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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Traveling

   Being in Alaska with winter coming on you tended to start thinking of how you're going to get around with multiple feet of snow on the ground. I could get from point A to point B the same way Stanley and I did down home, riding Shanks Mare, better known as walking. To tell the truth I was planning on doing just that since I figured it was going to be my only option until I made a trip to town that is.
   There was a small cafe where I used to hang out every time I went to town. It was a place where most of the locals hung out and as such it was a great place to learn about living in Alaska. I got ignored the first few times I went there but after awhile the folks realized that I really meant to stay in the country and they began to be a little more friendly with me. The place not only served really good food but it was also kind of a community gathering spot where the locals could visit and catch up on the news. Among the locals were several folks that lived out in the bush like me. I got to know one old timer when I found out that not only did he live alone in the bush but he also liked to play chess and would make the trip to town every chance he got just to have a good meal and play a few games. After I managed to hold my own in a few games and he saw that it wasn't going to be a waste of time playing against me he started to open up and give me a lot of info on what it took to survive on your own out in the country. I learned more about wilderness living over that chess board than I did from all the reading I ever did.
   I headed down to the cafe as soon as got the canoe tied up; looking forward to seeing if he was in town. I figured if I could get him going with a game I would be able to pick his brain about which would be better for winter travel, snowshoes or skies. I needed to find out which might be the best because I didn't really have any idea how to use either and I knew I was going to need all the practice I could get before bad weather hit.
   He was not only in town but was already sitting at a table waiting for someone to come in and play a game. Unfortunately it only took a couple of moves to see that he wasn't up to his usual standards. I didn't know what was wrong but it was obvious that his mind was on something other than the game. I finally stopped playing, leaned back in my chair and asked him what the problem was.
   "Well" he said "I'm not doing to good health wise and it looks like I'm gonna have to head back south". That really threw me for a loop. He was somewhere in his 60's and had always looked to be the picture of good health to me. I knew he lived at least twenty miles outside of town and made the walk in at least once a week when the weather was good. He had been living out in the woods on his own since he was in his early twenties and he'd all ways said he would stay where he was until the day he died. Of course about the only thing we had ever talked about was living on our own and I really didn't know all that much about his background. Over coffee I learned more about him than I had in the three months I had known him.
   With all his problems he was still willing to give me some advice. He thought that snowshoes would be the best for checking my trap line because they were easier to move in when the snow was soft and once you got in the rhythm you could cover a lot of miles with them. He laughed when I mentioned skies and pointed out that since I had no experience what so ever I more than likely kill myself before I learned how to use them. Then he came up with an idea that I hadn't even thought of. "Why don't you get a dog team?" he asked. "Why not?" I thought. After all, I'd seen Sergeant Preston of the Yukon when I was a kid and driving a dog team pulling a sled didn't look all that hard. The fact that I had absolutely no idea of what might be involved with owing a dog team didn't slow my thinking down at all. You could haul a lot more stuff on a sled than on your back and would be able to cove a lot more ground. On top of all that, it did get kind of lonely at the cabin and having dogs around would help take care of that.
   The old man just sat back in his chair, drinking his coffee and watched me mulling the idea over. From the little smile he had on his face I must have had smoke coming out my ears. I was thinking that this really sounded like a plan and all I needed to do was come up with the team and a sled. "Where do you reckon a guy might find a team?" I asked. This is where I found out the reason for the little smile. It seems that he just happened to have not only a dog team but a sled and all the gear I would need. It also turned out that since he was moving back south he was planning on selling all his stuff and since I was his friend he would make me a real good deal on the whole kit and caboodle. Things were looking up. Not only would my traveling problems be solved but he was willing to trade the whole mess for the amount of gold that I had found (which, at the time was about $800.00 dollars worth). To recap: I had a dog team complete with sled and harness that I had bought sight unseen. Should I be worried?
   I had to make a deal with my buddy, James to bring the team, sled and all the gear down to the cabin because there was no way I was going to fit the dogs in the canoe. I forgot to mention that there were only four dogs. It seemed to me that Sergeant Preston had more than that but I couldn't remember. Anyway, the old timer told me that he had used four dogs and had had no problem hauling what he needed and I took his word for it. We shook hands on the deal and spent the rest of the night playing chess while he told me how well I was going to do with the team and how much easier it was going to make traveling for me. I headed back to the cabin the next morning to await my team thinking of mushing through the snow the whole trip.
   I had taken some stakes and chains with me because the old timer said the dogs were used to being chained up. I really hated the thought of chaining them up. I was thinking more along the lines of having them running and playing around the cabin but I knew it was going to take time for them to get used to me and their new surroundings. I cleared all the brush off one side of the yard and drove the stakes into the ground. Each dog would have a circle about ten feet in diameter. Next I dug a horse shoe shaped trench close to the stake. I cut branches and bent them into a "U" shape and stuck each end into the trench then wired a couple more from the closed end of the trench to the opposite end and other that frame I stretched some canvas from an old tent I had found by the river. They weren't great but at least they would each have a shelter they good use to get in out of the rain. I had also brought three hundred pounds of dog food home and I had to take the boards I had left over and build a storage box for it next to the cabin. I built the bottom off the ground so I wouldn't have to worry about moisture and added a thick piece of plastic to the lid to keep the rain out. I had spent an entire week getting ready for the dogs and was really looking forward to them showing up.
   I woke up a couple of mornings later to the sound of James's boat coming up the creek. By the time I got dressed and put a pot of coffee on the stove I could see him pulling into the bank. I headed down to the creek to meet him and finally get a look at my new dogs. I could hear them as soon as I stepped out of the cabin and I could hear James cussing at them. I remember down home at William Story's house when they had a bunch of hounds that tended to lie around under the front porch. Every time someone would come up to the house those hounds would come boiling out from under that porch, barking their heads off. William would be out front trying to say hello to whoever it was and trying to yell and kick at the dogs at the same time. It reminded me a lot of what James was doing, trying to say hi to me and yelling at the dogs to shut up all at the same time.
   I could hear the dogs but still couldn't see them. James had the sled tied across the boat and the dogs were behind it. By the time I got to the boat he had the sled untied and I was able to help him get it out and set it on the bank and there were my dogs. James had all of them held to the side rails of his boat with really short chains, two on each side and far enough apart that they couldn't reach each other. He said it was so they wouldn't fight each other or jump out of the boat. I could see where having one of them jump from the boat while you were coming down the river would be rough but I thought dog teams were supposed to get alone and you wouldn't have to worry about them fighting. They all looked friendly enough, jumping around and wagging their tails but when I walked up to the fist one he quit wagging and started growling. According to James this one's name was Mike and he looked to be pure Husky. I took a chance and held my hand out so he could smell it. He checked it out for a minute and finally licked it instead of taking a bite which was a big relief for me. The one on the other side of the boat was called Joe and I'm not sure what he was. He looked kind of like a long haired blue tick hound, just bigger. Behind him was Pig eye, he looked like a cross between a Saint Bernard and maybe a Boxer. Whatever he was he had a really fat face and he did have pig eyes. The last one was Sam, another cross breed who looked like he was at least part Husky. By them time we got them all out of the boat and chained out in their new spots I was thinking I might need to change my idea of dog teams not fighting. I was hoping I was wrong and all the problem was that they were all excited about being in new surroundings. They did seem to be all right as long as we kept them apart. I put some food out for them but they were too excited to pay attention to it right then and James and I went in to have a fresh salmon dinner.
   I didn't get to do much with them for the next week. I fed them every day and tried to spend a little time with them but I still had a lot of work to do around the cabin. I was afraid to take them off their chains because I knew they still weren't used to me and if they took off running I wasn't sure they would come back if I called them. They did seem to be well trained though. After they calmed down that first day and night they didn't bark unless I came out of the cabin and as soon as I walked over to them they would all pull at their chains so I could pet them. The only problem I had was with Mike. He was happy as long as I was petting and paying attention to him but he would tend to growl as soon as I moved on to the next one. Pig Eye was the mellowest of the bunch. As soon as I started petting him he would roll over so I could scratch his belly. Joe always looked like he was grinning and I couldn't get him to stop jumping up on me and trying to lick my face. I wasn't sure about Sam. He would stand real still and let me pet him like he was just putting up with it but didn't really like it.
   After that first week I decided to start taking them for a walk. I was only able to handle one at a time so I started out with Mike and was very pleasantly surprised. He walked right along side of me, not pulling on the leash or trying to take off on his own. I went a couple of miles up the creek because he was behaving so well and just because I was enjoying it. Not a bit of a problem the entire trip. He stopped every time I did and waited for me to start walking again before he moved. I was beginning to think that I had lucked into some well trained dogs. The next day I took Pig Eye. Other that trying get my whole hand in his mouth when I fed him a treat and slobbering all over me he was pretty mellow and I was looking forward to the same kind of walk I'd had with Mike. I was wrong. I didn't realize how strong he was until we were about a mile from the cabin. I hadn't had any problem with him, just walking along, petting him and giving him a snack every once in awhile for being such a good dog. I thought I had heard something in the brush and had stopped in the trail to see what it might be. Pig had stopped when I did and was just standing beside me sniffing around. I finally saw something moving and stepped to one side to get a better look at it. It was just a rabbit so I told Pig to come on and started to take a step up the trail. I guess I hadn't noticed that Pig had also seen that rabbit. The next thing I knew he let out a deep bark and I was laying on the ground being drug up the trail. We went at least a hundred feet up the trail and I have no idea how far we would have gone if he hadn't left the trail and I got hung up in the brush. I learned a few things about Pig that day. I figured he would be good at pulling a sled because dragging me behind him sure didn't slow him down any. I also learned not to loop the leash over my wrist where I couldn't let it go and I wasn't sure about other animals but he was going to be a hell of a rabbit dog. I had to end our walk then and stumble back home. My shoulder was killing me where he had tried to jerk it off plus my britches were torn and my leg was skinned up from being drug across the ground. We didn't see any more rabbits on the way back so of course he was the picture of a well behaved dog all the way back to the cabin. I had to work around the cabin using just the one arm for the next couple of days before I could try it again with another dog.
   A couple of days later when my shoulder was feeling a little better I decided I'd take Joe out for his walk. He seemed to know it was his turn because he started jumping around and barking before I even got close to him with the leash. I was hoping he would calm done after I got the leash on him and we set out but his excitement just seemed to go up a few notches. He left the yard at pretty well walking on his back legs from straining at the leash. It wasn't easy but not so bad until we got out of the yard and into the woods. Not only did he strain and pull at the leash but he tried to go every which way all at the same time. He would jerk my arm one way and before I could get set to pull him back he would head off in the opposite direction. We ended up going along with me leaning backward trying to hold him while he tried to sniff every tree bush and rock pile. In less than a mile I was more tired out than I had been with both the other dogs and had to turn back toward the cabin. It took a couple of hard pulls to get him turned around and headed back and I think he knew we were going back home. He quit jerking on the leash and came over to lick my hand and whine a little like he was saying he was sorry. If I hadn't been so tired and my shoulder wasn't hurting again I would have given in and kept going but as it was by the time I got back to the cabin all I could do was put him back on his chain, stumble into the cabin and lay on my bunk for a few hours.
   The last one was Sam and I have to say I was a little disappointed with that walk. I couldn't complain about him being unruly or trying to drag me through the woods. All he did from the time I put the leash on him until we got back to the cabin was follow along behind me with his head down. I couldn't even get him to walk beside me much less out in front. I started worrying that he might be sick or something. I started jogging up the trail and he had no problem picking up the pace and staying with me so I took off running as fast as I could and again, he kept pace with me. As soon as I stopped he plopped down on his butt and just stared at me. He was kind of an odd dog but for some reason I had the feeling you'd be able to count on him if the need arose.
   I tried to spend as much time with the dogs as I could for the next two weeks. I'd pet them and talk to them every morning when I fed them and at least twice a day I'd give them a snack of smoked salmon. After a couple of walks I found that I could take Mike and Sam walking at the same time. They were both well behaved during the walks even though Sam would always walk behind Mike, Even if I tried to pull him up even with Mike he would just dig his feet in until I gave up then find his spot right behind Mike. With Pig and Joe there was no way I'd be able to take both of them without having my arms jerked out of their sockets. I had been trying to get caught up with all the work that needed to be done around the cabin so I would have a completely free day and managed to that by the start of the third week. I woke up early that morning to a fresh snowfall which I thought was a good omen for what I had planned that day. I had already checked out the harnesses for the dogs and found that they didn't look all that different from what you would use on a horse for pulling a plow back home. There was a breast harness with a belly strap connected to the collar and a chest harness attached to that. There were two pull ropes attached to the breast harness which were joined together behind the dog and each pull rope combined into one large one that had a "D" ring at the end for attaching to the sled. I didn't think there was enough snow to actually use the sled yet but I wanted to see how they worked as a team. I can up with the "it seems like a good idea" plan of just putting them in the harness, hooking a chain to the end of it and taking them for a walk.
   To tell you the truth I'm not sure how this brilliant idea came to lodge in my pea brain. Even though I knew I had two dogs that I was totally unable to control when they were together I decided to hook all four of them together and take a leisurely stroll through the woods, and I thought this was a good plan. The way the harness was set up there would be two dogs in the front with the other two following them. Since I had decided that Mike seemed to be the natural leader and Sam was the second most well mannered one I would put them in the front. Plus for some reason I assumed that with the two well behaved dogs already attached the other two would follow their lead and settle right down. I hooked the ring at the end of the harness to a stake that I had driven in the ground. My plan was to get all the dogs harnessed, and then hook another small chain to the ring. Then I could slip the ring off the stake when I had them harnessed and was ready to go. Anyone who knows me will know how this plan worked out. The first part did go fairly well. I got Mike and Joe both into their harness without any problem. All they did was sniff at each other a few times. Next came Pig. At least I was smart enough to put his harness on while he was still chained up because it turned out to be area chore. Imagine trying to put a sweater on a ten year old kid that's super hyper and wanting to jumped up and down while running circles around you. That would be almost as bad as trying to get that harness on Pig. With all that hassle it came as a big surprise when as soon as the harness was all the way on him he stopped acting crazy and other than a few jumps and wiggles he stood in his spot and looked around. Maybe it was because he thought the harness meant he was going to get to go somewhere. I don't know but I sure wasn't going to complain. Getting Sam harnessed wasn't near as bad as I had thought it might be but he was the wild one once it was done. He kept pulling at the harness and dancing around. There was no doubt that he was ready to go. Now all I had to do was hold on to the chain and slip the ring off the stake and I see how they acted as a team.
   There was at least one thing I kind of got right I used my hook on the end of the chain. This thing looked like some kind of grappling hook with three prongs; it reminded me of the big treble hooks we used down home for fishing. According to James it was supposed to be the sled anchor so the dogs wouldn't run off with it when I was stopped. For some odd reason I actually believed I'd be able to control the dogs once they were all hooked together but just to be on the safe side I added the hook. All of them had tugged against the stake after I had I had gotten the harness on them but since they couldn't go anywhere they were all just standing there in the traces looking back at me. As for me I was also just standing there looking at them. I had been about to slip the ring off when it dawned on me that I had no idea of how to handle a dog team. Taking an individual dog on a walk through the woods was a lot different than trying to get a team to do what you wanted. If I wanted one of them to stop I'd just say stop and pull on the leash. How was I supposed to get a team to stop? There were no reins on a dog team. Would they respond to "Stop" or maybe "Whoa"? How did you get them to go in the direction you wanted? Gee and Haw would work on a team of mules but would it mean anything to dogs? The light finally came on in my little brain. I should have spent a lot more time picking the old timers brain about how to handle a team. I wouldn't have been the same as actually training with someone who knew what they were doing but it would have at least answered some of the questions I found myself asking. As usual I had been too excited about the prospect of being Nanook of the north and picturing myself riding through the woods on a sled than thinking of the troubles I might be letting myself in for.
   Well, it was too late now. I guess I could have taken them back off the harness and waited for James to stop by the cabin so I could ask him if he knew anything about driving a team. The only problem with that would be that I'd have to own up to the fact that I had spent good money on something that I knew absolutely nothing about. It would be the first time but that didn't make it any easier to admit. Plus, I didn't know when he would be by. We didn't have a set time on when he stopped by. It all depended on when he got a fishing party or was going hunting. It could be the next day or it might be in two weeks. I knew he'd be back at least a couple more times before the river froze up but my "know it all" brain over road my common since and I decided that since I had everything ready I might as well go ahead and give it a try. I mean after all, how hard could it be?
   As I bent down to slip the ring off the stake the dogs turned to watch me and kind of tensed up. I got the ring off and stood back up to see if they were doing anything. They were still just standing there looking at me. I got a good hold of the grappling hook. I figured that since it had three prongs it would be the best thing to hang onto and if the dogs did get away from me all I would have to do was throw it on the ground. I forgot all about the mush thing I thought you were supposed to say to get the going and instead I just said "giddieup". They stood there for a minute looking at me then looking across the yard at the trail, one more look at me and they "Gottieup!" All of them lunged against their harnesses at the same time. I thought I was ready for it. I was wrong. I went off my feet face first and was being drug across the yard because I didn't have enough since to let go of the chain. I did have the presence of mind to at least try and dig the hook into the ground but with the speed the dogs were doing the best I could do was dig a deep scratch across the yard. The dogs took a sharp left at the edge of the yard and headed up the trail. I would like to say I made the same turn with them but it was more like I was the end kid in a game of "crack the whip". Not only did they throw me off the end of the chain but I rolled far enough down the bank that I ended up with my feet in the creek. The last of I saw of the dogs was Pig and Joes butts headed through the woods with the grappling hook bouncing along behind them.
   Needless to say (but I will anyway) that didn't go exactly the way I had planned. I had torn the sleeve on my quilted coat and had a pretty good gash on my arm. One leg of my britches was torn most of the off and I had cuts and scratches from my ankle to my knee. When I was finally able to set up I realized my hat was gone and there was blood dripping in my eye. I took a few minutes to get rolled over to my hands and knees and even longer to stand up. My feet were so wet from being in the creek that once I did stand up I had water squirting out the tops of both. All I really wanted to do was go back in the cabin and lay down but I could hear the dogs barking up the trail. They must have gotten hung up by the grapple hook. I was really tempted to just leave them where they were while I went and lay down and waited for my head to quit swimming. I walked back up to the trail and cast a longing look at the cabin, but it was my fault the dogs were in whatever predicament they were in and now it sounded like they were fighting.
   Thankfully they hadn't gone very far before the hook got caught in a big tree root. The brush was torn up on both sides of the trail where they had tried to get themselves unhooked but from the looks of it the more they had tried the more they had gotten tangled up. Mike was laying on his side with his collar tangled in a root. Pig was standing on top of him and Mike was trying to bite Pigs feet and legs to make him move, the problem was Pig was so wrapped up in the lead chain that he couldn't move even if he'd of wanted to. Joe and Sam were the least tangled but I needed to try and get Pig clear first before Mike managed to get a good bite on him. I waded into the middle of them trying to get to Pigs harness but I accidentally stepped on Mike so he immediately quit trying to bite Pigs feet and started in on mine. I was thankful that I had on some pretty thick boots because he got a couple of good bites in before I could get out of his way. I finally got them all untangled and spread out far enough to keep them from fighting but it sure wasn't a fun way to spend the afternoon. Every time I had to bend over I felt like I was going to throw up and I kept getting dizzy spells. I had the leash in my pocket. I'm not sure why I even brought it but I sure was glad I did. I had to unhook them from the harness and walk them back to the cabin one at a time. By the time I got all four of them back to the cabin and chained up I was seeing double and my head was killing me. My feet felt like they were frozen from wearing the wet boots and the cut on my arm had soaked most of my coat sleeve with blood. The problem with living out by yourself is that you have to do things no matter how you felt and I couldn't just chain them up and go lay down, first I had to feed and water them and I still needed to spend a couple of minutes with each of them to let them know they were good dogs and it wasn't their fault. It was over four hours from the time I hit the ground before I was able to stagger back into the cabin and get my boots off. Now I needed to take care of myself. My feet were super cold but at least they were still pink in most places. My toes were all white but I didn't see any black anywhere so I was praying that I had ducked the frostbite bullet. The cuts and scratches on my leg were painful but none of them looked bad and a little alcohol and a few bandages took care of them. The cut on my arm was a different story. I was about three inches long and deep. I had no idea what I had hit while rolling through the brush on the way to the creek but whatever it was it had really done a number on me. Lucky for me it was my left arm. I doused it good with alcohol (which will make you say "Oh poopy" really quickly. Next came the part I really wasn't looking forward to although it wouldn't be the first time. I got out my needle and thread and started sewing myself back up. I took me eight stitches before I got it closed back up. I don't know if that was too few or too many as far a s a real doctor would be concerned but it's was plenty for me. Now all I had to worry about was infection.
   I spent the next week trying to do all the work around the cabin one armed, again. We had a good snow that week, at least a couple of feet. The dogs seemed to like the little dog houses I had built, at least they stayed in them most nights. Feeding them was not a problem but we were in the weather where I had to melt snow to give them water. I spent a lot of that week sitting on the porch worrying about my arm. After four days I didn't see any red marks coming from the cut and began to breathe a little easier. I figured I'd be able to pull the stitches in another couple of days, something I wasn't looking forward to. The rest of my sitting time I spent thinking about how little I really knew about taking care of a dog team. Believe me it took most of that week to just catalog all the things I didn't know and only about fifteen minutes to go through what I did know. I figured James would be able to make at least one more trip before the river froze and I had to decide what I was going to do before his final trip. In my daydreams I could still see me running my trap line using the sled and the team. It was a real tempting dream but I was going to have to face the reality sooner or later and the reality was could I really take care of four dogs during the coming winter? Somewhere during that winter I was going to have to supply meat for them because I didn't have near enough dog food to last them all winter nor could I afford to buy enough. I was planning on getting one moose to go along with my smoked fish and what rabbits I could get just to last me through the winter. The dogs would mean I'd need to get at least two and I couldn't guarantee that I was even going to get the one for me. But, damn, I wanted that team and sled!
   I pulled the stitches on the ninth day. I might have waited a couple of days too many because they damn sure made my eyes water when I yanked them out. Now it was time to decide what I was going to do and I knew there was no way I was going to give up without trying them out pulling the sled. There was a good three feet of snow on the ground when I decided to give it one more try. Another thing that I had thought of during my week off was what kind of snow was the best for a sled? You could get soft snow where you would sink to your knees if you tried to walk in it or you could get snow that froze after falling and leave a nice crust on top. If the snow froze during the night and then you got more snow the next day you would have a crust on top of the first layer which was sometimes hard enough to walk on. During the week I was off we had several snow falls so there was a crust pretty well between each. I didn't know if that was good or bad but I just didn't have the time or the knowledge to wait.
   I got up early that next morning and went out to feed them a good meal. I spent the next hour packing the sled. I was hoping this trip was going to go well so I packed enough to last at least three days. Back out to get the dogs harnessed. I went thru pretty well the same routine as the first time. I put Mike up front again. I at least knew that there were lead dogs that went to the front of the team but I had forgotten to ask the old timer which dog that was so why did I put Mike in front? He looked like a full blood husky to me so I figured he should be the lead dog. Did that make since? Maybe not to someone who knew what they were doing but it made since to me. I finally got them all harnessed with the ring over the stake, again. This time I moved the sled close enough to hook the traces to it. I hooked the grappling hook to the back of the sled. I swear the dogs knew this trip was going to be different because they were all jumping around, barking and lunging against their harness. I will admit that they probably knew more about what was going on than I did. I went back up to the porch and had another cup of coffee while I built up my nerve to try this one more time.
   I finally built my nerve up enough to go down, stand on the sled runners and slip the ring off the stake. Before I could say a word the dogs immediately started to pull. I started leaning to the right, like that would do any good and yelling "GEE". It surprised me to no end that they actually started to turn to the right! I was so surprised that I just stood there in wonder until I realized that now we were headed for the creek. I yelled "Haw" and sure enough they started turning to the right. Hell, maybe the old timer had been a mule skinner after all. One thing I was really happy about was that the sled had a brake. It was a simple brake but it wasn't all that simple to use. There was a bar attached to the back of the sled that had a couple of prongs, one at each end. It had metal pieces at each end that were drilled and attached to the sled with a couple of bolts with the bar being held up with a couple of buggy cords. All you had to do was step on the bar and it would dig the prongs into the snow and slow you down, not too hard to explain how it worked but it proved to be a lot harder to make it work. The sled runners had what looked like a couple of pieces of bicycle tires on the top for you to stand on and trying to lift your foot of them and step down on the brake bar without falling off was a lot easier said than done. I had to learn quickly though because by the time we had reached the edge of the yard those dogs were starting to pick up speed. The first time I tried to use the brake my other foot slipped off the runner and I found myself hanging on to the top bar for dear life and trying to run to keep up with the sled. Now I'm not a runner, never have been and never will be and trying to run behind a dog team while you're wearing heavy boots, enough cloths to keep warm and a big quilted parka is really hard! Plus while I was trying to keep up I was also trying to hop on one leg while trying to stomp on the brake bar with the other. I'm glad that they didn't have reality shows and that there was no one around with a camera because I'm pretty sure that rip across the clearing would have ended up on one of those Worlds Dumbest shows. The dogs took pity on me and slowed down as we reached the trail head. It for sure wasn't because of anything I did it was only because the trail was narrow for the first hundred feet or so and they weren't able to move as fast. At least I was able to catch up and get my feet back on the runners. I got a better hold on the top bar, settled my foot on the tire strip and tried using the brake before they could start going faster and this time I managed to push the prongs down to the snow. Of course, since I didn't know what I was doing I pushed it down too hard. We came to a complete stop a quicker than I would have thought and I'm sure its quick than the dogs would have liked because all four of them ended up walking on their back legs and Joe fell plumb over. Did you ever do anything to a dog that made them look at you like you were just about the dumbest thing they had ever seen? Well, I had four of them standing there all of whom were looking at me that way. I even tried apologizing to them. Mike just snorted through his nose and turned to look back down the trail so I was sure that worked.
   I had to go up and get them untangled after my unscheduled stop. The problem was with the brake. As soon as I took my foot off it, it popped back up which meant that if the dogs decided to take off while I was getting them sorted out there would be nothing to stop them. I actually stood there for a few minutes with my brain sparking trying to think of some way I could keep them from running off before I remembered the grappling hook. Duh, I was really batting a thousand that day. I took the hook and stomped one of the prongs into the snow and prayed that would hold them. Once I got them sorted out I put the hook back on the rail and off we went again. After a couple of mile I kind of had the brake problem figured out and I was getting better at just mashing it down enough to slow them without stopping them. To tell the truth I was starting to feel a little cocky. Now that I was getting the hang of it I didn't think this was going to be a problem and was giving myself hell for being worried about it. We were cruising along the trail (slowly), the dogs were pulling well and I really didn't think this driving a dog them was all that hard. I was already thinking about my next trip and how much I could load in the sled and how long of a trip I could make when we broke out of the woods and started across a large clearing and the dogs started picking up speed again. I was so busy daydreaming that it caught me by surprise and I almost fell of the runners again. I was trying to watch where we were going and step on the brake bar at the same time. The first time I step for the bar I missed and rammed my foot back in the snow almost pulling myself off. The team was heading off to the left toward where I knew there was a beaver pond and I yelled "Gee" to get them to straighten back out, but that was wrong and now they were really turning to the left. Now I was about half panicked and could not for the life of me remember the simple word to make them turn right. Thankfully the snow was a lot deeper and softer in the clearing and they were slowing back down as they tried to plow their way through it. That gave me a minute to catch my breath, calm down and remember what I was supposed to be doing. May this wasn't going to be as easy as I had thought.
   I quit daydreaming and starting paying a lot more attention. I kept the pace a lot slower the rest of the day. Late that afternoon I started looking for a camping spot. I figured we were about ten miles from the cabin. I wasn't going anywhere in particular so there was no rush and I could stop any place I wanted. I set up camp at the edge of a patch of woods and the first thing I did was stake the dogs out and feed them. I strung a rope between two tress and hooked there chains to it. I was a little worried about them not having any kind of shelter even though I knew they were outside dogs. I gathered as much fire wood as I could and built the fire close enough that I hoped they would be able to get at least a little of the heat. My bed that night was just some pine boughs on the snow and my sleeping bag. I had a small tent with me but did feel like messing with putting it up that night. My bag was good to about thirty below and I didn't think it was going to get near that cold. I lay awake for quite awhile that night going back over the entire trip and trying to think of anything I needed to do different.
   It got a bit colder that night than I had planned on even though I still slept warm and snug in my bag. It had snowed some more during the night and then frozen so there was a nice ice crust on the bag when I crawled out of it that morning. I worried more about the dogs when I looked over at the area where I had staked them. All I could see were fours mounds in the snow but as soon as I hollered at them all four dogs came popping up out of the snow seeming no worse for the wear. As cold as it was that morning and with the weather looking like it might blow up a storm I figured I'd better head back to the cabin instead of taking a chance on being caught out with the dogs. I had brought enough food to last them at least four days but I'd seen storms that could last most of a week and just didn't want to take the chance. I dug my pan out and melted enough snow to give them plenty of water and after a couple of cups of coffee for myself I got them all harnessed back up and ready to go. I was beginning to feel like an old pro again because this time I got them all hooked with very little problem, other than Pig trying to eat my hand. He never bit hard, it was just his idea of playing but it's really hard to get a dog in a harness when he's slobbering all over your hand.
   I finally got them rigged up and pointed the right way. I climbed on the runners, got a good hold on the cross bar, yelled Mush (I remembered the right word) and we headed off toward home. I think it was because of the crust on the snow that morning; I'm not sure but for whatever reason the dogs seemed to pick up speed a little quicker. Maybe it was just because they knew we were going home and were in a hurry to get there. After a mile or so I was getting a little full of myself thinking I had finally gotten the hang of this and I let them pick up more speed. I had been really careful the day before and had spent most of the day riding the brake. Now that I felt like I knew what I was doing I was enjoying the fell of speeding across the snow so I kept my foot away from the brake and yelled for them to go even faster. I know there are people that really do know what they're doing and are able to let dog teams run as fast as they can for as long as they can, even teams that were twice the size of mine, unfortunately I wasn't one of them. I don't know how fast we were going when all of a sudden the dogs jogged really hard to the left. Of course the sled made that same jog but I can't say the same for me. The sled leaned up on one runner and I was sure it was going to fall over. More importantly my foot slipped off the runner and my hands were slipping on the bar. The next thing I knew I had a face full of snow. I had lost my grip on the bar and ended up ten or fifteen feet to the side of the trail. I pushed myself on my hands and looked for the sled. The good news was that it hadn't turned over; the bad news was that it was three fourths of the way across the meadow and did show any signs of slowing down. I was yelling for the dogs to stop all the time I was getting back to my feet but by the time I was able to stand they were gone. I could hear them barking back in the trees and was hoping they would stop but the barking just kept fading away into the distance. Unless the sled got stuck in the brush or turned over or some other miracle happened I had no idea how far they would go.
   I was facing a serious problem. I was wearing some good cold weather gear but other than a belt knife and my pistol that's about all I had. I did have some smokes which meant I also had a lighter but no food, no shelter; even my show shoes had been stored in the sled. I figured I was about nine miles from the cabin which is a nice easy walk down home in the summer time but when there's about three feet of snow on the ground the temptiture is hanging out in the twenty's and it looks like there's another storm blowing in it seems a lot farther. At least the dogs had broken a pretty good trail so I wouldn't have to plow through virgin snow. There wasn't any reason to stand around thinking about it so I ducked my head and started walking.
   At least the dogs knew where they were going. I followed their trail all the way back to the cabin. I kept expecting to find the sled overturned and all of them standing in the trail around every bend but apparently they knew a lot more about traveling in the snow than I did. I finally came staggering to the cabin about midnight. I was soaked pretty well from head to toe and about frozen and there they were, lying out by their dog houses, with the sled standing behind them like they had parked it on purpose. No matter how cold I was or how hard it was to get my fingers working I had to unhook them from the sled and get them back on their chains. Then I had to feed them and build a fire so I could melt snow water. I took me about three times longer than normal because I was so tired and cold. I was at least smart enough to have melted extra water and left some of it to boil for coffee. That was a really rough night trying to get thawed out. I felt really bad the next day, my head was killing me, I felt like I was running a temptiture just generally aching all over but the dogs woke me with their barking just after sun rise. I did not want to get up. What I wanted more than anything in the world right then was to just spend the day in my bunk sleeping. I guess I could have done that as long as Ii didn't mind the sled sitting outside still loaded or the dogs going without food or water. Needless to say I drug my sorry butt out of bed and went out to do my chores.
   I spent the next couple of days recovering and thinking about my dog team. I hated to admit it but I really had no idea what I was doing and even though I had learned a lot of things through the trial and error method I Just wasn't sure about this one. Falling off the sled didn't turn out as bad as it could have but I was looking at winter coming on and could expect to be alone for the next three to four months. I was also planning on doing some trapping that winter which is why I wanted the dogs to start with. The main thing I was worried about was that a nine mile hike during the fall weather was bad enough, what would happen during that winter if I screwed up again? I could keep the dogs as just pets and try to practice more with the following summer. The bad thing with that idea was I knew myself a little too well and seeing that sled just setting in the yard all winter would drive me crazy and I had already made a couple of bad screw ups, I may not come out so well the next time.
   After a full week of going from "yes, I'm going to keep them" to "no, I really don't think I should" James showed up one morning. He had brought some supplies and decided to stay for lunch before heading on down the river. Over lunch I went through all the trials and tribulations I had been having with the dogs. He thought it was kind of funny and let me know that he hadn't been sure what I was doing all the way back to when I ask him to bring them to the cabin for me. He said he really didn't see any way I was going to learn how to handle a team and sled by the time winter set in but he didn't want to butt in. I guess he was telling the truth because he dropped a bombshell on me then. He knew some people in Circle that knew not only how to work a team but also knew this team and would be more than happy to buy them from me. The way he talked, I'd even be able to make a little profit from selling them. He had to finish his run down river but told me he would stop by the next day to see what I thought of the idea.
   I spent the rest of the afternoon playing with the dogs and trying to make up my mind. By the next day I had it figure out. When James came back by I sprung my plan on him. I would sell the sled, all the tack and three of the dogs: I would keep one of them with me as just a pet. I thought it was a great plan but James let me know that it was an all or nothing deal. I ended up talking him into spending the night while I thought it over. We ended up loading all the dogs and gear on his boat the next morning. Even with the short time I had them it was like saying goodbye to friends. I hated to let them go but I had to own up to the fact that since I didn't know what I was doing it would be a danger not only to me but to the dogs as well. Plus, I have no idea how I would have been able to pick just one of them to stay. So my great plan of being a dog musher in the great north came to an end as I watched Pig and Joe bouncing and barking around the back of James's boat as he headed back down the creek.