This is a story about Minto. Minto (pictured below) is one of our favorite sled dogs. His main trait is enthusiasm. Minto meets the world each day with an infectious smile and greets the people in his life butt-first (he really, really likes butt scratches). This blog entry describes a typical day in the life of Minto.
Minto usually starts out his day with a good 7am howl. We’re not really sure why it is that dogs howl, sometimes they are talking to other dogs, coyotes, or wolves. Sometimes they are announcing their contentment after a meal. Sometimes they howl just because it feels good. It usually starts with one dog, from there the howl catches on like a contagious bug, they literally can’t resist joining in. Even dogs in the house will howl (a more subdued version, if they are polite). One of our most treasured moments is watching a puppy’s first howl. Since we did not have Minto when he was a puppy, here is a video of puppy Toolik howling.
Anyways, there is a howl, which may be intended to greet the day or to hurry their human caretakers into serving breakfast, or something altogether different.
If it is cold, Minto will probably wake up inside our cabin, curled up on a doggie bed, cuddling with other dogs. If its not so bad outside, he likes to sleep in his bed of straw inside a wooden dog house. When we are on the trail we make him a bed of spruce boughs, cattails or grass. Here is minto waking up on a camping trip on a bed of spruce.
Soon a bleary human will emerge to either let him outside to pee or bring breakfast. The human will go down to the creek to chop ice to be melted into breakfast dog cereal. The human also brings firewood inside, and usually a dog or two as well. Breakfast is dog food soaked in some water. Often we add something special like mayonnaise, bacon grease, or leftovers. Nothing is wasted when you have a dog team! The stinkier the food, the more they like it. In his younger years Minto was a very picky eater. He liked only dry food, he held his nose like a cooking show judge at sub-par cooked fish. Since we had him neutered at age 7, he eats much better. His favorite dish is cooked up moose meat scraps but he will happily eat anything that the humans don’t want as well including a surprising array of vegetables. When we cook and Minto is inside he is almost certainly underfoot, waiting patiently for something to be tossed his way. He pulls his weight helping with dishes licking pans clean. Here is a picture of Minto as a puppy with his littermates in a dog house.
Finally the human emerges from the cabin with a bucket of warm breakfast. He or she (usually she) walks to teach dog and ladles them out a bowl full. Minto is usually third to eat, and he lets you know if you mess the order up! After breakfast there is an inevitable elimination, which the humans get to remove with a shovel and put into the compost.
Then it is play time. We let a few dogs inside at a time to relax by the woodstove or romp around the cabin. They play games like “walrus mouth” where they open their mouths as wide as they can and see whose face fits in whose mouth. They find this to be great fun. During the day when they are on their chains there is always something to look at. A constant stream of bold gray jays and ravens play games of pinball with the dog team in an attempt to snatch up scraps of the dog’s fish meals. Our puppies also play pinball in the dog yard, learning some social skills along the way. Squirrels harass the dogs from nearby spruce trees. On rare occasion a dog catches a squirrel, but I don’t think Minto has ever been so lucky. Here is a video of puppy Eowyn playing "pinball" with Yawp.
Then the time he’s been waiting for- strangers appear in the dog yard, our tour guests. The dogs see strange folks and they think “yay! Our massage team has arrived!” We take guests around to meet (pet) each dog and lavish them with attention. Minto greets people with his butt out, guess where he wants to be pet?
Next is the harnessing. Minto practically puts on his own harness so we have used him for years as our model dog for clients to try putting a harness on. He is very patient and very sweet. A good example dog, he sits on top of his house and awaits his harness.
Now its time to go! A human walks Minto from his house to his spot on the team. In his youth, Minto was a lead dog. He is very excitable and very decisive. Over the past few years he has gone a tad bit rogue, preferring his own agenda over what the humans had in mind. For this reason, we now run him mostly in swing (second from the front) position and next to younger dogs to help train them. He is a very patient teacher and won’t nip at even the most obnoxious trainee. In swing he can also help make the decision on which way to go if the lead dogs are having trouble. Here is a picture of Minto (front right) running in swing position.
The humans get onto their chariot of two sleds hooked together. Now hook is pulled and the glorious words “ready, HIKE!” are hollered and they are off. We run teams of 6-8 dogs most days and they take off out of the dog yard like a freight train. They run fastest when they are excited and they are ALWAYS excited at the beginning. Paws beating, they sail down the walkway to our cabin, past the woodshed, the driveway, and turn a sharp left “HAW!” onto the trail. There are many smells to investigate and places that need to be peed on so the dogs are full of glee. Their ears dart wildly back and forth between listening to the humans and listening for other more interesting things (moose, squirrels, bikers, who knows!) The pause to inhale tracks of snowshoe hare and moose. They dilligently re-mark a tree where some other dog has peed. They run through the woods, across ponds, down an oxbow lake and across a frozen creek. Whenever there is a turn coming up or a drop or a particularly compelling smell they speed up. Minto is great at instigating speeding up. In his youth he was by far our fastest dog. We would release them all on the shore of the river to run next to the boat and Minto was always first. He still gives the young ones a run for their money! Here is Minto teaching puppy Kathul the ropes (how to not chew on them) with David's help.
But whew! Its getting hot out here for fuzzy dogs. The human decides it is time for a break, “woah!” the brake goes on and snow hook goes in the snow. The dogs turn their attention to eating and rolling in the snow to cool down. They get additional pets from the humans, again, Minto displays his butt, in case you forgot. Soon the dogs get antsy. Ursa and Bruce Lee begin to leap into the air, hoping to kick-start the team. The human takes note of the restored energy and we take off once more. Faster than before, we head across the valley floor, turning this way and that on a network of little trails. We have many different routes to keep things interesting for the dogs. Some days we go on trips so the whole day is spent on the trail. Those days are Minto’s favorite. He has an incredible memory, when we go on trails that he hasn't been on in years he still remembers (and tries to go to) old campsites, rest spots and places that smelled good 4 years ago. Here he is with David at the end of a day on the trail to Tolovana Hotsprings.
Eventually they make their way back to the dog yard, arriving with flourish because they know its time for treats and rest. The humans move up and down the line, delivering pets and treats like hunks of frozen beef fat and salmon. Yum! They unharness each dog and walk it back to its house for a cool down and a nap. Some dogs come into the cabin to rest, others (the fuzzy ones) prefer to nap in the snow. Minto has a medium coat so either option works for him.
Now it is nap time. Minto is a very well-behaved indoor dog. He knows a good thing when he sees it and really likes napping by the woodstove. When napping the dogs sometimes make noises and run in their sleep. They also like to cuddle with certain other dogs. Minto and Tanana are cuddle buddies (see below) and Skookum is sometimes included too.
Humans are decent cuddle buds as well. Here is Minto and David cuddling on our bed and couch. As you can probably tell, we are pretty fond of Minto. Our favorite Minto story is the day when Minto outsmarted David. It was about 5 years ago, we were traveling just the two of us from our place on the Tanana to the Alaska Range. We mushed up the Tatlanika River for about 40 miles, mostly on overflow ice and wolf trails. As we got closer to the mountains the river got smaller and smaller. We had to decide which small braided channel to take. At one junction David decided "haw" and Skookum and Minto were in the lead. Skookum obediently leaned left but Minto shook his head and threw his weight into a right turn with gusto. David was half way through the sentence "Come on Minto, I know what I'm do----ing" when the ice broke under the sled. He found himself hanging from the sled over a 6-foot drop to the small river. I was skijoring behind the sled and quickly unhooked. David managed to do a pull up and get back on the sled. I found another way around on stronger ice. But Minto proudly wore an "I told you so" look for the rest of the day. Sometimes dogs do know best.
That's pretty much a day in the life of Minto in the Winter. Stay tuned for a story from his life in the summertime. :)