RUNYAN JOURNALS: SPOT, THE LEAD DOG

Of the hundreds of sled dogs and hunting dogs that I have known over a lifetime, now well past half a century, and the countless others I have discussed at coffee tables around the world, no dog stands in such pathetic relief as my lead dog Spot.Spot, I am embarrassed to admit, was sustained by me for 18 years, the limit of his life. In my opinion, during that time he never exerted any effort beyond the bare minimum required by circumstance.I acquired Spot in 1976 as a pup knowing that he was probably half sheep dog mutt. He was blue brindled, compact, and otherwise undistinguished. I named him Spot simply because that was the most common name you could give a dog and had nothing to with whether he had a spot or not. Friends of mine that knew him sometimes endeared him by calling him “Spotty,” but still, it had nothing to do with his physical appearance.The first real test of Spot’s spineless approach to life came at the age of two years in the early spring. Spot and I had spent a lot of time together and over the course of idle moments he had learned to stay, gee, haw, come back, and “hike” ahead with flawless accuracy. In fact, he was so unerring that I used him as a loose leader on many occasions, especially on very dangerous ice crossings, to test a trail over bad ice. Early the previous fall, for example, I had crossed the mouth of Mason Slough on glare ice and traveled down the Yukon River. On the following day I returned to find that the expanse of ice was pock marked with open holes. I unsnapped Spot and directed him out on the ice and gave him some remote control verbal commands to get his butt out there and test the ice.All though his work ethic was deplorable in harness, Spot had cultivated a wonderful sense of survival. He was careful to make sure the ice was good enough and strong enough to support him. About two-thirds of the way across the mouth of the slough I told him to whoa and lay down. The team and I followed his trail and soon pulled up behind Spot. While I held the team, Spot worked his way to the far bank and lay down another trail. There, I told him to whoa and wait for us to catch up to him.As far as I could observe, Spot never put any discernible effort into pulling. However, he learned to maintain an industrious illusion by just maintaining a taught tug line. To test this phenomenon I once tied a long string to his harness. With my index finger on the string, I was able to bring Spot about six inches back to the sled, and then by releasing my pressure on the string, move him forward. While, the rest of the dogs were breaking trail and leaning into their harness with powerful purpose, Spot had found the sweet spot where his limpid tug line just straightened to an appearance of effort. He remains the most pathetic sled dog I have ever owned.Knowing this, Spot’s job was to break trail in front of the team to camp as loose leader. In this position, he couldn’t fake it. I will admit he excelled here, possibly because he understood that straight lines demanded the least effort. After we crossed Mason Slough, the snow usually got heavier in the downriver direction. Therefore, I kept Spot out of harness and told him to take us to camp. His method of operation was to bound through the snow for a couple of hundred yards, then lay down like he was having a cardiac arrest. When the team and I got within about twenty yards, I told him to get going and that I felt no sympathy for his situation. He would do the same drill a few times again, and then finally decide to just get to camp—where I would find him waiting by the cabin door a couple of hours later. He would collapse in a dramatic demonstration of exhaustion by the barrel stove, rising only to go outside when he sensed it was mealtime.But back to our story. Despite his deficiencies, Spot was likeable and for that reason I took him with me for the first boating expedition of the spring to pick up my supplies at my trap camp. Unfortunately, the code of the north was in jeopardy with the advent of the jet boat. Dip wad jerk moose hunters and travelers on the Yukon would ransack all my traps and gear over the summer and fall, so I was forced to retrieve them every spring. On this particular spring trip, I know there could be a bear problem because I had left some split dog food salmon at the cabin site. The Yukon was running high and I was able to tie the boat to the willows on the bank just where my winter dog trail portaged to the cabin. The grass on the trail was flat on the ground and the trail was obviously used by bears—so I was definitely on point and put my rifle on the porch of the cabin. I also assumed that Spot would give me an early warning if a bear was in the area looking for an easy meal. I continued to walk back and forth from the cabin and the fish racks back to the boat.In the early evening, the inevitable occurred and a black bear appeared to claim the fish pile. I expected Spot to defend his master, but he evaporated into the brush in another guiltless and pathetic aversion to any kind of responsibility. The black bear kept coming, and I ran the world’s record to the porch of the cabin, got my rifle, and dispatched the bear. About an hour later Spot reappeared from the woods. There was no attempt to excuse or exonerate Spot’s behavior. Everyone knew the truth. Still, the kids found something redeeming in his pathetic character, and he was allowed to run loose all summer at fish camp.The following winter we prepared the team for our first Iditarod. By race time, I had fifteen dogs, including Spot. At that time, 1983, twenty dogs was the team limit allowed by the Iditarod rules. I included Spot in a hopeless gesture to improve the team power. In somewhat of a career record, I started with fifteen dogs and finished with fifteen and placed 11th. Although Spot did finish the Iditarod and did walk the entire 1100 miles of Alaska wilderness trail under his own power, Spot distinguished himself with the most pathetic, lack luster, ignominious performance in Iditarod history. Truthfully, Spot never pulled the entire way except, in a momentary display of exuberance at the start in Anchorage, when he leaned into the harness out of the start chute. He quickly came to his senses and never, in my view, put anything on the towline except when he accidentally leaned forward for a snack. Still, he was an Iditarod finisher and an accomplishment my kids would use to rationalize his status as our only housedog. When I told Rick Swenson about Spot, he observed that I would have gone faster if I’d dropped him at a checkpoint and just gone on without him. This was a big lesson, and of course, I owed that learning experience to Spot. Incidentally, in those days it was common for buyers to walk the finisher’s dog yard behind the Iditarod headquarters and look to purchase dogs that finished, since this was proof that they had the physical abilities to run the Iditarod. No one asked about the chubby “brindle” dog on the picket line, who seemed to have so remarkably maintained his weight to the finish line. I never received an offer for Spot.Obviously, as an ethical issue, I could never allow Spot’s influence to ever enter the gene pool of the Alaskan Husky. Despite his pathetic performances as a sled dog, Spot imagined himself as a sort of caddish French “boulevardier” and spent most of his time swaggering casually along the long rows of sled dogs. Therefore, Spot was scheduled at the veterinarian’s office for a fairly drastic yet common procedure in the canine world. When I saw him leave the dog yard in the back seat of the truck, sitting next to the kids, I fully expected that he would return as a neutered model canine citizen. However, residing deep within his psyche must have been an awareness of his situation and a realization of the consequences.Later that evening he returned from Fairbanks, and he had defied the logic of even his most ardent supporters at PETA who would argue that his aversion to work was justified. Still, his buddies at PETA would have paid for his ticket to the veterinarian and not felt any philosophical remorse. Spot was in a very real existential crisis.Spot compromised and, in my experience, is the only housedog I have ever met who negotiated with the veterinarian and opted to have a vasectomy. He spent the remainder of his 18 years dividing his time either strolling the dog yard or lounging in the house. We never missed an indication that a female was possibly in heat, which somewhat rationalized his job position. Admittedly, Spot had a sense of balance in his personality. He would greet all humans, and introduce himself, but he was not one of those fawning dogs that wanted to crawl in your lap, and he liked to hang out with kids. This may have been his only concession to work since he was required to pull the kids around with their little sled to the bus stop. Of course, if he pulled one of the kids to the bus stop, it was necessary to picket him out on a spruce tree off to the side of the road so he would be there when the bus came back later in the afternoon, as he’d be needed for the ride back home. Eventually this brought up an interesting security issue. The kids had a short conversation about an important consideration: would anyone steal Spot at the bus stop? It kind of boiled down to one central issue: would anybody want him? After reminiscing about the time he consumed pounds of rotten moose meat, or rolled in the mud, the whole conversation about Spot being hijacked from the bus stop wilted.Spot did possess one redeeming quality. He was loyal. So, when he went to the big trail in the sky a day after Christmas, it was a sad day. Of course, he was remembered as an Iditarod finisher.

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