Part IV: On the Trail
We loaded our sled and attached the gangline, spreading it out evenly on the ice forward the sled. One by one, we detached each dog from their restraint, and walked them with equally rigid and apprehensive movements to their place on the gangline. Every time we did this, they howled with frenzied impatience. For twenty minutes the tension built as we harnessed each dog, keeping each at tooth’s length. Once all the dogs were attached, we yanked out the ice anchor, and the sled launched forth.
For the first thirty minutes of each morning, the dogs ran a frantic dash. Then slowly, the edge of morning impatience became blunted by exercise and the team began to settle into a smooth cadence where the patter of their feet on the snow was perfect as a metronome. This was the time the dogs shined. They were then prepared for direction from their drivers. With a simple call to “gee” the dogs in unison arced to the left, and with “haw” they arced to the right.
These moments of synchronicity, however, were constantly punctuated with moments of shear frustration. Quite often, we were forced to halt our progress to check our whereabouts on the map. On the vast windswept openness of frozen lakes, it was easy to wander off course without noticing.
After twenty or thirty minutes of running, we would lean the sled over onto its side, where the two drivers skidded spinning across the ice. After picking ourselves up and removing the snow, we would pull out our map and compass and verify our position. The process was tiresome for both drivers and dogs. The dogs could well run for hours on end without need for rest. These pauses aggravated their impatience, which caused them to vent their frustration on each other. While we hovered over our maps the dogs would exchange verbal threats and nip at each others’ hinds.
At one stop, I watched Gustaff make a clever move to vent his own frustration. From his rear position on the gangline, he took the rope that ran ahead of him in his mouth and tugged it, pulling a lead dog toward him. Every time he did this, the lead dog would scratch and paw at the snow, attempting to keep her distance.
With each stop, the unrest became more pronounced, until finally, while we stood on the center of an ice sheet making sense of our maps, the entire gangline exploded into a fury of yelping and biting.
Once the dogs begin to fight, tremendous care must be used when attempting to separate them. The animals take such fiendish delight in fighting they are liable to bite anything within reach. Beastly growls, pained yelps, and a writhing furry mass tangled itself into a snarl of rope within the gangline. Legs and tails were bound within, dogs were wrapped tightly and nervously against one another, panting and licking their wounds. Two dogs were tangled face to face, and kept a tense look at each other out of the corner of their eyes.
Separating them was something like defusing a bomb. Wading into the mess, standing amongst the entangled team, nervously untying each member, we had a feeling that one misinterpreted movement might ignite another frenzy of barking and biting. Gingerly we worked, untying each dog and reassembling the gangline, breathing easier with the isolation of each provocateur.
In the summertime people paddle the approximately 10,000 lakes of Northern Minnesota in canoes and kayaks. Between most lakes there are short trails called portages that allow a person to make the generally short walk to the next lake. Using these portages, a person can hop from lake to lake traveling for literally thousands of miles.
Our intention was to guide the dogs in the general direction of where these portages began on the bank of a lake. As we approached, the team would hopefully see the trail, and steam right on through. The sled skidded off the smooth surface of the ice and thumped onto the rough uneven ground of the portage. These portages provided interludes of exciting winding trails that wove narrowly between Cedar and Ashe trees. To keep the sled from flipping and spilling us off, we had to lean into the turns, stepping from one runner to the other. The dogs would move tremendously fast, having no regard for what we were going through at the rear, struggling to keep the sled upright. On tight turns the sled swung to the outside, and many times the runners banged the trunks of trees. All this while constantly ducking branches that threatened to swat us off.
The forest opened back up eventually and we would be cruising back down the bank of another lake. On one such occasion, bumping back onto the slippery lake surface, the inertia of the one-ton sled carried us faster than the dogs were running. The affect was the sled skidded in a jack-knife fashion along side the running team. The dogs turned their heads, surprised as us to see the position of the sled. However, only the drivers knew what was coming next. Inevitably the gangline “cracked the whip”, and jerking violently, the sled threw me to the ice. True to my pledge I held on anyway, and lay dragging behind. The team, excited by the event, showed no indication of stopping. The instructor had been thrown off completely and I had no idea how I was going to pull myself back onto the sled. Snow was being forced into every opening in my clothing and my mittened hands could not hold long. The futility of clinging to the sled became obvious, so I let go. When I sat up, I saw the team growing smaller on the horizon. In the other direction, the instructor was sitting inspecting a bruise she had received from falling on the knife case she wore on her belt.
The other sled on our expedition was running far ahead of us and the drivers would have no idea what had just happened. We had hope, but only one choice: to follow the faint trail of the sled in the intermittent shallow patches of snow. We looked down at their paw prints, sighed, and began shuffling in the direction of the dogs.
In our walk, we both noticed the sun was on the downward slope. We said nothing. We did not even raise our heads. We just kept shuffling while the trees continued to stretch longer shadows across the ice. Neither of us felt compelled to quicken the steps of our heavy boots.
In our silent walk it occurred to me that I no longer padded every step on the ice as if I were walking on eggshells. I hardly noticed the air growing colder in the dimming afternoon. Our dog team deserted us along with our equipment and our food, but I didn’t feel vulnerable. Maybe it was my anger with the dogs, but for the first time I was completely at ease on the ice.
After two hours of walking, we could see our sled and team in the distance. The dogs had run themselves into a cul-de-sac on the lake where no portage existed to carry them further. Shuffling closer, we could see the dogs were again wrapped and tangled in their gangline, evidence that they had taken the opportunity for another donny-brook. After two hours of searching for these dogs, the last thing we wanted to do was detangle the god-damned gangline, and we, with exasperated and profane shouts, pulled them apart. This time it was the dogs who moved gingerly.
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For further reading about a true gentleman Arctic Explorer, I would like to recommend the biography of Matthew Henson. However, I cannot, because that book has (shamefully) not yet been written. Please look him up anyway.