Table of Contents
Featured Inuit Dog Owner: Chuck Weiss
Research Paper 1: Survey of Diseases and Accidents
When to Start Working Dogs
A Day in the Woods
Future or Death
Reality Check: Reproduction or the Real Deal
Behaviour: Qiniliq Learns His Place
High Arctic Mushing: Part III
Book Review: Igloo Dwellers Were My Church
Janice Howls: All Along the Watch Tower
IMHO: Friends and Allies
Heading out. Mt. Washington in the distance Senter photo
A Day in the Woods:
by John Senter
Not everyone who fancies Inuit sled dogs lives in an area where actually using a dog sled regularly is possible. Here in Western Oregon, a snow storm is such a rarity that more than three inches of the stuff actually sticking is enough to cause school closures, non-stop emergency weather reports, installation of tire chains, and panic buying at the local food stores. So, while I own a dog sled, most of my mushing is on a cart. Actual dog sledding is something of an occasion for my wife Flo and me. It's a ninety-mile drive to our favorite place to sled, so we prepare for the trip the day before. The truck is fueled, equipment checked, clothing laid out. All we have to do is load the dogs, toss in a lunch and go. Our destination: Hoodoo Ski Bowl, at the summit of the Santiam Pass on U.S. Highway 20.
As we drive, the forest shifts from the scrub oak and brush of the coastal range to the old growth douglas fir of the high Cascades. We pass familiar side roads where we have hunted or hiked. We drive through small communities that were once mill towns, sustained by the timber industry. What keeps them alive now is anybody's guess. The highway follows the Santiam River. This is a wild river, save for two hydroelectric dams near the little resort town of Detroit, about half way to Hoodoo. In the summer, the reservoir is full. Boats, jet skis, swimmers, campers, and fishermen are everywhere. In the winter, the reservoir is drained down, and you can see the actual river channel in some places with white water rapids, the stumps of the trees cut to accommodate the lake, and foundations of the buildings that were part of the old town of Detroit. I wonder what that old town and wild river must have been like before the dams were built.
The mountains here are volcanic, so we have a few major peaks that stand out prominently above the foothills. Mt. Jefferson looms large over the highway on the drive up. Mt. Washington and Three Finger Jack await at the summit. It's clear today, so we should also see the Three Sisters while we're on the trail.
After a two-hour drive, we arrive at our destination. Next to the parking lot there is a convenient place to tie off the sled. This winter the snow is twelve feet deep, so dragging the heavy freight sled up the slope to the trail is a chore. The dogs, now out of their boxes, are making a tremendous racket just to assure that I don't dawdle. Shadow is the self-appointed team cheerleader. He and our leader Smokey are in especially good voice today! Our other two dogs, Stormy and Bering, add their two cents to the din but it doesn't compare with the mindless bellowing of Smokey and Shadow. If I remember to bring them, I wear earplugs while harnessing, but I seem to have forgotten them today. Hook-up proceeds with Flo holding onto Smokey while I wrestle the other three dogs up the slope to the gangline. By the time Bering is hooked up at wheel, I'm a bit winded and looking forward taking off. I want to just stand on the runners and catch my breath. With the snub line taut, Flo gets into the sled. I step on and pull the quick-release. No need to say "hike" - we're off before I can get the word out! Suddenly it is very quiet. I hear only the rhythmic step of the dogs and the crunch of the snow under the runners. The craziness of the start soon gives way to a purposeful trot. Not fast, but not slow; just taking care of business.
This is a busy place on weekends, but today is Wednesday and only a few snowmobiles are here. Right now, I can't hear any, so it's just Flo and me, four rowdy Inuit dogs, the sled and the scenery. Two cross country skiers are up ahead, oblivious to our approach. I call out "On by," to Smokey louder that I normally would so the unsuspecting skiers know we're coming. Smokey gets us by them, bless him, but Stormy would like to have investigated a little more. He probably smelled their lunches. Thankfully they don't have a loose dog with them.
To our right is a large basalt mesa called Hayrick Butte. As I look up at Hayrick, I see snow cornices at the top threatening to avalanche, and, just below them, the tracks of snowmobiles. Some snowmobilers like to see how high they can go up Hayrick and appear to have made it very near the top. I'm surprised that one of them hasn't had to race an avalanche back down. Just ahead and to the left is Mt. Washington, overlooking Big Lake, where our daughter has gone to summer camp for so many years. We can mush right up to the camp entrance, but we stay on the main trail until we get to the lake. There, we "gee over" onto the burn. There was a forest fire here in the 1960s and the trail we are on now is actually forestry road cut in to fight that fire. It's been replanted in jack pine, so the trail is forested but the trees are not tall.
The trail goes into some rolling hills. It's only a four-dog team pulling two middle-aged humans at a higher-than-normal altitude, so I pedal or run behind the sled on any up slope. Besides, I need the exercise. Another mile or so, and we're on an old airstrip. Doubtless it was put in to fight the old forest fire, but trees are encroaching on it now so it is no longer in use except for the snowmobiles and, today, a team of Inuit sled dogs. At the end of the airstrip, the trail turns into the woods again.
Stormy has been in harness for only one season, but I've learned to watch his ears. He hears things, especially engines. When there are no engines running nearby, his attention is focused forward on the trail. But, when he starts looking over his shoulder, I know that snowmobiles are approaching, even if I don't hear them myself. Suddenly, his ears are up and he's looking back. I hustle the team to the longest, most open stretch of trail I can get to, then stop and wait. Sure enough, they're up to us in a few moments. It is a family on two machines, each parent carrying a young child. They slow down and go around us with plenty of room to spare. We wave. They wave back, then are gone with a goose of the throttle. We're going in the same direction, so the dogs kick it in for a little while, enjoying the chase. But they soon slow back down to their working pace. As the snowmobiling family vanishes from sight and sound, I recall bringing our son and daughter here to ride in the sled. They're grown now and have other interests.
On the return half of the trip, I stop the dogs frequently to let them lap up a little snow. I talk with Flo, talk to the dogs and marvel at the scenery. Off to the south of Mt. Washington, we see the Three Sisters - three dormant volcanoes side by side. Satellite photos have shown a slight bulge near the South Sister, so some speculate that there may be an eruption there in the near future. We take in the vista for a few minutes. Then we're off again. Next stop - the parking lot with water and snacks for the dogs and lunch for us.
We pass the backside of Hayrick Butte to the main road. Smokey, bless him, takes a proper "haw" turn here. The road flattens out and the team picks up the pace. We're close to the truck now, and the dogs know it. For laughs, I try a little cowboy yodeling. It's the only way I have to get back at the dogs for the noise they made in the parking lot. I'm sure it's horrible, but Flo says nothing. Off in the distance to the north, is the ancient, crumbling Three Finger Jack. We've hiked into the lake at the foot of this mountain. I'm no geologist, but I believe it's a volcano that is much, much older than the others, and whose cone has eroded away, leaving only the rock core. It has an eerie, brooding appearance compared to the other peaks. It occurs to me that some sort of neo-pagan religion could likely be created around it.
Back at the truck, we unhook and tether the dogs, and relax a bit. Our little adventure is over for the day. The single entity that was our team and us is reduced to its component parts. Some cross-country skiers in the parking lot look at us with curiosity. No doubt they consider us eccentric and probably harmless, but they keep their distance.
The dogs are quiet. I figure that we actually tired them out on this trip, something that seldom happens on my typical training runs. Good. Maybe they'll stay quiet until we get home. We assess our run today: a ten-mile loop with a four-dog team at an altitude of 4500 feet -- 3500 feet higher than they are used to. It took about an hour and forty-five minutes. Not racing-fast, but not bad either.
But, it's not about time, speed and distance, is it? It may not be a religious experience, but for me it certainly is a spiritual one. It's about the love of this place, the sights, and our memories. It's about the mountains, the deep snow and the quiet footsteps of the dogs. It's about a hand-crafted wooden sled, Flo riding in the basket and the runners flexing under my feet. Mostly, it's about those wonderful, quirky Inuit dogs and their love for their innate purpose in life. I know what they can do from the many hours I've spent with them training them and learning from them. This day was truly the payoff.