Last Frontier Magazine -

 
 

Dogs Part 1

 

Mike Nickols

It all started out innocently enough. Ending up with a yard full of huskies did not even cross our minds at the time. Living in the Alaska Bush was new to us. We had our family Airedale, "Buddy." He was faithful and true as any dog that ever lived, but he wasn't really a pup dedicated just to our son. So it seemed a natural Christmas present for a nine year old boy. His own "Husky" pup, born and bred for Alaska's cold winters and deep snow, able to handle the elements. Every boy needs a dog of his own to run around with.

Although we did not get out to civilization much, and I don't remember the exact scenario, I do remember talking to one fellow we knew in the little "end of the road" town of Talkeetna, where we fly into to pick up mail once a month or so. He said he had a litter of pups, eight weeks old and ready for adoption, if we were interested. I told him we were interested. A week or so before Christmas, I flew out for mail and supplies and figuring on killing two birds with one stone, picked up Aaron's new puppy as well. I recall well loading up a full load of supplies in the back of our airplane. It took a bit to shuffle a place on top of the load behind my seat to make room for the little ball of fur. I flew home and being a bit hard to hide or wrap a Christmas puppy, Aaron got his present early. He promptly named him McKinley after the view out our backdoor, which soon turned to "Mac" for short. Other than a little confusion that first day, when Mac decided he wanted to go back to where he came from, and I had to track him down and bring him home, he settled in well. It was not long before boy and dog were about inseparable, as it was meant to be.

Mac grew quickly and followed us everywhere. One day, as the three of us hiked home through the snow with backpacks loaded with firewood, I noticed how free Mac was. I admired how well he adapted to the winter environment, his heavy coat with thick under fur, tough feet, long stout legs ... and I thought ... well, he is a Husky. They are made for living here ... and it occurred to me he could be pulling a sled with a little wood as well. And that's how it all kinda started. It was not long before we had a harness for Mac, a little plastic sled and he was pulling little loads of wood as he followed us home. It was fun. He took to it naturally and other than having to upright a load now and then, we got a bit of extra firewood home as well. Wilderness living with a working husky dog! Something a bit romantic about it...

Then I got to thinking bigger. He was a dog, a SLED dog, a real Alaskan Husky. Why not get a real dog sled? We could really mush. Or whatever they call it. By the following winter we had a small sled tied to an airplane float and flew it to our remote home. We had rebuilt and refinished it by the time the snow started falling, and were ready to start "mushing," and we did. It worked out, OK ... sort of. I was well aware I didn't know much about dog mushing, but it still felt like something was missing. Mac actually did pull the sled, some, while I pushed a LOT. Considering he was only one dog this was expected, but he just did not seem too serious or excited about it. He would trot along on a trail I had broken and packed specially for the purpose. We would go along nicely, him pulling, me pushing, then Mac would veer abruptly off the trail, following a mouse trail, a ptarmigan track, whatever, or just stop to do his boy dog thing on a nearby bush or something. Just not too motivated. Mac was also a very sensitive dog. If I raised my voice to him, "MAC! What are you doing?!" it would truly hurt his feelings. He would hang his head slightly, shuffle around a bit, then look at me like, "I don't wanna play this anymore. Why don't you pull, and I'll ride the sled?" I could tell it was kinda what he was thinking. So, on we went, working at it, but while it worked, it was not what I had in mind. Something was missing.

It was late into winter when I flew out to town to do the required annual inspection on our airplane. It was almost always a two day deal. I usually would end up at the local pub one evening, catch up a bit on town news, have a brew or two, and see what was going on in "civilization." I happened to run into a fellow I knew. He was a big time musher, an Iditarod veteran, who knew a lot about dogs and mushing. We sat down, had a cold one, and as we chatted, I explained how our new dog mushing experience was going. I told him how Mac was doing OK, but not really well, how he seemed half hearted at it and just not really too enthused about the whole venture. He listened patiently, then said, "You know what you need? You need a lead dog. I got one I'll give ya..." Huh? I thought. This sounded too good to be true. It took me just a few seconds to think about it, then reply, "I'll take her." Our new dog, "Ruby," was a trail veteran. A good leader he told me, just getting a bit slow for his Iditarod team. It was a no brainer for me. As we talked dogs and mushing (I quickly learned it's about all dog mushers talk about) we had another "cold one," and I found that he also had another couple of dogs, an aunt and uncle to Ruby or some such as I recall, and he would give them to me also, if I wanted them. With a little less thought than the first time, I said, "I'll take 'em." I now had three new dogs. Cool. As the evening progressed, so did the beers and before long I heard my new found friend say, "Ya know, I got two brothers, don't want to get rid of them, but got my Iditarod team all put together, they need to be run, if you wanna run them, I'll throw in a couple of sacks of dog food and you can..." Before he could finish I said, "I'll take 'em." I am a bit ashamed to say that it was a short time later, in a bit of a beer haze, I started thinking ... tomorrow I fly home ... Pam and Aaron meet me on the lake ice, I open the airplane door and, lets see, one, two, three, ahh... four...five dogs jump out, and Pam says ... "What the hell did you do in town?" So after a bit of thought, I told my dog mushing friend, "You know ... maybe I just better take Ruby to start with, and see how that goes." He was fine with that. I could pick up the others later as needed.

So late the next day after picking up Ruby, complete with harness, I flew home. After introductions to Pam and Aaron I took Ruby up to the soon to be "dog yard" to meet Mac. Mac seemed REALLY interested to meet Ruby. After a brief greeting it did not take long to add another length of rope onto our now "gang line" (I use the term loosely for all you dog mushers out there) on the dog sled and hook Ruby up front, and with Mac right behind, I jumped on the sled. Ruby had the line tight, head turned, looking at me for commands, I yelled "Hike" (like I had a dog team of thirty or something) and like a shot we were off. Wow. Mac transformed from a playboy ... into a sled dog in the snap of your fingers. He was not only pulling, he was gaining ... and Ruby was having trouble staying in lead. Wow. I could get used to this. Ruby was all business. Mac was really excited and after a short time, as we raced around, I slowly began to see a big part of Mac's interest was that it appeared Ruby ... might be interested in adding a few puppies to our growing sled dog team. Hum ... maybe this is not going to work out so well after all...

Mike Nickols

But it did. I left Mac tied to his house for several days after that, while Ruby and I darted around our quarter mile or so loop trail, a figure eight, geeing and hawing, learning, me pushing like crazy. As we would "zip" by Mac's house, I would say, "See Ruby, Mac? See Ruby pull me on the sled Mac? Ruby's a good dog Mac..." As we passed Mac would leap at the end of his chain barking as if to say, "I'll do it! I'll do it! I'll pull that sled! Just hook me up!"

So that's the way we got started. As we learned and trained the dogs, Ruby taught us what mushing was about. It was the very beginning of what was to become a real dog team and years of experiences. I'll tell ya more later...

Look for the March/April Issue of Last Frontier Magazine for the continuing story.

 

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