In previous posts I’ve told you about the Olesen family who hosted and guided us on our week of traveling by dog sled to the Barrenlands, and something about winter camping and the landscape we traveled through. In this post I want to tell you more about the dogs that made it all possible.
In my fairly short time observing the life and work of the average Alaskan husky sled dog, (a breed that arose from assorted northern dogs, dogs selected for their toughness, endurance and appetite for long distance running), its clear they are in a class by themselves when it comes to endurance abilities. Like human endurance athletes, they are lean and spare, bundles of muscle and sinew, and they look puny and undersized for their task. With surprisingly thin coats too – our golden retrievers, mostly indoor dogs, have 3 times the coat, (and 10 times the fat!). But what is really astonishing about them is how they absolutely live to run. The moment they get hooked to the sled, they are barking and howling and tugging to be underway. Several hours later, when we might stop, even briefly, they immediately resume again – barking and howling and tugging to be underway again. I’ve never known a creature to be so called to do something as a husky is to run. They are the essence of heart and soul of running, distilled into dog. Even the geriatric old timers at the Hoarfrost, who are free to roam at will, take themselves off around the looped trail for daily runs.
Here is a short video that can only begin to show you a bit of the mayhem of what its like when the dogs are hooked up and ready to go. ( I had to cut it short as it was time to leave!)
It was always a challenge getting started. If we were stopped on the trail, and didn’t pay full attention, or were just not firm enough, the dogs would head off at their own discretion. Each of the 4 of us had a time when our dogs left us in the dust, so to speak, and we were running down the trail fruitlessly trying to catch up. In my case as soon as I tried to pick up the snow hook, or turn the sled up from its side, they would be off. Eventually I mastered the task of lifting up the sled and jumping on the one runner that was on the ground, but that took a while. I love this photo of Martin setting out, as I think it captures something of the energy of it all.
Once underway, the dogs were quiet. They would pull for all they were worth, constantly. As well, they had to be nimble when navigating the trails in the forest, occasionally jumping over the main gang line, or untangling a leg from it. Once, when extricating a heavy sled that had fallen down hill into deep snow, one of the dogs was temporarily dragged, and she just immediately slipped out of her collar. Like I said, incredibly athletic, and smart.
When we stopped for lunch, and unhooked them from the tug line, they knew it was time to rest and they would lay down and have a nap. But the minute it was time to go they were agitating to be off! When we arrived at camp and they were staked out, they immediately curled up into the snow and went off to sleep. Imagine going for a 4 or 5 hour run, pulling your body weight the whole way, through soft snow, hard snow, open water (overflow) and ice, then curling up into the snow for the entire night, sleeping out in the open at – 40. And for fuel, two meals, with water mixed in, each day. It didn’t look like much fuel, or much food, but it was all they needed. They seemed to thrive on the whole experience, in fact Dave mentioned that on a previous trip earlier in the winter, when it was down to – 50 (!) the dogs had even put on weight on that trip. As I say, perfectly adapted to their role.
The Olesen dogs are very socialized, and very friendly. Some are shy, some are bold, some are in between. Some are smart and want to lead, and some want to follow. I loved getting to know them as individuals. The trick of course, is figuring out what each dog needs and wants. I fell in love with little Loki. At under 30 pounds, she didn’t know that she was small. She just loved to pull. She also loved to cuddle, and tell me stories. I could have brought her home in a second, but of course, her heart is at the Hoarfrost, where she can run and run.
In the dog yard, each dog has its own house, and so gets to know its neighbours well. I loved to see how they were often close to each other, enjoying each others company.
Here I am on the last run of the trip, coming back to the homestead. (Notice I am with my dog team – on the first day they arrived home without me, although I came huffing along a few minutes later!). Since we’ve been back home, I keep remembering this amazing experience, and wish I could go out again. Every day I imagine driving a team out onto the open lake for an hour or two of exploration and communion with the land. They’ve got under my skin, those Alaskan sled dogs. I can’t stop thinking of them. Who do we meet in our lives that are such pure distilled essence of being, so focused, so good at being who they are?
They have many lessons to teach us.