Well, at least there were no fuck-ups. - Handler Story pt6
Updated: Apr 9, 2021
With December came the first snowfalls. Whenever we got snow, we would walk around the dog yard, picking up the doghouses for the dozens of dogs and piling snow under them so they would stay on top of the snow and not get buried. The snow got so deep that it started making a significant difference in the height of the tether poles.
The tethers, in the most simple of terms, used a tall pole and a bent piece of rebar for a swivel. The swiveling action was due to the rebar not being attached at all. This allowed you to easily pull the rebar swivel out for maintenance, but it also meant that if a dog could jump high enough, they could pop the rebar swivel out of the tall pole and get loose.
As long as the poles are tall enough, this is a perfectly safe method of containment. But many of the poles were too short. My first week there, we had around 10 dogs get loose. This would be a common theme, and I would often hear the dog yard erupt into barking from my cabin and need to go out in the dark to wrangle whoever got loose - frequently changing them to a different tether spot so they couldn't get loose again. When the snow started piling up, this rose to a fever pitch. I remember one night where I caught four loose dogs, two of whom got into a fight, and immediately upon returning to my cabin, the night was split with a chorus of barking, meaning someone had gotten loose again. Another morning, I remember coming to the dog yard to a gruesome scene. Harper, a tan dog with a mean streak, had gotten loose and attacked his neighbor. His wrist was torn completely open, frozen blood drenching him to the toes. He didn't run for the rest of the season and I don't know if he ever got back in harness again.
Another morning, I came to the dog yard to find four loose dogs. Snoopy was zooming around the fenced dog yard, happy as a clam and dragging his swivel and chain. Brighty had popped his swivel as well, and went over to Boo's tether spot. His chain was tangled tightly with hers. I found Brighty sitting next to the pole, unable to move even a foot, wagging his tail and woo-ing at me. He tangled so tightly with Boo that she was able to unclip herself from her tether chain and was roaming around the yard, scared and unsure where was safe. Finally, I found Satin's chain twirled tightly around her chainspot, twisting it up and somehow unclipping herself and allowing her to run around the dog yard in glee. I can only assume Satin got excited by all the chaos and that caused her to tangle.
This was a common occurrence, and often dogs would come up lame or limping from fights they had gotten in overnight.
With the snowfall came the first tours, and Ed became even more unbearable than ever. Earlier in December, we were using Ed's two snow machines to pack down the trails. Ed was using the black machine and I was using the larger red one. This was my first day using a snow machine for an extended period of time, and I was following Ed through sharp corners, up hills and around bends all over his property. Trial by fire. I kept getting stuck on some of the tighter turns; no matter how tightly I turned the steering, the machine would only take wide gentle turns. I kept getting stuck on trees and berms on the other side of the trail because I couldn't make the sharp ninety degree turn on the narrow trail. He would call back to me, "Crank it! CRANK IT!" (referring to the steering), but no matter how hard I cranked the steering, pushing all my weight into it, I couldn't turn. Finally fed up with me, we switched machines. Immediately after, Ed tried to take the red machine on a turnaround loop, commenting "Wow, this machine doesn't turn left worth shit," and proceeding to get it stuck several times just like I did.
Ed would start to poke fun at me, make me feel inadequate, gaslight me. I get yelled at for being late for chores, then the same day made fun of for being early and waiting in the cold. He called my hair a rat's nest and insisted I cut it all off. He constantly yelled at me for not watching where the bones land when I am tossing bones to the dogs, when I always made sure the bone landed within each dog's reach. One day when I was tossing bones, he called my name just as a bone left my hand, and I didn't see it land outside the dog's reach because I was looking at him. This gave him the excuse to lecture me more. Yelling, yelling, endless yelling at me.
There wasn't enough snow on the trails to safely sled by the time Ed's first scheduled tours came up, so instead we spent a few days beforehand putting a trail in on the frozen-over lake in front of Ed's property. This involved Ed driving the snow machine while I sat in a large plastic sled behind him, my weight packing down the snow. After that first day, I realized how intensely cold it got on the lake since it was so open and windy, and every subsequent day we went to the lake, I decided to take my heaviest parka with me in order to stay warm. Finally the day before the first tour arrived, and Ed decided we should take a few teams and a couple toboggans down to the trail we made to make sure everything goes smoothly. Amy, Ed's wife, helped out that morning by driving a snow machine ahead of the dog team for the dogs to chase, since even with the trail markers we put in, the path was hard for the dogs to discern in the sea of flat white snow.
The first trip around the loop, I rode in the sled while Ed drove. Ed was trying to lecture or teach me about sledding, talking up a storm while we gliding along the ice. It was the first time Ed had a chance to get on the runners all season due to the low snow. I pulled up the hood on my parka and nestled in the fur ruff to keep warm. The wind from traveling by dog team combined with the already harsh wind from the wide open lake made for freezing conditions, and I was sitting still, making me even colder. This infuriated Ed and he asked me viciously, "Are you even listening?" I could hear him perfectly fine through my hood. He kept yelling at me that same question every few sentences, trying to iron into me that what he was telling me about sled driving and the signals we would use to communicate was more important than the warmth from my hood.
At one point on the loop, the leaders lost the trail. Ed called out turn commands, but the dogs kept barking and lunging forward, sure they were going the right way. "Go fix the leaders," Ed barked at me. I scrunched my body together and started getting out of the sled. Suddenly, WHACK, Ed slapped me in the shoulder, sure that I couldn't hear him through my hood. "GO FIX THE LEADERS!"
At lunch, Ed mentioned we would take a few more teams out on the trail that afternoon to show them the trail. I asked him, "Will I be driving the snow machine ahead of you this time?" since this was the first day we had ever sledded on the lake. With a sneer, Ed said, "Yes, how else would the dogs know where to go?!"
That afternoon, I took a turn driving the team while Ed drove the snow machine out front. The dogs miss a turn, he yells at me. The dogs are about to run into the truck on the home stretch, I use the snow hook to stop them since the digger brake won't work on the ice, he yells at me.
I tried to enjoy that first time ever driving dogs on a sled out in Osage, but looking back on it, all I can remember is sourness. At Christmas (an already awkward feeling affair since I am Jewish) several days later, Ed gave me a framed photo of me driving that team. He told me I did a good job. He and his family were intensely kind to me that evening and it further confused my feelings, trying to reconcile the constant abuse with the kindness.
The next day was Ed's first tour. That morning, we prepared by getting the six dogs loaded up onto the trailer, each crate holding two dogs for the short ride. Ed dropped me and the trailer off at the lake, leaving me to get all the dogs ready while he went back to his property to greet the tourists when they arrived. I got each dog out of their crates, hooking them up to the drop lines on the trailer, spacing them out in an order to make sure no dogs who disliked each other ended up next to each other. I quickly harness each dog, singsong cooing at them as I went. But suddenly Chezzy, a female white husky, and Wopper, a bigger black and tan male, attack each other. Fueled by the snarling, Joee and Jake, two other male dogs, break the weakened attachments keeping their chains attached to the trailer and get loose. They immediately join in on the fight, ganging up on Wopper. Somehow I manage to separate everyone without getting injured myself, and once everyone is secured to their spots on the trailer again, I check everyone for injuries. Wopper had a new puncture near his eye, and had blood coating some of his fur. I sent a text and photo to Ed, asking him what I should do. I expected to take Wopper back to the dog yard since he was bloody and injured. In response, Ed told me to use snow to clean the blood off of Wopper's face.
The dogs are unruly as ever during hookup. In front of the guests, Ed yells at both me and the dogs, calling them his usual choice insults of cocksucker, prick, bastard, and plenty more colorful language. He yells at me when I am a second too slow to grab harness lines or fix the leaders when they miss the same turn I missed the previous day, even though I am running the snow machine in front of the team for them to chase.
Once the guests left, I undressed all the dogs and loaded them up in the pairs Ed had told me to put in the crates. After we drove them back to the dog yard, we ran around to the trailer to find Chezzy and Jake in a vicious fight in their crate. Hours later, Ed bragged to me, "I beat the shit out of those two dogs that got in a fight in the dogbox."
He summed the day up with "Well, at least there were no fuck-ups."