A String of Dogs

I never decided this is what I should do with my life. I just started doing it. And the dogs wouldn’t let me stop.

In the year 2000, I began giving dog mushing presentations in schools and public libraries. 2020 was supposed to be our big 20th anniversary celebration—Noggin, Chloe, and I had planned on being on the road much of the year. 

Indiana, Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont—those were the states we’d either visited already in 2020 or had on the books for later in the year. In early March, we were just preparing to leave for 40 days worth of talks on the East Coast when the pandemic hit.

For every single person on this planet, 2020 was supposed to look one way—and suddenly, it looked another. Instantly, I was unemployed. I had never heard of Zoom. I’ve always hesitated to implement innovations just because they are new and available—ideally, I want technological advances to prove they’ll make my life and the world a better place, not just different. Zoom and other virtual platforms became essential overnight; I was leery, but with the training and support of teachers and librarians, I signed on.

Twenty years ago I began my career of public speaking after falling in love with Alaskan huskies and mushing, an ancient form of dog-powered transportation dating back over 3,000 years. My dream was to train a group of dogs to someday run the 1,049-mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race across Alaska. An event steeped in Indigenous subsistence cultures, mining and Alaskan state history, and a deep respect for working animals, Joe Redington, Sr. came up with the Iditarod—the Last Great Race—in the 1970’s when the widespread use of snowmobiles for winter travel threatened to make dog mushing obsolete. Along with the Iditarod, many other races in Alaska, the Lower 48, Canada, and other countries such as Norway and Russia continue to keep the sled dog lifestyle active and vibrant across the world. 

Since that first Iditarod Race in 1973, there have been many improvements that have made the age-old sport faster, safer, and better for dogs and humans, alike. But, overall, mushers know better than to rely on technology as savior—this is one of many reasons audiences of all ages are enamored with the idea of the Iditarod. It’s just a snowy trail, a team of powerful and enthusiastic dogs, a simple sled packed with food and basic survival gear, and you, a musher. 

During my first four years of school and library talks, I traveled the country with my beloved dog, Borage, my first wooden toboggan sled and gear, 50 lbs. worth of arctic clothing (all I might need to stay warm on the trail), and my parents’ 1970’s Kodak Carousel 600 Slide Projector. 

While my friends were busy buying the latest computers, cell phones, and GPS’s, I saved my pennies to purchase what most might consider needs-from-another-era (or planet) like a lighter-weight aluminum sled, an endless supply of dog booties, and new blades for the ban-saw I ran daily to cut up whole, frozen beaver carcasses donated by a local fur trapper to help feed the kennel. I never even considered replacing the Kodak slide projector I used for my talks with something more modern—this basic yet effective tool served its purpose just fine. If it ain’t broke, I don’t fix it.

Carol Meeks, a teacher from North Manchester, Indiana, was one of the first to invite Borage and me into her classroom. Long before the Internet, Carol had been following the Iditarod Race with her students, relying on hard-copy newspaper articles a family member sent via USPS from their home in Anchorage, Alaska. Even though “the daily updates” Carol and her students read were often over a week old, their excitement upon opening each manila envelope full of newspaper clippings made every day of the Iditarod Race feel like Christmas. Eventually, Iditarod would go online and the updates would evolve from fans being alerted when a musher and team had safely arrived at the next checkpoint to constant GPS tracking, showing the world the exact location of every team out on the trail at any given moment. 

Friends Forever—Carol, Borage, and me, Spring 2004

The first time I gave a talk for Carol’s students, I placed my parents’ Kodak Carousel 600 Slide Projector on a desk in the multi-purpose room, plugged the machine’s short cord into a long extension cord plugged into a far wall, and aimed and focused the light on a white screen set up on the low stage. Earlier, I’d spent an hour double-checking each of the 70-some slides, making sure each image was arranged in the perfect order for my presentation. I also confirmed the slides were inserted into their slots on the rotary tray upside-down and backwards, assuring each picture would appear on the screen with the correct orientation. I didn’t want any upside down dogs sending the kids into giggling fits—Borage was already enough of a distraction. While I gave my talk, I allowed the gentle, blue-eyed husky to work the room, tip-toeing among the students seated all around me on the floor. 

As often happens in life, during my early days of mushing talks I entered each new school or library worried one thing might happen—routinely, stage fright—and ended up startled by some strange mishap I never could have imagine if I tried. On this particular day, the lights were dimmed, the projector fan hummed in the background, and I stood up front near the screen, giving the thumbs- up sign every minute or so to a student assigned to press the lever, advancing the next slide from the carousel tray into view.

I didn’t think twice when I noticed a group of students and teachers quietly enter the back of the room, place brown sacks and cartons of milk on a lunch table, and sit down. But, Borage did. As soon as he heard the crinkle-crinkle of potato chip bags and Ding Dong wrappers, Borage—with his head held high and his pointy, radar-ears aimed towards the enticing sounds—trotted through the maze of children sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the floor. The kids, excited by the husky’s sudden, animated gait, cheered him on: “Borage! Borage!” 

I couldn’t help but laugh along with everyone else until I witnessed my sidekick flip one of his big paws underneath the curled extension cord and yank my parents’ Kodak 600 Slide Projector straight off the desk. What followed seemed to happen in slow motion. Several quick-thinking students lunged to catch the giant black box in mid-air… but missed. The archaic device hit the hard floor with a cringe-worthy crunch. Upon impact, the plastic carousel ejected from the projector, sending that, too, flying into the air like an unwieldy frisbee. It soon landed with another, smaller crack and my entire presentation—70-some photographic slides—slid and scattered across the polished linoleum.

The crowd went wild as if this mayhem was part of our usual program. Borage adored encouragement—he took off running his free dog laps around the entire room. The more they clapped, the faster he ran. Eventually, one of his paws hit a stray slide and a foot slipped out from underneath his lanky body. Borage did the spilts, his four long legs splayed wide in every direction like a cartoon character with impossible flexibility. 

“Ouch…” the audience winced. 

Borage gathered himself up and came straight to momma, leaning his shoulder into my leg as if he hoped I could help burden some of his embarrassment. 

I rubbed Borage hard behind the ears the way he liked it. Teachers and students were determined to pick up all of the slides and reload them in the carousel but I told them not to worry about it. It took me hours to organize the presentation—we didn’t have that kind of time.

A little girl raised her hand. “I know why Borage is a sled dog!” she declared before I even had a chance to call on her.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because he really loves to run!” she said. “And he really, really loves you…”

I looked down at my partner who was staring up at me. Still panting from his performance, his pink tongue lolled out the side of his grinning mouth. 

They say a picture is worth a thousand words—but, I know, a happy dog is worth a million.

My favorite part of public speaking has always been listening—I love visiting with people before and after our program and hearing their often-emotional or hilarious stories about the dogs they know and treasure. When we were forced to resort to Zoom back in March, I assumed the SCREEN dividing us would seriously limit the intimacy I cherish during those in-person/in-dog presentations. Yet still, we—animal-lovers of all ages—gathered virtually to share something that took our minds off our own situations for a spell. From their own kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms, porches, garages, vehicles, barns, and yards, students and library patrons often joined in our virtual conversation with their own dogs, cats, and a menagerie of other creatures resting on their laps. More than one audience member removed framed photos from the wall or a desk to show everyone in attendance their beloved and dearly-missed dogs. Kids without their own pets brought and held their favorite stuffed animals. With my two dogs, Noggin and Chloe, always snoozing on the couch behind me, the virtual show-and-tell became a relaxing and healing part of our time together that I never would have predicted in advance.

Yes, when Borage and I started “visiting” schools and libraries twenty years ago, technology was totally different. But one thing—the heart of it all—hasn’t changed a lick. 

Dogs are always the same.

Perfect.

If you’re interested in a virtual presentation (Zoom, Skype, etc.) now and/or an in-person/in-dog presentation in the future, please email us anytime using mymusher at gmail.com!

Yesterday, after sixteen-some adventure-filled years together, it broke our hearts to say goodbye to our beloved Romano.

Romano was a good man! He didn’t have a sneaky bone in his body (which, for an Alaskan husky, is really saying something). He was a saint among dogs. He touched the lives of so many. I like to imagine him in Heaven, hanging with all of the humans who adored him—Dwight, Brenda, Mom, Dad—as well as the long string of dogs leading him to the Heavenly smells and sights—Lolo, Borage, and his brother, Stinky, along with the rest of the Cheese Family… and the many other dogs from both the Gilliland’s pack and my own… the list goes on and on.

Thank you, Romano, for being you. 

We’ll miss you… 

Mush, Romano! Mush!

 

 

Karen_7_start

A good string with Pig (L) and Boots (R) in lead

Boots, an excerpt from “A String of Dogs,” short stories in progress by Karen Land

 

Boots was supposed to be my security blanket.

Every Iditarod dog musher wants at least one veteran lead dog in their mix; top-finishing Iditarod mushers often have an entire team chock full of them. “Boots will get you to Nome,” Terry Adkins reassured me. “He’s been there, done that.” I chugged a few gulps of Pepto Bismol straight from the bottle as he listed my “A” and “B” teams on a paper napkin. The kitchen table was littered with hundreds of crumpled, grease-stained lists, the words cryptic to all except Terry and me.

“Yesterday, Super Vino ran like a bat out of hell, but he’s tuckered today,” Terry said, crossing him off the list with a red Sharpie. “I wouldn’t fool with him anymore this year. Same with Bart and Lisa — they’re all too young.” Another red line marked out each name.

“Bacon has a sore shoulder,” I added. ??? in red ink followed.

For months leading up to the Iditarod, this was our evening dinner routine — eat and make dog lists. Names often jumped back and forth between the “A” and “B” team categories. Every athlete has a lousy day once in awhile, even a dog. But some names just continued to climb (Pig, Garnet, Cherry) and others continued to fall (Rhonda, Two Dot, Bruiser). Some tumbled to the bottom of the roster like one-ton boulders. Those names, obliterated from the list with permanent blood-red slashes, caused me serious concern.

Seven months earlier, we’d started off the season training 40 dogs for my Iditarod team. Back then the napkins were covered with names and possibilities.

“As long as you have Boots at the front of your team, you’ll be fine, just fine,” Terry said to me day after day, month after month. BOOTS was always displayed in bold lettering across the top of each napkin. His was the only name that never moved.

Eventually, the “B” list ceased to exist; actually, really, the two lists merged into one. Just a few days before my first Iditarod, there were barely enough names scratched across the napkin to make up a 16-dog team. It was no longer about choosing the best dogs from a seemingly endless selection. Fate did my picking for me.

It was supposed to make me feel better knowing that I’d have one of Terry’s valuable, ace leaders managing the front end of my pack, but it didn’t. The fact that I had one Iditarod-proven dog — only one — haunted me. What if something happened to the only member of my team (including myself) who really had a clue?

I was already obsessed with the health and wellbeing of all of my dogs, but the idea that Boots might hold some silent but profound intimacy with the Iditarod Trail made me manic. Boots even looked the part; he was the spitting image of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh dog. His massive upright ears, wide brown eyes, well-muscled chest, and perfect noble posture radiated an alarming wisdom. I needed this dog. My entire rookie run of the Iditarod rested on his shoulders. Boots became the King — I, his servant.

It was routine; every day before and after each training run, I’d check every paw on every dog looking for snow splits — tiny lacerations like paper cuts on the soft skin between the pads. I’d gently stretch their legs forward and then back, waiting for the dog to pull away or whine — obvious signs of muscle stiffness and pain. I massaged sore shoulders and swollen wrists with a warming liniment called Algyval. Studying piles of dog crap became my fixation; every steaming dump revealed hidden clues to their inner health. Too loose, too hard, too dark, too light — I adjusted their diets (sled dogs burn over 10,000 calories a day), hydration, and medications based on each and every turd. I spent hours each day touching my dogs, looking at them, talking to them, loving on them. I knew every inch of them.

Sometimes, this intimate knowledge made me miserable. Like human athletes, certain dogs had chronic issues that came and went like the tide. Every morning when I entered the kennel, I crossed my fingers and toes and said prayers to the ancient Egyptian dog gods that Boots wouldn’t be standing at the front of his run with his weight shifted off of his left front leg. I spent hours each day rubbing and wrapping his problem wrist. A veterinarian taught me how to give Boots acupuncture treatments; several times a week, I laid flat on the snowy ground carefully feeling and searching his wrist for the exact points to insert the thin metal needles. No matter what I did, I couldn’t ignore the fact that Boots was no spring chicken; Terry figured him to be about 8 years old. Boots’ aches and pains always lurked in the background, surfacing often enough that Pepto Bismal became my beverage of choice. I was sick with fear that the King might step off his throne just when I needed him the most.

Months passed and Boots continued to silently reign my world. I could hardly even look at the dog I was such a nervous wreck. The most miniscule hitch in his stride made my stomach drop. If Boots had a runny nose, I’d take his temperature, give him extra straw, make him some bloody, raw beaver soup (the canine version of chicken noodle). Somehow, though, as more and more dogs were crossed off my daily list, Boots remained at the head of the napkin.

On March 2, 2002, Boots and Pig (most mushers pair two dogs up front) led my team through the crowded streets of downtown Anchorage and onward into the Alaskan wilderness. Just getting to the starting line of my first Iditarod Sled Dog Race with 16 dogs filling out the gangline was a huge accomplishment. I should have been thrilled, but I was sick with worry. There was so much that could still go wrong. What if something happened to Boots?

Just a few hours into the race, the team wound its way out of a forest and dropped down a nasty, rock-strewn embankment onto a lake. The ice stretched out in front of us like a smooth, blank canvas; scratches in the frozen surface from dogs’ toenails and sled brakes grinding into the snowy glaze were the only signs that teams had passed here before us. Boots followed the scores in the ice, but held his head high, pointing his pharaoh dog ears straight ahead towards the opposite bank and a yawn in the forest where the trail disappeared.

“Good Boots, good Pig,” I praised my leaders. Their perfect behavior was helping me to relax. I took advantage of the wide-open country to admire the scenery all around us. That’s when I discovered I wasn’t alone. A crowd of people warmed themselves around a bonfire along the shore off to my side. Dozens of snowmobiles were parked down on the lake below them. They cheered and waved and raised their beverages to the sky as we passed. I waved back. Finally, I was beginning to feel like a real Iditarod dog musher.

Now, we were so close to the shore and the trail that I could see Iditarod markers — wooden lathes painted orange on the tips and covered with reflective tape. Boots lifted his head even higher into the air and pranced up and down instead of moving forward. He looked odd. I’d never seen him behave this way.

“Go ahead, Boots,” I reassured him. “Go ahead.”

Boots made it just a few feet away from the rough climb up the embankment before instigating a massive U-turn. He swung the entire 16-dog team around so fast I didn’t even have time to yell, “NO!” Before I knew it, we were headed in the opposite direction back across the lake — back towards the Iditarod starting line. “BOOTS, COME GEE!” I screamed, telling him in mushing language to turn the team back around to the right. He ignored me and charged forward, pointing his massive pharaoh dog ears towards home.

I stood on the brake with both of my feet trying to stop the sled and the team, but the carbide tips just skimmed across the ice, barely digging in an inch. Eventually, I was able to bring my hardheaded dogs to a halt, but I was leery to set a snowhook — I could never pound it deep enough into the dense ice to hold sixteen crazed canines in place while I ran up front, grabbed my leaders, and swung the entire circus around.

So we ran back across the lake. The partiers at the bonfire waved again. I waved back.

I made a plan to wait until we climbed off the lake ice before hauling the team back around the right direction; it would be safer to set a hook into the deep, packed snow along the trail. But just as we got to shore, Pig saw an opportunity to take control. The tiny, 40-lb. female jerked Boots and the fourteen others behind her all the way around again. We were back on track.

“Yes! Good Pig!” I yelled. I was amazed. I’d never seen her be so aggressive —something had gotten into her.

LAP #2: we mushed back across the lake. The bonfire gang cheered. Relieved to be back on track, I waved even higher.

Finally, we approached the far shore again. I was ready to say goodbye to this place for good. But Boots had something else in mind. Once again he U-turned the team on a dime. “NO! NO! NO!” I screamed.

Boots loped back across the lake. Pig trotted next to him with her big, black ears pinned back — she didn’t agree with his decision. Oblivious, the rest of the team followed. They didn’t care where they were headed as long as they got to run. I longed to stop the team and switch Boots out of lead, but I was scared to try to set a hook. If the dogs popped it out of the ice while I was off the sled, they’d be gone in a flash — without me. So we continued to circle the lake like some wind-up toy gone wrong.

I’m not sure how many laps we made before some Japanese tourists decided to ride their snowmachines out onto the lake for a closer look at this bizarre spectacle. Other sled dog teams came and went but we stayed on the ice going around and around in circles. I screamed at Boots so hard and long I lost my voice. Something must have short-circuited in my prized lead dog’s brain. Had Boots gone mad?

On one passing, the group of Japanese snowmobilers was standing just a few feet away from our path. “This is my chance,” I thought. I stood on the brake and dragged my snowhook along the surface of the ice, hoping it would eventually catch on a crack and set. The team was jerked to an abrupt stop right next to our curious audience. I knew I only had seconds to carry out the task. “Can you watch my sled? I need to switch some dogs around really quick…”

Four Japanese men and two women stood in front of me smiling and nodding their heads and clapping. They obviously didn’t get what I was asking. We’d only been stopped for a second but it was already too long of a break for my team. The huskies barked and yowled, pounding forward into their harness with all of their weight. I glanced down at the snowhook. It clung to the crack by a hair.

I tried again, motioning for one of the men to come over to my sled. I put my foot on the brake and pointed to his foot. “Yes, okay,” he said. Smiling wide, he followed my lead, oblivious to the fact that at any moment he could be taking a wild ride across an icy lake behind sixteen lunatic dogs.

I looked over my team trying to decide whom to switch with Boots. All I knew was that I wanted him as far away from lead as possible. He was stubborn enough that he’d still try to turn the team around from the middle of it. I ran to the wheel dogs and made a split-second decision to put Gnome up front. I trotted him up to Boots and switched the dogs, leading Boots to the back of the team and clipping him into place. I completed the job just in the nick of time. As I shook hands with my rescuer and stepped back onto the runners, the dogs lunging finally popped the hook. We were off, gliding across the lake, once again headed towards the shoreline — the correct one.

Now, Pig took charge. She wanted off that lake just as much as I did. She galloped forward lugging along a hesitant Gnome (who had never been in lead) behind her. And then there was Boots. My ancient Egyptian pharaoh dog was a leader; moving him into wheel position was the greatest insult I could bestow upon the King. He went on strike and refused to run, planting his butt down on the ice and dragging the remaining distance to the markers that led us all, finally, up and off the lake.

After the race, I told Terry about Boots’ strange behavior. Terry just chuckled and nodded his head. “Damn smart dog,” he said.

“Smart? You gotta be kidding?”

“Before the 1998 Iditarod, I did training runs in that area,” Terry explained. “Every day for weeks, I ran the team across the lake and then turned them around on the opposite shoreline at that exact same spot to head back to the truck. That year during the race, Boots tried the same thing with me. But after one serious showdown I got the damn dog turned around. Old Boots has got a photographic memory — remembers everywhere he’s ever been. I forgot to warn you about that. Sorry.”

Boots stayed in my team, not in lead but in wheel, until the Finger Lake checkpoint. I planned to put him back up front for the treacherous trail climbing up and over the Alaskan Range. Terry said Boots would remember all of the dangerous spots and help the team to avoid them. But Boots never made it out of the checkpoint. After a long rest, his problem wrist remained hot and sore. Knowing it was best for him, I signed the official paperwork to drop Boots from my team.

It was just 110 miles into the race — we had 1000 miles left to travel — and Boots, my security blanket, was on a plane flying back to Anchorage.