheeled dogsleds, bicycles, atvs, etc. There’s hundreds of dryland-races around the world too. They must have one thing– cold temperatures. Take a look at our site to see wheeled mushing if you like. Linda


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