Anyone Can Drive Dogs

I WAS taking the dogs out alone for the first time! Earle was away, or I should n’t have been going. He did n’t think women could drive dogs — white women, that is. Of course the Eskimo women came and went with dog teams, hauling in loads of scraggly willows for wood, making the rounds of rabbit snares and fox traps. But a white woman had no business trying to mush dogs without a man along to handle them. Not one of my five white neighbors at Akiak, on the Kuskokwim, in the heart of Alaska, attempted it.

I had, however, an audacious conviction that, given the chance, I could drive dogs as well as any man. Earle knew better. I’d be sure to let the dogs tangle up in a vicious free-for-all from which would emerge hopeless cripples to be shot; or I’d let the sled crash head on into a tree on the portage trail and smash to bits; or, at the very least, I’d upset on a steep pitch or a stretch of glare ice, the dogs would get away, and I’d be left to walk miles home or ignominiously thumb a ride on some passing native sled.

Now was my chance to show him he was wrong. Called to a village some twenty miles out on the tundra, he had taken only eight of our dogs, leaving five behind. For the trail was perfect: a recent snow had smoothed out all irregularities; nights of hard freezing had packed and glazed it, and the temperature was right for easy slipping. With such a trail, three dogs sufficed as well as thirty. Five would be all I cared to handle for this first attempt.

I was shaking with nervous excitement as I pulled on high reindeer boots and my new spotted deerskin parka, with its beautiful borders of black and white deerskin in intricate design, and its magnificent wolf collar that stood out like a sunburst.

The dogs heard the clink of ring and snap as I lifted the harness from its peg, and bedlam broke loose outside. Frantic to go, they began to lunge and scream and leap the full length of their chains. I drew the light hickory sled around into position and snubbed it to the leg of the cache. My fingers shook as I stretched out the towline and snapped each harness into place along it, trying to remember whose harness was whose.

Then I unsnapped Peggy from her stake and, clinging to her collar, was dragged in enormous leaping jerks across the snow to her place at the end of the towline. Somehow I got her head through the collar — only to find that I had put it on upside down, the leg openings on her back. I jerked it off and tried again; but this time it was twisted, each front leg in the wrong opening. All this while she was plunging and leaping, wild to be off, and by now every other sled dog in the village was plunging and howling in sympathy.

Presently I had taken my place on the protruding rear runners, gripping the handlebars, one foot ready to release the steelpronged brake.

‘All right, mush!’ I cried — quite unnecessarily, for we were already under way, tearing down through the village, swishing about corners of native cache and cabin, past sled dogs that lunged toward us, down the steep icy bank to the frozen river.

Peggy lined out down the open river at the swift trot she could maintain through a forty-mile day; the other dogs strung out behind her, every line tight, each one doing his share.

The sun, glinting on a white world, shattered rainbows of colored light from every ice spicule on the river’s surface. Chill air gripped my lungs, fringed my lashes with white. The blood quickened in my veins. Standing erect on the sled runners, I had a feeling of exhilarating power and mastery.

‘Haw a little, Peggy!’ I called.

Instantly she swerved slightly to the left, unquestioning, though the beaten trail was firm and familiar beneath her feet.

‘All right, boys!’ I clapped my hands. ‘Show a little speed.’ All that swiftly moving dog-power, that strung-out machine of living sinew and blood and bone responding to the least tone of my voice as surely as a car swerves to the touch of a hand upon the wheel! And Earle had said I could n’t drive dogs!

Then around a big bend in the river ahead I saw a long dog team coming. Two, four, six — seventeen dogs. That would be the mail team, headed for the Yukon after the monthly mail. I’d play safe, I decided, and give them a wide berth. I swung Peggy far out to the left, stepped on the brake, and held my team there while the other team moved swiftly toward me.

Big Hans, the mail carrier, raised his doubled shot-whip in salute. ‘So you mush dogs now!’ he shouted across the space between us. ‘Fine! But don’t get out of the trail every time you see a team coming. Make the other fellow get out.’

I nodded, flushing with chagrin, and pulled Peggy back into the trail. For a time she jogged on uneventfully. Then she threw up her head, nose high, sniffing the air. The other dogs moved restlessly, looking back over their shoulders. I turned my head. Another team was close behind me.

An urgent desire to swing Peggy far out of the trail moved me. But, with Big Hans’s amused tones still echoing in my ears, I held her on the line while the dogs plodded on with incredible slowness, all turned half-around in their places, looking back.

Then with a rush the other dogs swept by, making a brief arc about us — the Bethel marshal with his team of Labrador retrievers: nine long-legged, yellow, short-haired dogs, the fastest team on the river.

As they passed, Peggy released a burst of speed; then settled down again.

Now, I thought a bit smugly, I was proving to my entire satisfaction that I could drive dogs. And at that moment the sled leaped like a thing alive, almost jerking me from the runners. I clutched wildly at the handlebars just in time to keep my footing as the dogs sprang into action. Across the river ahead of us a red fox was trotting, his enormous brush, held horizontally, looking as large as his body. At sight of the dogs he quickened his trot — and the dogs increased their speed. They were completely demoralized. With all my strength I drove the brake into the hard-packed snow — futilely. Though snow, torn up by the brake’s teeth, spewed out behind in a torrent of white, it checked the dogs’ progress not one iota.

Reynard broke into a run. Incredibly, the dogs let out another notch of speed. The careening sled struck sideways along a broken edge of ice. Over it went. Rule No. 1 of driving dogs came back to me: Never let your sled get away from you. I hung on with clenched teeth, dragging at arm’s length, bouncing along behind the sled.

Up the steep slope from river to bank the fox loped — and disappeared among the willows at the top. And Peggy panted after him, burying the sled’s bow in the soft snow.

All this time I had been shouting hoarsely, ‘Whoa! Whoa!’ without effect. Now suddenly Peggy returned to sanity, heard my voice. I rose, shook snow out of neck and sleeves, and righted the sled. With an apologetic backward glance Peggy swung back toward the trail. All five dogs, with drooping ears and tails, jogged sheepishly down-river.

I rode the runners with an increasing sense of satisfaction. One after another I was meeting and conquering the tests a dog musher must face. Hereafter, when some woman friend and I wanted to attend a dance at some neighboring village or spend a week-end with a lonely teacher out at her tundra station, we should n’t have to call on a man to get us there. I could drive, myself.

But the supreme test still lay before me — the short cut through timber which cut off a great bend in the river. I knew these portage trails, knew what they did to the canine cosmos, knew the sheer drop at the end that might mean disaster and an overturned sled.

Peggy took the ascent on the run, and was away through a low white tunnel, snowy branches sweeping so close overhead I crouched above the handlebars to miss them. The dogs, like things gone mad, tore along the rough and twisting way, over roots, in and out among crowding tree trunks, with the sled lurching at their heels.

And then the thing happened which, in my heart, I had been dreading. Around a sharp bend in the narrow trail another team came on the run. In a sickening flash I had visions of the two teams dovetailed together, of taut bodies and slashing fangs, of torn throats and hamstrung cripples.

‘Gee, Peggy!’ I shouted. ‘Come gee!’ And, amazingly, Peggy obeyed, swung gee, and trotted steadily past that other team, dragging her teammates with her.

That settled it, I told myself: now I was truly a full-fledged dog-musher. I had sent my team past a strange string of dogs without a fight. Shaken with relief, I halted my dogs and, for the first time, turned to look directly at the other team. Their driver had done the same. Earle and I stood gaping at each other.

Chagrin overpowered me. I had sent Peggy past her own teammates, not a strange team. But confidence quickly returned.

‘Can I, or can I not, drive dogs?’ I demanded with scarcely concealed pride.

‘Oh, anyone can drive dogs,’ Earle answered lightly. But pride was in his face, a twinkle in his eyes. I knew that I had qualified.