I’ve always loved dogs and I’ve always enjoyed winter so I guess there was a certain inevitability to my becoming a dog musher. In the late 1980s a combination of a love of wilderness and a frustration with the increasingly warm and snow-less winters in Southern Ontario propelled me to the far north and into dog mushing.
The Alaskan husky is a mutt. Bred over generations for performance rather than appearance, the Alaskan husky came about by breeding the dogs of interior Alaskan villages with the ancestors of the Siberian husky. Over the years the Greyhound, Saluki, Border Collie and Pointer have been bred into the lines with the goal of improving performance.
Except for a steel pronged brake, mushers have no physical control over a dog team. Everything hinges on verbal commands given to the lead dogs. For this reason, lead dogs make the mushing world go round. One of the very best lead dogs I ever had was Albert, a big red Alaskan husky with a white Siberian mask. In many ways he arrived too early in my career. I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to take full advantage of all he had to offer – his confidence, smarts, boundless enthusiasm and seemingly limitless energy. I sure learned a lot regardless.
About four miles out, my trail skirts a little willow bush in a large meadow. Our first year, as we were putting the trail in that first time, Albert came thundering off the ice like a bull moose and went left of the little willow bush. There’s four feet of space between the little bush and the trees on the left and about half a mile of open space on the right. But hey, whatever works. Every year thereafter Albert put the trail to the left of the little willow bush. I wondered if it gave him something to aim at.
Young dogs learn best from older dogs and Logan learned a lot from Albert, including that the trail always goes left of the little willow bush. Logan eventually gave way to Crackerjack. Crackerjack was like the little boy in the rhyme: when he was good he was very good and when he was…well, let’s just say when he was good he was very good. Crackerjack always put the trail to the left of the little willow bush. Its a tradition now.
Crackerjack handed off to Jasmine who has given way to my wonderful girls: Duchess, Gracie, Shadow and Pearl. The little bush isn’t so little any more. Branches brush the side of the sled and the dogs have to duck a little when we go by – but hey, whatever works.
Later in the year when the snow machine crowd shows up, they look at me a little oddly and ask, ”Why is your trail way up there in the bushes?”
I smile and shrug and say, “Ask Albert”.