Running with the pack
Post Independent staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
I was nearly as excited as the dogs were, even though they were the ones who were about to get several hours of exercise and fulfillment of their basic nature, and I was just going along for the ride.
I was dressed for deep winter, which I had expected to encounter because I was in Gunnison, frequent winner of the “coldest place in the continental United States” sweepstakes.
Instead, the day dawned on the warmish side, a balmy 19 degrees Fahrenheit at 8 a.m. We were standing around the kennel yard at the Lucky Cat Dog Farm (yes, you read that right), watching the preparations for a day of dog sled touring.
Becky Barkman, proprietor, and Matt Pierce, my long-time friend who is a musher working for Barkman, had their hands full, picking out two 10-dog teams for a morning of hauling myself and my wife, Anne, into the snowy highlands.
At one point, a fight erupted among the excited dogs as they were being placed in their cubbies on the truck.
Matt waded into the middle of five snarling dogs, lifting one up and tossing him aside, and pulled the snapping animals apart while taking great care to not get bitten himself.
The fight ended as quickly as it had begun. The dogs lost interest in killing each other, and the loading continued.
By the time we got to the snow, a half-hour and roughly 800 vertical feet later, north of Blue Mesa Reservoir, the dogs were more settled.
As they were harnessed in, though, they set up a howling, keening noise that must have been audible from Montrose … maybe even Aspen. Their excitement was contagious.
As Matt added pairs of dogs to the lead line, they strained at the lead rope attached to the sled, eager to be on the move.
These tugs tested the hold of the small anchor holding the sled in place. The anchor is a critical piece of equipment for mushers, which is tied to the back frame of the sled, always within reach of the driver.
On the trail, the two teams quieted down entirely, pulling for the sheer joy of pulling and setting up a yipping, yowling objection any time we stopped for any reason.
The dogs are all bred for the sled, but they are not uniformly “husky” looking.
One pair, named Daisy and Shredder, do not look like sled dogs at all, at least not in any conventional sense.
Daisy, in fact, has a nickname, the “Mega-Chihuahua,” because she is small, short-haired and big-eared. Shredder is a mutt of indeterminate origin, also short-haired but black and white with floppy ears.
But as Matt said, and I observed during the tour, “She never stops pulling,” meaning Daisy, although the same could be said of Shredder.
Sitting in a sled is rather an odd way of passing a few hours, as the dogs and the driver do all the work. You begin to feel useless, like a piece of luggage.
At the far end of the trail, Becky’s team had pulled ahead just as the decision was made to turn around and head back. Her team executed the tricky turnaround just fine.
Our team, however, had different ideas. At first the tandem pairs tried to split and head back down the trail on either side of the sled.
When that didn’t work, a couple of them got hopelessly tangled, and by the time the sled was facing downtrail, Matt had to go forward and spend many tiring minutes getting the knots undone.
Not long after that, he stopped. With some glee, I clambered out from the padded cocoon of the sled to take over as driver.
Not that it happened all that quickly, you understand. I’m pretty good at getting up from a supine position under normal circumstances, but lying in a sled is not a normal circumstance. There’s scarcely room to roll over and get to your knees, there’s not a sufficient sidewall to hoist yourself up with, so it’s really a scramble to extricate yourself.
Anyway, after a few moments of panicked wrestling, there I was, standing on the runners and using my weight to steer the sled from the back. I felt like Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, with his faithful sled dog, King.
I felt relaxed, confident in the forward motion of the sled, confident in the dogs … I just felt good.
My goal was to keep the sled out of the “fluff” to the side of the trail, where the going was harder on the dogs than on the beaten track.
Not so easy, I soon learned.
If the dogs cut tight around a bend, for instance, the sled follows them like an arrow through the deeper snow at the side of the trail, and there’s absolutely nothing the driver can do about it. The dogs, of course, take no notice of any of this, and just keep pulling.
Nevertheless, I was like a monkey on the back of that sled, switching from one runner to the other as I perceived a need to skew the sled one way or another.
Sometimes it worked, particularly if I literally threw my weight one way or the other, which threatened at times to overturn the sled – an absolute disaster to be avoided at all costs, I was told.
On the way back down from the heights, the dogs seemed to lose interest in their jobs, slackening their pace and occasionally leaning against one another.
My job, at that point, was to encourage them with little cries of “Hup, hup” and, hollering the names of the lead pair, to remind them that there was still some work to be done before they could rest.
One dog, frighteningly, succumbed to a chronic case of hypoglycemia, which Matt and Becky usually are able to forestall with a dollop of agave nectar on a spoon.
This time, the fit came on suddenly. As soon as he spotted the signs, Matt had me hit the brakes and toss the anchor into the snow. He jumped out of the sled and ran forward, to grab Roja as she slumped in her harness and her legs went into spasms.
Stunned and insensible, she had to be taken out of her harness and carried back to the truck in the sled, nestled in Matt’s arms with her tongue lolling out.
The trailing team, with Becky on the runners throughout the tour, would pull up alongside our team periodically, but almost never pull into the lead.
At this point, whenever they pulled alongside, the lead dogs would sniff anxiously at Roja’s snout and tongue, reassuring themselves that she was still alive.
As we packed up the sleds, harnesses, lead ropes and other gear after the tour, Becky told me I looked like a veteran on the runners, as she watched from behind.
“Any time you want to come back and run some dogs, you just let me know,” she told me as we parted.
Maybe there’s a new career waiting for me, just around that next, snowy corner.
I called Gunnison the day after we got home to Carbondale, worried about Roja’s condition. I learned that she was “still kind of shaky” and was not going out with the team on tours for now, maybe never again. I know that Becky adopts out her dogs when they can no longer pull, so I am confident that Roja will be fine, however this episode ends up. Her website is http://www.luckycatdogfarm.com.
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