Wasn’t there a movie called that? Or a novel? Maybe not, but if there was it was surely not about a kennel of sled dogs in July.
This summer I seem to be having a crisis of faith. I have had sled dogs under my care and ownership now since 1981 – and yes that does make me feel old. Some people who work with dogs at the Outward Bound school in Minnesota passed through here yesterday on a canoe trip to the Coppermine River (they paddled from Yellowknife and got here in a week – 210 miles, so pretty good going so far) and as we talked about the dogteam program there and its origins in the early 1980’s, it struck me suddenly that some of them probably were not born in the years we were discussing. Yikes.
But I digress, as usual. The dogs of summer and my “crisis of faith” as a musher set in with the first heat of late June. We have a full kennel right now, with 10 pups, half a dozen retired old-timers, and a full 30 working-age huskies 2-11 years old. This is too many dogs. We know that. It is a bulge in our numbers that has to be endured in order to emerge a couple of years from now with our requisite crew of about 32 working dogs. That number allows us to put five small teams on the trail, for the tourist trips, four big teams on the trail for the college groups, and gives us plenty of power when it is time for the four of us Olesens to hook up and go somewhere together. 32 working dogs is just right, and 47 mouths to feed is 15 too many. A crisis of kibble, never mind faith.
Over my years as a musher I have accepted the compromises in my life and in the life of our family, and in the life of the dogs themselves, that mushing and sled dogs demand. Every pursuit and every passion comes with trade-offs. Dog mushing is no different. For mushers and sled dogs, high summer is trade-off season. It is a time to get through. Sounds crazy to some, i.e. the height of Summer as a test of endurance, but so does owning and feeding 47 dogs.
The acid test of a musher and a kennel, from the standpoint of ethics and animal care, does not come in winter. What the animal rights advocates and anti-Iditarod folks might better be inspecting and railing against is not the running of the dogs, but the off-season care and daily summer regimen of a kennel. That is the true test of a musher and a kennel, I think. Done perfectly, it is A-O.K. Done adequately, it is adequate. Done wrong, it borders on the criminal.
Because summer is tough on huskies. It is tough on wolves, too. Huskies and wolves are cold weather critters. I recently spent a flying job assisting a grad student who is doing his Master’s work on wolf pup survival. After scouting the area and landing the plane, we walked in and staked out a half-dozen dens, at 500-800 meters, with spotting scopes trained on the den holes. On the round of this which took place in the very hottest days of early July – which has been the hottest stretch of summer so far – what we saw at the den sites, hour after hour, was almost exactly what we see in the dog yard at home at this time of year. A lot of overheated canines lying on hot sand, shifting positions as the sun moved across the sky, with a litter of pups occasionally coming up from their air-conditioned nurseries deep in the ground, playing, peeing, romping, and going back down. As I sat and watched the wolves, I reflected on the trade-offs that the husky breed had made when humans and huskies struck up their age-old deal: “will work for food, bug protection, water, and shelter…”
Clean cool water, decent food, a rainproof dog house, bug protection, daily yard cleaning, some provision for shade, and whatever form of walking, running, or swimming we can offer – these are the basics that all mushers owe their teams in summer. On a scale of one to absolute perfection, I am still not there. I am troubled and unsettled by this, but there is flying to do, a living to make, dog food to pay for, and projects here to take up with. Still, on a 33-degree (almost 90° Fahrenheit) day in July, the dogs of summer have to be right up there on the top of a musher’s priority list, if we are to claim that our keeping of working huskies is ethical, justified, and viable.
I already watered the dogs this morning. Later this morning we will clean the yard, move some sand around, straighten some houses and take the pups for a walk. That is, unless the phone rings and the Forestry boys want to go flying and look at the fire 35 miles south of here. Which would make us some money, to maintain the airplanes, buy some kibble, and pay some bills.
So here we are, in the thin haze of smoke from a distant fire, the mosquitoes on the wane now, and the darkness starting to impinge on 24-hour daylight (a relief really). It’s visiting time, family time, and a time when mushers – unlike our footloose friends – are pretty closely tethered to home by our dogteams – the same dogteams which bring so much freedom to our winter days.
We just have to get through the summer, and get back into the season where having all these dogs makes sense (sort of? maybe?) and makes them happy. Like I said, it really is a crisis of faith. In a place where winter is an honest six months long, having a dog team still looks like a good deal to me. If I were writing on July 27th from a place on the planet where winter was not six full months – and in some years close to eight full months – I honestly think I would be giving my 55-year-old head a shake. Were I still down at the 49th parallel, it might just be time to say enough is enough. But here, when the snow flies in October, it’ll be payoff time for everybody here – dogs and people. That’s a trade-off I can live with. Pencil me in as “still faithful.”