You may remember a few weeks ago how I told you my dog sledding trip took me out of my comfort zone. It challenged me mentally, physically and one might argue, spiritually. After unpacking our things in the bunk cabin, we headed over to the main house to get a better understanding of our schedule for the weekend. That day, some of us would get to take our first sled ride but first we had to learn to harness the dogs.
Just like people, dogs come in all shapes and sizes. But unlike our clothing, the size of the harnesses didn’t come in small, medium or large. Instead sizes were classified by the colors of the tugs on the harness. Yellow-orange, blue-green and yellow-yellow were phrases that we quickly became familiar with. Kathleen would write the name of the lead dogs at the top of a white board with the initials YO or BG for the size of harness they would need, followed by the names of wheel dogs. If a dog had a circle around their name, that meant they were a chewer and couldn’t be left alone after their harness was on. Even the slight compromise in the equipment could be dangerous for the dogs and the musher. After Chris gave us a brief demonstration on harnessing with the use of a stuffed husky (she named her Tundra), we were all off to attempt it for the first time.
When you walk out into the dog yard with harnesses in your hand, whatever sense of calm you had is quickly over. These are sled dogs and they know when the harnesses come out, someone gets to run and each and every one of them wants to go. They bark, they howl and they cry for attention. In the midst of what feels like chaos, the most difficult part at first was finding the dog you needed to harness. Once you found your dog, depending on their temperament, you harnessed them quickly or you called for help. I relate it to dressing a toddler. Sometimes they are very cooperative and getting their clothes on is a breeze. Other times, they are so wound up, you can’t even chase them down to get their shirt on. That’s how I felt with my first dog, Mayatuk. She was strong, she was a chewer and she was definitely wound up. She spun me in circles because she knew she was going to run and she just couldn’t contain her excitement.
After getting the harnesses on the dogs, the next challenge is getting them to the gang line. When Kathleen gave us the signal, the lead dogs were take off their ties to be hooked up to the gang lines. What is unique about this part is instead of walking the dog on all fours, we grabbed the dogs’ collars and pulled them up so they were on their hind legs, bouncing all the way to the sleds. I know it sounds odd and unnecessary but when you’re walking a dog past dozens of others dogs, you want to have complete control over them and the two-legged method gives you some of that control. The dogs are so excited, you’re still jogging along with them to keep up and it doesn’t hurt them one bit.
Once the lead dogs are hooked up, the wheel dogs follow suit. By this time everyone is howling and barking, mushers are on the sleds and before you know it, the rope is released and the dogs are off. Once those dogs take off, it becomes amazingly quiet. All you see is the beauty of the sled marks on the new fallen snow.