Almost any way you look at it, Beetle-Bug is not a very good sled dog. Born in our 2012 “Bug” litter of husky pups, he lacks the smooth fast trot of his brother Cricket, the power and superior conformation of his sister Junebug or the cheery drive of his other sister Skeeter-Bug.
Beetle’s 90-pound weight combined with the leggy height we need for pushing through deep snow look good superficially, but all that weight and height are not hung together very well. Perhaps his shallow chest, spindly legs and lack of musculature prevent him from pulling hard in the team. Or maybe, unlike his better-than-average siblings, he just can’t be bothered.
Below ears that fall comically forward at the tips, his pretty black and white mask nearly hides dark brown eyes that, although small, twinkle with an affectionate charm. Gypped out of the higher intelligence of many dogs, his gentle loyalty makes up for both that and his somewhat less-than-average sled dog qualities. “Down to the river,” I shout, laughing to watch a thundering herd of loose huskies wheel shore-ward, while Beetle instead cocks his head whimsically, peering my way: “Huh? What’s happening, now?”
Beetle’s adventures started early. When he was just three and a half months old, I found him shivering in the puppy pen, so weak he refused to even stand. Lugging the lanky 45-pound behemoth back to the house in my arms, I set him gently on a rug and took his temperature. A little shock ran through me when I read the thermometer: 105.5°!
Where we live in the Alaskan bush, a visit to a veterinarian usually means waiting for the twice-weekly mail plane before paying for $400 round trip tickets to Fairbanks for dog and handler. Consequently, when a dog needs doctoring, we usually do the job ourselves, consulting with a professional by phone when necessary.
An exam revealed no injuries, but because the dogs had been catching muskrats and snowshoe hares on their loose runs, a rapid-onset high fever made me suspect tularemia. Over the phone, Dr. Maddux, DVM suggested trying the antibiotics I had on hand, along with an anti-inflammatory and backed up with subcutaneous fluids to reverse his mild dehydration.
Julie happened to be in Fairbanks and picked up some additional drugs from the vet, and instead of waiting for the mail plane, sent them out with a friend flying my way that very day. Returning from the three-hour round trip to the airstrip to pick up the medications, I found my big black and white puppy feeling much better. “Went out, piddled a LOT,” I noted in his records.
It wasn’t until that night that a trace of bloody drool led me to discover a painful infection hidden inside Beetle’s mouth. The antibiotics quickly took care of his problems, although months later I noticed a missing canine; whether due to the aftermath of this infection or some later injury. I never knew.
His next adventure followed less than a month later. Two old leaders, Clarence and Jiles, left for a short walk-about, and all four half-grown “Bugs” tagged along. When the adults returned alone, Julie and I took turns making mile-long hikes up and down the river that runs by our isolated home. Two of the half-grown miscreants popped in as we traded places, with a third appearing shortly. Still missing: Beetle.
Evening crept grimly in, hastened by the steady, chilly early-October rain that had beaten down all day. After a third mile-long search, worry settled in more strongly. Was our goofy, uncoordinated pup gone for good? Had he been grabbed by a wolf? Stomped by a moose? Or just lost, wandering alone and scared through the marshes?
In the darkness we fed the dogs on their pickets, and once they finished, Julie and I sat on over-turned dog buckets. As silence slipped over the dark yard, we set up an evening howl. Always in a singing mood after feeding, the dozen big huskies in the yard quickly picked up our tones, sending their voices out loud and long.
Listening hard as the wild, heart-quivering song faded, we finally heard a distant, frightened little voice calling dismally back: “Woooo! Oooooo-ooo! Oo-ooo-ooo!”
The sound came from over a mile up river, and we instantly surmised Beetle had crossed the distant Yazoo Creek in a shallow spot, become separated from his compatriots, and couldn’t find a good crossing to return. With Clarence and Jiles running along loose to help locate the missing pup, I hiked off upriver in the pitch blackness, crashing through sodden willows, stopping occasionally to listen for Beetle’s pitiful ‘Help-I’m-stuck’ wail.
I found him on the bank of Yazoo, right where we’d pegged him except, apparently emboldened by my approach, he’d swum to my side. Throwing his dripping wet, shivering body into my arms, he blubbered and sobbed, expounding in lengthy detail about his travails, how scared he’d been, and how glad he was to see me.
The pup was so tired I might have carried him if he’d been half his 50-lb. weight. He stuck so close he trod on my heels all the way home, and after a hot meal, passed out on the rug for about twelve hours. (Then went out. And piddled, a LOT.)
Maybe that’s why Beetle grew up to be so affectionate. Trained not to throw his 90-pound bulk at the ones he adores, he instead sits up, rump on ground, to pat me with big, snowy-white fore paws. Even though he never pulls very hard, he not only stops on command, but, like his grandfather Clarence, will do his best to drag the other dogs to a halt as well, even if I am no longer connected to the sled.
March 2019 proved by far the warmest on record throughout Alaska. Trails normally passable for several more weeks melted to slush that sent the dogs slopping through to the ground. Refreezing on colder nights turned slush into hard lumpy slickness and left the trail dished so if I didn’t brake lightly, my 8 1/2-foot basket sled tried to climb the sides of the narrow track with resultant crashes. Even poles from long-dead trees fallen ground across the unimproved trail reappeared, to the detriment of my sled brake.
Making a final run out the trapline at the end of the month to close up a nearby cabin and a tent camp 10 miles beyond that, I avoided afternoon softening of the frozen-slush trail by leaving home at 7 a.m. Although five dogs could have easily pulled the sled across the slick surface, I brought eight, including Beetle, but left two running loose. If the sun melted the trail back into slush before I reached camp, I’d need the extra power. Except for one overflowed creek, the dogs and I found the 15-mile run to the cabin fast and problem free.
The arthritis in my right knee had flared up a few days earlier, leaving the supporting muscles so crampy that I used ski poles as walking aides as I puttered around preparing to close up camp. All around, sounds of melting snow, exuberant red poles, and the tootling of boreal owls backed up the rich, moist scent of spring.
Our peaceful afternoon setting was interrupted abruptly when the dogs leaped to their feet, barking angrily as they tested a southeast breeze. Wolves, I figured, when some of my crew raised their ruffs threateningly. Just in case an early bear had started his rounds I kept the .44 pistol handy.
Moments into the outbound run early the next morning, I realized the tracks sunk deep into the trail 100 yards beyond the cabin weren’t common moose tracks. They were grizzly tracks. Big ones, splatted into slush of the previous afternoon’s thaw, fortunately doubling back away from the cabin and cutting off my trail, probably due to those vehement threats hurtled by my picketed dogs.
I traveled with my left heel braced on the left runner, left toes depressing the brake just enough to keep the long sled tracking on the bumpy, icy trail, and the foot of my arthritic right leg lightly resting on the right runner.
Eight miles out, as we tipped over the rim of a vegetated prehistoric sand dune to careen down the steep drop, I realized if I didn’t immediately add more braking power my sled, already traveling over 15 mph, would smash into one of the spruce trees lurking near the bottom. Without taking time to rebalance and square up my footing, I whipped my right foot off the runner to depress the brake with all my weight into the frozen slush.
I don’t know if the brake teeth snagged a log or caught in ice. I don’t really know what happened. All I know is I felt a savage jolt that triggered a pop in that right knee followed by enough pain to knock me down into a squat, left toes still braking for all I was worth as I shouted at the careening dogs to Whoa!
Good boys, they did. I hopped around to sit on my sled, waiting for the pain to abate. Although nearly non-weight-bearing, the knee injury felt similar to a muscle tear I’d suffered from during a sled crash the year before. Common sense told me to turn back, but if I did, that tent camp, only two miles away, would be left for bears to destroy. And returning to the cabin, eight miles back, meant doubling the team and long freight sled around on a narrow trail, not an easy task even with two sound legs.
I stood up, resumed the runners, and, leaning against the handle bow, right foot barely balanced on the runner, slithered painfully on, the frequent jarring skids and bumps shooting spasms of pain through the muscles. By the time we reached camp, I stood slumped over the handle bow to keep as much weight as possible off the leg. Calling the dogs back to me, I sat on the sled to unharness each. Only by using the ski poles as marginally-adequate crutches could I feed them and get everything except the tent cached by evening. Contacting my sister Julie by ham radio, I informed her of my woes.
In the morning I took my time closing up the little camp, hoping a trail slightly softened by sun might prove easier to navigate but knowing a late start might mean collapsing surfaces by early afternoon. I couldn’t handle a hot team so I left four of my eight dogs loose. I debated putting on Beetle’s neckline, possibly creating one more tangle I’d have an extremely painful time fixing. But I knew if I lost that team, I’d be facing a potentially life-threatening situation. Hitching the big dog in wheel, I snapped on his neckline not because he needed it but because if necessary I could count on him to drag against the line to halt the others.
I made it a mile, as painfully as the day before. Then, just as the dogs surged forward at the scent of caribou, the sled slammed into a hummock protruding into the left side of the trail right, simultaneously snapping around a sharp left-hand corner. The violent motion whipped me off my remaining sound foot, and only four and a half decades of practice allowed me to land with that knee perilously perched on one runner, injured leg whapping painfully across frozen tussocky ground.
“Whoa!” I shrieked. Hot for caribou, the dogs didn’t want to stop. My ski poles, survival gear and radio were stored in the sled (not on my person, as at least the radio should have been under the circumstances). Unable to walk, if I lost the team now I’d be both incommunicado and completely immobilized. Damp, injured people don’t always last long, even without spring grizzlies on the prod.
The sled, careening toward another two-foot-high hummock, wouldn’t stay under me for long. Managing a peek at the still-racing team, I saw only my lanky black and white wheel dog slacking up and looking back at me, his twinkly eyes now dark with concern. I was about to loose my precarious grip and watch the team depart along with my survival gear.
“Beetle!” I wailed. “Whoa!”
I glimpsed my hero as he set back against his neckline. A single dog requires a lot of courage to stop a sprinting team. Beetle had it. Dragging hard, eyes rolling, he slowed his teammates and brought them to a halt, anchoring the eager dogs only with his loyal determination.
My dear old not-so-great sled dog saved the day, and possibly my life. Digging my radio out I called for a rescue before snuggling painfully into my heavy winter sleeping bag under a beaming March sun. Just four hours later, the distant buzz of snow machines as Julie and our neighbor arrived brought a thrilled collective gasp from the dogs. Tom handed me a mug of much-needed hot chocolate, and three hours later found us back at the trapline cabin, me riding ignominiously behind Julie’s machine, Tom towing my dogsled, and eight burly dogs gleefully scampering loose.
After spending a painful night, we headed into a brisk 10°F morning at 7 a.m., racing to catch the mail plane that would be landing that afternoon. Just a few hours later I was winging for Fairbanks, where X-rays the next day finally revealed the problem: my femur had split vertically from the center of the knee, the crack slanting outward to snap off one of the knobs that forms the upper part of the knee and displacing the broken bone half an inch upward. (“It was a mess in there,” my surgeon later advised me.) No wonder I was having trouble driving a recalcitrant sled!
So Beetle-Bug doesn’t set a fast pace. His gaits and conformation aren’t great, and his pulling ethics leave much to be desired.
But you know what? He’s the best.
Miki and Julie Collins have been mushing a trapline of up to 80 miles in bush Alaska for over 35 years. They have made numerous wilderness expeditions by dog team and authored three books, including Dog Driver: A Guide for the Serious Musher, a book for all mushers.