Our dog mushing career started without a lot of thought. First, there was our single dog team of, well, Mac. Then Ruby was added for a two-dog team [to hear the beginning of Mac and Ruby's story read Dogs (Part 1) in the Jan/Feb issue of LFM]. I thought, this is it, enough, perfect. Don't need any more. But then ... after several months ... as I was running along behind the sled up a small hill ... I got to thinking ... geez *pant, pant* if we had, one more dog *pant, pant* we would have ... thirty-three percent more power.
So with that logic, we soon had our third dog in "the team," and her name was Lacy. Don't let the name fool you. Lacy was certainly a lady, but delicate she was not. At about seventy pounds she was powerful and we gained a lot in dog power with her. And that was it, enough, the perfect sized dog team. Not being good with numbers, I forgot about the extra cost of dog food that came with "thirty three percent more power," and good dog food was not cheap. Flying it all in was expensive too, so three dogs was enough. But we were ranging out farther ... so, while running and pushing my way up out of the North Fork country one day I thought ... just one more dog, it would be perfect. A four-dog team, no more, four is it.
Dogs are not hard to find. In Alaska, huskies are everywhere and picking up an experienced sled dog is about as easy as finding a used pair of snowshoes. It was not long before Mariah was added to our team. Mariah was the most loving, cuddly, laid back dog I have ever met ... until you put a harness on her. Then she transformed, in half a heartbeat, into a wild, uncontrollable animal, who would pull a sled until she fell over from exhaustion. So that was it-we had our four-dog team. Enough. Ruby ran lead like the pro she was; she would gee and haw at the softest command. With Mac beside her, learning the ropes, she taught him, as well as us, how to run a dog team. Lacy was a master "wheel dog" (closest to the sled). She held the sled on the corners, and kept Mariah's wild energy in a forward direction. I pushed little really, ran behind only on the steep hills. It was perfect. We had the perfect team.
Then one day, Mac and Mariah ... decided we needed more dogs, so they took it upon themselves to make more. I remember it well. When our young son, Aaron, was going outside, I told him, "If you let Mac loose, keep him away from Mariah. I think she is about to come into season ..." Ten minutes later Aaron came in the house, head down, saying nothing. I took one look and knew ... "Mariah and Mac?" I asked. He sheepishly nodded his head. I trotted out in time to see Mac heading straight and low to his doghouse ... while Mariah leaped and bounced happily in the air, We're gonna have puppies! We're gonna have puppies! And we did. Of our female dogs Mariah was my last pick to have a litter, but they didn't ask me.
The following July, Aaron and I had made a quick mail flight out, while Pam was home washing clothes with our ole' ringer Maytag. She heard Lacy, just every once in a while, let out a single bark. Finally, Pam walked out and discovered each time Mariah would deliver a pup, Lacy, attentive at the end of her chain, would happily announce the arrival of our newest team member. Five times she did. When Aaron and I returned home and got the news we promptly hurried out to see our new "kids." Mariah gleefully bounded out of her house. Look what I did! Look what I did! Then she promptly rolled her house over spilling puppies out the door. While Mariah was their mother, as wild as she was, even the pups seemed to know life was vulnerable; they spent as much time over at "Grandma Lacy's" as at home.
The puppies grew quickly and the training began early. I've had dogs all my life and trained quite a few. Our dogs have always minded well-I required it. An out of control dog is a bit like an out of control child. No one wants to be around one and it's usually a reflection on the parent more than the child. I found that trying to train FIVE at once was a little like group therapy. Teaching them all to come was easy. When weaning started I would walk out into the yard with a dish of milk and thin soup of food and yell, only once, "Come puppies!" Within a week of doing so I would about get trampled. When they were ten years old I could, and would, still step out in the yard and yell, "Come puppies!" and they would all come on a run. Teaching other things like "Stay," "Quiet," and the like were a bit more of a challenge. At times I would give a command, get three out of the five to do it ... and rather than making the other two obey, I'd find myself thinking ... well, three out of five ain't bad.
We really knew little about how to train sled dog puppies. When we would leave the yard with our four "big dogs," the puppies tied in the yard would go wild. By the time they were six months old they had already picked up on the fever. Without ever having a harness on, they knew that this was something good, something they would love to get a shot at. At about seven months, I decided to give them a short try. Aaron and I hooked up the four adults, added the five pups (big mistake), pulled the sled anchor and yelled, "Hike up!" It was instant chaos.
Mac was in lead. His daughter, Sassy, running at his side, was leaping for joy, chewing on his ear, Oh Dad, this is so cool! Mac veering sharply left barked, Get her off me! Socks, about three back, was half petrified and probably thinking, We're all gonna die... M.J. "Mac Junior" was thinking about the same. Buck was lined out like he had been in a harness for a hundred years and pulling for all he was worth. Tippy was wired for four hundred and forty volts, like a fly on a string, all over the place, a lot like her mother. With Aaron running alongside untangling dogs and tug lines it took us about 10 minutes to go the half mile or so loop. When we made it back to the dog yard we were overwhelmed and thinking, Wow ... That was a little crazy ... Wow.
But we learned. For one, starting five pups at once is ... not the way to do it. We learned Socks was scared to death, Tippy and M.J. were not mentally ready to start running, but Buck was ready, and so was Sassy; they were born to run. So we started them on very short runs with the "big dogs." They were just naturals. Within about a week we had Socks running and gaining confidence, slowly, just easy like.
Tippy and M.J. were problems. After our runs we would come home and the two of them, having been left behind, were about half bananas, leaping on their chains, crying, I can do it ... take me too! But they were not ready. After all the other dogs were done I would harness Tippy and M.J. up, and tie a short piece of snowmachine track on their tugline to drag behind. With dog treats in my pocket we would go for little walks. Tippy would get so excited she would sometimes jump up in the middle of my back and nip at my coat. M.J. would fight pulling, go in short bursts, get a treat and hang back. They were hard to start, but we finally got Tippy going. She never calmed much, but she eventually made it. M.J. was the best looking for running, long, lean and leggy, and got to where he would just happily run along behind the sled, all smiles and fun. I didn't let him do it too much, just every few days. I didn't want him too comfortable back there. You wanna run, pull the sled. I would try him with the team every week or so. He would rip out of the yard full tilt, go about 100 yards, then all of a sudden plant all four feet and we would plow snow with him, or he would fall over on his side and drag along till I could get the other dogs stopped (they never wanted to stop), and cut him loose. He did not want to be a sled dog, and I wondered if he ever would. And then, after months, one day it was like M.J. thought, Well, I'll just run along here a bit ... easier that gittin dragged around. And that was it, he was running and having fun. Within a week he was pulling, more and more. We had our team now, all nine of them.
photos courtesy of Randy Kerr
We ran thousands of miles in the mountains around home over the years; I could write a book about it. We chased moose ("Whoa! Whoa!"), and were chased by moose ("Hike it up, hike it up!"). "The Kids" brought me home one night, above the timberline, in snow and fog so thick I did not know where we were, until I looked up and saw the propane lamp in our cabin window. The dogs let us know more than once when marauding bears were after our winter's meat supply or wolves were coming in. The dogs became a part of our family. And like every living thing in life, there is a beginning and an end. As our "kids" departed us, one by one, I really questioned whether the fun, the work, the trials, the learning, and everything that came with having them, was worth the pain of losing them. And in thinking about it, it was.
Mike & Pam Nickols have lived at Caribou Lodge Alaska for over 20 years. The lodge is located about 15 air miles outside of Talkeetna. Visit their website at http://www.cariboulodgealaska.com to see more articles, photos and information about life at Caribou Lodge Alaska.