A Sled Dog's Work: Mikki Speaks Up
Most people think a sled dog's life is pretty boring—just pull that sled, mush-mush-mush, put one paw in front of the other, all day long.
But I'm here to tell you it's my favorite thing to do. Leading the team makes it even more exciting.
For one thing, being lead dog is a big responsibility. Steve depends on me to think smart and use common sense and take charge of the dogs. Steve's got the team set up with pairs of dogs harnessed to a single line. It's called a towline. He must have figured out that a single line is the best arrangement for traveling along narrow trails or mushing through forests. My job, at the front of the line, is to steer the team and set the pace.
Behind me run the swing dogs. They swing the rest of the team around curves in the trail. I can tell if they try to short-cut the turns, and I growl at them over my shoulder. Next are the wheel dogs, like Big Foot, who is strong and steady and doesn't let the moving sled spook him.
The most important member of the team is the driver, Steve. I do my best to let him know I appreciate him. After work, whenever I get a chance, I'll jump on him and give him licks and kisses. He pats me and hugs me and talks to me about whatever's on his mind.
When Steve comes out to see us in the morning, we all greet him with happy howls, and sometimes we sing to him and Liz at night. Howler has some wonderful songs about moonlit trails and plump, tasty rabbits. Our songs sound a lot like wolf-songs, perhaps because many of us have wolves for ancestors, and the wildness is still inside us.
Steve takes good care of us. He feeds us a hot bucket of chow at night and plenty of dried salmon snacks. He makes sure we each have our own place to sleep. My favorite spot is a nice deep snowbank. After a day's run, I curl up with my nose tucked under my tail and go right to sleep.
Steve knows that we'd get sick if we slept in a stuffy house or tent like he and Liz do. God gave us an outer coat of long hair, almost waterproof—that's our jacket—and under it, a coat of thick fur, as warm as flannel pajamas. Underneath all that, we have tough skin and a layer of fat. No wonder we don't get cold, even if it's fifty degrees below zero.
The only time Steve worries about us is if we get really wet in the freezing cold. That happened to Bandit when he was trying to catch a salmon and he slipped into the river. Steve dried him off very carefully because even a sled dog can die if his fur jacket gets soaked. Something else Steve watches for is those nasty little balls of snow that freeze between our toes. Ouch! That ice can cripple a dog after just a few miles of running.
One thing Steve doesn't let us do is fight. Myself, I don't mind a good tussle after we've been tied up for a couple of days, but I can see his point. That wild wolf blood of ours makes it easy to go too far, and sometimes a dog gets an ear bitten off.
The fun might start with one dog snapping at his team mate, or the mate pouncing on him. The rest of the team joins in, and we're into a whirl of growling and lunging and snapping with bared fangs. Sometimes I can't resist, but I know to back away as soon as Steve runs up and lays into us with a chain. Afterwards, I feel a little bit sorry.
Yes, it's a big job, leading Steve's team, and I want him to be proud of me, so I don't let myself race after a rabbit that crosses our trail, and I stay calm when a flock of ptarmigan lifts off from the snow like an explosion under my nose.
But once in a while, I have to take a firm hand with Steve. It's hard for him to remember that the wind whispers to me, and when it does, I listen. The other dogs listen too.
Sometimes the wind tells us that a blizzard is coming. We stand still, lift our heads high, and point our noses in the direction of the wind. If Steve shouts at us, we ignore him—even me—and begin circling, round and round. It's time to dig in and get away from the storm.
I heard about one driver who was only five miles out of town when his dogs slowed and began sniffing at the air. He must have thought they were lazy, because he whipped them.
Newcah, the lead dog, later told me he snatched her collar and dragged her forward, yelling at the team. But he couldn't drag them all, and he wasted a lot of time getting angry. Finally he unharnessed them, and each dog started digging into the snow.
Before a storm hits, there's usually a deep silence that makes the fur on my back prickle. Newcah told me how everything got quiet just before that blizzard, but the man didn't notice. He grumbled a lot, quite loudly, and took his time unloading the sled and setting up his tent.
The first blast of wind snapped his tent poles into pieces, and the second blast knocked him to the ground. He started crawling toward his sled, but a snow cloud swallowed him up, and that was the last time Newcah saw him alive.
Steve is a lot wiser than that man, and we understand each other pretty well. I obey him, and he listens to me. Sometimes he smiles into my eyes and says I'm God's gift to help him with his work. I don't really understand what that means, but I know it's my job to take care of Steve. It's the best job in the world.