This is my attempt at describing what it’s like for me in Alaska. I’ll take a typical day and break it into separate posts, so you aren’t overwhelmed by text. This is the second post, covering my afternoons. Don’t miss the first post!
If you’ve never had the pleasure of working with fuel oil, let me tell you about it. It’s oily (yeah, surprise), smells terrible, and instantly permeates any fabric it touches. It’s like dunking yourself in motor oil and then trying to rinse off with gasoline. I usually end up coated in the stuff. I then have to spend a good hour scrubbing myself and my clothes with oil soap, so our cabin won’t smell like a truck stop.
Eventually, the sled dogs start barking excitedly, and I know that the boss is prepping to take out a team. I suit up (typical uniform for the usual below 20° temps: long underwear base layer top and bottom, sweatpants, waterproof pants, long sleeve shirt, sweatshirt, Carhartt jacket, thick socks, boot socks, Muck boots, buff, windstopper hat, mittens) and head out to the yard. If I make it out there before the boss, I uncover the sled and lay out the line. Then I start pulling harnesses out of the gear box in the middle of the yard while she secures the sled to a post and sets the snow hook. We then harness each of the day’s 8 to 12 team dogs.
Harnessing involves approaching a very excited dog with the harness (basically two padded rings with webbing between them and a loop for pulling the sled at the end), getting the dog to jump on its house, slipping the harness over the dog’s head, pulling the dog’s collar through the harness loops so the collar sits higher on the dog’s neck than the harness, unhooking the dog’s chain and pulling it through the harness, rehooking the dog’s chain, getting the dog to slip its legs through the first harness ring, unhooking the dog’s chain again, walking the very excited and sometimes screaming dog (out of excitement!) over to the hookup line. The hookup line is a chain strung along several posts, with tie-outs coming off at intervals long enough to prevent fights and/or matings while dogs are being brought to the line.
Once all the dogs are harnessed and on the hookup line, we begin adding them to the sled line, first attaching their collars to a short neckline, then the back loop of their harness to the tug line, both of which are attached to the sled line. After all but the lead dogs are hooked up, I go jump on the sled and hold down the brake and snow hook, just in case the rope tied to the post fails. Every dog on the line is barking at the top of their lungs (so are the rest of the dogs in the yard, actually), all are trying to pull the sled, and some are springing high into the air every couple of seconds. All communication with the boss at this point is done by hand signals.
Some things I’ve learned about hooking up dogs:
- Some of the dogs like to show their excitement by trying to shove their paws in your face. Their paws have claws attached to them. Claws > the skin on your face. These dogs are best harnessed on the ground, and not on their houses, where they would have the benefit of being at eye level with you.
- Never, under any circumstances, try to control the biggest, squirmiest dog (pictured above) with a single index finger hooked through the loop of said dog’s collar. He will invariably launch himself off his house between your arm and your body, nearly ripping off your index finger until you let go at the last second, and take off down the trail until he gets distracted by a shiny object or a female sled dog in heat, and you can catch him.
- Some dogs get so excited, they poop themselves while being harnessed. Don’t laugh at them, they can still claw your face off.
- Some male dogs show their excitement by humping anything they can get their paws around, be it a female dog (even spayed females), other male dogs, a post, or your leg. It’s okay to make them stop.
Once she gets the leaders hooked up and pointed down the trail, she takes over on the sled, unties the rope, preps herself, pulls the snow hook, and takes off!
As they leave the yard and turn out on the trail, all the dogs left in the yard slowly stop barking, and eventually they begin to howl mournfully. This lasts a few minutes, and then all is quiet again. I head up to the house and dump more raw meat in a bucket, add hot water, and bring it back out to the gear box. I also scoop up anything left by the dogs at the hookup line. Then I go inside and wait. Every time the sled dogs start barking, I have to go to the window to see if the boss is on her way back yet (she’s usually gone for one to two hours), so it’s pretty hard to concentrate on anything important for that time.
Once I see the team headed back across the field behind our cabin, I pull on my jacket, hat, and mittens, and head out to the hookup line. As the team comes into the yard, I coax the leaders to keep the dogs pulling up to the last post, and then unhook one leader from the line so I can attach the line to the secure hookup line, preventing the dogs from veering around with a long length of knee-level rope. We detach the tug lines, unharness the dogs, and put them back on the hookup line. Then I go around and dish out broth from the bucket I prepared earlier. We coil up the line, push the sled back up to the starting position, and cover it back up.
Now it’s time for lunch, which is usually a PB and J. I love peanut butter and jelly, and I have no problem eating one every day. And I basically have eaten one every day, for about 2 years now. Love love LOVE PB and J.
Right, so the next hour or so is spent working on whatever projects I have given myself, usually editing photos or looking to see if anyone has downloaded any of my pictures.
I take our two dogs out again, and if it’s not too cold, we play fetch. The “too cold” line seems to hover around 12°F. Any colder than that, and they start lifting their cold cold paws and hobble around trying to pee and poop as quickly as possible so they can get back inside and back on the couch.
Next:Part 3, Evenings