Listen everybody, I just thought that maybe it would be simpler just to post this segment over again. For some reason, my "charcoal operated computer" went into a loop and reprinted a bunch of edited paragraphs. Sorry about the inconvinience.
So when the 27 October 08 rolled along, it was obvious that it had been a real productive month. The dogs knew just about every nook and crannies along the various trails up there in those hills and I was just calling the “Gee/Haw” turns out of principle as they were by now saturated if not bored by the scenery. For some excitement, they would try to chase anything that moved and this from rabbits to dry leaves blowing in the wind. Even those ever vicious dive-bombing “chickadees” were no match for them. They would even chase those. Having noticed in the past that it didn’t matter how tired they were, they would still take off like “Bats out of Hell” at the sound of an alerting squirrel, I was capitalizing on this. I would edge them on, asking the dogs, “Where’s that squirrel? Is there a nasty squirrel out there around that bend? Let’s go check.” For some reason, playing this mind game with them never seemed to fail. They would seem to suddenly forget how tired they were and would find a second, third and even forth wind. Over the years, they had showed me that when they’re in good physical condition, it doesn’t take long for their bodies to recuperate. To my demise, they had proven this theory on many occasions.
There was that one time, a squirrel decided to run in front of them with this oversized acorn in its mouth. I thought it was funny to see those little legs scoot along till the tiny little tike decided to veer off to the right and they followed. I kept calling to “JR” to trail but to no avail. Him and “Sox” had in their mind that they would catch it. This was fine till they decided to go past this six (6) inch spruce tree but one on each side of it. What’s wrong with this picture and guess what happened? Well, let’s just say that the neck line attached between them got in the way and stopped them dead cold. When they finally shook the marbles out, they were facing each other, wrapped around the tree and I had a tangled mess of tug lines to deal with.
Then of course, there was the time when this moose decided to casually cross our path and stroll down this nice solid packed down path. It didn’t take long for them to pick up its scent and hold on to your dentures, here we were again pursuing another victim. By the knee deep tracks left behind, I could tell what it was and by the sound of crackling branches in front, I could tell he wasn’t far ahead. I tried to slow the team down but try all you want, they would not stop. I had ten (10) dogs pulling and the power generated was tremendous. Standing with both feet on my fancy aluminum high-tech carbide tipped brakes, the only thing I was doing was plowing my nice trail, a trail I had spent weeks grooming. Hind sight told me though that this might have been a good thing as those deep constricted holes left by those long legged animals can be extremely treacherous to sleddogs if they step into one. It’s one great way great way to dislocate a front shoulder or breaking a leg. Anyway we were on our way to finishing the front 40 acres when the mastodon came into sight. He had recognized the danger and probably thought he was being pursued by a pack of coyotes. He couldn’t necessarily figure out what that thing was behind them, yelling as there was no tomorrow but from the noise knew quite well that he would not stick around to find out. He was charging through that narrow trail smashing through the trees with his huge rack and shaking the snow from them real good. I didn’t know if this was his version of a “James Bond” smoke screen but it was doing a fantastic job. Not only was he staying camouflaged half the time, he was sending white stuff falling down my neck and it was some bloody cold. We were a lot faster and gaining on him and when I got close enough to see that this huge mammal was a full grown well-seasoned bull moose, I knew that we were headed for possible trouble. If the dogs managed to get close enough to take a bite out of its hind quarters, things might get dicey. Moose are not known to be attack animals but will defend themselves if provoked. Continuing with this pursuit smelt like disaster in the making and I had to stop it and this in a “New York” minute. Out of desperation, I grabbed my anchor and flung it behind my sled hoping that it would catch on to something. This plan didn’t seem to work too well as when I turned around all I saw was this thing spinning like crazy and bouncing around. I was just about to turn around to see where I was going when suddenly the anchor rope went taunt. The two steel claws had dug in the snow and finally found something solid to grab on. I’ve never landed an F-18 on an aircraft carrier at 165 mph but can sympathize with those pilots. The forward jolt that instantly came stopped the team dead in their tracks and contrary to those “flyboys” I did not have a five point harness holding me back. Consequently, I went swan diving over my steering bow and crashed head first against you guessed it, a tree (What did you expect, I’m in the woods). This was to be another one of these “genuine ouch” moment and although the impact had not knocked me out, I was wishing it had. The instant pain I was feeling was astonishing and I was sure that my skull was split open. When I rolled over and half sat and half leaned against that same tree, I pulled an ounce of courage and checked the damage on the top of my head. I was touching it expecting it to hurt but the entire surface was numb. So I pressed harder and for a moment there, I really thought I had crushed my skull. So to see if my assessment was correct I pushed even harder and this time my finger found some solid but one inch deeper. There it was. My skull was just hidden by this pancake size of a lump. That was an encouraging sign. When I brought my fingers to my face to inspect them, no blood could be detected so that was another positive thing. Now if only I could get my sense of balance and I’d be all set to get up. I turned my head around and checked if I still had a dog team or I was destined to walk home through ten miles of bush trail. No here they were just standing there as if nothing had happened. They probably didn’t have a clue as to what I was saying but from the tone of my voice, they knew the speech was not one of praise. I vented for at least three minutes and when I came to my senses, I took a deep breath and remembered what Leonard used to say. “You’ll never get them to work for you if you yell at them. They can feel the tension and will never cooperate.” He was right about that but “Jezez” it was sometimes hard to hold back. In this instance, there was no real harm done and other than for a major “four Tylenol” headache, things would be fine. So I dusted myself off and swallowed my pride. I located my synthetic “Made in China” fur hat and after emptying it of snow, concluded that not only was this thing not warm, it sucked “big time” as a safety helmet. Seeing me finally move, the dogs got again agitated and it didn’t take long to realize that they hadn’t had enough with the initial chase and were raring to get back at it. It was total anarchy and they didn’t want to listen even when I screamed from the top of my lungs for them to “stay”. Shout all you want, they were totally out of control and the situation was way out of hand. The thought of maybe not being so lucky the next time around did not appeal to me so it was decided. I was going to show them who ran things around here. I walked to the front of the team, grabbed the neck line between my two leaders and lifted them both off the ground. “Boys, I’m getting tired of eating your dirt. When I tell you to stay, I mean stay!” With that said I slammed them face down in the snow, put my hands on both of their heads, held them there and let them feel what it was like to be at the receiving end. “JR” cooperated and stayed in the crouch position but “Vixen” had something else in mind. She got back up, growled at me while showing me her pearly shiny white teeth. I guess she had decided that she would show me who was going to dominate the situation. The sight shocked me and I simply lost it. Shaking her violently after grabbing her by the collar, I lifted her with my right hand while I cocked the left one. I was going to give her one hell of a correction, one that she would never forget. I was ready to punch her into the next millennium but stopped short and got a hold of myself. “Holy Shit Gino, get a grip!” I scolded myself. “You’re losing it buddy. Calm down. They’re only excited because they saw a moose. You should feel happy to have been privileged to such a sight.” Looking at those totally submitted and sorry eyes, I knew I had seriously fucked up. I calmed down and before releasing her limp body, I grabbed her in a “bear hug” and said, “Sorry Girl, I didn’t mean it”. But it was too late. From the yellow spot she had dripped in the snow, I knew I had scared the daylight out of her and as you would have it, time would show that I had completely broken her spirit and had ruined a perfectly good lead dog. The rest of that run was uneventful and I could tell that the pack would have nothing to do with me. Moral was low and although they were moving along, they weren’t into it. I guess a message was being sent, “You don’t treat somebody that gives you 150% all the time like dirt and expect them to cooperate after. It’s simply not the way things are done…”
And of course there was the famous “chuck wagon” incident. It was late in the season last year, sometime in March and you couldn’t ask for a better sunny day to be out there. As I knew I’d be putting the sled away soon enough, I had decided to test the yearlings of team and see how they would make out on a “35 mile” run. The plan was to go exploring and take it easy, stopping along the way to have my favorite trail meal, a can of cold baked beans. The trip went well and when we got to the “Quebec Alps”, I anchored down and walked down the gang line, giving everyone a “one on one” scratch of the ears and a congratulation treat. We only had five miles to go and really thought they deserved a rest. Completely satisfied and not wanting the day to end, I was making my way back to my sled when all of sudden the dogs got agitated. I couldn’t see anything initially but this was a sure sign that a “victim” was out there. Then there she was, maybe half a kilometer ahead. Here was a fellow musher “Johanne” coming out of and doing the “Sand Pit” loop, on her way back to the trail head. My team started pulling and tugging forward and the anchor gave way. The team slid by me and when my wheel dogs went by, I got the “brilliant idea” to hold them back by grabbing the gang line. Yeah Right! This was one of the most stupid moves I have ever pulled in my mushing career, one that I don’t recommend to anybody. There was no way I was going to be able to hold them back and they pulled me forward, flat on my stomach.
Picture this! I’m holding on to these two segments of rope called “tug lines” being dragged along, using my highly fashionable “Carhartt” overalls as a sliding surface. I’ve somehow managed to slide under the sled between the two runners and because it’s lower to the ground than the thickness of my body, it has now settled on top of me and riding “piggy back”. Now at this stage of the game some of you might question my sanity and why one would put himself through all this agony and the question has merit. Well, let’s just say that for you folks that are non-mushers, the first golden rule of sledding is that “You don’t let go of your sled.” And besides, remember that steel clawed spinning out of control anchor we just talked about a while ago, well now there’s two of them doing their things behind me and one of them just happens to be dangling there between my “spread eagle” legs. When you can feel such an aggressive piece of hardware trying to get a grip so close to your “family jewels”, well letting go doesn’t become an option. I could only imagine releasing my grip and this thing attaching itself to the soft tissues of my “touchy”. It would have ripped me open and this scenario did not appeal to me one single bit. So I settled down, enjoying the ride, experiencing a totally different perspective of “dog sledding”. That’s not exactly what the plan was but anyway I had just figured that instead of wasting my energy on yelling, I should conserve it and concentrate on holding on as it might be a long haul. As it turns out, I traveled in this fashion for close to three (3) miles and of course had lots of time to think about many things. One thing that kept coming to mind was how stupid I had been. You have to understand that the reason I was traveling with two anchors that particular day was because it had been one of those years where the snow had stayed soft and you needed both to stay parked in place. When I stopped the team, I had been too lazy to plant both of them so here I was in quite an awful predicament. By this time, my hands and forearms were burning as the small 3/8 inch rope was cutting the blood circulation to my fingers and this through my leather mittens. I couldn’t hold on anymore and was just about to release my grip. Out of desperation, I was talking to “The Kid”, casually querying as to see if he might consider helping me out in stopping and holding the team back. “Just thought I’d ask.” I finished, totally discouraged and just about ready to face mutilation. But I would not give up and one more plea had to be attempted. Closing my eyes, I asked them, “Come on “Boyz” for Christ’s sake, please Stay!” As if they knew that I had enough with this lesson in humility, they simply came to a stand still. Making sure that it was safe to release the rope, I shoved the sled on its side and got up. I walked to the back and planted those two anchors real deep in the snow, this time making damn sure that they were in contact with something solid. I returned to the sled and sat on it. At that moment, there were two things I was contemplating on doing. First, catch my breath and the second thing, kill ten sleddogs. “Come on Gino,” I said trying to keep my temper in check and convince myself otherwise. “Look at the positive side. Your yearlings can actually run 35 miles and have all this energy to spare.” “That’s for sure.” I laughed to myself not too sure if I should be proud or upset at the team. A few more minutes passed and my pouting period was over. I looked at the dogs to see if they were paying any attention to me and sure as hell here they were all looking at me with huge “Colgate smiles”. “How can you stay mad at us?” they seemed to be telling me. “Come on, let’s go we’ve got another victim to catch”. “Sox” started tugging and jumping and got the rest of them going. “Stay” I commanded. As if they wanted to show me that they knew what it meant, they just stopped and waited for me to get the sled right side up. “Ready?” I asked, “Uptrail.” With that we were gone. When we met up with “Johanne” at the trail head, who had just pulled in, may I add, she had this smirk on her face. “Nice ride?” she chuckled. “Not bad” I replied, hoping that she hadn’t seen the show. “That’s good.” she continued nonchalantly. “Oh by the way, you’re missing half your overalls and you’re hanging out. Must be cold down there?” I grabbed and inspected what she was talking about and here I was standing there with crotch wide open. Never mind being cold, what about being totally embar “assed”. To say the least, this was not one of my proudest moments.
So if you’ve been with me since the beginning, starting way back then in September, you are probably thinking that there is not to much enjoyment to this sport. Well that’s where you’re mistaken. There is nothing more rewarding than to go out there and have the perfect run. That’s when all members of the team run to the same cadence and you hear the peter-pater rhythm of their feet hitting that hard packed snow. No slowing down. Just the same speed all the time. Try the same thing but this time, do it during a moonlit night. It’s just amazing to see this “black and white” scenery. And the solitude. Well, it’s just great to be out there, having the time to think things through without having a cell phone ringing or a TV blaring. How many of you can actually say that they’ve experience a total void of vehicular noises. The silence that you experience is out of this world and if you’re lucky enough you might just hear a branch crackling in the distance or an owl hoot through the darkness. What’s nice about all this is the peace and tranquility one gets when traveling with a bunch of dependable sleddogs. You won’t get see too much wildlife if you’re in the woods on a snowmobile or an ATV but with dogs it’s as if you belong. I’ve experienced nature like no one else has and this is thanks to my dogs.
Once we came across two female deer that were stuck in neck deep snow. I knew they were in trouble so I parked the dogs, put my snowshoes on and went and got them unstuck. One by one, I carried them to my hard packed trail and sent them on their way. The next day, I traveled through the same area to check on them. One had managed to leave the area and save itself but the other one and I suspected as much, was too exhausted from breaking trail and had decided to stay put. From the huge frozen blood pool and remnants of fur left behind, it was obvious that it had fallen prey to a pack of coyotes.
Then there’s this place where a herd of over 400 deer gathers and spends the winter grazing what’s available. As supply runs out normally by mid-January, the local snowmobilers and mushers take it upon themselves to feed and keep these animals alive. So once a week, I just stop by the “food cache” and load a bail of hay and a bag of frozen apples and head out there. Now the difference between us and our motorized friends is that the herd accepts us as being part of their daily lives and do not see us as a threat. When, may I ask, was the last time you just sat there amongst a bunch of wild animals, feeding them apples? You should try it one day. It tends to give a person a somewhat different philosophy about life for some reason.
And for sure I should mention that sight we saw on that perfect sunny day. The “Mob” and I were traveling across this bridge when we surprised this bald eagle having a meal. This majestic bird took off, circled around and flew right over the entire team starting from the back of the sled and gliding all the way to the front, following the entire length of the gang line. It flew so low that when it went over my head, not only could I hear the noise of its huge wings but I could actually feel the wind that they had generated. This is my books is what living is all about.
Yup, so these were some of the things I was thinking of while careening down this steep embankment on that particular morning of the 27 Oct 08. I was again in some sort of trouble and I had no one else to blame but myself. You see this was the morning after the second snowfall of this season and I had been too busy concentrating on putting mileage on the clock to go out there and check on the trail conditions. As faith would have it, here I was on the ATV, holding on to the brake levers, all four wheels completely locked, being pulled by this “power house” sliding down the hill and may I add, totally out of control. Call for them to stay all you want, this “Oumak” character didn’t have a clue as to what I was talking about. So here I was with half the team trying to slow down and the yearlings well what can I say, they were enjoying the moment and checking out how fast this “new guy” could drive the team. So I settled down in my seat and concentrated on getting us down the hill safely. We managed this quite well and when we got back to the dog trailer, I couldn’t but stop laughing. They didn’t have any clue as to how dangerous the ride had been. They were just all standing there covered in mud from head to toe with this “shit eating” grin. Were they excited about the first snow or were they getting in good enough shape to enjoy these outings. Personally, I think it was a combination of both things. One thing was for certain though. The “Boyz” had accepted “Oumak” as one of them and the gray wolf had proven to be a worthy member of the team. This was brought home when out of habit, I undressed him and let him loose without thinking. He simply ran to and jumped in his dog box and waited for me to come and close the door. I guess he had accepted the fact that this would be his new home. Now if only I could teach him how to speak “English”. He didn’t need to be fluent. All I was asking was that he understands what “Stay” means. “Right Oumak?” I told him when I reached in and petted his ears. “It’s going to be quite the adjustment but we’ll be fine my friend.” What I didn’t know at the time and was soon to find out was that this dog was a very smart individual.
When we got back to the lodges, I let the “A” team out for their drink of water at the river routine. There, while waiting for them to finish, I noticed that most of them were walking around with imprints of their harnesses right in their fur. Why not, I concluded, they’ve practically lived in them all month. By the way they were horsing around chasing each other, I could tell that they weren’t really tired and were ready to move on to the next phase. The rigorous mountain training had done what it was supposed to do and November would be concentrated on something else. These eight (8) mile runs just didn’t cut it anymore. This year’s goal was to run some mid-distance races and not to build a bunch of muscle bound freaks. Right now, all of them were sporting some mean looking sets of back legs. They somehow reminded me of those “Tour de France” cyclists with those bulging athletic legs. Hell, I didn’t want to be sidelined in Fort Kent and checked for steroids (tongue in cheek). Anyway, this phase would end today but only after I was finished with the girls. They were waiting impatiently at the barn, yapping away since they had heard the “4 wheeler” pull in the yard. The snowy hills were less of a concern for me when dealing with the “B” team and besides, I kind of enjoyed the “Adrenaline” rushes provided by these little bouts of excitement.
Well folks, I could write for another possibly ten (10) pages before closing but think I should keep some stuff for later. If you stick around, you’ll find out how my pregnant “Alaska” faired out and how the construction went. So for now, I’ll just bid you farewell and meet you back here in, oh say, maybe in two weeks.
To my American friends, “Happy Thanksgiving!” To the girls, remember, “One minute on the lips equals an eternity on the hips.” Anyway, have a good one. Got to go and stoke the fire and make another pot of coffee.