BEGINNER BASICS: STARTER STORIES FOR THE NEW MUSHER

When Mushing editor Greg Sellentin asked us to write a series of stories for novice mushers, I hesitated. Miki and I had not been rookies in over 30 years.Then I started thinking about how much fun we had back in the mid-1970s when we started mushing. I thought about that first sensational, unbelievable, addictive thrill of speeding down a trail behind energetic huskies—the force, the speed, the living power train. I also thought about the many mistakes we made, most of which could have been avoided by following two basic rules:1. Inexperienced mushers should start with experienced dogs that already work together so they can teach you instead of you trying to teach them.2. Find a mentor or at least a good book to answer the many questions you will have when you first get started. Reinventing the wheel is frustrating. It’s a whole lot easier to learn from other people’s mistakes!Where to begin a story for beginners? How about in the beginning…Miki and I grew up around other people’s sled dogs. In bush Alaska in the 1960s, most folks still relied on dog teams for basic transportation, but our father put his trust in his airplane and his 1960 model Ski-Doo. Although we had a pet dog, as teenagers in the early 1970’s, a team of our own was an elusive dream because our parents packed us off to Fairbanks each winter for high school and college. Migrating by airplane in the spring and fall put a team out of reach until the two of us, along with our brother, joined forces with a neighboring family in town.By sharing a team, including costs and duties, we managed to start with four untrained Siberian Huskies and eventually added two pet malamutes from newspaper free-ads. A couple years later we acquired a stray husky, and finally our first trained sled dog.What a wild time we had with those dogs, and what a lot of mistakes we made. As many as four kids went out with the first four young dogs. Those who did not fit in the basket towed behind on a rope, either on skis or just running. Luckily the Siberians proved honest, eager workers, and the team was small enough to stop with the brake, because none of them responded to “Whoa!” Until our “lead dogs” learned commands, one of the extra mushers dashed up to take lead when necessary. Nobody told us to find a trained lead dog to teach the youngsters. That would have been a whole lot easier!Sometimes we took the team out into the woods on overnight camping trips. During college we often ran seven or eight dogs the 10 miles from our place over to the University of Alaska, hiding them in the woods while we went to class. Once we drove the dogs down a short flight of stairs outside the University library, sled runners clattering on the cement. At least they responded to “Whoa!” by the time our faulty gear gave way, releasing the entire intact team right outside the Bunnell Building.We mushed four miles to a local feed store to pick up dog food, and eight miles down to the edge of Fairbanks to shop at Bentley Mall (now engulfed by the growing town). We didn’t know anything about dedicated mushing trails. Instead of joining a local club to find out about safe, appropriate trails, we simply went out on local power lines, bike trails, snow machine trails, old mining roads, and the brand new Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline—anything we could reach from our back yard. Consequently we wrecked a few groomed cross-country ski trails, something I have felt terrible about ever since. We also inadvertently trespassed. A security guard along the Pipeline chewed us out before asking if our little Siberians were just pups, and an irate miner in Goldstream Valley shot a rifle as we sped by. We didn’t stick around to see if he was shooting at us. We didn’t know any better, but more research would have kept us out of trouble. One thirty-below night our leader pulled half the team through an open van door and onto the lap of the shocked driver. Another night alongside a busy road, the leader swung out onto the pavement and almost got hit by a car. We were warned off a popular trail moments before racers in the Open North American Championship roared through. We learned from hard knocks and thrived on excitement with youthful optimism, but some of the crazy stuff we did was dangerous and might have been avoided had we found a mentor.We grew up with the last generation of old-school bush mushers, the folks who ran dogs from necessity whether they enjoyed mushing or not and whether they were good trainers or not. Mushing was neither sport nor recreation; it was a way of getting from here to there without walking. Some of these folks were only one or two generations removed from ancestors who occasionally had to decide whether to feed what little they had to the dogs or the kids.Some old-school mushers neglected dogs in the summer. They pounded on a disobedient dog even if the dog was merely confused or uneducated. It took us years to learn new ways, better ways, such as showing a dog how to do it right, making it hard or unpleasant to do the wrong thing and diverting his attention from inappropriate behavior. We finally understood good timing and ready praise. We eventually learned about contagious behavior and breaking bad behavior cycles, about imprinting in puppies and about reducing aggression. But it took far too long because by the time we became serious mushers, the locals had all switched to snow machines. While going to school in Fairbanks we didn’t even know how to get involved with the mushing community, partly because as bush kids we were crippled by a petrifying shyness.In those first few years we had so many vicious dog fights that we carried a “beat ‘em up stick” in the sled. A good mentor would have told us that neutering our young males would usually nip the problem in the bud. Our first dogs had a lot of diarrhea because we didn’t know the average dog food wasn’t good enough for working dogs. We fed raw moose scraps because we didn’t know the meat could transmit a parasite (Echinococcus) to the dogs, who could pass the deadly larval form to humans. Since all the old-timers we knew let their dogs eat snow all winter, we didn’t water our dogs during freezing temperatures, and like them, we didn’t clean the yard as we should have. We overworked pups and young dogs trying to make them tough, not realizing that we were really making them sour. The information to correct these mistakes wasn’t readily available in books or magazines (and the internet didn’t exist), and we didn’t know any long-time mushers who could help us out. Often we did not even realize we had a problem because we didn’t know how much better things could be.We made our own equipment: a rickety sled from birch lumber sawed by hand, harnesses from Army surplus webbing, rigging cobbled from scrounged scraps of rope. A couple of harnesses inherited from old-timers had stuffer leather collars and single-trees. We built a 30-pound picket line for overnight trips from a bunch of snaps and short chains dropped from a long chain heavy enough to tow a truck. In the years to follow, we learned by trial and error to build sleds that held up to our rough trails, but continued to make things up as we went along instead of asking other people the best way to do it. After several years with naked runners we discovered UHMW plastic, a miraculous recent invention that people today take for granted. The moment we saw our first cable picket line, we dumped the 30-pound chain. As usual, we were so completely out of the loop we made these improvements 5 or 10 years after everyone else.Our initial attempts to raise puppies unfortunately reflected our uneducated enthusiasm. Our first husky pup came from the nondescript parents from a friend’s recreational team. We envisioned her growing into the lean, powerful, intelligent dog of our dreams. She matured into a short, clever, non-worker. Our first home breeding was between two 80-pound dogs, the perfect size for our trapline team. The offspring grew to 115-pound behemoths because we hadn’t known the dam’s malamute bloodlines were of that size.To beginners who want to build a team by breeding pups, the short answer is: Don’t! Mature, experienced dogs are so much easier to handle and they will teach you well. Too many homeless dogs are already crowding this old world and it doesn’t help things to breed backyard question marks.It took almost 10 years for us to recognize the numerous great benefits of neutering and spaying. At first we only spayed one or two females with hereditary problems. Then we neutered one or two males to cure their aggression. Gradually we realized how fun it was to run a happy bunch of dogs with no worries over accidental breedings or nasty fights. Slowly we learned how many health issues this eliminated: many kidney and urinary tract infections in males, certain cancers in both sexes, and female problems such as cystic ovaries, hyperplasia and false pregnancies. The dogs didn’t get skinny on difficult trips and our food bill dropped so much the savings more than covered the cost of the operations. Now in our yard of about 15 dogs, 70 to 80% of our males are neutered, and we try to maintain only one breeding female at a time. Only dogs with high breeding potential remain intact.Today we have reference books covering working dogs and all things canine: conformation and gaits, veterinary problems, pharmaceuticals, breeding, genetics, psychology, mushing how-to, mushing history and mushing adventures. But for the first few years we didn’t have any books at all. Then we stopped by the college bookstore and saw the 1976 edition of the book MUSH! Edited by Bell Levorsen for the Sierra Nevada Dog Mushers. We did not make purchases lightly, but Miki grabbed it. “We have to get this book!” From MUSH! We learned the correct terminology for our equipment, the different stages of puppy training, the dimensions of dog houses and truck boxes, the importance of recognizing heat exhaustion on warm days. Recently revised by Charlene G. LaBelle, it is still mandatory reading for inexperienced mushers.Later we found George Attla’s classic, Everything I Know About Training and Racing Sled Dogs, and then Racing Alaskan Sled Dogs compiled by Bill Vaudrin. Coupled with a good home veterinary book, these were about the only resources we had when we graduated in 1981 and moved home to run dogs on an 80-mile wilderness trapline. In seeking out a higher caliber of sled dogs for this demanding work, we at last began to meet experienced mushers. During the mid-1980s, we entered our oversized work dogs in a few (very few) races to expand our knowledge. We eagerly attended the early Alaska Dog Mushers Assocation Symposia in Fairbanks, and the first issues of Mushing appeared. Both provided an ongoing wealth of information.By 1991 when we wrote the first edition of our book, Dog Driver: A Guide for the Serious Musher, we had been running dogs for over 15 years and were just beginning to realize how much research we still had to do to create an in-depth book on mushing. Our journalism classes paid off not just in the writing, but also in the researching and interviewing we did to put in book form some of the depth of knowledge extracted from top mushers.Today, nearly 35 years after getting our first sled dog, we are still learning. After all the mistakes we made in those first few years, one of the most important lessons we learned was that problems have answers. You just have to know where to look for them! ●

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