“Maudlin” is the first cautionary word that springs to mind as I settle in to write something about Ernie. Dog eulogies and paeans to dog loyalty are fraught with the hazard of slipping into that syrupy goo that coats drugstore greeting cards. But I will try. Ernie always did. (oops, that was close.)
Here’s some of what I wrote about Ernie in Kinds of Winter, from the chapter West:
…“I was starting to realize that Ernie was, for me, the once-in-a-lifetime sled dog that Lady Luck bequeaths on a lifelong musher. Ernie was with me on all four solo trips, beginning as a two-year-old. On this trip west, at age five and a half, he was at or near the peak of his physical prowess. I do know this: I have never had a dog quite like him.
…I must savor every mile with Ernest Heming-dog, because I’m not sure I’ll ever see the likes of him again. He has it all – speed, honesty, toughness, and a nearly insane desire. Often I think, as I watch him run, ‘Man, where were you those years when I was racing?’
…Ernie is simply a gift.”
…Ernie with his ears laid flat, like a running back threading a broken field of players, ducking and weaving, looking for the best line through, over, and around the steep hard drifts. A quietly spoken ‘gee’ or ‘haw’ from me every few seconds… Watching them run I thought, ‘They do not do this for me. They do it because, to them, running in harness in a team is the bedrock core of everything they love about life itself.'”
That was 2005. There was a lot more to come from Ernie after those four solo trips. In the autumn of 2010 our daughter Annika, then 14, started training dogs for the Junior Iditarod. We talked about Ernie, who was 11 years old and would be nearly 12 when the race was run in February. “Well, he’s too old” we all agreed, “But let’s just keep him in training for now. As the mileages go up he’ll let us know at some point that he’s struggling and we’ll take him off the main string. Up until then he’ll be a help teaching the younger leaders…”
Annika trained, and the mileages went up. 25, 35, 45… In hindsight, it might be that the mileages never went quite high enough that year, because the dogs were not veterans of racing, only of traveling and expeditions, and there is quite a difference. Ernie hung in there; not only stayed in the team but continued to lead and pull and make decisions and show himself to be every bit as good as the rest. When the day came to load the plane and fly to Yellowknife, and there to rent a truck and head for Anchorage, 11-year-old Ernie was still on the 10-dog “A Team”; in fact he was among the three or four dominant dogs on it.
The Junior Iditarod is a short race, really, and its resemblance to the Iditarod mostly stops with the fact that it shares some of the same historic trail. It is a 75-mile nonstop run, then a ten-hour mandatory layover at a campsite near Yentna Roadhouse, and another 75-mile run back to Willow. It is all over in less than 30 hours. Annika and our dogs have run in it twice, and each time they have struggled. That 2012 race was a success for Annika in the sense that she accomplished what she set out to do, but it was a grueling slog to the finish line that February Sunday, with one young dog riding the final miles perched in the sled, a team that had lost its spark, and a young musher venturing onto new ground mentally and physically. Old Ernest was the lead dog that dragged that weary team to the finish line, mile after slow, sunny, mid-afternoon mile. At the finish line Annika just went up to him and lay there with him, tears dropping down her cheeks onto his head and her race-number bib. (Okay that was maudlin, sorry.)
And on he went. He led expedition teams with students and tourists into the winter of 2012, then slowly and gradually began to fade. We turned him loose and he began another memorable phase of his long life. With his sister Sophie and his cousin Wishbone, the Geriatric Squad was a fixture around here for two winters straight – sleeping every night in the warmth of the house (except Sophie, who chose to share doghouses with a few selected boyfriends out in the yard.) 30 or 40 below, but outside all day every winter day, with a spring to their steps as they made laps around the homestead. It was both comical and poignant to watch Ernie rally his buddies, lead them out for a couple of rounds onto the ice, and come into the stretch below the sauna where he had led teams into the yard hundreds or thousands of times over the years. There he would instinctively break from a trot into a slow lope, up the hill and into the yard.
By the spring of this year, coming past the 16-year mark, it was just Sophie and Ernie. The other day, I found him sleeping out on the edge of the yard and it was not clear at first if he was sleeping or dead. His limbs akimbo, his head kinked at an odd angle, his fur speckled with soot and sap (as we all are around here these summer days.) As I walked up to him I said his name, loudly, but he did not stir. As my foot bumped the ground right alongside him he woke. Lurched to his feet and gave me that look I had seen so many times – “Oh hey boss, yeah so what are we doing now?”
Early on Saturday the freight barge from Yellowknife showed up here with a load of fuel drums and lumber, and the morning was a 5-hour flurry of unloading and shuttling and piling something like 30,000 pounds onto shore. Morning chores were skipped completely and thus Ernie was not missed until dinnertime, when he didn’t show up at the barn for his supper.
We all knew this was not good. Gradually we widened the scope of our search, but could not find him. Sophie his sister looked a little disoriented, drifting around in loops as if she wasn’t sure what had happened. We all hoped we would simply find Ernie curled up under one of his favorite spruces, having drifted painlessly from sleep to whatever lies beyond this life.
Sunday night, as I was taxiing out on floats for a round of charter work, Kristen called me on the VHF: “Found some fur and blood down here under a spruce west of the sauna, where Ernie liked to sleep. Drag marks up the ridge. Wolf, I think.”
I hope it was quick. It probably was. Miss you, old chum. You showed us. How to love work, how to rise to the occasion, how to discern even the faintest of trails, and eventually, when the time comes, how to grow old.