Montana

Whether it be warm, dry straw on the Iditarod Trail or a thick foam cushion at the South Whitley Library (IN), sled dogs LOVE their beds.

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Karen Land and Noggin speak/snooze at the South Whitley Library.

Top photo: Cherry (L) and Viper (R) on the 2002 Iditarod Trail, McGrath Checkpoint.

 

Excerpt from “String of Dogs” by Karen Land —

 

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Janice Land with some of her famous Christmas treats

*****

We feed those we love. “Are you hungry?” For 39 years, Mom always made my favorite: French toast loaded with melted butter, sprinkled with powdered sugar, drowning in warm Aunt Jemima’s syrup. Every single day, several times a day, she cooked our meals, fed the entire family.

 

Dave and I fed the dog.

 

Dad fed the wild birds. With the precision and care of a pharmacist, he measured cups of striped sunflower seeds and millet from coffee cans into the feeder, hung a fresh suet cake from the maple tree, and rinsed and filled the birdbath with clean water. Then he came back inside, poured another bourbon over ice, sat down in his chair by the window, and waited for the rush of winged creatures—nuthatches, cardinals, chickadees, wrens, woodpeckers, and gold and purple finches—to swoop down from the sky and accept his offerings. Be well, grow strong, fly. I never heard him say such things to anything or anyone, but I imagine that’s how he felt as he watched his beloved birds gather at his table to feed.

 

—–

 

Little Belt Mountains, Montana

 

“Dinner anyone?” Sixteen sets of glowing eyes pierce the darkness, and stare at me. Moving by the light of a headlamp, I pull the cooker from my bag, position it close—but not too close—to the sled, pour a few bottles of Heet alcohol into the bottom pan, and retrieve a box of “windproof” matches from an anorak pocket. “Wah-woo…wooo…woooo,” Bandit talks to me as I work. I don’t look up; I must stay focused on the task of cooking dinner for my dog team at 20 degrees (F) below zero. “Wah-woo, wooo, woooo.” Bandit is full of advice. “Okay, goofball, you know it takes awhile,” I remind him, knowing he won’t bed down until his belly is full.

 

Damn wind. I huddle over the cooker, using my body and the sled as a shield, and pull off a mitt, then a glove. With fingers as stiff as pencils, I attempt to pick one tiny match from the box and strike it on a zipper. A tease of fire flashes, then disappears, swallowed up by the wind. “Wah -woo, wooo,” Bandit cries.

 

I try again. And again. Between each attempt, I shove my hands inside my beaver mitts until I feel my fingertips throb back to life. Keep trying. During a random pause (one moment of calm among the fury), I strike my tenth match. A thin flame meets alcohol and erupts into a blaze. “Yes!” I yell out loud. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have fire.” My audience, even Bandit, remains silent. Sixteen huskies watching, waiting, drooling.

 

It takes a lot of snow to make a little bit of water. I pack the metal pot to the lip and place it on top of the fire. I keep adding snow by the scoopful until finally, 30 minutes later, I have enough liquid for 1 human and 16 dogs. I fill my own Thermos and pour the rest of it in a 5-gallon insulated bucket.

 

Beaver. I dump 8 pounds of beaver chunks from a burlap bag into the hot water and screw the lid back on the bucket. Next, I line out 16 bowls, scooping 2 cups of dry dog food into each one. Then I toss one vitamin E and two fish oil capsules on top of the kibble. I turn my face away as I remove the lid. A thick, rank steam rises from the bucket. I stir the bloody beaver soup and then ladle one helping over the top of the dry food in each bowl. “Dinner is served,” I announce.

 

Every dog attacks his or her meal except for Viper. She places one paw on the edge of her bowl and flips it upside down, picking out the pieces of softened beaver and letting the precious liquid and kibble freeze on the snow-packed ground. “I’m sorry, I forgot,” I tell her. I dump the water from my own Thermos into her empty bowl. She drinks the clear water. Viper doesn’t eat food mixed together; nothing can be touching. She wants plain water in one bowl, dry dog food in another, and her meat served on the ground.

 

I lie back on my sled, pop open the tin of homemade cookies I received in the mail the day before, and read the note. “Treats for my musher. Stay warm. Merry Christmas. Love, Mom.” I flip off my headlamp and my small world turns immense. Trillions of stars, alive and glittering, hang just out of reach above me. With frost-nipped, bloodstained fingers, I devour date pinwheels, Spritz cookies, Santa shortbread. The wind is gone. I hear my kids lapping up beaver soup from their bowls. Be well, grow strong, fly…

 

—–

 

 

Cold sleep. I am a tiny, shivering being at the core of a Matryoshka nesting doll. Cocooned inside a pod of goose down, zipped up in a canvas gear bag, nestled in the bed of a dog sled, and sheltered by a stand of Ponderosa Pine, a curtain of dark clouds wraps around this frozen mountain, and just beyond, a whorl of constellations envelops all.

 

Snow falls.

 

But I do not know it.

 

 

—–

 

“Do birds ever sleep?” I am a little girl sitting on the back step with my dad in the dark. He drinks his bourbon, smokes his pipe, stares out at nothing. Thump, thump, thump… a woodpecker chisels away on the giant maple. “Every living being needs rest,” Dad says. He takes a puff of his pipe. “But wild animals sleep with one ear open. They can never let their guard down.”

 

—–

 

In this cramped black womb, I rouse from a brief but deep slumber. I glance around. Where am I? I am blind. I have no arms, no legs, no body. My heart races. It is difficult to breathe. I shift and hear the wispy crinkle of nylon. I reach out. My hands push into tight walls above me, below me, on all sides. Where am I? I knock into something: my headlamp. I flip on the light. And find myself again.

 

Outside they hear my movements, sense my panic. One single deep-voiced husky throws out a long, low howl in response. That one dog starts it and then another and another join in until my entire team is singing at the top of their lungs like they’re in the church choir. Except they don’t sing any religious hymn. They deliver something wild, something straight from their souls. The ghostly serenade undulates, rising and falling like ocean waves, until what seems like the middle of the tune all 16 dogs simultaneously stop singing.

 

Silence.

 

I wait. I listen. I hope for another round. But they are done. We drift back to sleep. One ear open.

 

—–

 

My life, my breath, frozen into a million shimmering crystals on the inside of my sled bag. I jerk on the zipper. A shock of sunlight and snow tumble together through the opening, covering me. I stand up in the bed of my toboggan and look around. Everything I know—my team, my gear, the entire mountainside—is gone, erased, draped in white. Only beauty remains.

 

Every living being needs rest. Safe and warm under a swathe of fresh powder, I let my dogs sleep.

 

 

 

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Chloe enjoys the view from our favorite motel.

I first stopped at Welsh’s Motel in 1993 on my maiden voyage west from Indiana to attend the University of Montana in Missoula. I met Mr. Wes Welsh that day, and ever since I have looked forward to his warm greeting and smiling face when I walk through the lobby door after a long day of travel. Time passes, and over the years I’ve driven this 1700-mile route 40-some times. This last June, though, Mr. Welsh was not there. When his daughter, Kelly, greeted me, I knew our Mr. Welsh was gone. Kelly has the same big, open heart and beaming smile of her father. Over the registration counter, we shared memories of both her dad and my parents (who had also stayed at Welsh’s over the years). We couldn’t help but cry. They were tears of painful loss but also much joy. We both know how fortunate we are.

I’m traveling west again soon. Headed to my “homes” in South Dakota, and then Montana. Home is where you share your heart. Thank you, Mr. Welsh, for sharing yours…

And Kelly, we’ll be seeing you soon.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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The details of the parts of the sled are VERY accurate!

 

Over the last 16 years, I’ve collected crates full of wonderful art made for me (and my dogs) by students from all over the United States. I try to hang as much as I can in my home but sadly I don’t have enough free space for each and every beautiful piece. SO I’ve decided it would be fun to post a few chosen ones on this blog! I will begin this IDITAROD ARTISTS series with a drawing I received in the mail a few weeks ago. The main artists are Ryan Coughlin, Brandon Harbin, Brennan Thoele, Nick Manning, and of course, the rest of the class at Tri-Valley Elementary in Downs, Illinois who signed this thank-you card. Thank you, I loved all of the cards you sent!

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I can’t get over how much this looks like Romano!!!