What Boo Saw – Adventure With the Great Sled Dogs

Posted by on Jan 29th, 2010 and filed under , Fairbanks , , Outdoors . You can follow any responses to this entry through the . You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

I have owned sled dogs for 16 years and been a sled dog tour operator for ten of those years, and this January, while Interior Alaska has been mostly bitterly cold and low on snow, I had the chance to read a book or two and reflect on why it is I do what I do.  I asked myself, what has it meant to me to spend practically everyday from October to April on the back of a dogsled for nearly sixteen winters?  What compels a person to go out at -50F, hook up and dogsled and convince people that it’s fun? Why do I feed fifty dogs for 365 days, when I get to drive them only about half that time?  I could pat myself on the back and read the guest book that over and over states what “an experience of a lifetime” everyone had, or remember the thrill of a new musher take successfully to the runners in ‘Mushing School’ with a huge grin on their face.  But at this point, I realize there is so much more to it.

I look at Boo, the wise, 14 year old leader, who has seen and accompanied me on a lot of trails and through a lot of learning curves.  Why did she do it?  There’s no steering wheel, no gas pedal and no forcing a sled dog to do what they don’t want to do.   From big adventures to daily tourist rides, Boo always had a sense of loyalty and sense of adventure – a what’s-around-the-next-corner type of excitement.

Boo on a break

Her sister,  Cranky,  was never a particularly great sled dog, but got the job done.  For Cranky,  it was about what’s in the trees.  On several occasions she ran head-on into trees,  checking out birds and squirrels in the treetops.  Once, while giving rides, my mushing companions watched her take me, my guests and a whole team of twelve dogs into the trees chasing a squirrel.

I was never so embarrassed.

Last  summer I watched another great sled dog with superior will flail on a fun run behind the 4-wheeler.  Doc’s back-end quit on him, but he was determined not to let that stop him – he dragged the back-end with the front-end until I made him stop and recover.  Once he relaxed the muscles that had seized, he stood back up and took off again down the trail. He wasn’t interested in going home,  just farther down the trail. Doc has always been an honest, hard-working wheel-dog who just didn’t quit.  Just because his body didn’t work was no reason his head and will were not intact.  He lives out his days at 15 years old at the kennel getting pats and posing for guests.  He needs a wake-up knock on his house at feeding time because he can’t hear so well, but his tail still wags with affection and I know he’d rather be with the team.

On one particular 300 mile personal wilderness adventure along some desolate Interior Alaska trail, a mushing partner and I encountered what I’ll call ‘less-than-desirable’ trail conditions.   Hindsight being 20/20, we realized in the middle of our trip that with rivers breaking up behind us, we had left about two weeks too late for this particular outing.  We either had to fly two dogsleds, all our gear and twenty dogs out of a tiny village in tiny planes and spend non-existent mucho bucks or tough it out.   Being adventurous sorts - or lunatics –  whatever fits, we chose the latter.

I believe it is on this trip that I learned how tough a sled dog really is.  With battered paws from a tromp over a plowed, rocky road (that wasn’t supposed to be plowed yet) and dog fur soaked through to the skin from a dip in a slough where the dogs chose to head towards the swirling blue water instead of going upstream in moving overflow, we marched into a tiny village 200 miles from our starting point.   Along the way we had been through three-feet deep snow, 20+ miles of no snow at all on bare, knee-deep tundra, gorgeous sunny and hot  spring weather, complete with snow and river ice melting, and rain. Our frozen meat even thawed.  We came across dead caribou when we chased a herd off of a frozen lake (the dogs loved that). It was so late in the mushing season that there were geese on a small lake.   Boo, my courageous leader, found the trail when I thought we were lost – she had miraculously found an old trail left behind by a single snowmachine for nearly 20 miles over that  knee-deep bare tundra.  The only discernible trail to the human eye was an occasional ribbon of melting hard-pack where the snowmachine had packed down the snow.

We had planneed to travel another 100 miles, but we decided to stop, and call this trip a ‘learning experience’.  It wasn’t necessarily the glamorous ‘Call of the Wild’ trip of a lifetime we dreamed of as kids, but we all made it.

Heck yeah, I’d do it again and I will always look forward to the adventure.  Each time I put myself on “the edge”, I learn something new – the edge may not be the most comfortable place, but for adventurers, it’s nourishing.   I trust my dogs more than ever - or maybe with more experience now, I am able to trust my instincts as to what the dogs are telling me.   And I never forget to listen to the weather forecast – just for entertainment.

On another adventure

Reflection time is good.  I must never forget why I chose this path.  For me, just remembering is not enough.  It’s time for the next big adventure.  Boo entertains us from her house at this point in her life so she isn’t really up big adventure anymore.  Her eyes tell stories… and I wish I could put her wisdom in a young sled dog body.   However, there is a whole crew of willing and capable candidates with a mysterious unfailing desire to run to the edge to see what Boo saw.  I will always revere the great sled dogs for their unequalled stamina, solid conviction regarding that which they are passionate and the trust they grant their humans who wish to follow the uncertain path.

Leslie Goodwin is the owner of Paws for Adventure - a premier dog sled tour company located in Fairbanks, Alaska .  Paws For Adventure  provides dogsled adventures from short rides to multi-day winter camping excursions driving your own team of sled dogs .

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