Last weekend, Jackie-O, Martha, Barbara, Lady Bird, Lou Hoover, Lucy, Bill, and George were given a crash course in being true sled dogs; I took them to their first race.
There’s a first time for everything; I’ll mark the 32-mile, two-day race down in my dog team’s baby book. The litter of eight all white yearlings (named after the First Ladies and last two presidents) experienced many “firsts” all in one weekend and reacted in a variety of ways - some better than others.
-YEARLINGS’ FIRST NIGHT AWAY FROM HOME
A friend and I went to Seeley Lake the night before the race so we could get to the trail head early the next morning in plenty of time to prepare our gear and dogs.
Later that night at the motel, we got the dogs out of the truck to let them stretch their legs, do their business, and feed and water them.
It was a silent, peaceful winter night in Seeley Lake until I unloaded my dogs.
The yearlings went ballistic as soon as they hit the ground - barking, howling, jumping up and down in place. Their psychotic behavior infected the usually-calm adults, sending all nineteen dogs into Tasmanian Devil fits. They were ready to run - NOW.
In the past, whenever I unloaded the yearlings from their boxes, they always got to run immediately. This was the first time they would have to spend the night in the truck and wait until the next day to run. And all of Seeley Lake heard about it.
Then another musher decided to unload his calm, well-behaved team at the same time. When my dogs saw his, they turned into even greater lunatics, straining at the end of their tie-outs to get a whiff of these intruders. Little did they know - these strange dogs were only the beginning.
-YEARLINGS’ FIRST TIME PULLING A SLED
I took all nineteen of my dogs to Seeley and split the group almost in half. A friend ran nine adult dogs in one team. In the other group, I ran the eight yearlings behind their mother, Lolo, and aunt, Onion.
Until the race, the yearlings had never pulled a dog sled.
Last winter, they were just scrawny pups to small and goofy to do anything but play and eat and sleep. Since August 1st, they’ve pulled an all-terrain vehicle to build up muscle and prepare for the day they would pull a real sled across the snow.
When we finally left the starting line, the team loped along smooth and fast and content. They were happy to finally be running. But just a minute down the trail, it seemed to hit them all at the same time; they looked back in a panic to see where I was.
This time I wasn’t riding behind on a loud, rumbling ATV. The sled moved silently over the snow. Once they knew I was still with them, they pulled the sled like they’d been doing it for years.
-YEARLINGS’ FIRST PASS
Not only had my dogs not seen other sled dogs before, but at the race, they had to pass teams on a narrow trail.
Mushers have to train their teams to pass without getting tangled or stopping to visit with unfamiliar dogs.
I was nervous about passing because I had no idea how my team would react. But with Momma Lolo and Aunt Onion in lead, the pups just followed their cue. They passed perfectly. Except for their big mouths. They barked at the other dogs as they zipped by.
- MOM’S FIRST DAY OFF
Even though I was running mostly yearlings, I felt better knowing I had a brain up front with Momma Lolo in lead.
Aunt Onion has more experience than the youngsters, but is known for her puppy-like antics that often get her (and the rest of the team) into trouble. I relied on Lolo to keep the other nine dogs in line - quite a task for one 45-lb. female.
The yearlings are quick, agile, fearless. They want to run all out, all of the time. After about 20 miles, Lolo started to get tired trying to stay out in front of her eight kids. She was out of training for a few weeks due to a laceration on her leg so her fitness level is lower than the others.
I hated to take Lolo out of lead because I had not idea which, if any, of the yearlings would lead with crazy Aunt Onion. I loaded Lolo into the sled bag to give her a chance to ride and rest.
Now, I was no longer racing; I was training my yearlings to be leaders.
Lou Hoover is a lot like her mom; a hard worker, a worrier, a deep thinker, a perfectionist. She wants to please and she wants to do everything right. A good candidate for leader, I thought. So I moved her up front with Onion.
She was a little uncertain, looking back to make sure I was there and that all was okay. I reassured her with - good Lou, good girl. At the sound of my voice, she loped forward with more confidence.
We moved on down the trail. Not super fast, but forward - always a positive in dog mushing.
And Lolo sat up straight in the sled with her chest out, ears forward, watching her eight kids working in front of her.
She seemed pleased. Maybe, even for a dog, it was nice to see her children grown up, successful, doing what they loved.
Or maybe, more likely, she was just happy for the free ride - a chance to finally get some well-deserved rest after a year and a half of raising her crazy eight.
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