Be perfect, anticipate my needs, read my mind! - Handler story pt7
As December turned to January, the weather turned. We started to get temperatures of 20 or 30 below consistently. There were a couple weeks where we didn't see zero degrees Fahrenheit once. The cabin I lived in was insulated, but the door wasn't installed great. It wouldn't latch properly so some windy mornings I woke up to see the door open a crack, letting what little heat the cabin had out. (Thankfully it never opened wide enough for Ziggy to sneak out.) The old heater barely worked, and couldn't get the temperature inside above 40 or 50 degrees. There was a second heater I found that warmed the cabin much more quickly, but I was too paranoid about a fire starting overnight with this style heater to leave it on while I slept. I kept a jacket at the foot of the door to plug the crack between the threshold and the door, keeping as much warm air inside as I could.
Every evening, I would take a hot shower at the main house after dinner. Sure, it was to clean myself, but the main goal was to warm my core temperature. I don't typically shower every day like this, but it was needed to keep myself warm on the walk back to my cabin and while I took Ziggy out to pee. It had the added benefit of keeping me warm until I fell asleep. But eventually, this schedule began to irritate Ed. He told me to make sure I came and showered before dinner. Showers after dinner were no longer tolerated. To me, this defeated the main purpose of taking a shower and the nights became even colder. Once or twice a week when I washed my hair, I would eat dinner as the back of my shirt became drenched. Every single evening before dinner, Ed would text me to tell me to come shower before dinner, not after, as if he thought I would forget.
It felt like I was being suffocated.
Another point of contention between us was driving off property. In the beginning months, I would go to town to grab medication or any other necessities without worry. But one evening, I drove out like usual, and it started snowing. The roads were fine so I wasn't bothered by it. But the next morning, when I entered the house to use the bathroom, Ed turned on me and started shouting. Disguising his anger as concern, he told me it started blizzarding and he didn't see my car. He had no clue where I was. From then on, he commanded I text him every time I leave the property so he knows where I was.
Ed's controlling grip would continue to tighten over the coming months. He told me to leave my keys in the car, no one would steal them. He would make accusatory comments when I disagreed with him, making fun of me or insinuating I was dumb or having overly paranoid thoughts. Occasionally he convinced me to leave the keys with my car, but they always returned to my cabin a day or two later. He asked me, "Well what if I need to move your car?"
Thieves were not who I was protecting my car keys from.
He would continue to try different tactics to try and get me to stay on property and remove my one lifeline. We moved my car to the back lot, further away and longer to walk to from my cabin. When I had to leave to get some OTC medication I had nearly run out of, he told me to get extra so I wouldn't have to leave again.
Hospitality continued to dwindle. Amy, Ed's wife, was my shining beacon in a confusing, depressive storm. I told myself I was staying for Amy. Amy needed me, Amy was relying on me. She was incredibly kind and I cared for her deeply, but she saw none of what Ed did to me or the dogs. And meanwhile, Ed would continue to expect a level of perfection I could never achieve out of her sight.
An afternoon in early January. I started dog food prep, which involved cutting beef fat into chunks appropriate for each dog. Ed told me he would get there at 2:30; a half hour late, he rockets over in the side-by-side and starts frantically prepping the thawing meat. A few minutes later, he explodes out of the dog food shed, yelling at me to stop cutting, that's enough fat, and yanking the bucket out of my hands. A few moments later, he whistled at me from the dog yard, holding up a chunk of fat that I only got partway through cutting. "TOO BIG," he hollered at me.
The next afternoon, we were getting dogs prepped to go run. While Ed prepared the harnesses and ganglines, he told me to take the side-by-side to the hookup area so we can attach the dogs to it. There are two hookup areas on the property, so I assumed he meant the hookup area that he was walking towards. When I pulled up, Ed looked up from the gangline he was untangling, face turning red with anger. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" he screamed at me. "You said to bring it to the hookup area!" I called back. Rolling his eyes, he said, "The OTHER one!" I could feel his angry eyes on me throughout the short drive there. Watching me, waiting for me to make a mistake, always.
The dogs continued to suffer the most throughout all this. The chores were brutal because of the sheer number of dogs, and Ed's attitude toward the dogs was even worse. When giving out meat broth soup one evening, Legend tipped her bowl over (as she is known to do) to dump out the broth and get to the meat chunks quickly. Ed saw her do this and came at her with the metal food scoop, cursing at her. Legend scampered away, avoiding the beating by mere inches. Ed stalked off to continue feeding. When he was out of sight, I walked over to Legend and tried to calm her. This was before I had worked up the courage to tell Ed I wanted to buy her, but Legend and I already had a strong bond at this point and I already knew she was coming home with me no matter what. Even with that trust, she was too freaked out from what Ed almost did to her and I couldn't even touch her.
The smaller females like Legend were Ed's least favorite. His favorite dogs were the big male dogs, because he believed they could pull more of his tour guests, and in the long run, make him more money. In a sense, he was right, but the duality of his thinking was mind boggling. He would tell me how much he liked Legend, and bred her a few months before I arrived as a yearling. He would tell musher visitors to the kennel, "I really like that dog," showing off her pedigree. He commented on her leader potential, vowing to make her a leader. But then he would work Legend minimally, bringing her to the hookup area but then leaving her off the team because he thought she was too small. (As I write this, Legend, who isn't a small dog by any means, is curled up in a dog bed a few feet away from me. I am thankful every day she is here with me.) Cole, a massive and leggy 10 year old hound got a hotspot on one of his ankles. Cole was one of Ed's go-to strong pullers. Ed commented to me, "We'll take him off the team for a little bit since that hotspot doesn't look good to the public, and let him heal." A week later, when Cole's hotspot was unchanged, Ed chewed his lip and said, "I'm thinking about putting him down, he's ancient." Meanwhile, he would regularly run dogs 10 years and older, including Lacey, a 13 year old command leader.
Every day, he would tell me to scoop poop, but there were just too many dogs for one person to reasonably take care of. Though I didn't realize it at the time, it was unfair of Ed for both me and the dogs to expect this much work from one person. I would usually get a third of the way through the yard in the time Ed allotted for this chore. The dogs would jump and leap on me, happy to get attention, and while their joy was infectious, it made scooping poop quickly impossible.
One of the most notorious pups for doing this was Darby. She was the daughter of one of my favorite dogs, Bonnie, and was around 8 or 9 months old.
It occurred to me one day, it didn't have to be like this. I started training her by just using attention and pets as positive reinforcement. I waited for her to offer a sit, and once she did, I entered her tether circle. Darby immediately leapt up, running to give me a kiss, and I stepped out of her reach and waited. After a minute or two, she offered a sit again and I would enter her circle.
It didn't take long at all - only two days of short sessions, stolen away from Ed's sight. Darby would sit and wag, quivering with excitement and happiness when I saw her. She was smart as a whip, and caught on to what I wanted almost instantly. Her sweet smile greeted me every time I went to her corner of the dog yard, happy tail sweeping the snow side to side as she sat and waited for me.
Now that tour season was picking up, I was getting used to the new routine. We would bring the dogs to the tour hookup spot, harness everyone, and prepare the sled or toboggan. Once the tourists arrived and took their seats, Ed would start the snowmachine while I hooked up the dogs. He never taught me to start the machine myself, and this was actually a problem once when I accidentally hit the kill switch as I mounted the machine. I tried imitating what I had seen Ed done but could not start the machine myself and watched as the dog team disappeared down the trail.
This particular day, I kept carefully aware of all my limbs and avoided the kill switch upon mounting. Once all the dogs were hooked up, Ed pulled the quick release and the dogs zoomed happily down the trail. I revved the snowmachine and followed like always, the roar of the motor slicing through the quiet of the trail. Today, Ed was driving eight dogs pulling a massive toboggan with two guests inside. These style toboggans have little to no steering or tracking and cannot navigate corners without a lot of experience - and the weight in the toboggan made steering even more difficult.
About halfway through the loop, Ed stopped the team on the field and waved for me to come closer. I pull up and Ed calls to me, "Take over to get some practice in!"
My heart beat in anxiety. I had only been on a sled a couple times before, and now I not only had Ed watching me, but two guests as well. I stepped onto the toboggan, put weight on the bar brake, and picked up the snow hook. As soon as I release the hook, the dogs rocket forward with the strength of a truck. Ed yells from behind me, "Step on the drag mat!"
The drag mat is a thin strip of tire tread trailing behind the wood platform the musher stands on. (You can see it in the photo - the setup is nothing like a traditional sled.) Panicked, I look down and reach my foot backwards. I stomp down hard in the snow, missing the drag completely, and lose my balance as the dogs continue to run forward. Holding on for dear life, I was dragged for a few feet until Ed ran up and hopped on the toboggan. Once I saw he was in control with his foot on the bar brake, I let go so I could get up. To my dismay, Ed asks me to try again. For good measure, he also reminds me sternly to never let go of the sled.
Confidence shattered and embarrassment warming my cheeks, I step on the toboggan for the second time. Weight on bar brake, pull hook up, dogs rocket forward. This time I am careful to hit the drag mat with my foot, successfully controlling the speed of the toboggan. For a few minutes, the dogs pulled happily while I held the drag mat down, and I started to recover. But on the return of the loop, we passed through a tight corner. The snow drifts on either side of the trail were deep. I threw my weight to the inside, hanging all the way off the toboggan, but it wasn't enough. The toboggan rammed into the drift, tipping over and dumping me and the guests onto the snow. I hung on, the snow slowing the dogs enough until Ed could zoom over on the snowmachine and help. We righted the toboggan, Ed yelling instructions and holding the team back, and without another word to me, he drove the team the rest of the way home. I walked back to the snowmachine, embarrassment tears already staining my face. They were gone by the time we got back to the hookup area.
(Author's note: all names other than Ed and Amy Streeper and the dogs are changed for privacy.)
The next day, no tours were scheduled, so Ed decided it was a good opportunity to try a new toboggan and a new trail. The new toboggan was even bigger than the one we used the day before, and Ed wanted to get a feel for it.
Jim was a local who came by every few days to help out. I am not sure where Ed met him, but he wanted to learn how to mush and Ed was happy to teach him in exchange for some help. Today, Jim and I were to be the weight in the toboggan so Ed could get a feel handling it with guests in the basket. Prepared to sit and not move in the cold and wind, I bundle up in my heaviest parka and sit down on one of the milk crates inside the toboggan. The team of 10 dogs take off with uncontrollable speed and strength, Amy following in the snowmachine for additional handling help. We round the first corner on the trail and the giant toboggan immediately tips over, dumping Jim and myself into a snowbank. I scramble up immediately, grabbing the gangline and holding on, helping as much as I could to keep the team stopped. Ed either doesn't see or ignores my efforts, because he is yelling commands at me: "Get out of the way!" (I was trying to help not loose the team), "Hold on!" (I was), "Get in!"
When Ed shouts this last command, the toboggan is already taking off. The bar brake is insufficient to hold back 10 dogs, and I leap into the toboggan, landing on my hands and knees. I lean back, sitting on my knees, every bump in the trail jarring my whole body. After a couple miles, the circulation in my legs starts getting cut off and I start getting sore.
Eventually, we reach the turn around loop. It is a tight curve, and Jim and I lean in hard to try and prevent tipping. Surprisingly, we actually cut the turn too tight and the toboggan gets stuck in the deep snow right off the trail. Amy hops off the snowmachine, jogging to the front of the team, and starts to encourage the dogs to keep pulling, to get the snowmachine out of the deep snow. While we were stopped for a few seconds, I take the opportunity to relieve the pressure on my legs (which are in serious pain by this point) and sit on the milk crate right behind me. Ed sees me adjusting my position and screams at me, "Don't get OUT!" I ignore him and continue adjusting until I am sitting on the crate, blood rushing back to my legs. "Don't sit on your ass, sit on your knees so you can maneuver!" He barks at me. I reluctantly move back to my previous position, fuming with anger.
Finally, the dogs pull the toboggan out of the drift, only for Ed to put the brakes on 50 feet down the trail. "Go fix that dog over the gangline!" he shouts at me, and I scramble out of the toboggan bed and jog down the line to untangle the dog. The second I finish, Ed releases the brake, forcing me to take a flying leap into the toboggan as it passes me in order to not be left behind. Ed watches as I struggle to orient myself. "You need something inbetween that heavy iditarod jacket and your lighter jacket," he started. "You don't need that fucking jacket ever, it's too heavy. You can't even move in it, and it's too warm!" Ed continued to hurl insults at me for the next few minutes, but all I heard through my anger and intense fear was a buzzing in my ears.
Jim sat behind me through all of this, silent. Ed never treated him like he was dumb, never accused him of doing anything wrong. In some ways it would have almost been better if he was suffering along with me, but I could only assume Ed was trying harder to keep Jim around since he could leave, when I had nowhere to go.
When we got back to the kennel, Ed decided that Jim and I should each take a team out to get practice driving a sled. Not trusting us with the power of just three dogs, he gave us each a double stand-up sled - bigger, and therefore heavier, but far less maneuverability than a standard sled. Amy chimes in, wanting to run her own team as well, so she led our little caravan while Ed followed in the snowmachine. I follow behind Amy and watch her to follow what she did, since I still had hardly any experience on a sled.
We arrive at an uphill, and I watched Amy lean over to the side and start pedaling to help her small team up the climb. I lean over and start pedaling when I reach the incline, learning to balance my sled without tipping over on each footfall. Later on in the trail, the dogs started to slow down and struggle through another hill, so I lean over and start pedaling to help like before. Ed, able to see me this time, shouts at me over the roar of the snowmachine, "Don't worry about pedaling! You don't need to!" I immediately put my feet back on the runners and watch the three dogs struggle and slowly pull the giant sled up the hill.
Through the rest of the run, I experimented with putting weight on the drag mat, moving my center of gravity to steer...trying to have fun. But the buzz of the snowmachine and the weight of Ed's glare wouldn't allow it.
A few days later, Ed's son wanted to give his girlfriend a ride in a sled, so he drove a sled behind me while I drove another team up front. Ed was all the way behind his son on the snow machine, unable to see me most of the time through the turns in the trail. Amy sat in the seat on my double stand up sled, and we chatted and laughed the whole run. It was the nicest run I had since I had arrived at Streeper Kennels several months prior.
The only other times I enjoyed running dogs while I was at Ed's kennel was during the last run of the day. Ed would take off with the last tour group, and I would start bringing the dogs back to the kennel to go back on their tether spots. I would hook two dogs up at a time to a small kicksled, and mush them about 500 feet back to the kennel from the tour hookup area. Once those two dogs were put away, I would drag the kicksled to the tour hookup area to get two more dogs. No Ed to watch me, just me and the dogs.
Ed continued to drill Jim and myself and insist we take out teams while he followed and watched. This morning, we took out a five dog team on one of the sleds - myself driving while Jim rode in the sled seat. I navigated the hills coming out of the hookup area, stepping on the drag mat as needed to control speed. Ed wanted us to take the flatter trail over the frozen swamp, and once we turned onto this loop, Ed commanded me to pick up the drag mat since I wouldn't need it on this flat section. This section of trail is run like a lollipop, with a teardrop shaped turn at the end to turn the team around. Ed was very strict that the dogs go right and not left around the teardrop, so when we reached the fork, I called out, "Gee!"
The leaders either ignored or didn't know what my turn command meant, and start veering toward the left fork. I slammed my feet down on the bar brake, stopping the team, and waited for Ed to roll up on his snow machine to help (since he preferred the driver stay on the sled). Ed comes in hot, too hot on the snowmachine, and rams the front bumper into the back of my knees. My legs were trapped between the bumper and the sled; I couldn't move them. My weight was stuck on the bar brake, keeping the team stopped while they screamed and hollered to go go GO. Ed is hollering at me, yelling at me to get my feet off the brake so the dogs can move the sled forward and give me more room. But my legs couldn't move, I couldn't lift my feet.
Panicked by Ed's anger and screaming, I twist and struggle as much as I could and finally was able to get my foot to slip off the brake. The dogs, over excited from being stopped for so long, immediately rocket forward around the tight turnaround loop. The drag mat was still up from when Ed told me to put it up earlier, so I had no way to control speed and make sure the sled didn't flip. In desperation, I put my foot down on the snow, trying to slow the team with some improvised drag. Instead, I lose my balance and fall off the sled. I hang on, hanging off the handlebars. My body worked as a substitute drag mat, slowing the team down enough for me to make my way back onto the ice-covered runners.
Once we get back to the hilly section of trail, I unhook the dragmat from its holster, having learned my lesson about speed control. Ed sees me do this from the snow machine, and calls to me, "Put that drag mat back up! You don't need it, use your foot to slow down if you need to." Fuming, I did as he said.
We rocket around corners and I barely manage to keep from flipping. On a downhill, the sled started moving faster than the dogs were pulling it, so I once again put my foot down to try and slow the sled and prevent it from colliding with the wheel dogs. Since the runners are still caked with ice, I lose my balance immediately and have to leap both feet back on. I ride out the rest of the trail back in fear, trying as hard as I could to keep the sled under control without brakes. When we reached the hookup area, I stopped the sled and set the snow hook, relieved. But Ed comes rolling in on his snow machine, roaring at me for setting the snowhook already. "I wanted to pull the team a little further forward!" he shrieked at me. Read my mind, Melissa!