Classic: Worst 30 Minutes of My Entire Life
Ivan cautioned me. “My dogs know I’m the leader of the pack. I’m stronger and they know it because I’ve proven it. If I say ‘straight ahead’ they know it’s straight ahead. But you’re a newcomer, and you have to prove you’re the boss. Sobi’s the toughest. She’s the dominant leader. Sobi would just as soon thumb her nose at you — say ‘see ya later.’ When you give the commands (gee, right; haw, left) it’s not how loud you say it, it’s how firm.”
So Sobi, the lone female, would be my leader. Behind Sobi would run her son, Thunder, and alongside him would be Buzz, a buff-colored dog. They were both just two years old, in their first full year of racing. “They’re learning from Sobi not to make mistakes,” Ivan said. “They’re in training for my team and I can’t afford to have a young dog on my team make a mistake.” Pulling up the rear would be Streaker, once a member of the North American championship team and purchased by Ivan for breeding; and Lobo, Ivan’s $800 “mystery dog.”
“Impeccable genes,” Ivan said, shaking his head, “but I can’t unlock him. When I tried to make a leader of him, he
just turned around and wouldn’t run.”
Over the din of the barking and yelping the loud speaker boomed: “Twenty minutes until five-dog teams.”
Ivan reached into his pocket, took out a package of small matches, makeshift suppositories, and inserted them quickly into his dogs. “A dog that stops to poop,” he explained, “well, that 20 seconds can lose the race. I’ve lost a lot of money for 20 seconds.” There are other rituals. Kathy greased the paws to prevent snow balls, and most curious of all, Ivan began howling to the dogs, his cry piercing the air, and the team caught his cry with theirs — except for Sobi’s whispered effort — and they trembled with pleasure. “It’s how Ivan gets them to shake the kinks out,” Kathy explained.
The dog teams were started at two-minute intervals, racing against the clock rather than each other, and Ivan hurried over to the timekeeper to check my position. “Ten minutes,” he shouted on his return. He clapped his mittens together. “It’s wild, woolly, and cold,” he said. “You’re going to get windburn, sure. It’ll give you a feeling for how tough it is.” I knew he felt a certain satisfaction that his sport would not be a picnic for me.
“Don’t worry,” he shouted, “you’re sandwiched between people who know what they’re doing. Our friend Jo Ann is ahead of you. If you get in trouble, she’ll help.”
“Should I tell Jo Ann that Mel’s a beginner?” Kathy asked. “No reason to,” Ivan replied.
When the dogs were hitched to the sled they thrummed with tension. With the exception of Sobi, a Siberian husky, the remainder of the team was a cross between greyhounds, shepherds, and Siberians, in racing circles known as Quebec hounds. They are bred for excitability, for furious energy, and it showed as they howled and lunged. Sobi at the lead was straight as an arrow, and it took all of our strength to hold the sled still, until Ivan and I had grabbed the lines. By the time we had walked the dogs to the starting area, I was panting and perspiring from the strain.
Kathy shouted instructions. “If you fall off, never let go of the sled, even if they have to drag you. The dogs can really hurt themselves if they get tangled and panic. When you come upon another team you yell, ‘Trail,’ and they have to let you by. Then you say to Sobi, ‘Straight ahead’ and she should go by. She shouldn’t hesitate. And you’ve got to pump your foot because they’ll lag a little. If a team comes upon you and says ‘Trail.’ slow down, but don’t stop. The potential for getting in trouble is there when you stop. And don’t put Sobi’s nose up another’s rear end. You’ve got to give room.”
There were four minutes left. “What happens if their dogs attack mine?” I asked.