The Magnificent Sled Dogs of Denali

To read my Alaska journal from the beginning, click here.

Bonus poem: My Nice Dry Cabin.

A sled dog presentation? I had to be there.

Denali National Park employs Alaskan huskies to patrol the Park in the winter. Unlike snow mobiles, airplanes, and other heavy equipment, dogs don’t break down, or freeze up, or need hard-to-find parts. Just feed ‘em well, treat ‘em right, and they’ll get you where you need to go.

Indeed, the dogs – with their keen sense of smell, sharp eyes, knowledge of the terrain, wisdom, and amazing intuition – actively help the rangers by avoiding treacherous ice buried beneath the snow, finding remote cabins in impossible white-out conditions, and alerting them to all manner of danger.

Machines can’t do any of that.

Holly, always ready to lead us to safety

It reminded me of a hike that Martin and I once took with our golden retriever Holly. In the mountains of Arizona, we had hiked a four-mile loop trail through an open forest. Returning a month or so later, we decided to hike in the opposite direction. Halfway along the trail, it began to snow, heavily enough that the trail became obscured, completely covered in snow. The forest was open enough that we couldn’t easily discern the path through the trees. There were blazes on the trees, but they were far enough apart that we couldn’t see from one to the next.

We found ourselves casting about, wandering through the snow, looking for the blazes – and always Holly was waaaay over there, waiting for us. We’d call her; she wouldn’t budge. We’d tromp over to grab her – and a blaze would be above her. She was squarely on the trail. That happened several times – we’d lose our way, wander around looking for blazes, become frustrated that Holly was so far from us, then discover she was on the trail – and finally we just followed the dog. She led us unerringly back to the trailhead, in the snow, down a trail she had been on only once before a month prior, in the opposite direction.

I love dogs.

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The Seavey Dogs: Iditarod Champions and Trail Runners Extraordinaire

To read my Alaska journal from the beginning, click here.

Bonus poem: My Nice Dry Cabin.

We were rushing breathlessly down the trail, the last ones to arrive for the 10 AM group tour of the Seavey Sled Dogs. The Seaveys are a multigenerational family of dog lovers and Iditarod champions. The Iditarod— a grueling 1000-mile dogsled race across the face of Alaska— takes place in the freezing dark of Alaska’s harsh winter. Only the most intrepid even attempt it. Only true champions finish. The Seaveys have done it— have won it!— multiple times. We were here to get a tiny taste of the Iditarod by being pulled in a wheeled cart by the famous dogs themselves.

We joined the group and tromped down the trail. Our guide stopped before reaching the kennels; one of the sled dogs was on display, standing on a large box while the guide talked about the dogs, the brutal race, the Seaveys—

Actually, I have no idea what he said.

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The Vanilla Latte

“One medium cappuccino, one medium vanilla latte!” the barista sings, sliding two cups towards me.

I step forward. Martin’s cappuccino has froth towering above the cup’s rim. Grabbing a lid, the barista expertly snaps it onto the cup, and a spray of milky foam squirts out through the drinking slot. The jet shoots into the air, then lands in a bubbly pool on the lid.

The barista grins, mopping up the excess foam with a towel. “I knew that would happen,” he says, gallantly wiping the lid.

I carefully snap the lid onto my vanilla latte without incident. No surprises, no squirting foam. I take a sip. Ah yes, such sweet goodness! I love vanilla lattes.

I carry the two cups to the truck, placing them gingerly into the cup holders between the front seats. I slide into the driver’s seat; Martin appears with thick sandwiches from Togo’s. We are starving after a day of hiking, and still have a long drive home.

Martin unwraps the sandwiches as I merge onto the freeway. Our golden retrievers Jasper and Eddy hear the crinkle of paper, sniff the air and rise from the back seat, watching the proceedings with great interest. Food? Is that food? That looks like food! Both dogs inch forward, jostling each other to place their front paws on the center console. They look back and forth at us, Jasper drooling copiously as we take big bites of thick sandwiches piled high with meat and cheese.

I always give them the last bite. When I am done, I offer a final morsel to each dog. Eddy accepts his politely and delicately, a perfect gentleman; Jasper practically removes a couple of my fingers as he snatches it from me, greedily swallowing it whole. My hand comes away wet with slobber.

I wipe it on my pant leg.

Reaching down, I pick up my vanilla latte and am surprised to see a foamy pool on its lid, like Martin’s in the coffee shop. Huh, that’s odd. Had the cup been jostled? What caused the coffee to be ejected through the drinking slot?

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Poncho Likes the Good Stuff

Poncho had done it again.

My friend Carol had taken her two chocolate labs, Poncho and Lefty, on their daily river walk, and Poncho had pulled one of his classic disappearing acts near a campsite full of trash. He was slow to return when Carol called him; when he finally trotted up, he looked very smug.

Very pleased with himself.

Carol glared at him. Poncho had likely stolen some food from the campsite, which wasn’t polite. On the other hand, the guy was camping illegally and trashing up the place, so maybe it served him right to have his food eaten by a dog. Clean up your campsite!

Carol, Poncho and Lefty all happily swam in the river, chased tennis balls, romped around the beach, and returned home, tired and satisfied with their summer day.

But that night, Poncho became very subdued.

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Puppy Antics

It was mid-morning. Martin was changing into his work clothes when he glimpsed our puppy Eddy emerging furtively from the room that contained the cat’s litter box.

Eddy froze near the top of the stairs. His guilty expression, firmly clamped mouth, and bulging cheeks said it all.

Bonanza! He’d scored a mouthful of cat poop.

We yell at him every time. He knows he’s not supposed to eat cat poop. But apparently it’s just too yummy to resist.

Martin and Eddy stared at each other for a long moment, motionless, sizing up the situation and their relative positions. Then they both sprang into action.

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I was in my backyard the other day, and the neighbor’s dog, a big blockheaded yellow lab, starting barking at me.

He learned to bark from my dogs. Before the neighbors had a dog, my dogs would bark at them as they collected blackberries along the back fence. I’d hear the wife hiss, “Shush! Quiet! Go away! Git!”

Not particularly friendly, but then again, my dogs were barking at her.

Then one day they came home with a puppy. We’d hear them: “Bubba, no! Bubba, stop! Bubba, sit! Bubba, come!”

Bubba? Seriously, they named their dog Bubba?

My apologies to all you Bubbas out there – you  are all undoubtedly great, smart people – but why would anyone name their dog Bubba?

It just seems…  disrespectful to the dog, somehow.

No offense intended, of course.

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Canine Vestibular Disease

There was something terribly wrong with my almost-13-year-old golden retriever, Holly. It happened suddenly, out of the blue:

Her symptoms were:

  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Nystagmus (eyes flickering back and forth) and rhythmic eyebrow twitching
  • Severe head tilt: One ear was pointing to the floor, the other ear was pointing to the ceiling
  • Apparent confusion/disorientation: She was looking around the room in an unfocused fashion, as if she didn’t know where she was or what was happening
  • Inability to walk or stand: She scrabbled around helplessly on the floor. When we lifted her, she lurched sideways, staggered, and fell against the wall. She had a no balance. Some dogs walk in circles.

It was very alarming.

Was this a stroke? An ominous neurological affliction?

No, these are classic signs of Canine Vestibular Disease, also down as Old Dog Vestibular Disease. It is a problem with the inner ear, causing dizziness, loss of balance, and nausea.

Basically, the dog feels seasick.

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Poncho: That Kind of Dog

The chocolate labs, Poncho and Lefty, frisked about, splashing through puddles and skidding through mud. My friend Carol was walking her dogs along the river’s upper trail in the pouring rain.

That’s right. I said pouring rain.

She’s that kind of dog owner. Totally wacko committed. What other kind of friend would I have?

Both dogs are both more than a little ball-crazy (I’m looking at you, Lefty!), lightning-fast brown blurs when they run, and unreservedly sweet. But Poncho, handsome doe-eyed Poncho, is the trouble-maker of the two. At home, Poncho is the one to get into the trash, chew a shoe, steal a sandwich. At the river, Poncho is the one to eat the horse poop, roll in the fish guts, stumble over a rattlesnake.

He’s just that kind of dog.

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Poem: Cassie The Wonder Dog

The Backstory

Cassie is one of those special dogs.

Exuberant. Sweet. Smart. An agility champion. A devoted companion.

A very, very serious ball-chaser.IMG_2913_01

Put a tennis ball in your hand, and Cassie’s whole demeanor changes. She freezes. She cocks her head, fixes the ball with her eyes, lifts her foreleg in a classic German Shorthair Pointer stance, pointing with her whole body, starting with her nose. She quivers. She wants that ball. She will chase that ball. And if you don’t throw it fast enough, she starts to yip.

When I say “yip,” I don’t mean cute little puppy noises. I mean ear-splitting, brain-piercing, eye-watering, high-pitched shrieking noises that jangle just about every nerve in your body.

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Avoid Bad Bounces

“Maybe this isn’t a very good idea,” I thought as I lowered myself slowly into the poison oak.

I must hasten to say that I did not jump out of bed that morning, thinking, “Woo hoo! Today’s the day I get to immerse myself in poison oak! Finally!

I’m not stupid.

Although…. That first sentence worries me, as it possibly argues  otherwise.

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