ARCTIC TRAVELER: MALAMUTE FREIGHTERS

We’re happy to bring you this new multi-part series from Joe Henderson. Readers of Mushing Magazine will be familiar with Joe and his solo treks in the Brooks Range of Alaska with his team of 22 malamutes. (See Mushing Magazine issues #111 & 118) We were so excited and astounded with Joe’s adventures we asked him to write a bit more about his dogs, gear, feeding routines and other little nuggets of wisdom he has learned while spending months alone with his dogs in the arctic. Enjoy. G.S. Freight hauling is an art lost through time since the last mail carriers of the 1930’s. Those dog teams were symbols of the gutsy and tough mushers who broke trails and built the reputation of perseverance and reliability. They traveled thousands of miles trudging over tundra, frozen rivers, and through biting windstorms behind their powerful and loyal dogs. Oftentimes, they risked life and limb delivering mail and sorely needed supplies to Alaskan villagers and gold miners. It must have been, and is now, a challenge to put together a healthy, well-tuned freight team as the old sourdoughs did in the early days. For me, hearing a team trot in perfect unity on hard pack crusted snow is music. One of the breeds that have mastered this orchestra is the Alaskan malamute. Malamutes love to pull and are true freighters. These guys are powerhouses and training them takes a world of patience. Amongst the things I teach these guys and gals, and the most important one, is their obedience to the commands for stop and go. On expeditions, it’s absolute necessary for survival that the team is able to stop and go on verbal command with no reliance on a snow hook. Those commands are the first thing I incorporate in a team. Picture this scenario: I am running my team down a winding glacial river; the temperature is -45F. The malamutes’ brushy tails are up and they are relieved to be on the smooth ice. The cool air stings my eyelids as the sound of the brake grinds on the ice, churning up white crystals that settle on the back of my parka and mukluks. The sled easily fishtails around the bend of the river where ahead of me is light fog. Going further, I suddenly realize the mistake I just made as the ice sags under the weight of the dogs. “Whoa,” I yell. Too late! The sled drops a foot deep through the ice and stops the dogs dead in their tracks. The cold water seeps into my fur boots, piercing my toes in pain as I splash through the water to the front of the sled, which is partially underwater and stuck under a layer of ice. Unlashing my axe, I grab it and hastily start chopping away at the ice that is holding the sled tight. All the while, the dogs are waiting patiently in their positions, lines slack, and listening for the command to go. Satisfied that my work is good enough for the sled to be freed, and knowing time is of the essence for survival, I quickly toss the axe on the sled, stand beside the front of the sled, and call, “OK!” All the dogs simultaneously lunge their heavy, massive bodies into their harnesses. The ice cracks, lines snap, and the sled jerks violently forward. Grabbing the handlebars as they go by and stepping on the runners, I direct the team to the riverbank and pitch camp.Hopefully, you will not experience a scenario as the one I just described. Nonetheless, whether I am running 3 malamutes or a 25-dog team, training them to go on command actually starts with the team learning to stop by verbal command without using the sled brake. This may sound backwards, but in a dog’s mind, it makes perfect sense. Once stopped, they are poised to go again immediately. This is where I tap into their sudden explosive power. The icy story above is a true one several times over. I have been able to pull thousands of pounds over mountain passes and up glacial rivers by training with this technique.Training a team of eager dogs to sit tight and wait for the command to go is a challenge. We all know the phenomenon “harness banging” where the dogs lunge into their harnesses uncontrollably, pulling the snow hook, and leaving a musher in their wake. When training my malamutes I like to start with four or five dogs, teaching them to stop instantly on command then building the team size. I use a positive reinforcement method as a reward: snacks, treats, and pets work wonders for any dogs. After I am confident they know the stop command, it is time to work on the go. Of course this command is easy for them to master. After all, this is what these guys and gals live for. But, the key for them to master this command is not relying on the snow hook, and the following story is an example of why.Let’s say I’m running a team out in the middle of nowhere. I stop to pour myself a nice hot cup of coffee from my thermos. Accidentally, the cup slips out of my mitted hands and falls to the ground beside the snow hook. I bend over to pick it up but the dogs think I’m pulling the hook and off they go. The result:watching a team of brushy-tailed, happy malamutes take off without me. Dogs feed off body language, not only amongst themselves but also from a person. And they’ll surely key in on the old snow hook routine. They know what a person’s going to do before the person does, or so they think. Working in this degree of training with any team, especially malamutes, I feel like some kind of dog psychiatrist. I visualize the team as a group of kids: intelligent, resourceful, yet never ceasing trying to get away with something I’d rather them not. Just as with kids, it is important to be unpredictable. In other words, I do not let them guess my next move before I do. A good way to teach a team of malamutes to be calm before the command to go is by walking around the team a few times. I usually have a cup of coffee and relax for a while, or just sit on the sled for a few minutes. Their eyes will be glaring at me, trying to key on the slightest clue that I am about to give that “magic” command—the one word that Alaskan malamutes dream about nightly—“OK!” And they’re off!Putting together a team of malamute freighters or expedition dogs involves both psychological and physical training. It is ideal to build their confidence one step at a time. After the dogs believe their strength is invincible, I protect their confidence carefully and never let them down.Once my team has mastered the stop and go commands, whether we’re on glare ice, or descending a mountain pass, they should stop immediately with a single word, and go with another command. The team will have bulletproof confidence and pull some amazingly heavy loads with ease. The big confidence and morale buster is the team fizzling out under a load. This is where constant care from myself as the musher comes in. Let us say the malamutes and I are climbing up a mountain pass. The dogs’ panting becomes more noticeable and their pace slows. The snow brushes up against the bottom their bellies as the team and I climb higher toward the summit. “Whoa,” I tell them. They halt immediately and look back at me. “OK!” They lunge into their harnesses at the command with new vigor. Several times throughout a hard pull this routine might have to be repeated, and with this method the team will never lose their confidence.Nutrition and conditioning go hand-in-hand, but how do I gauge the dogs for optimal performance, positive mental health, and overall health? A freight dog will burn a tremendous amount of calories working heavy loads in extreme winter conditions, so I really “pour the food down the hatch” with these guys. Since, individual dogs have separate metabolisms, the amount of food varies with each one. There are several ways to check their fat levels daily. On an expedition team I prefer to feel the fat flush across the hipbones. In other words, if I can feel their hips I’ll add more food to their feedings. Some people consider this fat, but working a team under adverse loads and conditions, camping every night without straw or windbreaks, and enduring multiple days and nights of -90F wind chill, the dogs need this extra layer of energy. In this arctic environment, I check their fat levels in the morning and evening.Twice a day, I feed the team a high quality food such as Caribou Creek Gold, water, and lard or fish oil. During the day of freighting, I always snack them with Champaine brand meats. In addition, I am always careful to avoid “spiking” my dogs’ diet. I just keep a steady program of healthy food, water, and maintain a consistent level of fat on each dog. Conditioning a team of freighters takes us into an arena by itself. It goes beyond physical training and into the mental element as well. Malamutes have a distinct aroma of egotism, or a hierarchy order that is re-established every year. It is amusing to watch them grunt, growl, hackle up, and walk around stiff legged, like mating grouse. I use one team of 22 malamutes for the expeditions, and every fall I have the honor of watching this ridiculous episode of drama amongst them. However, this is an important part of the training process. Freighters need muscle, so strength building is the first form of training I use with the malamutes. At the beginning of the season, I start out with small teams of 6 to 8 dogs for light 15-minute runs 2 or 3 times a week, increasing the length of time each run. When the dogs get loose and their muscles are stretched, I add weight to the sleds immediately. There is one peculiar aspect in a malamute that is very different from a husky breed; they despise running fast or at a lope. Therefore, it’s important to get the weight in the sled early on. They love to pull and without the resistance of the heavy sleds, they become stressed both physically and mentally and start nipping at their running mates in order to slow them down. Another strategy malamutes use is the notorious pee-fest technique. This is where all the male dogs lift their legs on every tree or bush by the trail. It makes a very jerky and uncomfortable ride for the frustrated musher, to say the least.After a few weeks on this schedule, these guys start looking like little Arnold Swarzeneggers. The bigger males will literally throw themselves into their harnesses on hard pulls and growl, “showing their stuff” seemingly to impress their running mate. Over a month of weight training, I start on the stamina routine. Alaskan malamutes condition quickly due to their genetic makeup, and partly due to their phenomenal ability to “cap” their energy. Some folks would consider this behavior laziness. Actually, this action falls in line with self-preservation. Malamutes have been dragging sleds over the frozen arctic tundra for centuries, and just like a gambler, “they know when to hold ‘em and when to play ‘em.” Many times, I have stood on the runners awestruck watching their “laziness” explode into pure emotional and physical power. With this conservativeness in mind, and the vulnerability for the malamute to get outright bored, I prefer one hour runs, three days a week, then work towards a six-day schedule, gradually increasing the running time. Boredom is always the biggest challenge for the malamute to overcome with a training schedule as the one I just described, so I run the team in different areas every day. And they are always excited for a camping trip at least once a week to fire up their enthusiasm. The main thing I like is maintaining a healthy, fun schedule for the dogs. A great way to gauge malamutes’ mental aptitude is to simply watch their tails. Their tails are flags of their well being. When they are up, they are happy, if they sag they’re getting stressed, and if they drop, there’s something wrong… either injury, heavy stress, or poor nutrition. In addition, a sure fire gauge to judge a dog’s health is how much enthusiasm they have being hitched into the team. The most important aspect in a working malamute is their positive, enthusiastic attitude, and the sheer desire to pull. It is the foundation and the result of good training, nutrition and dog care. It’s what makes these dogs thrive. When they see a harness or a sled their excitement overtakes them. Even the 14 year-old veterans act as if they are pups again. All in all, seeing a team of healthy and happy malamutes sitting on their haunches with their muzzles raised toward the arctic moon, howling with excitement about the day to come; for the team and me, that’s what it’s all about.Joe Henderson has been working with Alaskan Malamutes for 25 years. He and his team spend most of the winter dogsledding alone in the arctic and end each season offering clients remote expeditions throughout Alaska.For more information, please visit Joe’s website at: www.alaskanarcticexpedition.com

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