Saturday, September 20, 2008


I had been following this particular dog team on the Quebec Racing Circuit for the last two years and to say the least, I was impressed with their overall performances. These guys were in the big league and ran the long distance events, ranging from 50 to 100 miles. Every time I had seen them cross the finish lines, this particular gray wolf like lead dog always amazed me. Standing there, muscles bulging, he always looked fresh and ready to tackle another marathon. That was one thing but the way he stared down the crowd around him with his deep brown eyes said it all. He had this confidence that said that nothing fazed him and he could take one the world. What an athlete, I always thought. To have such a specimen on my team of yearlings would have so many benefits. Running side by side with such an experienced leader, my two young guys, “JR” and “Sox” could learn so many things. Oh sure, they’re great lead dogs in their own rights but still lack that edge that you need if you’re going to do some serious racing. To have the “Gray Wolf” on the team would be most welcomed as he could teach them to stay on the right side of the trail and pass another team without socializing or incident.

So anyway, with the April melting snow, the 2008 racing season ended and everybody parked their sleds. In case you didn’t know, the mushers in this part of the world are a tight knit community and to keep a secret is nearly impossible. So when I heard through the grapevines that Sylvain was getting rid of some dogs, it didn’t take long for me to E-mail him to see if the wolf was for sale. Yes as a matter of fact “OUMAK” would be available. Reading the great news and not wanting to miss such an opportunity, I made immediate arrangements to go up to the backwoods of Rimouski, Quebec to check out the new prospect.

That weekend and after driving 275 Kms, I finally found Sylvain’s place. Pulling in the driveway, I could tell that this individual cared for his animals. The kennel which was situated right next to his house was clean, well organized and a welcome sign for a guy like myself. The dogs all seemed to be a happy bunch and although they were barking, you could tell that they were not alerting but rather inviting you to come and play with them. This young guy came out and finally I was standing there shaking the hand of an individual that I had a lot of respect for. Let’s face it, the sacrifices that he had made and was doing to keep his dogs on the snow took dedication and were true signs of devotion.

We talked while walking to the kennel area and while making our way through the jumping healthy dogs, I was further reassured that I had come knocking at the right door. “I’m warning you Gino, Oumak is a faithful dog. He’s only had one master and is timid towards strangers. If you buy him, it’s going to take a few days for him to learn to trust you.” “That’s OK”, I answered, “we’ll take the time it takes to become friends.” So he gave me the sales pitch and the full history of the dog’s experiences. He was three years old and had been his main lead dog for the last two years and had raced every event with him. The reason he wanted to part with him was because at the 45/50 mile point, Oumak would relax on his “tug line” and would slack off for a few kilometers to then get back into pulling. This annoyed the young competitive racer but for what I wanted to do, there was no problem. I’d be running mid-distances and according to Sylvain, this dog could run thirty miles on his front legs. “OK, OK”, I told him, “quit already. How much do you want for your “champion?” I asked. “You’d be getting a top of the line leader and the going price would be $1250.00.” he said with firmness. Looking into Oumak’s deep brown confident eyes and knowing quite well that the dog was more than likely worth it, I didn’t even consider trying to dicker him down. We chit-chatted and compared notes about dog sledding for a while before I told him that I was very interested but I’d have to think about it. While driving home, I weighed the pros and cons over and over and before I got back, I had made the decision. This dog fit the profile and would join my family of “Canadian Snow Hounds”.

The very next morning was the 30 April 08 and this was to be a date that I would remember for probably, the rest of my life. It started pissing down rain and it looked like it would never end. Add to that the fact that it had snowed 14 feet of the white stuff throughout the winter and guess what? What we suspected did in fact happen. The river flooded and so did we. Oh boy, did we ever, an average of 24 inches of water in all the cottages. Eventually, the sun came back out and three days later while riding my motorized canoe amongst the buildings, I was evaluating the damage. I didn’t know as to how much I would need but we were talking serious cash to get the business back up and running. It was unfortunate but the “dog purchase” would have to be put on the back burner. I had a crisis on my hands and this needed to be addressed immediately.

Anyway, the summer was on its last legs and the dogs and myself were getting itchy legs. This year’s objective was to train and run the CAN-AM 30 in Fort Kent, Maine. I still had some apprehension about my two young leaders but it hadn’t been a profitable tourist season, so the prospect of getting Oumak was a non-issue. In early August, I submitted my racing application and once the selection was made, I received a whole bunch of E-mails, congratulating me for making the cut. One that really struck my fancy was the one that I received from Sylvain. It read that if a guy was going to do well, he needed a great lead dog. He had checked my references through the “dog world” and was satisfied that Oumak would be going to a good home. Therefore if I was still interested, he would let him go for the bargain price of $500.00. Interested, hell that was probably the best news I had heard all year. Running the sawmill at full tilt, I had managed to squirrel away some cash and this without having my finance minister, Fran, notice. Buying Oumak might be an extravagance that I could not afford right at the moment but there probably wouldn’t be another opportunity like this coming my way and I had to make up my mind.

One fresh morning early September, when we were training on a logging road, “JR” and “Sox” decided once more to move to the left side of the road, facing traffic. Try all you want, they just wouldn’t move to the right side. I stopped the team and pulled the two young guys to that position and this just in time. While standing there, holding them, we all heard this rumbling coming. Here this eighteen wheeled gravel truck came towards and went by us at nearly 100 km/h. Suddenly, I felt sick and my knees nearly buckled. I could only picture the disastrous scenario if we would have remained on the “HAW” side of that road. It would have most likely been a real tragedy. That incident scared the daylight out of me and got me off “that fence”. That night I made formal arrangements to go and pick up Oumak.

The next Sunday I bee-lined to Rimouski where I met Sylvain, hitching some of his dogs. “You’re just in time,” he shouted over the barking excited dogs, “you’re going to get the chance to see Oumak in action.” On that note we both jumped on his ATV and we were gone. I have to admit, I was impressed. The work ethics of this dog were incredible. Not scared of anything, he knew exactly what to do and listened to his master’s every word. When we got back, there were no more hesitations and I gladly handed over the asking $500.00. When we loaded him in the traveling crate in the back of my jeep, I knew I had to leave immediately. The dog didn’t understand what was going on and Sylvain had a tear sliding down his cheek. “Here,” he said, “this is his harness. Maybe with this, the transition will be easier.” I shook his hand and again retold him that I would take good care of him. “I know” he tried justifying his decision, “ but you have to realize that he was born in my basement and has been a member of the family for all his life.” “Yeah, I know. It could be quite the adjustment for him.” I continued. “I’ll let you know how he makes out.” Feeling a lump coming in my own throat, I got behind the wheel and hightailed out of there. Looking in my rear view mirror, I could see Oumak, ears flopped down, looking behind through the back window, questioning why some stranger was taking him away from his home. At one point, he started moaning. “Yeah Buddy, I know.” I tried reassuring him again. “Hopefully, you’ll like it in New-Brunswick.”

The trip back went without incident and once back at Baisley Lodges, I brought him out and gave him some water. I put him back in his crate as it was time for my “mob” to meet Oumak. They had already noticed me paying attention to this “new guy” and now it was time to make formal introductions. I let the girls out first and from how they reacted, they seemed to really fancy this “Quebecker”. As for the boys, well that was a different story. The “Kid” and “JR” sniffed through the bars of the cage but wanted to make it clear that they ruled the pack. At one point, “JR” looked up at me as to say, “So what’s the big deal here? Aren’t we good enough for you?” “That’ not the point.” I replied while patting him on the head. “Look at the positive things of this. He’ll help you with the lead and just think how great you’ll be after learning all he knows.” He walked away, giving a look that said it all. He was worried about being replaced. When “Sox” met the scared dog, his attitude was completely different. He wagged his tail, bowed down and barked, welcoming this stranger in our family. “Good little “Sox”, I smiled, “he’s in a class of his own. Such a friendly character, he is.”

After this “head spinning” first meeting with us, I picked up Oumak in my arms and carried him up to the second floor of the kennel and put him in the nursery. The poor guy had had enough excitement for one day and he needed to get some down time so to evaluate what was going on. I gave him some fresh water and food, something that he immediately accepted. Two hours later, I went back to check on him and bring him a handful of hamburger. I put it in his bowl and coaxed him to come and eat. He gave me a stare but the fire in those eyes just wasn’t there. Hesitantly, he cowarded forward and risked eating while being petted. “Don’t worry, Buddy, you’re safe here.” I told him, wondering what he thought of this whole situation. “Just give us a chance and you’ll see that this is a great place.” Saying goodnight to him, I closed the nursery door shut and walked to the bunkhouse. As promised, I would e-mail Sylvain and tell him that everything was well.

I had finished my correspondence and was walking outdoors when I heard all this commotion coming from the kennel. I knew something was wrong and suspected it had to do with the “new guy”. Sure enough, through the darkness, I could see Oumak slip-sliding on the tin roof of the building. He had ripped the metal grill off the window, managed to slide it open and got out. Anyway, seeing me, he didn’t hesitate and jumped right off, landing ten feet lower. He took off like a bullet and I never saw where he headed till I heard the neighbor’s dog, half a kilometer down, start barking with a sense of panic. From the sounds of it, she had just met the “Gray Wolf”. He created havoc in the immediate area of valley for a couple of hours but simply would not come to anyone. He finally found his “bearing”, and eventually returned to the driveway of lodges as if he wanted to say goodbye. Running full blastt, he veered right, crossed the road heading north and ran into the night towards the mountain, never to be seen again...

It’s been a week since his “great escape” and as I write this, this morning, I can’t stop wondering where the poor animal could be. Did he decide to try and get back to Rimouski. Is he hiding somewhere around my property and evaluating if this is a good place to stay or simply put, is he dead. I guess, I’ll never know. Without fail, I leave food for him every night and it’s always gone the next morning. I know that it’s eaten by foxes but then again, what if… I know it’s wishful thinking that he’ll come back but the other night during the September harvest moon, my dogs were howling like there was no tomorrow. In the distance up in the mountain, a single individual was answering them back. “No” I said to myself, “it can’t be. It’s got to be coyotes.” But then again, who knows. It might just be him. Seeing this as a ray of hope, I hung his harness by the door of the barn. “You know Oumak,” I said as if he standing there, “you’re more than welcomed to come in and stay with our family”.

Anyway, training has resumed and the team is getting stronger by the day. However, this incident was quite the “kick in the teeth” and has knocked me off my “soap box”. I console myself by saying that I gave this dog an opportunity to really experience what living wild and free was all about. He has the heart of a lion and probably can take on the dominant male of the local coyote pack. If that was his decision, that’s also quite all right. At this stage of the game, there is nothing I can do other than to say, “Live long and prosper Oumak but remember one thing. Be careful out there.”


Linda said...

My heart is breaking after reading your recent entry. What a roller coaster ride you have been on this year. Don't give up hope Gino. I pray Oumak finds his way back to the Lodges. Linda

Lodger said...

Gino - What can I say but thanks! Thanks for having the guts to wear your heart on your sleeve, and write about it. Life is never easy, so we must take our pleasures where and when we find them. I can't help but remember that if it was all good times, what would we have to compare to. The tough times make the good times just a bit sweeter. John