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How Dogs, Part 3 – Jet Fuel

October 28, 2014

I asked LJ to write the next installment of our story about our life with sleddogs because she tells it best! Enjoy!

DOGS!!!! How can I spell that word and send the shivers of excitement coursing through your veins like a shock of electricity? Well, I can’t, but that is how I felt when it came to running dogs. It still is, if I allow untampered adrenaline to take control. Close your eyes and imagine the wind in your face as you stand on the runners of a 25lb sled, whisking through the snow with the trees laden with newly fallen flakes. A river runs beside you, thick with ice over the rocks, but still churning water swirling down the mountain.

One of our very favorite places to run.  A pic from many years ago.

One of our very favorite places to run. A pic from many years ago.

Listen to the sounds of padding feet of a dozen dogs, panting breath, the water, and the wind. Drop your body low on the runners, grasping the handlebar tightly as you expertly navigate a tight corner doing about 20 mph. It’s like flying, I think, or at least the closest thing to it. There are few things that can compare, and they are all equally or more dangerous. What? Dangerous you say? How can running dogs be dangerous, it’s not like a motor bike after all!

Well, I can tell you many stories of the dangers of dog sledding, but today I am going to talk about what happens when you add jet fuel to a dog team.

We, that is, Laura and I, were learning as much as we could about sled dogs. We were still running a few Alaskans, some of our show dog champions, and the rest of the team was made up from our rescues. So, quite a combination of dogs. However, it is not just the dog that makes a team competitive. I am, well, crazy competitive. Back then, even worse than I am now; now I am mellow.

We were learning more from whatever source we could, and currently, we had made some feed changes to our dog’s diets that included a high fat, high protein kibble and supplemented with Champagne Race Diet; which is a meat specially formulated for sled dogs by a famous dog musher named Charlie Champagne. Let me explain in more scientific detail. The average dog food contains somewhere between 10-15% proteins with 7-10% fats. We began feeding a high quality food formulated for canine athletes with a 30% protein/ 20% fat. Added to this we had the Champagne Race Diet, which is 39% protein and 46% fat.

We had been feeding this new diet to the team dogs for about a week, with no chance of getting out to work them. Finally, the weekend came; along with about four-five inches of very wet snow. We lived in Western Washington at the time, so wet snow was still snow to us. But we couldn’t postpone running any longer. The dogs were going crazy in their kennels, and we had waited all week. Anyway, when I made a plan to do something, I did it, no matter the consequences!

We ran on old logging roads that were mostly abandoned, and ran miles and miles. It was brisk and cool, and the dogs bounced about as we harnessed them. Laura was introspective, eyeing the wet, sloppy snow.

“Do you think this is a good idea? Hooking up ten?”

“They need to run,” I answered, not understanding why she did not understand this.

No more was said on the matter, and we began hooking the dogs to our little red, three-wheeled cart. It was tied off to the truck, so we could hook the dogs up without worrying about them leaving before we were ready. By the time we had six hooked into the lines, the cart was lifting into the air and slamming back to the ground as the dogs hit the lines with a power we had never seen before.

This was our 3 wheeled cart at a race many years ago.

This was our 3 wheeled cart at a race many years ago.

“I think six is enough,” Laura stated worriedly, her face filled with concern and reserve.

“It’ll be fine,” I said, “but we can tie that old tire on behind the cart to add weight.

This old tire probably weighed another 50 lbs. or more, and Laura agreed, “Yeah! That’s a great idea!” (note from Laura: One 50 pound tire does NOT make up for even one 50 pound dog’s power! What was I thinking?!)

So I attached the tire to the cart with a spare rope we had in the truck. It seemed like a good safety feature to me!

Ten dogs hooked up, hitting the lines with a frenzy of adrenaline and power that I could never have believed dogs could possess. The cart was flung about, smashing into the ground and then flying back into the air. I stepped on with confidence, adrenaline perhaps pumping through my veins as well, imagining the speed and power these dogs were going to take off with – much like a racehorse, springing from the starting gate. Laura stepped on the cart beside me, her face grim but determined.

I popped the quick release snap and we bolted away from the truck… for about twenty feet. Then, yep, as all inexperienced teams get, a tangle in the lines. Dogs tangle themselves, and other dogs, in the most miraculous ways, and it’s all unexplainable just exactly how it happens.

“Just let them run that way,” Laura suggested.

“They could get hurt, and they won’t learn that way,” I argued as we stood on the jolting cart.

“What if I can’t hold them once the tangle is free? What if you miss the cart?” she asked.

I shook my head, glancing back to the tire dragging behind us. “I can always jump on the tire. The drag will stop them, and then I can run and jump on the cart.”

She nodded and I got off the cart and went up to the front, untangled the dogs, and… yeah, they were very powerful! The cart took off, and I missed the handle. The tire came along and I easily bounced onto it. Excellent plan! But then, suddenly, the tire stopped, and I watched in shock as the cart, Laura, and the dogs flew off at a supersonic pace!

The rope had broken! I was on my feet and running instantly. Although I could do a nine-minute mile in the Army, I was no match for a team of dogs loaded with jet fuel. Laura was standing on the brake, the cart swinging wildly back and forth through the slush with no traction. She started screaming, and although I was running full out, all I could do was watch her and the dogs disappear over a low hill. I, of course, did not stop running. I couldn’t hear screaming anymore, and this gave me hope that she had been able to stop the team.

I topped the hill, and sure enough, Laura had managed to get the dogs stopped. The cart was turned on its side and she was sitting on the handle bar, just like we had been taught to do by another old musher. It appeared to be working! The dogs were not patient. They were slamming themselves into the lines, screaming and yelling. The cart moved several inches every time they crashed forward, but I was almost there!

I was maybe fifteen feet from them. I could see the tears on Laura’s face as murderous eyes met mine. Then the cart suddenly lifted completely into the air. Laura was flung up with it. The cart landed on its wheels and Laura on the passenger seat in FRONT of the handlebar and steering bar! They surged away, and I had been sooo close. I ran!

I watched Laura (mind you at that time she was not really athletic) as she crawled from the front of the cart, over the handlebar, and back into driver position. Amazing! Again, she managed to halt the team and flip the cart over, once again, bravely, sitting on the handlebar. I was close this time… I reached them, and sat on the handlebar with her. The dogs were screaming, surging against their tugs, so full of power and energy that they had no sense of wait.

“I am NOT going any further!” Laura screamed at me, her voice topping the sound of the dogs. “I am NEVER f$%#Q@ running dogs again!”
“We just have to let them run the energy off,” I told her, hoping my own calm would affect her near insanity.
“NO!” she yelled, eyes fearful and yet thunderously angry. “This is it! I am walking back to the truck. If you want to run them, go ahead.”

“I can’t take them alone,” I tried to sooth her. “What if there is a bad tangle and someone gets drug because I can’t stop them? I need you to come with me. I won’t let them get away from me again.”

“I can’t.”

“You HAVE to!” I ordered her, hoping this change of tactic would make a difference.

“NO, I don’t!”

The cart was beginning to move again with each tug, just a few inches, but it was a signal that the dogs were working up to a more powerful frenzy.

“We will never be able to flip this thing back up, and both of us get on in time,” Laura finally yielded to the greater need. “But once this trip is over, never again!”

“If I miss the cart again, I will grab the rope,” I promised her.

Laura eyed me warily, “I will kill you if you miss.”

“Ready then?”


Together, we flipped the cart over together. Only, as Laura leapt onto the footboard, she knocked me aside. But they didn’t get away; there was that rope, trailing behind as the dogs and Laura zipped off. I leapt for it, seizing it in both hands. I was ripped off my feet and landed in the slushy wet snow. Laura was standing on the breaks, screaming at the dogs, though she managed a glance behind to find me fishtailing around the road behind her.

Have you seen Indiana Jones and the Lost Arc? You know, how he holds onto his whip, dragging behind the truck and crawls hand over hand up the whip? Well, then you have a great visual of what I was doing. The dragging wasn’t so bad, the snow made for a nice lubricant over the gravel and dirt. I reached the cart, my elbows banging onto the ground and keeping me from getting a good grip on the bars of the rig. But, I managed to get my upper body on the footboard. The dogs, miraculously, stopped briefly, I leapt up the remaining way, and then the team exploded off down the road.

Like this, only in slush!

Like this, only in slush!

Finally, we were on the cart, side by side, as it should be. All was safe, right? We let the dogs run full out, hoping to kill off some of that maniacal energy. They ran, for a couple of miles without slowing up one bit. Then we came to a T in the road. Here, we always, always, had turned right. Turning left led back to the paved road in a mile or so. What did they want to do? You’re right, they wanted to turn left.

“You are not getting off this thing,” Laura told me emphatically. “They can just run that way. It’s more than a mile to the pavement, by then they should be worn out enough to get turned around.”

I called the turn again to our leaders, but they ignored me, and the team began to slam the cart again. I started to get off. Laura put a hand on my arm. “If you get off, so do I.” she told me straight.

So we let them turn left. They charged along the road for another half mile where we approached a bridge across a very swollen creek. Suddenly from the brush popped out a little yearling black bear, crossing the road. As if the dogs hadn’t needed something else to stoke the fires!
Laura stood on the break and I steered the cart to the side of the road, driving us straight into the ditch and a big bush. The front of the cart was entangled and we came to a hard stop. Not a second passed before I leapt off the footboard and raced to the leaders. Their eyes were glazed over with eagerness, perhaps madness. I grabbed them by their neckline and “circled the wagons”. That is, brought the leaders around to the wheel dogs, letting everyone become hopelessly tangled.

“Holy crap!” we said together as we watched the terrified little bear scurry off the road and into the brush.

We watched in silence, waiting for the big momma bear to show up, but thank the Gods, she never did!

“This is the last straw,” Laura told me as we stood there in the rain and slush, with the creek burbling its way to nearly over the bridge we had to cross on the way home. “I am NOT getting back on that (imagine some serious swearing here) cart. I will take some of the dogs and lead them back to the truck. Go, run the others. I will be at the truck when you get back.”

“That’s like, nearly three miles,” I told her.

“Did you not hear me? No cart!”

She was done, finished with the business. We unhooked the quietest four dogs and I struck out with the other six, back the way we had come. I knew she was miserable, and that a three-mile hike in the 4-inch slush was not going to improve things. When I came to the T, instead of making the run I had originally planned, I turned the dogs towards the truck. The leaders made the turn expertly and they were trotting properly as I stopped at the truck.

I watered them, threw four into the truck, and hooked two back to the cart. My plan was to meet up with Laura and the six dogs could pull us. Foiled again! I was no more than a hundred feet away from the pickup when the front wheel of the cart fell off. Yes! Came completely off! Not the tire but the entire front wheel assembly! Well, that settled it. I loaded up the dogs, and met Laura with the truck instead.

She laughed when I told her about the wheel, and she said. “I guess we’ll have to get Dad to weld that back on before we can run again.”

You heard that right: ‘Before WE can run again.’


One Comment leave one →
  1. October 28, 2014 8:41 am

    Reblogged this on battlesworn.

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