Salmon, Kibble and Fish Guts

I like feeding our dogs; especially this time of year. It’s dark and I work in the beam of a headlamp. There is just something about the crunch of snow underfoot, the breath of barking dogs that hangs in the air and at times, the Northern Lights dancing overhead, that has me wishing it all could be captured somehow for everyone to see. As I move from dog to dog I am greeted with tapping, excited feet and a “woof” or “woooooooooo.” Hearing them slurp and gulp and snarf their warm, nutritious meal makes my heart glad.

We buy 50 lb blocks of meat to use as snacks for the dogs. Yummy!!!

We buy 50 lb blocks of meat to use as snacks for the dogs. Yummy!!!

A band saw is a musher's best friend!

A band saw is a musher’s best friend!

Tonight my ears tuned into the dogs around me. Glacier who is physically an intimidating giant, but is in truth the biggest baby I have ever had, gets fed first. After he eats, he spends the rest of the time whining and carrying on about how he is STILL starving (Yeah he gets almost twice as much as every other dog because of his size.)

Nodd, who adopted me about 13 years ago, barks once or twice but that’s it. She came from a neglectful situation and I think she learned early not to draw attention to herself because there were always consequences.

Off on the other side of the yard, I can hear old Peanut barking at her bowl, stomping her front feet into it and then tossing it in the air. I think she is convinced that this is how the food shows up.

Some of those barks are echoes of generations. Daisy, Pepe, Hippy and Scoot all sound like their dad and grandpa Trophy. Listening to them a person might be convinced we have hunting hounds and not sled dogs.

Daisy taking a break on a fall run. Experienced sled dogs learn to just relax during our breaks.

Daisy taking a break on a fall run. Experienced sled dogs learn to just relax during our breaks.

Hiccup spends her wait time growling at any other dog who even looks her way. Like her sister Bob, now gone, she is quite convinced that there is a canine conspiracy to steal her food and so she initiates a preemptive strike. Silly girl.

Bob - I miss this silly girl.

Bob – I miss this silly girl.

Beaker and Blue, who are young sisters, don’t bark. They scream. Molar loosening screams. Their grandfather, Zen, who was very un-Zen-like, made the same grating sound. These two are crazy, happy dogs, but the noise – oh my. I try to feed them as quickly as I can!

Meanie, who really isn’t, whines. And whines. And whines. Bless his heart. His mom, Lucy, does the same thing. Maybe it’s some secret language.

Tyson, aka, Buckaroo, well, bucks. It’s the funniest thing I have ever seen a dog do. In the dark what you hear is, “thump, thump, thump” as he lands on the ground. Then there are the quiet dogs – senior citizens who understand the food bucket comes by pretty much on time and there is no need to worry. Charlie, Gump and Blackie all just chill and wait. Blackie sometimes doesn’t even get out of his warm, straw-filled house until I am filling his food pan.

Charlie sort of looks like Jeff Dunham's Walter doesn't he?

Charlie sort of looks like Jeff Dunham’s Walter doesn’t he?

One sound I have been missing a lot is the “woo woo” from Diablo. She died this summer because of a brain tumor. We had a ton of adventures she and I – living in the bush, working on glaciers, following a caribou herd on migration and traveling on historical trails. I miss her a lot and I think even more so, because her area remains empty. Maybe it’s time to move some dogs around. She will never be forgotten but her spirit was adventure and I don’t think she’d mind.

Our last expedition in Canada before moving to Alaska. (photo courtesy of my friend James)

Our last expedition in Canada before moving to Alaska. (photo courtesy of my friend James)

 

 

 

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Tis the Season……for Frostbite.

The mercury has crept downward to more normal temperatures around here. We were spoiled by a very warm fall, after a miserably wet summer. It’s 8 degrees below zero F (-22 C) as I write this, which overall isn’t that bad. Heck it could be 50 below right now or 30 degrees and raining, creating impossibly dangerous road conditions like a few Thanksgivings ago. We were all home and icebound for 5 days then.

The sun will rise tomorrow at 9:49 a.m. and set at 3:24 p.m. – a loss of 6 minutes and 11 seconds from yesterday.We will continue to lose daylight until that magical day of winter solstice – December 21st – and then we start to slowly gain light. That’s a ways off though, so it’s best just to focus on the here and now.

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I never tire of a winter sunset.

There isn’t much snow to speak of. A couple of inches really. Everyone is still running dog teams with the four wheelers which gets old pretty quickly. Old and cold.

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Polar on our run yesterday. She tires Bella out because she loves to play and run at the same time. This is a field where I have to keep a watchful eye out for moose.

I took Bella and Sasha for a free run this afternoon, just about sunset which is my favorite time of day. I was wearing long johns, jeans, sweatpants, 2 pairs of socks, boots, hoodie, fleeced jacket, parka, hat, headlamp and gauntlet mitts with heavy fleece and a canvas outer layer. I realized on the way home that I hadn’t stuffed my neck warmer, which I can pull up over my face, in the belly pocket of my parka. I realized it when I felt the sudden sting of freezing skin. Sigh.

Frostbite is a fact of life if you spend any lengthy time playing outdoors in this part of Alaska. As much as we take measures to avoid it, the cold has a way of creeping in to find exposed flesh. I once froze part of my wrist where the tiniest line of skin had been exposed at the point where my parka cuff ended and my glove began. I’ve had frozen ears, toes, fingers and cheeks too. The thawing is the part that really hurts and the skin remains tender and swollen for a while. It is also very vulnerable to re-freezing and so care must be taken. My cheeks didn’t get it too bad today – just a mild case – but enough so that I have a very rosy face at the moment.

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At the beginning of our adventure today. All layered up and snug as a bug.

A few more folks have been on the trails judging by all the four wheeler tracks and yellow snow (don’t eat it by the way!). We haven’t run into anyone yet but I am always ready to call the dogs and step off the trail. It’s more usual for us to meet teams further down the trail than we go right now, because there is a large community of mushers there – 1,000 people and 6,000 sled dogs! It is a skill to have teams pass without incident and after each successful meet up a musher is always thanking the gods that they have good leaders!

Being passed from behind is usually a pretty smooth deal. Dogs are naturally competitive and so the passing team will just surge on by, while the other mushers rides the break ever so slightly to slow their team down. Head-on passes are another matter entirely. The dogs have time to see each other and all it takes is one of them to hop over the line of the on-coming team or to suddenly stop to sniff a butt and mayhem ensues. It is up to the leaders to keep the team lined out nice and straight and to pull their teammates right on by. We’ve had a few tangles over the years but thankfully canines and humans kept their cool, tangles were sorted out and everyone went on their way.

Today though, was uneventful. We saw tracks and left tracks and let the land soothe our spirits.

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Seasons and Silence

I’ve been sick all week – like pneumonia and say nice things at my funeral or else, sick. Sasha (aged 10ish and with a trick elbow), Spud (aged 11 and fattest husky in the world) and Oni (aged 12 and just a strange little dog) are quite happy simply having quick potty breaks out back and then back on the couch until next time. And then there is Bella – aged: puppy. For being so young and rambunctious at times, she really does take a lazy day quite well. A day. On the second day she is looking for mischief and is adept at finding it.

So this week I have bundled up like Peter Billingsley’s (no relation) “Ralphie” in “A Christmas Story” and hopped on the ATV so that Bella could get her 4 or 5 mile run in. The fresh air has been good for me, as has moving around. Laying around allows the lungs to continue to fill with fluid, so a little exercising them helps them heal.

Yesterday as I putt-putted along and watched the dogs I was reminded again of much much joy I get from just being outside. There is something about taking deep breaths in the cold that brings a flash of a memory.

One breath and I am here again, running dogs in the Canadian Arctic (photo by my friend James).

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Next breath and this memory comes rushing back – living in a tent during our wonderfully adventurous and funny Homeless in Alaska period.

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Inhale and I remember that these days are coming very soon!

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It’s been snowing for a good part of the day and there is a certain silence that descends on the land with that first blanket of the white stuff. I rode into a little piece of woods right beside the river, turned the ATV off and just sat. Even the dogs took a break and we were still and silent.

It is quite profound what can be heard when you “just be.” The snow falling on my jacket. A sudden, sharp crack as the ice on the river splits. Chattering and chastisement from a miffed red squirrel who clearly reminds dogs and human that the midden under that spruce tree is his. The drumming of wings from an unseen grouse in the grass across the water. Abundant life that is easily missed.

My eye caught evidence of busy beavers. Three birch trees patiently chewed on until they fell.

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It is beautiful to see the river change from day to day. Here it is yesterday:

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And 24 hrs later, the same river:

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There is a certain sacredness to the changing of the seasons. Oh, I know the science of it all but the sacred is found in legend. Here is a Mi’kmaq story about the seasons. It is one of my favorites.


Long ago a mighty race of Indians lived near the sunrise, and they called themselves Wawaniki—Children of Light. Glooskap was their master. He was kind to his people and did many great deeds for them.

Once in Glooskap’s day it grew extremely cold. Snow and ice covered everything. Fires would not give enough warmth. The corn would not grow. His people were perishing from cold and famine.

Glooskap set forth for the far north where all was ice. Here in a wigwam he found the great giant Winter. It was Winter’s icy breath that had frozen the land.

Glooskap entered the wigwam and sat down. Winter gave him a pipe, and as they smoked the giant told tales of olden times when he reigned everywhere and all the land was silent, white, and beautiful. His frost charm fell upon Glooskap and as the giant talked on, Glooskap fell asleep. For six months he slept like a bear, then the charm left him. He was too strong for it and awoke.

Soon now Glooskap’s talebearer, the Loon, a wild bird who lived on the lakeshores, brought him strange news. He described a country far to the south where it was always warm. There lived the all-powerful Summer who could easily overcome the giant Winter. To save his people from cold and famine and death, Glooskap decided to find her.

Far off to the southern seashores he went. He sang the magic song which whales obey and up came an old friend—a whale who served as his carrier when he wished to go out to sea.

This whale had a law for travelers. She always said: “You must shut your eyes while I carry you. If you do not, I am sure to go aground on a reef or sand-bar and be unable to get off. You could be drowned.”

Glooskap got on the whale’s back and for many days they traveled together. Each day the water grew warmer and the air softer and sweeter, for it came from spicy shores. The odors were no longer those of salt, but of fruits and flowers.

Soon they found themselves in shallow water. Down in the sand clams were singing a song of warning: “Keep out to sea, for the water here is shallow.”

The whale asked Glooskap, who understood the lan- guage of all creatures: “What do they say?”

Glooskap, wishing to land at once, only replied: “They tell you to hurry, for a storm is coming.”

The whale hurried on accordingly until she was close to land. Now Glooskap did the forbidden; he opened his left eye, to peep. At once the whale stuck hard on to the beach so that Glooskap, leaping from her head, was able to walk ashore on dry land.

Thinking she could never get away, the whale became angry. But Glooskap put one end of his strong bow against the whale’s jaw and, taking the other end in his hands, placed his feet against the high bank. With a mighty push, he sent her out into the deep water.

Far inland strode Glooskap and found it warmer at every step. In the forest he came upon a beautiful woman, dancing in the center of a group of young girls. Her long brown hair was crowned with flowers and her arms filled with blossoms. She was Summer.

Glooskap knew that here at last was the one who by her charms could melt old Winter’s heart. He leaped to catch her and would not let her go. Together they journeyed the long way back to the lodge of old Winter.

Winter welcomed Glooskap but he planned to freeze him to sleep again. This time, however, Glooskap did the talking. His charm proved the stronger one and soon sweat began to run down Winter’s face. He knew that his power was gone and the charm of Frost broken. His icy tent melted away.

Summer now used her own special power and everything awoke. The grass grew green and the snow ran down the rivers, carrying away the dead leaves. Old Winter wept to see his power taken away.

But Summer said, “Now that I have proved I am more powerful than you, I give you all the country to the far north for your own, and there I shall never disturb you. Six months of every year you may return to Glooskap’s country and reign as before, but you are to be less severe with your power. During the other six months, I will come back from the South and rule the land.”

Old Winter could do nothing but accept this. So it is that he appears in Glooskap’s country each year to reign for six months, but with a softer rule. When he comes, Summer runs home to her warm south land. When at the end of six months she returns to drive old Winter away, she awakens the north and gives it the joys that only she can bestow. (from http://www.native-languages.org)

 

 

 

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Yes Virginia (or Peg), there are grouse in Alaska

Bella and I were cooped up in the house for 3 looonnngggg days. Little kid cooties are quite virile and my cold/cough morphed into pneumonia last week. I mostly laid on the couch and whined all weekend, with intermittent breaks to use the restroom and then stare in the fridge and complain there was nothing to eat. I am a terrible patient. This afternoon I was feeling a little more like myself and in need of fresh air. The benefit of an ATV is that I can ride it for miles on frozen trails, or take it to the land where I trap, or just go for a short spin. Today it was a short spin.

I always have my .22 rifle with me in case of grouse or a hare. If you have been following this blog, you know that I have claimed there are no grouse in Alaska. Until today! I came around a corner on the trail and there he was – a plump male. Sasha and Bella both saw him but they listened to my command to stay beside me. The angle was right with a safe back drop in case anyone else was out in the woods. I aimed just below the head and fired. The shot was sure and the grouse was dead.

This was the first time Bella had heard a gun close up and it didn’t phase her the least. Sasha, who has been a little gun shy, also didn’t even flinch. Bella ran to the bird and well – we need a little work on the idea that retrieving means bring the bird back to Peg. She did pretty good though. She ran a little away from me but came back when I called her. The look I got when I took the bird from her was, well, not very supportive but when I field dressed the bird and handed the human inedibles too her and Sasha I felt the love once again. Before field dressing I melted a little snow and dribbled it into the grouse’s beak – water for his trip to the other side. It’s important to me to honor every life. I kept the wings as an attractant for trapping and tomorrow is roast grouse with wild rice!

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My heart was full and we continued down the trail. It was about 2 hours before sunset and the light was the kind that is soft and speaks of Nature’s glory. It was warm today too – about 35 F – and I stopped often to bask in the warmth of a sun that will soon enough shine but not have any heat to it. The trail I was on is known as the main winter trail and is part of a system that will, truthfully, take you anywhere in Alaska or beyond. The Yukon Quest, a 1,000 mile dogsled race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse (it alternates every year), uses part of this trail. From our end we first go through what everyone calls the hay fields.

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Another mile down the trail is what we call the second hay fields or also “the place where Peg went through the ice at 20 below.” A few years ago I broke through some ice and muskeg and buried the ATV up to its headlights. Our machine has a winch which is great. What was not so great was the trees I could have hooked to were all behind me and my winch cable was about 20 feet too short. I spent about 2 hours that night slogging through thigh deep water to the trees and back, burying short poles under the tires to help break the suction of the mud. Then I tied rope and gangline (the set up sled dogs are attached too) together, thought about the physics of it all and finally got the machine unstuck. A year later, that same sinkhole sucked in my friend and his dog team. He had it worse than I did because he had to unhook each dog and tie them to a tree. Once free he had to hook his team up again. Here is the view from the safe end of that field.

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When I am on the trail I am always considering “what if’s.” What if a moose comes charging out of the trees? What if the ATV gets stuck? What if I meet another dog team and have to do a head-on pass? What if I have to make camp and start a fire? Knowing how to start a fire is an important skill. Some folks have found themselves in real danger when they were stuck somewhere and their knowledge of fire-starting was limited to a lighter and newspaper. Don’t get me wrong. I carry a lighter but when it doesn’t work at 40 below or when it’s pouring rain, I have a knife, steel, fero rod and various tinder options. One of the tinders I like to collect and keep on the ATV or in my pocket is this stuff – Arctic cotton. When it’s dry, it’s excellent fire starter.

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Another good source of tinder is this greenish-yellow stuff, called Witch’s Beard. It’s easy to collect and find. Here in the Interior of Alaska, it’s not as abundant as in the SE of Alaska, but it can be found.

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We made it as far as The Willows today. It’s also known as Little Africa. I have to laugh when I think of these various names. The Willows is this small stand of, well, willow, next to a field of grass and muskeg (hence Little Africa). All the names make sense to me now – Potlatch Creek, Slough Trail, Jenny M trail, Christmas tree trail – but when we had first moved here and mushers, trying to be helpful, would talk about all these different places as if it all made sense. The Willows is this:

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The challenge is that there are hundreds of clumps of willows. For a few years now, this particular fork in the trail is also described as The Willows on your left and the Willows with the CD hanging from a branch on your right.

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The trail also has signs designating it as a route for dogs first and foremost. I imagine these signs have been up pretty much since the development of the trails.

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And what do you find on a dog trail? These two:

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Here is a more “modern” version of trail signs:

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This winter I will be sure to take a photo on the Christmas Tree trail. At the crossroads is a scraggly spruce adorned with lights and bulbs – in the middle of nowhere. It’s really something to be mushing along, lost in thought and see that tree all lit up (by solar).

We made it home safe and sound. The fresh air did me a world of good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Northern Lights

One thing I will never tire of is the Aurora Borealis, otherwise known as the Northern Lights. I have fed dogs under them. I’ve laid in the snow at 40 below and watched them until I began to stick to the ground. I’ve seen them from the comfort of an airplane seat. And I’ve mushed dogs while they danced and swirled above me. It has taken my breath away.

One winter night I was stalled on an Arctic lake. My team and I had had a very challenging day trying to find the hard-packed trail buried under a foot of fresh snow. I felt like I had said “gee” (right) and “haw” (left) for 10 hours straight as I attempted to keep the team on the trail. Apparently they felt the same way because they suddenly and most definitely went on strike. We were at a standstill.

Moments like these are a mental game and the fault lies with the musher. I should have trusted my sure-footed leaders Mobad and Scotty, to find the trail on their own. Some things though, I have to learn the hard way. We had of course stopped a few times for rests and snacks but this pit stop was unplanned. When a team does this there is not much a musher can do except wait it out. The dogs need some TLC and profuse apologies. I burrowed into my sled and grabbed the snack bag. I walked up the line and tossed each dog a generous portion of frozen fish. Then I made my way back down the team and removed booties so they could tend to their feet. I grabbed liniment from the sled and massaged the healing balm into each dog’s wrist, feet and shoulders. Eyes closed in ecstasy and after the massage each dog curled into a tight ball for a nap.

Then it was my turn for a snack – dry meat and hot tea. I chastised myself for my mistake and settled in to wait for my team to be ready. Suddenly the sky was lit with the Northern Lights. They were a curtain of green, red and purple that looked like it was waving in a breeze. I don’t imagine I will ever forget that night.

There are many tales associated with the Aurora Borealis. In almost all Northern cultures the Lights are spirits. They may be playing games or foretelling war. They were dreaded demons pursuing lost souls or Valkyries leading fallen warriors to Valhalla. One of my favorites is that the Lights are part of the circle of life and are the souls of those we have loved who have gone on before us. My other favorite is a more recent legend that the Lights are the flashing harnesses on the dogs we have loved.

We have had a few awesome displays of the Aurora Borealis this week. Darrel has stayed up late to capture some images. I am astounded that he can get such good photos with his small point and shoot camera. All these images are his and taken right in our yard!

Green is the most common color, but it is no less beautiful.

Green is the most common color, but it is no less beautiful.

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What we see in our own backyard!

What we see in our own backyard!

We never get tired of the beauty!

We never get tired of the beauty!

 

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A walk in the woods

Sunny. Calm wind. 10 degrees F. What to do? What to do? Get on the ATV and head to the woods of course!

I spent a good part of the time exploring the almost 1,000 acres I will be trapping on this winter. The land is mostly flat, frozen and game trails are every where, which makes for easy walking. Thank you moose and bears! This is one of the areas I will be working this winter. I have to wait a bit to get on the other because it features a river, some sloughs, a few ponds and muskeg.

It was so nice to just stroll through the woods and look at how busy all the animals have been. Bella had her nose to the ground the entire time – sensory heaven for a lab! Sasha wandered here and there and I would have to whistle for her every now and again. Spud, the fattest husky in the world was always just 10 feet or so off my side. He is a worrier and concerned about safety – his own. We had a small crisis when his fattiness fell into a midden (an underground squirrel nest). I had to put a leash under his belly and lift his butt up and onto the trail. Spud seriously needs to get on a diet!!

Bella digging for squirrels.

Bella digging for squirrels.

I was strolling along and the woods opened up into an area about the size of the average living room and it was full of Labrador tea! It is good to remember these places because they can provide medicine in times of trouble. Labrador tea is a plant whose leaves were and are used to make a tea that is good for cold, arthritis and digestive upset. Too much of the spring and summer leaves can actually cause a bad gut, but the fall and winter leaves have the opposite effect because the juice has gone out of them. Labrador tea has a very strong smell and there is no doubt when you are standing in the middle of a patch of it!

A patch of Labrador tea. It has been imprinted on my memory and marked in my GPS.

A patch of Labrador tea. It has been imprinted on my memory and marked in my GPS.

Bella the Lab surrounded by Labrador tea.

Bella the Lab surrounded by Labrador tea.

There was also a lot of false tinder conk on the trees. Knowledge of this fungus could prove to be lifesaving. Cutting a thin slice off the fungus trama or flesh (the cinammon colored interior part) and using a knife to “fluff” up the trama results in some tinder that readily catches a spark from a flint and steel or a fero rod. The result is a long lasting smouldering. A false tinder conk can also be hollowed to the trama layer and an ember placed in there. The conk can then be carried for several hours and a new fire started easily and quickly. This is a way first peoples carried fire.

False tinder conk.

False tinder conk. Who knew a tree can come with it’s own fire starter?

After exploring it was time to head to the bridge and check on the river. The thin ice is already a highway for the local squirrel and rabbits!

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The river today. Hello winter!

The river today. Hello winter!

P.S. Still no grouse in Alaska! LOL.

 

 

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The Depth of Friendship

In May 2005 I took in a little sled dog named Oni who had terrible confirmation and was hardly socialized. Her back legs are weirdly angled – they fold underneath her at her knees at pretty close to 45 degrees. She has a small head and a super pointy nose. Her tail is fused and only the very tip wags when she is happy – which wasn’t very often at first. Her “deformities” lead to her being cast aside by the owner and she was scheduled to be put down. I don’t exactly know how I heard about her but she ended up at the kennel I was temporarily calling home before my move to Alaska.

Oni about 8 months into our adventure together. Her distrust is obvious.

Oni about 8 months into our adventure together. Her distrust is obvious.

I knelt down by the crate she was huddled in and was greeted with trembling and growling. Truthfully, I wondered what I had taken on and my mind flashed back to another little white rescue who mauled my arm in seconds about 5 years before. I had sustained 7 deep and ugly punctures and tears, with one missing the artery in my wrist by a hair.  And here I was again, facing a terrified, growling dog.

I prayed to the mushing gods that her collar was snug and secured. I also prayed she wouldn’t chew on my un-gloved hand. After opening the kennel door a crack, I was able to put my arm inside and snap a leash onto her collar. Poor little Oni kept growling but I maintained a gentle conversation with her and she darted out of the crate.

The kennel I was staying at had a terrific dog yard set up with small fenced areas inside a large fenced area. I put Oni in the area with quiet, older dogs and let her settle in. Over the next few days it was clear she loved her own species but was absolutely terrified of humans. She would skitter away from me, growling whenever I approached her.

We were off to Alaska soon after her arrival to work on a glacier. In harness was where Oni really shone. Even though she weighed a mere 30 lbs – much smaller than the rest of the dogs – she out-pulled and outworked them all. She was what mushers call an “honest dog.”

Oni and Loup on a short run. Loup is a big Malamute and Oni looked pretty small next to him!

Oni and Loup on a short run. Loup is a big Malamute and Oni looked pretty small next to him!

Setting up dog camp on an Alaskan glacier.

Setting up dog camp on an Alaskan glacier.

 

A few winters ago, during a deep cold snap, Oni looked like she wasn’t doing well and so she came up to the house. Our place in the winter often seems like it is wall to wall dog, with mostly older dogs curled up in various spots as close to the heater as they can. For some reason, Oni just became a house dog. A really nervous one. At first.

Fast forward to now and Oni can be persistent in her need for affection. She seeks out contact with us and is not subtle about it. Ignore her and she is in your lap and nose to nose with you. Her favorite thing is a nose to tail doggy massage.

Her poor early socialization meant that she never learned to play with other dogs or people. She has taken to Bella who of course loves to play. Watching them together is an interesting study and it melts my heart to see Oni actually having fun. Her movements are stiff and awkward but Bella doesn’t care. It cracks me up to see the tip of Oni’s tail moving furiously. It is amazing what a little puppy love can do.

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