Friday, January 30, 2009

Bootstrap's First Race

January 24,2009

I wasn’t going to tell these stories anymore. They get us into trouble. When we have a story to tell it likely means we’ve already been in trouble and are trying to find our way out. If we ever do find an untroubled trail, we have come to the end of our road, and so I will tell you the story of Bootstrap’s first sled dog race. I’m sure in the end it comes under the category of “What WAS I thinking?!” and so that is where I will begin.

Bootstrap, despite his fantastic fuzzy appearance shows some promise as a young sled dog. I do have to get over my first impression in order to take him seriously as a working dog, just as someone might have to overlook a very beautiful woman trying to learn a profession requiring skill and intellect. To some, Bootstrap is beautiful and to some ridiculous. To me he is both. I often contemplate the fit and neat appearance of my properly coated dogs. I love the sleek athleticism of Aura, the rippling sable muscle of Atka. Bootstrap has form only in motion and then especially moving through snow. Not a foot goes down wrong. I can see the power of his rear legs through the mass of fur that buries them. Despite the hair, his gait is effortless even in deep snow. There is a dog underneath the coat.

Bootstrap at the head of the trail looked like a wrestler who was heading to the ring with a fluffy feather boa around his waist and neck. He could still execute his moves with the feathers, but something about it didn’t look quite right. There are many colors of winter and Bootstrap’s coat is the best of them. Standing with him alone, apart from all the coarser coated dogs, I see how he blends with the snow, the grays in his coat the color of the sky and the browns fading to the trunks of the pines around us.

To begin with we have a lot to overcome out there. And he is a Malamute too. That alone is a sin among most sled dog racers. It’s not without cause. Alaskan Malamutes have a reputation as trouble makers, and though I firmly believe that they do in fact have larceny in their hearts, I have worked hard in the years I have run my dogs to insure that mine do not further that reputation.That is in part why Bootstrap’s first race is a story I’d rather not tell. Bootstrap has a double whammy. Among sled dog racers, he’s a Malamute. That alone is bad enough and then among those few fans of the breed, he’s just a fuzz ball. We had something to prove out there.

Last weekend at the start of the MUSH sprint race, Bootstrap had been on my team. I put him in wheel position, next to his Aunt Lia by the sled. His motherAura and Grandfather Atka were running lead. If you have ever been summer camping you can imagine the staging area of a sled dog race. For summer camping everyone has more or less the same stuff: campers or tents, sleeping bags, cook stoves and often a contingent of eager and whiny children. Blanket the scene in snow and tie about a dozen dogs to every camper and truck. Dress your campers in knee length fur hooded parkas and Cabela’s moon boots and you can visualize the scene. For a sled dog race everyone has a vehicle that can contain dogs. These range from vans with crates to long bed commercial trucks. Pick ups have boxes on the back with compartments for the dogs. Prior to the race all the dogs are tied out at the sides of the trucks and the dog yard is a screaming cacophony of howls and all manner of barking and yipping that would make a convention of crazed coyotes proud. It’s hard to say what they want. They only know that this day is about them and they are eager to get at it.

Dogsleds are toppled and leaning everywhere next to the trucks. They are swathed in nylon ganglines of every color. Harnesses hang from the sleds and some handlers may already be busy “dressing” their dogs. Some dogs jump and twist like screaming toddlers being stuffed in a snowsuit, others lay their ears back and crouch submissively as their handler wraps them in harness. Everyone is getting ready for the race, tying on sled bags and making sure everything is there. Your sled bag must be big enough for your largest dog, but mine is always stuffed with everything I can think of that I might need out there that I did not forget. This includes extra gloves and socks, booties for the dogs, headlamps ,scarves, maps, peanut M&Ms, hand -warmers, leashes and the list goes on depending on where we are trying to go. I guess if I had an emergency where I had to put a dog in a bag, I’d have to dump the stuff.

Dog teams go out in classes according to the number of dogs on the team. The Three- dog class is first. We are in the Five-dog class.There is a Seven-dog class that goes out after us and there are classes for ski-jorers and children as well. There are twenty-eight teams in the five- dog class, and a few more or less in the three and seven-dog classes as well. I’m not good at math, but that’s around five-hundred dogs all getting ready to hit the same trail. We draw number 21. The teams go out one minute apart. Twenty teams will go out ahead of us and seven behind. I draw my yellow racing bib with a black “21” on the front and back and go to ready my sled and my dogs.

The three old timers are calm by the truck. They will save their excitement for the starting chute. Bootstrap alone is standing, spinning, pawing the snow and whining with excitement. He has not been to a race before, but I had taken him to at least three or four training sessions this past fall. At the training sessions we practiced passing and running with other teams, all dogs attached to heavy metal rigs and ATVs. Bootstrap, though enthusiastic and with a penchant for too much sniffing around, was unremarkable at those training sessions.Though I would never take a dog to a race without the training sessions, I felt I had done my civic duty with Bootstrap, attended and trained. I hadn’t done more with previous dogs. Although the frenzied energy of the race site was infecting me with more than my already high anxiety levels running the dogs, I believed we were ready. It didn’t occur to me what I thought afterwards, that those training sessions had been in October and November now three months past, and Bootstrap had been just six months old then. Now he was a day or two shy of ten months, a teenager.

When I tell people that Bootstrap has a “loose wire” anyway, they say, “Puppy. He’s just a puppy.” But I’ve had a bunch of puppies, and none of the others have done the sorts of things he has. I call it the “Doodle brain” gene and I attribute it to the side of the family I have not bred into before this. Just last week we were out on the sled early morning in the State Park. It was around 0 degrees and still dark. The trails were hard packed from the snowmobiles that use them. When I run my dogs alone in the early mornings like that I try experiments and don’t use necklines. I want to see clearly what every dog is doing and necklines can muddy that picture. This morning I had Atka and Bootstrap in lead, the girls in wheel.Those boys are wild together and were really driving the team. We went out onto the open road that winds through the center of the park. It is wide and very fast trail. The dogs were tearing along the road. My GPS had us going around 15 mph. Alaskan Malamutes are not fast dogs over distance, but they can run a short sprint with the best of them.

As we were running, loping all out, fast down the road, Bootstrap mid -stride takes an immediate, out of the blue, didn’t see it coming at all flying leap into the air. As he leaves the ground, four off the floor, paws meeting beneath him, he spins full circle, high enough and with enough of his own momentum, though that of the sled has come to a screeching halt, to land on top of his poor mother behind. I have run quite a few nine month old puppies. Not one has done anything like that before.When I told this story to a friend of mine who runs Malamutes, including Bootstrap’s brother, all he said was, “That’s why you neckline puppies.” I’m not so sure.

The day of Bootstrap’s first race was perfect running weather for sled dogs, temps in the single-digits with the faintly falling snow that almost never stops mid-winter in this part of Michigan. But far from the usual watchful anticipation I take out on the trail when we just go for a ride, my own anxiety about the race was mounting. Some mushers work hard to train their dogs. I try to be among them. They train them to pass and ignore other teams on the trail.They train them to “gee over” or head to the right side of the trail when another team passes.They train them to go left and right and in general ignore distractions. It’s not a lot different than any other kind of dog training. You always have to train individual dogs. The difference is, when you put them all together. The whole is clearly more than the sum of its parts. You are running a pack.

In a big amateur race like the one we were about to run, it is certain that out of 28 teams a few haven’t put the miles or training on their dogs, and a few will not know what they are doing out there. My three old timers had “been there done that”. We have run many races, and many miles together.We have passed and been passed by hundreds of teams, from the back and head on. We have even been tangled with a few, no problems. An experienced musher with a seven dog team once inexplicably plowed from the rear full on into my small, three dog team. The lines became hopelessly tangled and I did not even hear a growl while it was sorted out. Their attitude was that they were all a bunch of working stiffs in a tight spot. They all chilled while we untangled them. Another time a young girl ran her three dog Junior team head on into mine. That was more difficult as she had one testy dog, and she was terrified and clueless as to what to do. She was probably about eleven years old. There are two big things different since we last ran one of these big MUSH races. We have had some bad experiences out there and I have a new wild child on my team.

It has been almost two years now since a loose pack of dogs charged at my dog team. As life experience works its change on all of us, they have never been quite the same since. It affected most my youngest dog, Aura, who until that day had been my most benign team member, always stable and openly optimistic about her encounters with other dogs. She now has a forever more wary eye. I am different too, more anxious out there. The other Mushers constantly reprimand me for it. The smart ones know what they are running. They know what the stakes are and train their dogs, but we all know they are dogs and not robots. And there are a bunch of Mushers out there lower down on the learning curve. Anything can happen out there.

Bootstrap alone is free of this experience the others have had, but at ten months with all his hormones running full tilt and his squirrely screw loose, jump out at the wind personality, I was not relaxed to run. I had my team lined out in full hind-brained, howling, barking and jumping glory. A really nice old guy in a fur hat with a tail that flopped around his shoulders held my team to the start line. We were in the chute, dogs crazed and ready to run and I had forgot my snow hook Forgetting your snow hook, getting ready to go out in a race like that is like forgetting to put the car into park when you stop you car. It is a sure recipe for disaster. A dog sled has a few braking and back up braking systems. A good snow hook that will hook the team down in deep snow is in the top three things you need to have out there after dogs and sled.

My nerves strung out tighter as I realized what a completely stupid and ditzy thing I’d done. I raced back to my truck to grab my snow hook, the poor guy in the fur tailed hat, holding my team. Everything was agitated, sped up now, as I leaped too slow and clumsy, back to the sled, profusely apologizing for my foolishness, attaching the snow hook to the ganglines and jumping on the sled. It was our turn to leave the chute.

The chute is lined with orange snow fencing and dozens of race officials and observers. “Five, four, three, two one………” We’re off like a they’ve never run this trail before and they’re sure doggy nirvana is to be found at its end. They blast out of the chute. Atka and Aura are fast and Bootstrap is driving like crazy from the rear. We lope around the turn at the end of the straight away road out of the chute before we slow down. They always run faster when there are other teams out there, but they are Malamutes, and after a while they slow down to a steady trot.

The team behind us is a Malamute team too, the only other one in the five- dog class. Their handler is more experienced than I am, and runs a bigger team for longer distances a lot of the time. He runs this race because he is very active in the club and lives near the race site. I know his team is going to pass mine, if for no other reason than his Mals are led by two Alaskan Huskies. They will keep things going, when the Mals are out to make sure they have the energy for whatever is ahead. I keep watch for him over my left shoulder and try to drive my team to a place where the trail is wide enough for a comfortable pass.

We manage. We pull over. I watch the puppy and Lia, my two team member most likely to cause trouble. Lia is occasionally not above low growl and head flick in the direction of a passing team. I watch her. The puppy is a puppy. Atka and Aura know their job. Everyone’s good and when the other Mal team passes we get back on the trail. I don’t remember for sure, but I think we were passed by a couple of other teams like that before we got to the head on passing portion of the trail. Head on passing is exactly what it sounds like. It means a team comes head on at you going in the opposite direction. The dogs have a job to do and are supposed to pass like cars on a two lane highway, no emotional or other interest that one has in the other. The head on passing section of the five and seven -dog trails is short. A maybe one-quarter mile section of trail that leads out to the loop at the far end, before coming back to trail that leads directly to the finish line.

As we move into this section of the trail, another team we don’t recognize is coming right at us. I don’t want to get off my sled. Atka and Aura do know their job. “Gee over,” I say. Atka and Aura move to the right side of the trail. The team coming at us has a single leader, an off-white Alaskan , roached back and houndy looking with scattered brown spots. The leader of the other team doesn’t move to his side of the trail. He lists towards my team. By now, Atka and Aura are already by him, their heads parallel to the wheel members of the oncoming team. Bootstrap is not. The leader of the other team is not moving straight forward but leaning over towards my team, which means directly towards Bootstrap who is bringing up our rear.

As with all bad scenes that happen fast, it’s hard to say exactly what took place. I didn’t see it coming. Bootstrap shot out towards the other leader like an arrow, fuzz streaming like dusty gray flames with the speed of his lunge. The tough old leader of the other team did not back down from a teenage upstart and the two went at it. I saw only Bootstrap and the other leader locked in an upright position teeth flashing. As I tried to yank the sled further sideways to pull Bootstrap out of it, I could see that behind the leader of the other team, the team dogs were fighting with one another! They weren’t trying to get into it with my guys, they were out for each other’s blood.

Apologizing and cursing profusely, shouting, “I’ll get him. It’s a stupid puppy!”, I tried to pull Bootstrap out of it. Atka, Aura and Lia did not wait for me to figure it all out. For them, there was only a pack member in need of back-up. I was not getting to it fast enough for them. They jumped head on into the brawl. There was lots of lunging, snarling and flashing teeth, but inexplicably it was all over before it had really begun. My team, at least was out of the mess. The other team’s dogs were still quarreling with one another. The bottom line: No blood was shed. Still, now I was furious, and exhibiting all the wrong traits of a “good leader.” I lost my temper, threw Bootstrap into a submissive down and cuffed him with my heavily mittened hands. The dogs didn’t seem to care one way or another about what had happened. No one on either team was hurt. They were ready to go. We had completed less than half of the five mile race, still had head on passing ahead of us going out and coming back and I had a clearly wild-card of a teenage idiot on my team.

Apologizing profusely to the young woman driver of the other team, she admitted to having her own problems. “It’s my first race” she said. “The leader is not my dog and I have one dog that keeps fighting every time there’s a tangle. I have to put a muzzle on her.” I apologized again, finally determining that it was just an ugly brawl of toothy posturing, and we went on our way. I was furious with the Fuzz Ball. Yes, the other team had its own problems, but he had not given a hair breadth’s of a thought to turning away from trouble when he saw it leaning slightly in his direction. Now in the foggy mass that constituted the fuzz between his ears he’s surely convinced there’s reason to be interested in other teams. We had our work cut out for us, and no way to do that work before meeting the other teams out there.

At seven or so degrees, out on an even easy trail with twenty odd dog teams, paralysis was not an option. We had to go forward, finish the rest of the head on passing portion of the trail, do the loop and head back into the gauntlet before we had still a good three miles back to the finish line. I was not a happy musher, and there is no question that the dogs, high flying with the adrenalin of the race, knew it. They always know, and again the clarity of hindsight recalls my ridiculous emotional state even at the start of the race. A good leader is not an emotional idiot. Dogs and especially Alaskan Malamutes long to take things into their own hands when a fool is at their helm. My own loose wiring may not have caused Bootstrap’s to come undone, but it didn’t do anything to prevent it either.

“Hike”, I said, a clearly irritated edge in my voice. Atka and Aura lurched forward. Bootstrap and Lia pulled into line behind them and we headed towards the back loop of the race. Most of the teams behind us had already passed. Those remaining did so easily on the back loop; leaving us alone for at least a mile a before we got back to the now daunting prospect of more head-on passing. I could feel my feet through my old leather mukluks on the hard runners of the sled. I could contemplate a strategy for getting us back. But as we pulled over the narrow plank bridge traversing a frozen creek we could see that the team we had tangled with still where we had left them, turned around now, but unable to go anywhere. I could see the number “18” on the musher’s yellow bib. I don’t know exactly what the problem was, but that the leader would not go forward, her lines would tangle, her dogs would fight and she would have to try to get them all sorted out again. I imagined she had been having some trouble before we ran into her, and now, afterwards. Like me, she was fractured and anxious. I’m sure her dogs knew it too.

There were a couple of possibilities. I could pass her. I could wait for her to get it all sorted out. I could try and stake my team somewhere in the woods and go and help her. I did not want to pass her. Our teams had already locked tooth and nail and besides she was running Alaskans. If she ever did get them going they would pass us in a heartbeat, which they had once demonstrated they did not do well. I decided to wait a few more minutes to see if she could get them going on her own. I snow hooked down and waited. Just as a third team of dark Huskies was starting into this whole mess, heading out on the trail, a roaring yellow snow machine, straddled by two brightly clad, frost bearded Angels arrived: trail help.

They sidled their machine up beside my sled. “Need help?” they asked. “Maybe,” I said, “But she really needs help”, pointing to the poor woman and her tangled snarling team ahead of mine. “Help her first. She’s been here since I went out. She needs help to get going. We’re stuck as long as she is. Our teams had problems together.” They roared ahead to her as the team of dark Huskies started to move into the chute. Their driver could see that all was not well where his team was headed and stopped with a good “gee over” into his side of the trail. We all waited.

We had two teams ahead of us now, the one we’d already had a problem with and a new one we needed to pass head on. Team 18, the driver whose team we’d fought with, got on their way. The trail help got them going. As they took off, they leaned towards the team of incoming huskies, just as they had toward me in almost the same spot going out. The huskies behaved themselves and team 18, picking up forward momentum began loping down the trail and out of sight.

With relief, I saw too that the dark husky team wasn’t going anywhere and one of the guys on the snow machine was coming towards me. “I need help to pass the other team,” I said. “My puppy was really bad. I need help to get him by.” I don’t know who it was that came to help me, but I’m sure he was wearing too much stuff on his ears and head. He grabbed my leaders and began walking us forward toward the other team. He was not that far ahead of me. A four dog gangline is maybe ten ft. long. I was on back of the sled in back of the gangline. The guy had grabbed the neckline connecting Atka to Aura and we were moving forward. We were approaching the other team. I am shouting to my trail help, “It’s not the leaders. Don’t grab the leaders. Grab the FUZZY ONE in wheel! GRAB THE FUZZY ONE IN WHEEL!” I didn’t know how to make myself louder or clearer. He didn’t hear me. Atka and Aura, neckline in tow went on-by the dark faced Huskies. They would have gone on by without the snow suited trail help holding their necklines. I saw it coming this time. Just as Atka and Aura were head level with the other teams wheel dogs, Bootstrap made his move.

They say when something happens once, assuming you survive the event, it is just something that happened. It’s not a problem until it happens again. If it happens twice, you have a problem. The kid doesn’t have his homework once, maybe he forgot. Maybe the dog did eat it. He doesn’t do it twice, you have a problem. Bootstrap dive bombs the leader of another team once, well, that leader was leaning into us anyway and that team sure did have its own problems. He does it twice on a team clearly minding it’s owns business and I have an official stinker, a testosterone driven teenage Fuzz Ball on my team.

He did it again all right, same M.O. He shot out behind the leg of the man holding my leaders. His complete stupidity so surprised the other team, they did nothing and myself and the trail helper managed to move us along so he could do no more damage. The first time shattered my confidence in our race. The second further shattered my ability to have confidence in my team with Bootstrap aboard. That is a problem. I need that high driving, flying fuzz ball of a pulling machine on my aging team.

With additional apologies and thanks to the trail help, we are free now to try and finish the race. We are off on our own. Team 18 did not get far before tangling again, and so we eventually caught up with them. At one point I dragged my team through 4 ft of snow off the trail, to tie them off so I could go up and help her. She did get going again and we finally tailed her right over the finish line.

I arrived fuming. What to do with Bootstrap? String him up by his ears and leave him at the rest stop on US 10? Just leave him at the rest stop on US 10? Put him on Craig’s List for the lowest bidder. Returning him to his breeder was not an option. EBay? Let PETA come and rescue him from the hands of a self confessed wanna be Urban Musher? There is nothing left to do, but train the dog. The challenge is to reconcile the floppy fuzzy bear skin rug that lies prone in your lap with the dive bombing nosy hot head of a teenage troublemaker.

We were at another sled dog race the week following our first fiasco, a mid-distance race, much longer than Bootstrap’s first race. I did not run Bootstrap because of what happened the previous weekend. Now I am really wondering why? Coming in from the trail I saw Carol. “How was your race?” I asked her as she took booties off the dog tied out on the back of her truck. That’s pretty much standard issue polite conversation after a race. “One of our dogs got bit,” She said. I was startled. I had not expected that answer. Ann came over while I was listening to Carol explain her dog’s injuries, how the dog from Bob’s larger team had grabbed her dog by the leg and dragged it. “I think it’s going to need stitches” Carol said. “He came out of nowhere. Bob said he was sorry. He does have a couple of alligators on his team.” Ann said, matter-of-factly. “It’s a good thing my guy was terrified,” Carol said. “He didn’t fight back.” I had left the fuzz ball in the truck all day because after last weekend I feared he would interfere with another team. We did not want to make trouble out there. We try hard not too. Who WAS this “Bob” that seemed to have carte blanche to run his “alligators.” I remind myself that dog sledding is different from some of the other stuff I do with my dogs.

Bootstrap. We were worried his long soft coat would snowball on the trail, that balls of ice would collect between the pads of his feet and he would have to be bootied and coated to withstand the Michigan winter. We worried that his coat care would be too much work to make whatever his contribution worthwhile. I never removed one snowball from his foot on that five mile race. The trail wasn’t a particularly hard and fast one either. It was snowing and in the single-digit temperatures, so there was a soft layer of just the kind of snow to create those icy balls in the feet that stop a team. I had to remove two from his properly coated Aunt Lia

We were worried that his lack of a sufficient undercoat would leave him unable to withstand cold temperatures. He slept outside when it was minus fifteen a couple of weeks ago with his Great- grandma Sis who loves the cold more than any of my other dogs. I did not make either of them stay out there. They like it. We have had a winter so far this year, better for the sleddogs than any I can recall. Though I still dread finding myself in a driving rainstorm with Bootstrap and am clueless as to whether or not he could survive days and days out there in snow and cold, he is an easy fit, long coat and all for the work of this Urban Musher.

Bootstrap doesn’t need booties. I do. I wear my old black leather mukluks. Bootstrap’s first race is their last. Somewhere on that short but wild trail they tore a hole in the side where the worn leather meets the soft rubber heel. Those boots have seen a lot of winter trails. I liked them, snow moccasins softly molding to my feet with their fancy fringe on top. They are not the cross between hiking shoes and moon boots I see many of the more serious mushers wear. I consider those for my next pair. Finances are tight, but I will order another pair of mukluks. They are perfect for running my small team, where I often need to run behind the sled on big hills or to break trail. For next week’s race I will need new boots.

I bred Bootstrap because I wanted a new dog for my sled team. My once in a lifetime leader, Atka, is wearing old. His lithe daughter, Aura, lacks the confidence to lead even my small team. I need another sled dog and I need another leader. I have Bootstrap, a seventy-pound striking mongoose who treats other dog teams as snakes, has a Squirrelly screw loose gene and, off the trail, leans gentle and soft, his big head into the palm of my hand. Our work is cut out for us. Bootstrap doesn’t need booties. He doesn’t need a coat. He needs training. People tell me that is what I do best. We have our work cut out for us, and that is the rest of the tale. The end of our story today is only the beginning. I will put on my new boots and train him, the next generation of my small team. I don’t know exactly how. I have some ideas. That will be the rest of our story