Tuesday, March 3, 2009

"On By": The Story of Bootstrap's Second Race

“If he does it again,” Al told me, “put a bullet between his eyes.” He wasn’t kidding. I had come to ask Al’s help in training Bootstrap. Al has been running sled dogs for as long as I’ve been alive, I’m pretty sure. A tall and substantial man, who wore his age well, he was throwing some Siberian Huskies in his dog truck as he was talking to me. “First,” he said, when he does something like that again, you string him up off the ground. Then throw him down hard and make sure he’s got the point.” “I’ve already tried that.” I said. This wasn’t entirely true. I had thrown Bootstrap down, but I’d never “strung him up” first. Maybe it was an important step. Somehow this detail did not seem important in my discussion with Al. “Well, if he does it again, give him a pill.” I have worked with Al as part of the sled dog club for years, but had never specifically asked for his help before. It’s a wonder that I persisted. “If I come up in a couple of weeks when folks are running dogs, will you help me with him?” “Sure,” he said. “I’ll take out a few of my girls. If he looks at em, I’ll hit him with a plastic baseball bat.” Al looked at me, gauging my reaction to his discussion of using a plastic bat on my dog. This sounded like a reasonable plan to me, far better than the “pill” or “bullet” idea, though it is clear there are reasons I am not a card carrying PETA member. I could tell he was sizing me up again: I’m a city girl with a Malamute, a nearly hopeless combination in the eyes of this old timer. I just said, “Ok. I’ll try to make it up next week after the race.”

The weekend after our first race, we traveled to Baldwin Michigan and the Manistee National forest for another go at it. Though I have not run enough trails to truly know, I believe and have heard told that these hilly trails through old and virgin pine forest on the mid-Western shore of Michigan are some of the best anywhere. They may not last the longest into the spring or begin when the leaves are just fallen, but they receive almost daily from December through March a faint sprinkling of light snow off Lake Michigan that makes them deep enough to throw a snow hook, soft enough for safety and hard enough for fun. We love them.

They are good enough trails to attract real talent too. Mushers with bigger teams of ten or more dogs that aspire to the longer races on the UP and elsewhere come to this event, called the Sweetwater Challenge. For these bigger, faster teams, the steep hills and narrow trails do provide a challenge. My team lopes on the average of 6 miles per hour under the best conditions. I am also lucky enough to have found, in the want ads from the Ann Arbor News last year, a BMW of a sled that can take those corners like I know my old economy model sprint sled could not. We have fun out there.

Though we are never truly fast, the day dawns with conditions that will allow us whatever speed we can muster. Temperatures are pre-teen. The deep snow has been groomed and new snow has lightly fallen over the track like icing on a cake. It is perfect. I am not entirely happy though. Memories of Bootstrap’s first race haunt me and I do not want to take him out with all these good teams. Without Bootstrap my team is getting old, reliable more or less, but Bootstrap is a quick flame of the devil’s energy and we are missing something without him. We are a family too, a “pack”. I don’t like leaving anyone behind if I don’t have to. We will miss Bootstrap.

Unhappy about leaving Bootstrap behind I am in the little house talking to some of the other mushers. I can tell that at least a couple of them don’t approve of my decision to leave him. “He’s never going to learn if you don’t take him.” Jim said. “I’ll wait and see how many teams I run into head-on out there today.” I said. If I can manage it maybe I’ll take him tomorrow. I said that, but I didn’t believe it. Bob was silent. I could tell he sided with Jim.

At the “driver’s meeting”, required for all participants before a race, they tell you about the trail. They describe the places where a steep hill will surprise you around a sharp curve, road crossings, porcupine sightings and the like. Everyone with any sense listens carefully. The trail described went East from where I parked my truck to a loop heading south on Rick and Linda’s property and then further East into the Manistee Nat’l forest. It was a five mile loop through steep winding hills, open meadow and some virgin pine that ended up back on Rick and Linda’s for about a quarter mile before heading north through Coyote Pass and onto the west trails. I knew that loop and loved to run it. But before getting to the North trail that led to Coyote pass there was at least a couple of hundred yards of head-on passing. Bootstrap was definitely going to stay in the truck.

There were 18 teams going out and we were number 18. Unlike most sled dog racing events, the teams don’t go out by random draw. Linda tries to figure out who is fastest. They go first. She tries to figure out who is next to the fastest. They go second. It was no accident, that with four Alaskan Malamutes, I was last. There were two other Mal teams out there, but both were bigger, and one had a couple of Alaskans in lead. On the first day, our going out last meant that we ran into at least a half dozen teams coming back on that small bit of head on trail before Coyote Pass. There was, alas, a “new” team as well, a large team of Siberian huskies who did not believe their driver that they should make a “Gee” turn off the trail coming from the East loop onto the one leading to the West Trails. They were intent on going back the way they had come, which was directly at my team going out. This problem was solved by my putting my snow hook in securely, as well as tying off to a tree, getting off my sled and approaching the other driver.

I held his leaders. It wasn’t easy. “Put in your snow hook.” I told him. He seemed relieved to have someone else tell him what to do. “Get off your sled, and come grab your leaders.” He looked at me uncertain. Another team had come up behind him. We were beginning to have a traffic jam. “These aren’t my dogs,” he said. Where had I heard that one before? At least this time my own team was safely hooked down out of the way, and at this juncture, anyway not involved with this other teams problems. They weren’t my dogs either. I tried to pull them onto the correct path. They were determined to go back where they’d come from. They’d spent a good five minutes or what seemed like longer barking and jumping and straining in their harnesses to go that way, inching forward too, and making progress. They certainly didn’t believe that either I or their driver was worthy of taking direction from that they should do otherwise. The man driving the sled was a big, burly man. “Get off your sled.” I repeated. I wasn’t going to be able to move his dogs on my own. Another team came up behind the first one already lined up nicely behind him. He got off his well hooked down sled. Together we were able to line his team out on the correct trail to our right. It didn’t take too much longer for him to get on his way. As his team took off, I could see there were now three teams lined up coming off the East Loop. I let them go by before unhooking my guys. More head on passing was ahead. Boy was I glad Bootstrap was in the truck.

Poor Bootstrap. He is young and eager. As we pulled away from the truck I could hear his paws scrabbling frantically against the side window of the enclosure I have for the dogs in the crew-cab compartment of my truck. My furry crew has their own special accommodations there. He whines like a coyote, with low pitched woos and gravely howls. I barely look at him as we pull away. It turned out to be the right decision. We met at least six teams going out, and though we only saw one other team on the rest of our 13 mile run, we knew what we were about. It was a tamer ride, slower, safer. I did miss Bootstrap

Later, gathered warm in the lodge, the mushers talked about their runs. Bootstrap’s brother had been left behind too by his musher, not because he was worried about his behavior, but because he was training his experienced team for a longer race. Bootstrap’s brother’s name is Indy, and he was a favorite of mine too in the litter, the true wild child in the bunch. Indy, even as a very young pup marched to his own drummer. One day, for some reason involving separating the four week old puppies from the older dogs, I put all the puppies into a big crate. The crate was sitting in the main room of my house between the living room and the kitchen. This did nothing to console the puppies. They screamed. They howled and threw themselves against the sides of the crate. Yes, they needed to be officially crate trained but this wasn’t the moment to do it. They weren’t in there long before I opened the front door of the crate to let them all out. All of them poured topsy turvy, tumbling over each other to get out. All of them, but Indy. While the other pups were charging out the front, Indy was still facing the back of the crate, paws gripping the bars and screaming to get out. He was so absorbed in his frantic protest that he missed the mass exodus in the opposite direction. Indy is his own man, and a very head strong one at that. Although I strongly suspect he too has the “squirrely screw loose” gene, his business and intensity reminded me most of my good lead dog, Atka as a pup.

Indy’s other owner, Blaine’s wife walked in with a report on Indy’s behavior while left behind. “He tore up all the blankets in his crate.” she said. "He’s inconsolable". I smiled inwardly. “He destroyed his dog bed too.” “Bootstrap settled down,” I replied. What did I know? On arriving home from the race and opening the back door of my truck to take the dogs into their yard the inside handle of the door of my truck tumbled out onto the icy driveway, its weld to the inner workings of the door completely busted. The back seat of my truck could now officially be used as a police car or kidnapping vehicle. I don’t think I’m going to get it fixed soon though. There’s still a month of winter left and I might have to leave Bootstrap behind again.

Bootstrap got his second chance on day number two of the Sweetwater Challenge. While I took each of the other dogs off the tie-out to hook them to the gang-line of the sled, Bootstrap was desperate to go. He leaped and twirled in true “squirrely screw loose” style, at least this time tied to a tree instead of my sled. He has a low pitched “roo rooing” guttural howl that he interlaces with whines so that he sounds like an engine that’s not going anywhere. He will go. I hook him up in wheel next to Lia. Lia, a “steady as she goes” sort of girl is an awkward partner for a head-strong teenager. It’s like the class clown and second string football player running with me, an up side of middle aged woman. I just have four dogs, so that’s the best I can do for either of them.

We were going out last again. The team that caused the traffic jam the day before was not going out. There were a couple of other scratches too. Most of the teams left out there were experienced mushers with teams they knew well. I wasn’t at all sure that taking Bootstrap was a good idea, but having him in wheel going out made my V6 engine a new and raring to go V8. We were out of the shoot and up the hill, my fuzzy energizer bunny in wheel loping all the way, driving my old guys from the rear. I held my breath as we came into the head- on passing section. As we approached I saw another team coming toward us. We pulled over. It was just RJ. RJ grew up on a sled. He waved and made an easy “gee” onto the trail leading west.

I was too chicken to even try a close side by side pass. It wouldn’t have been fair to anyone really, unless I had help out there, which I did not. I had done two things in the week preceding our second race. Neither was “enough”. I had taught Bootstrap to “sit” while out on the gang line of the sled. I don’t think this is anything that ‘real’ mushers do. It is one of my faint-hearted solutions to a striking snake of a dog. Though not impossible, it’s harder to start trouble sitting down. The ideal thing, of course, is to teach him to keep moving and to mind his own business. For that I will need help, hopefully from a couple of other folks before I meet Al and his baseball bat.

This time of year, the down side of mid-winter most of the competent teams are busy with their own agendas. They have miles to train and races to run. They have little interest in setting up their well trained teams for “fuzz ball bait.” It might help if I didn’t put it just that way when asking their assistance, but maybe not. My good friend Pattie did volunteer to give us some time. She’s really the only other musher I know within an hour’s drive of myself. She agreed to meet me after she had run her team in the State park. We planned to “set-up” Bootstrap.

Patti hooked up three of her seven dog team. I hooked up Bootstrap. We were in the Spring Mill Pond parking lot, next to the quarry that is nestled in Island Lake State Park. It’s the best local place to run our dogs.

It was a sunny, windy, January afternoon. The parking lot of Spring Mill Pond opens on one side to a pond, the size of a small lake and on the other to the old sand and gravel quarry that borders the State Park. It’s wide open and the wind rips through there, biting the warmth completely out of the late afternoon January sun. We’re creatures of the early morning and the dark. It feels odd to be out here in the middle of the day with everyone else. Some snowmobilers pull through the parking lot in their truck and trailer. A small beat up sedan rolls by. Out of habit I watch it carefully as it rolls past trying to determine its business here. Is the driver a hunter or does he want to run his dogs loose? I inspect him as best I can, but lose interest quickly as Patti’s team approaches from the other side.

She pulls them skillfully up to the side of her dark red, multi-stickered Toyota pick-up. She barely glances at me while she attends to her dogs. I know she doesn’t have a lot of time. I want to do some training with Bootstrap. “Hey Patti,” I said. “Hey! How do you want to do this?” I asked. “I’m thinking of hooking up just Bootstrap and Aura and meeting you head on, just out of the lot.” “Why don’t you take just Bootstrap to start,” she replied, “I’ll take just three, the two girls and one of the boys.” Patti has seven working dogs now, but only two are girls. “Ok,” I said. “You take your guys just out past the start of the trail head. I’ll start out down here, and we’ll meet you coming back in.” Patti watered and put up half of her team. I went back to my truck to hook up Bootstrap. There was no mention of pills, bullets, or baseball bats.

We were ready, harnessed, and lined out. Patti took her team, jumped on her sled and headed out the trail on the East end of the parking lot, toward the quarry and mile marker 2 on the Blue Trail. I waited and watched until she disappeared over a small hill just a hundred yards or so from the turn-around. We headed out. Bootstrap’s merit as a sled dog, his worthiness of this effort to teach him some manners was evident as we headed out to the trail. When you work a team, even a small one, it’s hard to tell exactly how hard each dog is working. When I first started with sled dogs, I used cross country skis to train. I trained my first couple of dogs this way and knew immediately what they were made of. They pulled and ran or they didn’t. When you hook a young dog in with some older ones, you don’t leave them a lot of choices.

Bootstrap alone at the end of the gang line, with me on the sled behind him, had choices. He could pull forward and keep running; he could pull forward and feel more weight than he was used to pulling on his own and stop; he could do nothing but stand there; he could go backwards or try to get out of his harness. I’ve had dogs do all of these things when hooked up by themselves. Bootrap made me very happy, when he leaped forward fast enough and hard enough that I almost fell off the runners. He tore out of the parking lot and down the trail. One dog can pull a sled. Our work was ahead of us though.

Patti’s team, just out a short way, was coming back in. Bootstrap was headed straight for them. There is a small traffic circle of sorts just as you leave the parking lot and head out on the trail. The center of the circle is a wide weedy patch of the tall grasses that grow in the quarry, now brittle and brown, glistening with blowing snow and ice. As Patti’s team was moving to one side of the circle, we were moving out on the other. Bootstrap made his signature move. Leaping forward he tried to lunge toward Patti’s team. This time was different though. Bootstrap had no back up from his team mates, and Patti’s team, unlike that of the one we met at the MUSH race is very well trained. With an “on by” her leader did just that. I was ready, and pounced on Bootstrap. “See what I mean?!” I shouted to Patti, as I was making short work of Bootstrap. She did see. I will keep to myself exactly what I did to Bootstrap, but he did look repentant when I was done with him. Still, we were not finished with our work. I was sure he would try again.

This time I hooked Bootstrap up with his mother, Aura. If Bootstrap is a trouble maker, it is not because of his mother or his father. If there was ever a dog that tried to stay out of trouble, it’s Bootstrap’s mother, Aura. Every mentor I’ve had in the world of sled dog training has told me that when a sled dog runs, its ears should be plastered dead against its head. If the ears go up, the dog is paying attention to something other than me. Aura is the one and only dog I have that runs with her ears flat back. I have learned that there are ears that are “up” and ears that are “UP”. That is another story. But Aura runs with her ears flat back. My son Gideon tells me, “She’s the only dog that really listens to you, Mom.” Leave it to a teenager to tell you like it is. She is listening for guidance, not looking for trouble.

Bootstrap runs like the rest of them, ears “UP”. Unfortunately, Aura with her “up” ears is obedient, not just to me. It seems that just about anyone, even her ten month old son gets to push her around sometimes. I was sure that if Bootstrap leaped to trouble she would not try to prevent it. I was also sure, she would avoid it herself if she thought she could.

Aura and Bootstrap were hooked up in double lead. I did not neck line Bootstrap. He is stronger than his mother and I didn’t want him dragging her along. I did want her there; so that he knew he was running with part of his pack. It’s different than running alone. As Patti’s team came running toward us, Bootstrap’s ears went UP. I said his name, sternly and he looked at me briefly then looked straight ahead. “On by”, I said. “Hike.” Bootstrap went forward as if he were about to mind his own business. He split out at Patti’s team so fast; he jerked us sideways into the weeds and grass that separated the team. “Arrgh“ I growled at Bootstrap, jumping on my brake before grabbing him hard. Bootstrap had two strikes in our training session. We made yet another go at it.

This time I talked to Bootstrap as Patti’s team came at us. When he looked at them, I told him, “on by”. This time, as they passed Bootstrap didn’t move forward, but he didn’t go after them either. He sat and looked at me. Progress, I thought. We tried this a couple of more times, before Patti was ready to pack up. She had already been out on a longer run with her dogs.

Just like there are “ears” and “EARS”, there are “runs” and there are “RUNS.” Bootstrap’s second race was a “RUN”. On our first day out we were slower and nervous. I somehow missed the turn-off onto the far west trails that would have added 5 miles to our race and taken us on new trail. I had wanted to see those miles, and I’m sure the dogs did too. The dogs love new trail; new trail is hard to come by. It’s not easy to find places to run a dog team anywhere these days. At home, we run the same trails over and over, some days doing the same path twice to get in the miles. There are maybe two or three places we run. We wanted to run the new trail.

Unexplored trails are like the slowly revealed surprises of a new lover, full of pleasure, uncertainty and discovery. The dogs, who had thought we were heading for the same trail we had the day before were renewed with that quick turn. It’s more lowland Forest here, running like a chute through scrubby brush. In other places, tall pines are permanently bowed, creating long dark tunnels that flash with spots of sunlight as we move through. On the sled, I feel like a moving picture in a “flip” book, as we glide quickly over the thin patches of sunlight that hit the snow through the trees. At least three miles of that trail slope gradually downward. Atka, my aging irreplaceable leader, dug in low and hard and fast.

Today Atka has backup: Bootstrap. While not as focused as his grandfather, ten miles into the run Bootstrap is still filled with wild enthusiasm for his job, his place on the team. He drives hard from the rear, enabling Atka and his team leader, Bootstrap’s athletic mother, Aura, to run. We saw no one on that long loping loop back to the main trail. I looked occasionally over my shoulder to see if another team from the even farther West trails was catching up to us. There was no one there. My dogs often sprint a few hundred yards but I cannot remember a time when they loped like that for miles. I waited for them to pause, to break stride. When they did not, I bent my knees slightly on the runners of the sled, and held on for the ride. Bootstrap gave Atka and the girls what they needed to stretch out over those new miles.

I have since promised my good friends, who have helped me work with Bootstrap on the trail, that I won’t “dis” him further on his own blog. In our more recent training efforts he has acted as if the thought to look at a passing team had never occurred between those well furred ears. He’s crouched low, looked away and made every effort to show me that he “gets it”. I’m sure he does. He is “trained” to pass at least one dog team. It means I can train him to pass another.

Mushing Magazine taught me something new, too, this weekend. I picked it up hanging around the lodge at the race. There was an article there about a guy with a team of 22 Alaskan Malamutes, running somewhere in the far North of Alaska, hundreds of miles. This guy does with the Malamutes what they were originally bred to-do, to slog through the toughest weather on the planet, no groomed trail, with heavy supplies on the sled. The article said that the breed has been around to do this task for 14,000 years. That's 14,000 years of genetic programming for survival in the most brutal of environments. The AKC has only had them to mess with for maybe 80 of those years. I’ve been training my little pack for a dozen years now.

Bootstrap, when he cocks his head to one side and looks, curious, devilish, engaging is a charmer. It’s an impish face, the thick pointy ears sprouting tufts of fur. That coat that is so wrong for the wilderness is perfect for the survival of a truly Urban Sled Dog, his coat the color of mist and caramel, frost covered weeds, and melting snow. It’s the coat of a fairy tale sled dog, almost artificial, like Barbie hair turned gray. As Bootstrap leans his chin heavy into the palm of my hand, I willingly forget the 14,000 years of instinct for survival that is part of his genetic code. Bootstrap can be trained. I will train him. I just need 13,988 more years to do it.

1 comment:

Lucy said...

Congratulations Raissa. You give me hope with my own devilish bad boy!