Gone to the Dogs and Loving It*

* WARNING – this blog entry far exceeds the suggested daily requirement of cute - please exercise caution when reading if you have exhibited a sensitivity to puppies in the past.

I stayed up until 3:30 Tuesday morning, running outside to check on the aurora borealis and shooting as many pictures as my camera battery would allow before complaining that it was exhausted.  After the novelty had worn off (am I jaded, or what?) I did some experimental shooting using some color changing LEDs that I had brought  with me and I amused myself trying to guess what the cluster of four Japanese fellows that sat snapping pictures near me thought when they saw me jumping about with a colored string of lights.  I wish I could hear how they describe it to their acquaintances when they return to Japan.

Unused as I am to this extreme cold (it was about 2 degrees Fahrenheit while I was outside aurora watching) it has been interesting to see some of the effects it wreaks - the most obvious one to me being rechargeable batteries have an extremely short life.  Another effect I noticed later that day when I dashed outside to start the car and let it warm up, was that standing at the doorway with the porch light on, I could actually SEE the warm air of the cabin escaping into the still darkened morning, much like one long enormous frosty exhale. 

When I checked the thermometer outside my window, it read -12F, inducing me to systematically apply about 50 layers of clothing to prepare for my trip to the dog kennels at Muktuk where I’d be outside working most of the day.

I was so excited about my adventure that I realized about 10km down the road that I’d left my wallet back at the cabin, and so had to turn around and head back.  I found myself repeatedly engaging in self chastisement, frustrated that I’d be cutting my drive time short as a result of my oversight.  When I walked in the door to snatch up my wallet, however, I was relieved that I’d been forced to return because in my hurry I had left my breakfast in the oven, merrily toasting away.  Oh happy day!  Not only had I narrowly avoided disaster, but now I had a piping hot sausage roll to enjoy on my drive!

I was on my way to something called “Rookie for a day” offered at a kennel run by a renowned dog musher named Frank Turner who is probably as close to a rock star as they have in Whitehorse and maybe even the Yukon.  Frank was present at the inaugural run of the Yukon Quest sled dog race in 1984, and competed in – get this – TWENTY-FOUR consecutive runnings of the event.  I’d just like to point out that that is at least 24,000 miles of snowy Yukon territory that Frank has covered behind a team of dogs.  Frank also turned in one of the best times on record (10 days/16 hours/22 minutes) which was a record that stood for 12 years.

Shortly after I arrived, I was sent down to be properly outfitted. (“Oh no,” the girl who greeted me exhorted, “we’ll need to get you some adequate clothing since you’ll be outside all day.”)  I first donned a pair of snow pants (over the three bottom layers I was already wearing) and serious snow boots (over my two pairs of socks).  To that we added an enormous parka, fingerless hand warmers, mushing mitts, a balaclava and then topped it all off with a fake fur trapper hat and goggles.  It gave me new understanding of the iconic representation of the thickly-clothed child in “A Christmas Story”.

One of the volunteers Susan (that’s her at the top with Gandalf) took me under her wing and we set out to begin our chores.   Our first task was to move two females from the pen where they’re isolated when they go into heat, and put them back in their usual kennels with general population.  I hadn’t given it much thought beforehand, but I soon found myself attached via leash to a very eager dog that (she’d been isolated from the rest of her pack for five weeks) and one that was trained to pull large amounts of weight.  I had nothing but snow beneath my feet to provide support and friction and it was necessary to concentrate heavily on physics in order to stay upright.

After moving several other dogs to various new locations, our next task was to help prepare sleds for a group that was departing for a three day camping trip.  The dogs must first be put into a harness, and then have booties put on all four of their feet.  The booties are used to help protect their paws during long outings since snow will cling and freeze to the tiny fine hairs between their pads.  Some of the dogs sit patiently for this process and then there are dogs like Gandalf who must be restrained for the exercise.   I’m afraid I wasn’t much help during this exercise, so I took the opportunity to wander about and pet and cuddle with every dog I came across.

Dawson - one of my favorites

and yes, of course, PUPPIES!!!

The mushers were soon off on their journey, and it was time to give the dogs their morning water.  First of all, water obviously can’t just be left out for the dogs (it’d freeze in a New York minute) so the dogs
eat snow to slake their thirst if the need arises.  The watering process is really more like serving soup, actually.  Hot water is added to a mixture of salmon smoothie with a little kibble thrown in for good measure and the resulting stew is ladled into bowls so the dogs can have a hot and nutritious snack.  It smells about like you’d think, but of course the dogs absolutely love it.  Some of them take the rim of the bowl in their maw and immediately dump the contents on the ground so they can isolate the meaty bits.  The dogs are strictly trained from the time they’re puppies  to eat only from their own dish and it’s not hard to imagine why this is so important when you look out over a kennel that contains well over 100 dogs.

When the last ladle had been doled out to the eager pups, it was time for the humans to eat lunch.  When I went inside and began to peel off my outer layers, I was pleased to find that all that fancy wicking fabric had done its job transporting the sweat of my brow to the exterior of my garments so I wouldn’t be cold.  My first stop after shedding all that insulation, unsurprisingly, was to thoroughly wash my hands and face.  I'd been licked about 100 times in the course of a couple of hours.  I sat down at a large table with the staff and wolfed down (pun intentional) a plate of macaroni and cheese with meat, tostada chips with chili and a meat sandwich.  Emphasis on meat, if you didn’t notice.

The gal that works as the chef at Mukluk is named Manuela, so I was a bit taken aback to hear her pronounce the name of the pepper as, again, “hala-PEEN-yo.”  I decided to school her on the pronunciation as an act of missionary kindness.  You just can’t go around with a name like Manuela and say hala-PEEN-yo!  She seemed grateful for the elucidation, but then maybe she was just humoring me while at the same time confirming her opinion of Texans.

After lunch, our task was to outfit a group of 16 Japanese tourists that had just arrived, tuck them into and onto sleds, and set out on a four hour mushing expedition.  I would be riding on the back of a Ski-Doo (snowmobile for all you denizens of the languid South), watching over the mushers behind us while Frank broke trail and led us down the frozen Tahkini river, along the very same path taken by the Yukon Quest mushers just days earlier.

The scenery was gorgeous - even more so because of the broad flat opening in the trees provided by the river.  I very much enjoyed watching the spectacle of dog sledding from the back of the snowmobile, much as if it were a movie.  There were several times that I was called upon to alert Frank that there was a situation that needed his attention behind us (a couple of mushers lost their footing and tumbled from the sleds), but aside from those instances it was a uneventful and pleasing ride.  One one of the last stops we made to attend to our charges, I noticed some large animal tracks beside the trail and when Frank returned I asked him if those were possibly moose tracks.  He sauntered over to examine them and said excitedly when he returned, "Lynx!"  Very cool.

When we returned to the kennels, I made a few last turns around the yard to bid farewell to the friends I'd made that day and got another good shellacking of slobber.  What a paradise for a dog lover, this place is!  I felt I'd had a dose sufficient to last me for a while as I waved to the dogs on my way back up the beautiful lane that would lead me to the Alaskan highway and back to my cabin.

Boy howdy did my hot shower feel good that night.

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