As the dogs get stronger the bare ground becomes more difficult to travel. The dogs run hard and the sled violently lurches about. I feel like a pinball out there and today we just about tilted the machine.
Pups graduated from short runs to hauling wood. Hauling wood on frozen tundra poses a problem. Too many dogs can run all out across the lumpy hard tundra leaving the musher on his sled hanging on for dear life hoping the next bump doesn’t throw him right off the sled. In this light small teams make sense on bare ground. Everything is slower and more controlled. We were hauling wood however. Wood is heavy and you don’t want young dogs burning out dragging a load they can’t handle. So it’s not too many dogs to get out there safely, but enough dogs to bring the load home.
I went and found the patch of dry wood with eight well mannered adult dogs. Perfect number of dogs, everything went fine. For the next load I hitched up five adults and four pups. It was a little fast on the way out, but we made it fine. I should mention another difference between seasoned pullers and pups. Adults know better than to wear themselves out getting to the wood, they know the work comes on the way home. Pups don’t know any of this so they go all out from the word “hike” and never look back unless they are stopped or tire enough to slow down. Plus, it’s hard to use the break to slow them down bouncing along on uneven frozen ground. So these 5 adults and 4 pups went out pretty hard and had a tough time coming home. The pups were wagging tails the whole time and had lots of fun, but it was tougher for them than I wanted.
One more adult dog would solve the problem for the trip home, but could I hang on for the ride out? I heard Martin Buser tell a young musher once, “Listen to that little voice in your head.” The little voice in my head said one more dog was a bad idea, too much power. There were other possible solutions. Johanna suggested letting a few adults run loose next to the sled for a while, that might have worked but I worried about the road crossing. She also suggested giving a couple of dogs a ride in the sled for a while. They wouldn’t like it, but it would have worked. At the very least I could have employed the trick of letting the adults run on their neck lines for a while cutting down on power while keeping them in control. Any of those options would have been better than what I did.
I hooked all ten dogs in harness and pointed them toward the outbound trail. Everyone stood there nice and quiet when I got on the sled. “It should be fine,” I thought. When I said “hike” they took off. I was bouncing out of control before I left the dog yard. While stepping on the break the sled hit a mound of something and my foot shot between the sled and the bar break. With my foot trapped under the sled another bump bent my foot backwards. I reached down, but couldn’t get my size 11 pack boot out of its hold. Knowing that I had 10 yards of flat ground before going down a hill with trees at the bottom, I held tight and tipped the sled on its side. They drug me for a while, but did stop in time to get everything straightened out. My ankle hurt, but I could stand so I continued. After three more spills and being dragged across the frozen tundra we made it to the wood pile. The ride home was nice and easy with all that power.
I’m limping a bit and have a swollen spot on the top of my ankle. Nothing time won’t heal. I always tell new mushers, “Mushing is an exercise in anticipating the worst case scenario and then avoiding it.” I’m a very wise musher.