Musher in Training: Part 1Posted: January 20, 2012
I am sore today. Sore like I haven’t been in a long time. And I kinda like it. Okay, not kinda, I do like it. I love the way it makes me feel connected to my body and to the work I did that lead to this. The best part: I wasn’t at the gym. I didn’t go for a run or lift weights. Instead, I drove down a snowy road, past moose eating lunch (yes, another mama and baby!), to Paws for Adventure, my new home away from home, and I worked with the dogs. Good, old-fashion chores are what have me sore and smiling this morning.
In December, Lucas and I went to Mushing School at Paws (click here to read my post about this adventure), and I fell head over heels for dog sledding. So when we decided to come back to Alaska in January, I e-mailed the owner of Paws and ask, oh-so-politely, if she had any interest in an extra set of hands. As you might have guessed, she said yes, and I am now working/volunteering as a “musher in training.”
This means I get to learn all about the daily work of running a mushing kennel, working with the dogs, and of course, mushing. So far I have two days of “training” under my belt, one day last week and one day this week. I am now experienced at:
- scooping poop. This, as you might imagine, is a daily chore. Each dog has a little wooden house and a short chain length of space that they call home. Everyday the poop needs to be removed from their space so it doesn’t pile up. This is relatively easy work. Take a large shovel, scoop the snow and frozen poop into a plastic sled, and when the sled fills up, drag it into the woods and dump it. Repeat until all 50 plus doggie yards are clean. (The repetition of this task contributes to my spaghetti arms feeling sore the next day.)
- doggie house cleaning. This chore is done on an as needed basis and includes cleaning snow off the tops of each dog house and checking to make sure each house has plenty of straw inside to keep the dogs warm, especially now with the amount of -40 degree weather we have been having. The dogs like to stand on top of their houses and this is also where their food/water bowl is located. The funniest part of this job is how crazy the sound of the shovel scrapping across the roof makes them. The sprint around howling while I clean. During this chore, I also carry around a small hatchet to clean the ice away from the edges of their water/food bowls. They hate the hatchet, too. Except for the puppies, who where just moved into their own houses last week, they have no idea what any of this is about. They are like little kids, curious about everything.
- feeding/watering. The dogs at Paws get feed twice a day, and if they go out on a run they get a salmon snack, that they love. The morning/lunch feeding is dog food plus fat, which is often chicken skins, all mixed together in hot water. Two ladles full for dogs, one for puppies. As soon as I walk out with the first bucket they go nuts. Running in circles, jumping up on their houses, it is like I get the equivalent of a dog standing ovation. The buckets are huge, and filled to the top (contributes to sore shoulders), so I walk slow, trying not to spill this gross mix on myself. The dogs are good, when I walk up they move out of way, panting, drooling, waiting for me to pour it into their bowl. They go particularly wild for the chicken skin. Eating it first in one or two bits. The dogs that are waiting and haven’t been feed yet start to cry and bark louder. But once the food comes it gets so quiet. Like people.
- puppy walks. Best. Job. Ever. The puppies, who have just recently joined the routine of the other dogs, haven’t yet been trained on the sleds so they need to be walked for exercise. Yesterday, I took two puppies out for the first time. Tanana and Stubbs. They had never been on a leash before. When I first hooked them up, they didn’t want to go. They tried to sit down, dragging themselves across the snow, until we were a few yards away from the other dogs. Then they went nuts. Jumping, running into each other, getting so tangled up they couldn’t move. It was hilarious and a struggle. Once we made it across the field into the woods (out of eye shot of the other dogs), I let them off the leashes and this is when it got fun. They would sprint out in front of me, then run back to check in. We walked for about an hour through a quiet snow covered forest that looked like it was covered in white cake. They loved it. The path we walked on was matted down by sleds and snowmachines, but sometimes they would jump off the path into the deep snow and disappear until they struggled back onto the path, white-faced, tongues hanging out. I was in puppy love. On the way back, just before we came out of the woods, I hooked them back up to the leashes, and they walked like a little two-dog team, side my side, so good. When I dropped them off at their house with a little dog food snack, Tanana started to cry when I walked away. I think I made new friends.
Besides daily chores, I have also been mushing both times. The first week, I drove a sled behind the owner and a guest who had come to mushing school, but yesterday I took a team out all by myself. It was a little unnerving. Would I remember all the right turns to follow the correct trail? Would the dogs listen when it was just me?
I made it back safe and sound, loving every minute. My lead dogs, M&M and Nugget, were amazing. They know the trails better than I do. And my wheel dogs, Bud and D-1, were only a little lazy. It was so different to be out by myself. The dogs glancing back to make sure I am still in charge, the sun dipping into the horizon in deep reds and oranges, moose tracks crisscrossing the trail, snow piled in thick layers on the ground and the trees, frost forming a white halo on the hood around my face, my eyelashes heavy with white frost. I was mushing.
I still have more to learn, a whole list of things the owner wants to teach me, and eventually my team will grow to five and then six dogs, but for now, I am thrilled to be outside, playing in the snow.