Friday, February 15, 2008

Dogsledding, January '08

For a recent anniversary, my wife Susan treated us to a "family adventure weekend" at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota. One of the highlights, for me at least, was an afternoon of dogsledding.

I have a bookshelf (well, half a bookshelf anyway) of books on sled dogs and dogsledding, and follow the bigger races via Internet in a casual way, but until last month everything I knew about the sport was vicarious. (Now only about 95% of what I know is vicarious. It's an improvement...) After years of anticipation, the experience did not disappoint.

I could easily become a hardcore musher, except for the fact that I'm already a hardcore falconer. The two activities would be difficult to reconcile. Let me save several paragraphs of exposition and boil it down to the essentials: Time, space, and money, none of which are over-abundant as it is. Vicarious dogsledding and the occasional tourist weekend will have to do until I win the Powerball. (And since I never buy a ticket...)

I suspect, though, that falconers and serious mushers have a lot in common. The most immediately obvious similarity is the tendency toward what is often termed obsession but is really just true dedication. Dogs or hawks take precedence over life’s other priorities: Homes are chosen, jobs are taken (or not taken), vehicles are selected, all based on their compatibility with the animals. Serious mushers, like good falconers, are not hobbyists.

Mushers also share a bit of the true falconer’s disdain for “pet-keepers”, although they can afford to be less militant. Dogs, of course, are domestic animals, so the ethics of keeping them from fulfilling their natural role are different. Still, it is obvious from observing the dogs that they are happiest when they are running and pulling as they were bred to do. (This point is lost on most animal-rights activists, who tend to have little understanding of real animals. AR people may object to a dog being harnessed and “forced” to pull a sled, but it is clear that sled dogs feel more abused when they are left behind.)

On to some pictures (Susan took most of these, by the way):

Peter McClelland [below, with two of his dogs] of White Wilderness Sled Dog Adventures was trained as a naturalist, but makes his living as a dogsledding outfitter. He also races competitively—he finished 10th in the '08 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon down in Duluth.

He keeps about a hundred dogs [dog yard pictured below], all Alaskan huskies. I'd hate to think too hard about his food bill...

The Alaskan husky is not a kennel-club recognized breed, but a mix in which Siberian husky (or occasionally Alaskan malamute) blood predominates; the balance can be almost anything else, and Alaskan huskies vary tremendously. Which is not to say that their breeding is haphazard: breeders in villages throughout interior Alaska, northern Minnesota, and other racing "hotbeds" (can I use that word for some of the coldest places you'd ever want to visit?) carefully select for speed and endurance. These are the dogs that predominate in long-distance races such as the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. (Some racers refer to pure Sibes as "Slowberians".) Several of Peter's dogs, in fact, are Iditarod veterans. I forgot to ask, but I suspect that many of his black-and-white dogs are part border collie.

[Mark and dogs.]

White Wilderness is not a "hop off the bus, hop on the sled" operation. Under Peter's supervision, we led the dogs from the yard, harnessed them, and put them in team.

[Top to bottom:
  • Ellie and instructor Heidi harnessing a dog. (This is Buttercup, says Ellie. I noticed a couple other Princess Bride names, including Fezzik and Inigo.)
  • Ellie grabs the neckline while IWC information services director Jess Edberg holds a dog
  • Neckline attached, Ellie looks for the tugline
  • All done!]

[More harnessing: Susan (not that you can tell) in top picture, Ellie and friend Matt below]

Finally, we hit the trail. The dogs, so noisy in the yard and while idling in harness, fell silent as soon as they got to work. In the quiet of the woods, the only sounds (apart from voice commands, used sparingly) were the hiss of the runners on good snow and the occasional call of ravens.

Ellie rode in the basket of Heidi's sled for a while, but later took command of the team herself.

Susan generously let me run the whole distance while she took pictures from the basket.

[Top to bottom:

  • If you're not the lead dog, the view never changes
  • Two teams crossing a frozen lake
  • Another team on the trail. I love these shots!]

Ten miles is a pretty short run for the dogs, but at the same time a pretty good workout for me, since I spent much of it running uphill with one hand on the sled. (The dogs are in much better shape.) Tired as I was, it was over much too soon. A transcendent high, a let-down...this is how addictions begin!

[Ellie's team at the finish.]


Henry Chappell said...

Excellent reading, Mark. And my compliments to the photograper. Interestingly, many 'coon and squirrel hunters in the South and parts of Texas take a similar approach to dog breeding. Although they're easily recognizable types, curs and feists vary tremendously in size and color because breeders - serious hunter, in most cases - are concerned with working traits above all else. Some of the registries (not the AKC!)allow quite a bit of latitude, so long as proper records are kept. As a result, genetic problems are very rare and excellent pups are abundant and affordable.

Matt Mullenix said...

Kudos from (snow-free) Louisiana on this cool post, Mark.

Anonymous said...

So many dogs, so little...resources. The excellent pics have me daydreaming of my more northern roots (not wayy north). Speaking of "dedicated to an activity, here is one on a dog sport that often sees "pet keepers" and "nutty" working together in the same club... Hooked on flyball. The reference to home, vehicle, job, ... fits, I think.

Mark Churchill said...

Anon., thanks for the flyball link. I can see the similarities, but there are some important differences too.

Falconry has existed for at least four thousand years. I don't have a good handle on dogsledding's antiquity, but anything from five hundred to a few thousand years wouldn't surprise me. Flyball, obviously, is a late-20th century invention.

More important than the numbers are the raisons d'etre behind the activities. Falconry is a form of hunting—it's more effective as "recreational" or "sport" hunting than as subsistence hunting; i.e., it's not necessarily an efficient means of gathering food—but that's where its roots are. Dogsledding originated as a practical means of transportation where horses did not exist and would not have been effective in any case, and remains so in many areas despite the introduction of snowmobiles; dogsled racing arose as a result of human competitive instincts, but on the solid foundation of an existing transportation technology.

Flyball is basically a sport for pet dogs who, in most cases, have no regular job to go to. Most dogs in our society have been removed from their natural context. Hounds gotta hunt, huskies gotta pull—and if they can't fulfill those natural functions, a substitute activity has to be found. Flyball, I'm sure, is great fun for everyone involved, human and canine alike. But while I've known a great many Labs who excelled at retrieving frisbees, I suspect they'd enjoy retrieving ducks even more, if given a proper introduction to that job and the chance to do it on a regular basis.