snow ledge

First Impressions – Back in the Saddle

Remember the first time you tried something very new? The first day of kindergarten, first wobbly bike ride without training wheels, first kiss, and so on. The first time dogsledding is right up there. The feeling is unmistakable. It is that raw, alive, totally in the moment, edge of your seat, “what’s gonna happen next?!” feeling. It is curiosity, adrenaline and intrigue all rolled together and so very captivating. It is, in part, perhaps why we have Bucket Lists.

The downside of firsts is that you only get one chance for a first impression. So the next best thing is the first dog run each fall and with the snowy switch to sleds. October brought my annual first day out with dog training. It is that moment of getting smacked up against the head with a flood of memories, ah-has and all-consuming focus that doesn’t leave room for any daydreaming or texting. Pay Attention. It is time to run dogs!

First Impressions. It is very loud and undeniably frenetic as rumors rip through the touring yard that today they get to run again.  Dogs leap and lunge to get chosen to go. At hookup, I am reminded how darn strong Taro, the large exuberant dog bouncing on the end of my arm is, a kamikaze pogo stick who surely has been secretly training all summer. Holy Moly. Will I get from his circle to the gangline without ending up on my teakettle?

My job is to make order out of chaos; to harness, clip sled dogs in to the gangline and head out of the yard in a predictable manner. The plan is to log a four-mile workout. However, if you’ve spent any time around dogsledding, on the runners or from an armchair, you know nothing is predictable about dog sledding. The unknown and curveballs lurk at every moment.

Second Impressions. The dogs are instantly calm, quiet and focused once running – veterans who’ve settled back in to their A-game. Like clockwork they take to the right side of the trail. (It doesn’t have to be this way – just watch a puppy run to see the alternative configurations, aka predictably unpredictable.) The tug lines are tight, the dogs leaning in to their harnesses and everyone is fired up to be out on the trail again.

Getting back in the saddle is about getting back in the groove with systems; Haw means left, Gee means right. Mastering the timing of commands – not too soon, and definitely not too late. (Did you ever try to do a U-turn with a semi on a one-lane road?) I’m learning to pump the brakes sufficiently so that the 4-wheeler the team is pulling actually stays put when we stop for their water break. I’m remembering to stand ahead of the machine before the brakes fail, or the dogs collective desire to pull outweighs the heft of the unmanned machine, so I don’t get left behind.

We practice knots that are second nature on trail, improvising tension systems to get around a tree that jumped in the way of the 4-wheeler. Later, I lean way out on three wheels, learning to coax both the machine and the dog team home with less than four tie rods – a first for me.  I learned what tie-rods really do. The fourth tire left a reticent sideways signature on the trail. Along the way, I find mud, sweat, sunshine, fresh air with an aromatic hint of balsam, and the thrill of being back out on trail with the dogs.

I look forward to the Firsts of this winter…yours, mine and the dogs. It is what we live for – that unmistakable edge of the seat feeling.


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