Dropping the Dogs: Notes on Sled Dogs, Romance, and Routine
I’ve always suffered from the suspicion that wherever I was, a better, more interesting life was happening somewhere else. If I had been born a little earlier or in this or that city, or had taken one path instead of another. Other times, it seems life is crouching in wait for me in the coming years, or that it passed by without my noticing when I was younger. This other, imaginary life which exists only in some abstract plane, not subject to practical considerations such as food, bills, or bodies, is almost always more alluring than whatever present reality I find myself in. It is the kind of life that movies are based upon, a life unencumbered by the details of day-to-day survival, the slowly unraveling coils of time, and it is always occurring somewhere else, somewhere just over the horizon, just out of sight. And so I must go looking for it.
This is how I end up, in January 2016, standing in a snow-covered parking lot next to a bus station in Jackson, Wyoming, where two dozen dog sled teams are preparing for the ceremonial opening run of the twenty-first annual Wyoming Eukanuba State Stop Dog Sled race, an eight day event that takes the mushers and their teams through over three hundred miles of remote hilly terrain in the northern Rockies of Western Wyoming and swaths of eastern Idaho. In the lot with me, trucks pulling trailers and RV’s are parked at all angles with license plates from all the snowy places: Minnesota, Michigan, Oregon, Montana, Washington, Alberta. The men stand around smoking or drinking coffee or saying hello to the other mushers – It’s a small sport, after all, and many of the teams know each other from other races.
The dogs are kenneled in homemade boxes built onto the trucks, or in trailers that have been modified into kennels, or in one case, a bed of hay in the back of a large SUV. Others stand tethered in a halo around vehicles. There are, at the moment, by my estimation, about four hundred or so dogs in this parking lot. You can hear them, scooting around, whimpering, and occasionally more: for instance when a team of dogs walks by a kennel, a storm of howls is summoned from within. You can see them, standing around, hopping on their short leads, restless, ready to run. They are everywhere: sniffling and pawing, whining and panting, pissing and licking, everywhere, everywhere, dozens of dogs are doing their doggy thing, either inside their kennels or hooked on necklines to the trucks that carry their kennels, filling the air with their sounds and smells.
I’m here helping out Cold Smoke Kennels out of Fairbanks, Alaska (so named because of the plume of thin snow that the sled leaves in its wake). My old high school buddy who now lives in Alaska, Stu, called me up and invited me to come help handle the dogs for his girlfriend, Avery, who is Cold Smoke’s owner and musher. Lean, quiet, brisk, efficient – everything about her bearing and movement speaks to a competence that bleeds into impatience. At the moment, she’s squatting and stirring a slop of raw meat and water, which will be poured over the kibble for the dogs’ meal. She lives off the grid outside of Fairbanks, and in the off season, she’s an arctic guide.
She introduces me to the seventeen dogs she has brought with her (she’s left several more at home), but I can’t keep them straight. They’re huskies, but not the Siberian Huskies that the word “Husky” conjures – not the big, black and white dogs with thick coats and haunting eyes. These are Alaskan Huskies, which is really just a way of saying they’re mutts that have been bred for running and pulling sleds. In addition to Husky, there’s some hound in them, and maybe a little Pointer; they’ve got short coats in all colors, and long, lean bodies built for running. They weigh on average about forty-five pounds.
We take the dogs out of their kennels every few hours so that they can do all their dog business: relieve themselves, stretch their legs, eat at mealtimes, bark at strangers, and so forth. This process is called ‘dropping dogs,’ and – because it has to be done every three to four hours – it is a never-ending project. Avery shows me how to grab a dog’s collar with one hand and scoop an arm under its hindquarters with the other. She moves quickly around the truck, tossing dogs out of their kennels as if they were sacks of flour. Meanwhile, I’m fussing to make sure I’m not hurting them as I get them down.
Stu and I talk as we work. “I don’t think your girlfriend likes me,” I say.
“She likes you fine. That’s just how she is,” he says.
“She’s no-nonsense,” I say. “Those no-nonsense types always sense my nonsense right away.”
He takes a knife from his pocket and begins cutting up some meat from the grocery store for one of the picky eaters as we talk.
“What’s your wife like?” he asks. “You’ve gotten married since I saw you last. How’s married-life treating you?”
I tell him it’s been great, which is a half-truth. I lived one life before I got married, and now I have another. A few years after marrying at age 33, becoming stepfather to two intelligent and generous children, and landing a dream job teaching creative writing, I found myself feeling a certain kind of restlessness. A listlessness. When I looked for something to look forward to, my horizon was filled with school choir concerts, faculty committee meetings, a sea of paperwork and grading interrupted by the occasional Netflix show. I’d been ambushed by middle age, and found myself wallowing in the crushing ennui of dad-dom, spirit-whipped by the realities of University bureaucracy, and uninspired by my own writing. I imagined my younger self peering at me in disappointment, shaking his head, vowing to kick my ass whenever we met again. I could feel the gulf between the life I’d once imagined and the one I found myself living opening beneath my feet, and I hoped not to get sucked in.
Stu, on the other hand, got divorced just a few years ago, and is embracing bachelorhood. He is an American transformation story: he’s a kid who grew up traveling in a military family, a fan of Bob Marley and the Grateful Dead, a guy who once wore tie-dye and majored in environmental geology, and who moved to Alaska to marry, where he reinvented himself as a plumber. Since getting divorced, he has also taken up various outdoor hobbies and begun playing guitar and singing in bars across Alaska. As we work, he tells me wild anecdotes from his new life. He tells me about hunting moose, throwing house parties, boating to remote islands for weekends of debauchery, chasing salmon in wilderness unimaginable.
“What a life of romantic adventure you lead,” I say as he hands me a bag filled with seventeen dog craps.
“Go find a place to dump these,” he says, pointing towards the bus station.
“They say they don’t want us throwing it in the public trash cans, but what do they expect us to do with all this crap?”
At ten thousand people, Jackson is the biggest town in Teton County, a patch of land in the northwest quadrant of the state that hugs the Idaho border. Most of the land goes to vacationers, the ski crowd, corporate tourism projects, wealthy Californians and southerners, and other moneyed interests. I’m sure the chamber of commerce here loves the picturesque image of dogs pulling sleds through town, a wholesome outdoorsy American picture. But four hundred dogs all have to evacuate themselves somewhere. That’s a lot of dog shit for a rich little town like this.
It’s difficult to describe the chaos that ensues as the start time approaches. Spectators in winter coats crowd the street for blocks, and the energy in the air is festive; the ambiance, as with most things that involve trailer hitches, is decisively redneck. We are hooking dogs up to the sled, and all around us other teams are doing the same. I see dozens of dogs in any direction, and some of the teams have begun taking off in an order that remains a mystery to me. The dogs have been cooped up all day or longer, and now as they’re clipped to the sled they begin to yip and jump and lunge forward. The mushers all have their sleds tied off to trucks until it’s time to go to keep the dogs from pulling them away.
When it’s Avery’s turn to go, Stu and I grab the ropes on the sled team to help guide her the half mile or so to the starting line and keep the dogs from getting tangled up with each other or some other obstacle on the path. We’re running through the snow, trying to keep pace without tripping as we weave through a path in the crowd that has gathered near the start line. I nearly fall twice, and I’m not sure if I’m in the way or helping out, but eventually we make it to the line, and Avery takes off.
After she completes the two mile ceremonial opening loop, we set off to find the opening night dinner, which, we’ve been told, involves a pig roast. “I’m going to eat so much of that pig,” Stu tells me as we’re circling the area looking for parking.
By the time we get parked and make it to reception, it’s been twenty minutes and everyone else has a plate. We enter a large room for the dinner and find a beer bar, along with a line for a steam table tray of salad, burgers, and venison chili. Conspicuously missing is the pig. Around us, the room swims with murmurs of confusion: Didn’t someone say there was going to be a pig? Have you seen a pig? Is this the right place? Maybe the pig is coming? Maybe it’s already been eaten? Instead, we’ve got pans of grey hamburgers that are reminiscent of school cafeteria food.
“Got me all excited for a pig,” Stu says, biting into a burger.
It’s a small disappointment in what’s turning out to be a study in disappointments.
The next morning I oversleep while Stu and Avery drop dogs. A snowstorm rolls in overnight so there’s a six inch blanket of white draped over everything. By the time I’m up, the dogs are dropped and I start clearing snow off the vehicles. I’d hoped to avoid being the bumbling professor who couldn’t wake up and do the work, but I’m only reinforcing the stereotype. I vow to do better tomorrow. Avery is in a hurry to get to the race, and she pushes seventy on little snowy back highways with her truck. I follow in my Subaru, struggling to keep up in the fresh snow.
The race site in Driggs, Idaho, begins at the end of an unpaved road. Passenger vehicles are instructed to park on the side of the road leading into the race, so I pull to the far right to park on the road behind another truck, and immediately I feel the right side of the vehicle slide down much lower than it should. I shift to reverse and gun it, but it’s too late – we’re buried in the snow bank now. Stu has to crawl out across the console and out the driver’s side do. Whoever plowed the road left a smooth plane of snow over about two feet of the ditch, hiding the drop-off. Now the Subaru is angled at a forty-five, and we’ll need to be pulled out. I look at the truck we’re parked behind and realized that he, too is stuck, though not as bad. Within seconds, two more trucks pull in behind me and do the same thing. Soon there is a line of cars in the ditch on both sides of the road, and everyone abandons them to go prepare for the race.
It’s a remote gathering filled with the strangeness of dream. Cars jammed along the side of a road, old men leaning on truck doors, dogs barking everywhere: it is like being a visitor to someone else’s family gathering. The little road leading up to the racing trail is packed on both sides with trucks and dog teams getting ready. In one truck, a dog starts howling, and pretty soon there are forty dogs howling. “Now see what you did?” a guy jokes to his dog.
When we get to the Cold Smoke truck, Avery is picking which dogs she wants to run and talking to the vet. At 8:00, she has a mandatory musher’s meeting, and so we drop the dogs and make sure everything is ready. Stu puts new runners on her sled and starts gathering the equipment that all mushers are required to carry with them: an arctic axe, snowshoes, a headlamp, a ten pound bag of food, paperwork. Around us, other teams are doing the same.
The mushers leave at three minute intervals. When it’s Avery’s turn, I help pull the dogs up to the line and then I run ahead with my camera, hoping to get some good shots. The run starts with a long hill, and I get maybe fifty yards up it, just away from the crowd, before she takes off. I take some photos, and she disappears over the hill a minute later.
Stu looks at his watch. “She’ll be back in about three or four hours.”
The life of a dog handler is, in its way, every bit as tedious as the life of an English professor. We will now all sit at the end of this little road on a farm all day, standing around our trucks waiting for the mushers and their dogs to return. I’m surrounded by custom trucks, by teams of other racers, by race organizers, and possibly a handful of curious locals. Some of these outfits have six-figure set-ups, and some have scraped together a team with a few thousand dollars. But they’re all here, spending their only life standing beside a snowy pasture, waiting for a team of dogs to pull a piece of plastic and its rider on a thirty-two mile out-and-back trip to the middle of nowhere, just because they can. I am perhaps the only person here who thinks this whole enterprise is borderline ridiculous, and I’m no longer sure why I’m here.
It occurs to me that I’ve misunderstood what I’m doing here, that I’ve gotten the genre wrong.
I thought I was driving to Wyoming to write about sled dog racing, about the strange crews of people who bred and trained sled dogs, about the dogs themselves and the ways they were treated, about the motivations behind one of our least commodified and least celebrated winter sports. I thought I was coming to “cover the opening days of the race,” to maybe write a piece about the only female musher who was registered for the race. I thought I might have an ironic angle on how seriously the sled dog teams take themselves, or maybe a piece that contextualizes the event in the larger history of sled dog racing, or maybe (God forbid) something that just captured the magic of the feeling of watching these animals run as hard as they could through the majestic beauty of the northern Rockies. I thought maybe I had something to say about big, dumb, nature.
But that’s a boring story. Or more accurately, there’s no story there. The dogs are strapped to a sled and then they disappear over a hill for a few hours and return tired. When the dogs are around, we drop the dogs. We stand around. We make sure we have things for the dogs. We drink some beer. Someone goes over the dog’s medical charts. Someone preps food. The real story, as anyone who takes care of dogs can tell you, is the story of routine and repetition. The dogs – like children, like students, like everyone – come with a long list of needs that can only be met through continual attention. From these needs, from the routines we develop, a larger pattern of life eventually emerges.
I’m not here for the race. In the end, I just want to tell you about the dogs, about how one starts barking and the rest follow suit as if they share one consciousness. I want to tell you about their peculiarities, about Rosa and Blanca, siblings that share a kennel, the way Rosa must go into the kennel first, or the way that Pepsi must be fed special cuts of meat from the grocery store because he is a picky eater. About how when you pull into a parking lot and let them all out on their three foot leads, a tide of children rises in your direction. I want to tell you how much the dogs want to run, the way they seem to hum with an energy waiting to ignite, the way they lunge and bark before the start of a race. I want to tear a whole in this essay where you might reach through and touch Pepsi’s cold nose, feel Rosa’s warm dog breath. But all I can give you is the idea of a dog, and the problem with ideas is the whole problem I’m trying to write about.
Avery places 9th out of 13 racers in the Driggs leg, which is also how she’ll finish the race a week later. I’m not going to stick around for the rest of the race—I can’t because of my job, anyways—so I decide I will head home in the morning.
After we find someone to pull my car out of the ditch, we drive to Alpine, Wyoming, where the race’s next leg starts. We’re staying at The Bull Moose Lodge and Saloon for the night, and it’s the kind of place where you get your room key at the bar. Inside I notice a couple of drinks at an empty table, which I later learn will be our dinner table. Avery’s parents are joining us for dinner – they’re long haul truckers who’ve driven halfway across the country to see her. Her mom wanted a specific table, but they don’t take reservations, so she ordered two shots of Jägermeister to hold the table. When we sit down to dinner that night, the Jägermeisters are pushed towards Stu and I. “Drink up,” her mother says. She’s a cheerful Midwesterner who has no problem holding a table for several hours with two shots of Jägermeister, and I watch in fascination as she proceeds to embarrass Avery throughout our prolonged dinner. Avery, who seems so tough and stoic, transforms into an irritated teenager in her presence as her mother tries to take care of all of us.
When dinner’s over, Avery goes to bed while Stu and I drink a beer on the balcony and talk life. After a while, when it’s late and everyone else seems to be asleep, we stand there leaning on the railing, enjoying the mountain air and the chance to talk privately. We could be a pair of those faceless guys in one of those old Dockers commercials, talking about old times and bonding over the predictable topics of life and love. It’s not so unlike the conversations we had twenty years earlier, the way we’d gather on someone’s back porch as teenagers, talk about our relationships, our prospects; the way we’d imagine futures for ourselves based on our limited knowledge of the world. We’ve got the cool night air, some good beers in our hands, and we’re measuring up our lives against those we’d conjured years ago.
“So I take it things are going well with Avery?” I said, after we had covered all the old ground.
“Dude. She’s awesome. She lives off the grid, races sled dogs, and in the summer, she guides people on tours of wild places. How cool is that?”
“It’s pretty cool. Sounds like a rough life, though. Seems like it would get old,” I say. “Always on the road. Taking care of dogs every day – constantly cutting up meat and picking up crap.”
“Nah, I love it,” he says. “What about you, man? You got the professor thing going. Your family. You happy?”
“I’m satisfied,” I say.
“But are you happy.”
“Sure,” I say. “I’ve got a job I worked hard to get, and a family I love,” I say. It comes out sounding hollow. I want to find a way to reassure him, to reassure myself that I am in fact happy, but I’m also suspicious of happiness, in the way in which we toss that word around as if it were a simple on/off state, as if it would be good to be always happy, as if it were perfectly simple. One thing I know about myself is that I will never be happy because I will always be uncertain.
Around midnight we go to drop the dogs before hitting the sack. We have all the dogs out and are getting ready to put them back up when someone starts shouting at us from above. It’s a woman, and she’s yelling at us about the dogs. “You better not hurt those poor dogs! I’m watching you!” I can just make out the outline of her broad shoulders against the sky. Her face is hidden by the light of a camera that she’s holding as she hurls profanities at us.
“Yeah, you better be nice to those dogs! I’ve got you on camera! Assholes!”
I follow Stu’s lead and don’t engage with her. We work in silence, except for the lady occasionally shouting from the balcony of the third floor, and the ambient sounds of the dogs, their grunts and scratches and small noises. There’s something eerie and surreal about the whole picture, like we’re living out a scene from a David Lynch movie. It’s disconcerting because I had also wondered about the ethics of sled dog racing, and yet I’m disappointed because she is such a pathetic specimen as a protester: inarticulate, alone, unconvincing. She doesn’t inspire fear or anger or moral questions, only a sigh.
Afterwards, as we walk upstairs, I ask him, “You guys see that kind of thing a lot?”
“Nope. Just here,” he says.
It’s after midnight, and an early morning coming for us again. Avery has already been asleep for hours. I would like nothing more than to sit up and talk into the night, but the mood’s been ruined, so we go to bed.
I wake up nauseated at three in the morning and know I’m going to be sick. In those first few seconds of waking, unfamiliar in a dark room, my stomach churning, I curse myself and feel the familiar combination of guilt and stupidity that one experiences when waking after having drunk too much, to the point of vomiting. After I puke, I realize that I didn’t drink nearly enough to get sick. It’s something I ate. I do not even have the consolation of feeling that I’ve earned this sickness, that I can own it in some way.
There’s no loneliness like the loneliness of food poisoning in a crappy motel in a remote Wyoming town in the middle of the night. I’m up and down a dozen more times in the next three hours. Nausea, sweats, diarrhea. There’s nothing else to do, nowhere else to go. I lie in bed between trips to the bathroom, waiting for morning. Around five-thirty, I hear Stu and Avery getting up to drop the dogs and prepare for the day. I’ve pledged to get up and help, but I don’t move. An hour later I stumble across the snowy parking lot to where the truck is parked and bowls are all lined up and all the dogs are dropped and waiting. A chorus of howls erupts as they see me. I walk over to where Stu is mixing the slop of raw meat, and I nearly throw up again. I tell them I’m sick, and apologize again. I know that this time it is bad luck, but since this is two days in a row, it feels like a personal failure, like I’m inadequate to the job of waking up and getting dogs out of a truck. I turn and trudge back across the snow to my room, where I curl up for another four hours. I am sick. I am sick of dogs. I’m sick of their sounds, I’m sick of their poops, I’m sick of the smell of their food, and I’m quite literally puking in my room as the team takes off for the next stage of the race. It is several hours before I am well enough to drive home. I call my wife, who asks me if I drank too much.
“I wish you were here to take care of me,” I say, which is the truth.
On the drive home through the southeast corner of Idaho, then through West Yellowstone and Big Sky, a white world hushed by snow sits serenely out the window. I drive slowly, taking my time, stopping to look at the Gallatin River, the mountains. I wonder about routine, about taking care, about boredom. I wonder if, sitting in some cave ten thousand years ago, one of our ancestors woke up one morning, looked at his mate, his kids, his clan, looked over the salted stockpile of meat, kicked at the ashes of last night’s fire, saw the sun rising over the trees below for the ten thousandth time in his life, scratched his head, and said, Is this all there is?
I wonder about all the hours the mushers and handlers spend on the road, in training, and taking care of their animals. I think about the never-ending responsibility that taking on such dogs entails, the endless cycle of unloading, feeding, cleaning, loading again. Dropping the dogs has come to seem like some cosmic metaphor for all the responsibilities we accumulate. Even if you run from civilization, even if you leave your family, even if you eschew gainful employment, you’ve still got this burden that requires constant attention. I imagine this to be emblematic of some greater truth, about the way that whatever we love requires our care, that we define ourselves and our love through that care.
It’s ironic that sled dog racing is biggest in Alaska, that the people I met pride themselves on rugged individualism, on their ability to take care of themselves. But how much of the allure of sled dog racing has to do with caretaking relationships, both between mushers and handlers and between the dogs themselves. It is the dogs that pull us to the sport and through the snow, with their devotion, their single-mindedness, and the ways that they give themselves fully and completely to an otherwise meaningless activity. It is their pack mentality, their loyalty, and the idea that they would see us as one of them, united in purpose.
When I get home I put my notes on my desk, and I don’t touch them for weeks. It’s the middle of the semester, and I’m on teaching overload. A couple of months later, I get a message from Stu with a song attached.
“I wrote it this morning. Long story short, she hooked up with another musher days after I left Wyoming and she’s still racing in Canada. That’s how it goes for Stu, and that’s why I write country songs.”
He goes on to tell me he’s done with Avery, but he’s just getting started with dog sled racing, as his son has begun raising dogs and training for youth races.
I press play, and I hear his folksy voice singing a ballad.
I’ll tell you a story about a little girl
She was my whole life, she was my whole world
She was lightning on a sled, God to her dog team
Well, she’s got a disease, and she gave it to me
It’s dog sled racing, it’s an STD
And there ain’t no cure in sight, or so it would seem.
Well here she comes and there she goes
She ain’t never moving slow
There’s a trail of hearts behind her in the snow,
You’ll be coming, she’ll be going
Fast as the Yukon’s flowing
Let me tell you about the fastest girl I know
I share the song with my wife. “Isn’t this great?” She half-laughs; she’s a good sport, but she’s busy chopping vegetables for dinner and trying to make sure the kids are getting their homework done. Our dog’s barking, and it’s Tuesday, so the trash needs to be taken out. And here I am again living with one foot in my past, one in the present, and that pit between them yawning beneath me. I try to recall now those precious few hours we had, reminiscing about high school and talking about our lives. But already, those images are blurring over, growing distant, melding with all of the other memories we share. Like waking up from a dream about an old friend, but then realizing it was in the wrong place, with the wrong people, and there was no logic to any of it…then comes the smell of onions, the sounds of your children, the waiting dog, and once again, the feeling that there is work to be done, that you are needed.