My fumbling attempts to transition a great sled dog into a great lead dog.
It was a mid March day. My only day off work for the week. My dogs hadn’t been in the harness since the big race of the year, two weeks earlier. My wife was out of state picking up a new (to us) car. I’d been working six days a week since November. Even pulling seven day work weeks through December. Dog training this winter has taken place early morning before work or late in the evening by headlamp. My Sundays had been my only day for church and family. I needed a little adventure getaway. Even if it was for a day. This Sunday my family was away. My dogs were at peak fitness. And it was a beautiful day. I convinced myself that God would not mind my missing the church service this week in order to worship Him with my fellow creatures in nature- His first temple.
I loaded up the team in my Expedition, strapped the sled to the roof, and headed to Saint Froid Lake and the Winterville forest. From there I planned to mush my dogs to Deboullie lake at the foot of Deboullie Mountain in the Maine Public Land Reserve some 20 miles into the North Maine Woods. Then, we would mush the 20 miles home.
I’d been to Deboullie a couple times before. Once on an off-road adventure in my jeep with my kids several years before. Another time, about 11 years ago, I took my entire family on an overnight canoe trip there. But I have never seen Deboullie in all its remote winter splendor. Once there, Id be some 20 miles from the nearest paved road.
It was about 12° fahrenheit at 9:30 in the morning, when we finally pulled the quick release, and the team bolted away from the truck. I had the intention of trying out my young leaders- Poland Spring’s Druid and Poland Spring’s Vodka of New Hope- in single lead. Most teams these days, use two lead dogs. This reduces the chances of a failure of a single leader to obey a command. The second leader is a kind of insurance policy. When one misses the commend, the other pulls it off. Also, oftentimes one is the better leader at commands while the other is a faster pace setter for the team. In short, we run two leaders, side by side, because we don’t trust one dog to handle the pressure of the position consistently. I have had only one dog in the past 20 years- Tay Marr’s Pirate of Poland Spring- that I used as a single lead each time I went out. Pirate was a knucklehead, but once we’d come to an understanding, he had become my greatest leader, and the inspiration for my book on leadership, “MUSH!.” I like the beauty of running a single leader. I also enjoy the report that develops between the single leader and the musher. But it is a lot of responsibility for one dog. And usually, when you are out on the trail with a long string of dogs, you don’t want things to go wrong. Having that second leader up there does provide, as I said above, that added insurance policy. This is Druid and Vodka’s first year as our primary leaders. Neither of them have ever run single lead before. We were going to be traveling a long distance for just seven dogs- forty miles or so- so I put Frost and Bear, my older veteran leaders, up front until the team settled down into a trot. This was partly not to burn out my team with the faster pace of the younger leaders. But also I did this so the jealous Frost would not be tempted to chew the lines of her replacement leaders while I hitched up the team. Frost understood full well that she had been replaced by Vodka. And whenever I wasn't looking, she would try to sever Vodka’s lead tug and thus relieve her of her duties. I indulged her and let Frost and Bear take off in the lead so, she'd feel like she was still queen I figured she wouldn't mind so much when she got moved back after a couple miles. It worked.
Leaving Saint Froid Lake, we began a long gradual ascent. We followed the Red River as it wound its way through the Winterville Forest. This course would bring us to the River’s headwaters, our destination, the Deboullie Lake.
The team was prime and in thorough trim. That is of course all but the two, ten-month-old puppies on the team, Zeus and Zoe, who have never gone more than 15 miles. This would be a big test day for them. They would, therefore, be the pace setters of the team. We would go no faster than the pups wanted to run. And we would break at the first sign from them that they aren’t having fun.
It was mostly and gradually uphill for the first several miles which settled the dogs into a trot. Once that was accomplished we were approaching the old Rocky Brook gatehouse. There, I stopped the team and moved Bear back from lead and replaced him with Druid to run colead with his mother, Frost. We took off. But it wasn’t very long before my curiosity got the best of me and I stopped the team again. I moved Frost back into the team as well next to her nemesis, Vodka.
This left Druid in single lead at the front of the team.
“Hike!” Druid and the rest of the team took off. A few times in the first couple minutes he looked back as if to say “Vodka? Why aren’t you up here with me? Catch up!” More and more he accepted that he didn’t have to share leadership of our pack. More and more, his eyes and ears focused as far down the trail as his senses could take him. We flushed some Spruce Grouse from their hiding. But still Druid drove on. I later heard the screech of a goshawk, a sound I had not heard in years. It was still a familiar sound to me as, a decade ago, I had one that plagued my chicken coup. It only made sense, therefore, that we would hear the goshawk so soon after flushing the grouse. Druid was doing splendidly, until I stopped the team or until a snowmobiler came by. In both instances, rather than holding the line out, he immediately turned and began doubling the team back on itself. Assuming he was taking the opportunity of the stopped team to socialize, I scolded him sharply. “Line out!” I barked as I rushed up menacingly. This was something I had ti nip in the bud immediately before it became a habit. Rather than run from me to stretch out the gangline, he just squatted down, and continued his crawling progression towards me and the sled. Of course I grabbed him by the harness, swinging him round right and barking, “Line out!!!” Then Id yell “Hike!” and we’d be off again, with no issues at all. The third time i stopped the team, to untangle Zues the pup from making puppy mistakes, Druid did exactly the same thing yet again. But this time I noticed something I hadn’t notice before. His eyes weren’t locked on his teammates, his girlfriend Vodka, or even his rival for Alpha male position, Bear. No, Druid was headed straight to me. Every time I stopped the team. It was then that I realized it was not he, but I who was screwing up. Druid was not sure if he was doing the right thing or not by running ahead of the team alone. He was coming to me, in submission, for reassurance that what he was doing was ok. Boy I screwed that up. Even after 20 years mushing, there is still so much for me to learn too. This time, rather than scold him. I walked right past him to the front of the team. He followed me and in so doing, pulled the team and gangline out straight again. From that position of “Line Out” I praised him and told him what an awesome job he was doing. The next time we stopped, I dropped my snow hook and again made haste to the front of the team, where I lavished praise on Druid who was holding the team out straight while stopped. From that point, for the rest of the trip, I needed only say “Good job Druid! Good boy!” And he’d keep the line and team out. Although I had intentions of moving him back at some point, and trying Vodka out in single lead as well, the beauty and poetry of what was happening with Druid up there by himself, and the intimate connection he and I were making, was too magical to bring to an end. So I let Druid finish the 40 mile trip in single lead. Another point I'd noticed about Druid before this day, that made itself more pronounced in single lead, is worth bearing out before we move on in our narrative. Druid is a trotter. Sure he likes to run in the beginning like all the other dogs. But he is always the last to break into a lope from a trot on the team. For this reason I had always believed Vodka was improving the speed of the team in double lead with him as she is always swift to transition to the lope. She loves to run. Druid is so efficient in his trot however, that he can keep pace with 6 loping dogs without breaking out of his trot. In single lead this became even more apparent. When coming downhill, the team would break into a lope behind Druid. He would maintain his trot and his tug remained taut. This means that at the lope the team was not able to exceed Druids trotting speed. Because a trot is so much more efficient than the lope, I believe this means Druid would excel as a distance dog. I hope someday to prove this hypothesis. On our way out there were a few opportunities to celebrate. When we reached the “Maine Public Land Reserve” sign on the trail, when we descended onto Pushineer Lake, and finally when we descended onto Deboullie itself. At each of these points I stopped to congratulate the team in general, and Druid in particular, for our accomplishment.
There on the wind polished ice of the lake, where we could occasionally see our reflections when the winds subsided, I took in the beauty of the Rock Slides from the mountain into the Lake. I knew the Ice Caves (where Ice remains year round) were just beyond the riparian shore. I also knew, from a lecture I attended during my University days, that the Rock Slide was actually a “Rock Glacier.” The Rocks had slid down the mountain during the last ice age, trapping some of the ice from the glacier under its protective blanket of stone, where it remains to this day, some 35,000 years later. For most of the return trip we maintained our excellent speed. Improved only occasionally by the whiff of something wild in the wind, perhaps a moose or coywolf or fisher, that would surge the team temporarily faster. Another learning moment for me was at about 30 miles out. About ten miles from finish. As I said above I was monitoring my pups and regulating the team speed and breaks by their performance. At ¾ way through our trip, Zeus started licking Sawyer’s muzzle incessantly while they were running. I thought, “How cute! He is showing the veteran some love.” But it was so intentional and so out of the blue that I thought maybe something else was up. And sure enough it was. See, Sawyer is our blind diabetic dog. Despite these handicaps he is probably the second greatest athlete on the team, provided his blood sugar levels are maintained. As soon as this thought crossed my mind I stopped the team. And sure enough, Sawyer was ready for another snack and a break. And long before I had seen any signs of it from Sawyer, young Zeus knew Sawyer was ready for a break. After a 15 minute break I tried to put Sawyer in the sled basket to ride for a while. But he would have none of it. The moment we took off he jumped out of the sled and began running along beside the team. Well, he’s blind! So I could'n' very well let him do that long term, so I gave him his way and put him back in team next to his new buddy Zeus. By the time we were within 5 miles of our finish, the sun had made its way out and the temps reached 27F. This may sound cold to some of our readers, but for a team that has been living and training in sub zero temperatures all winter, this was warm. I noticed Zeus started licking Sawyer’s face again, so I decided we’d take a 30 minute break until the clouds concealed the sun again. By this point we were all tired and ready for a break. The first dogs to take advantage of the extended stop and lay down were my older more conditioned dogs. Bear. Then Sawyer. Then Frost, took their turns sitting then laying down. The youngsters continued to stand at the ready. I, therefore, walked to the front of the team and laid myself down in the trail. Then Zeus. Then Zoe. Then Vodka each took their que and assumed a resting position. Every dog but Druid. Druid had been winning major brownie points ( or should I say meat treat points) with the boss (me) all day. But apparently he wasn’t done yet. He refused to lay down. I thought that if by chance I moved his girlfriend, Vodka up beside him, and she reclined, that perhaps he would follow suit. But still he refused. We sat there for 30 minutes, after hours on the trail, being bathed in the warm sunlight and only Druid refused to leave the ready position. If there was any doubt in my mind that he wasn't the best athlete in our team before this moment, it was then expelled.
At the end of the run, I unharnessed and fed the dogs. One by one I loaded them into the Expedition. The last dog off the line is always the leader. Druid was invited into the passenger seat to ride back to the kennel beside the boss. I texted Tammie and said, “Druid wants to know if he can come live with us in the house.” There, In the front seat he, ever so slowly and gradually and sneakily, crept closer and closer until he was sitting on my lap. But there in Deboullie, Druid had already crept closer and closer to my heart. -Jonathan Nathaniel Hayes Poland Spring Seppala Kennels