You want to run Iditarod? - Handler story pt4
Updated: Nov 21, 2020
November and December passed in a haze. After the incident with Larry, I questioned everything Ed did and didn't trust him as easily. But the only people I had to bounce thoughts off of were my friends over text, living 1000 miles away. I was completely isolated from any other parties who would validate my questioning.
Ed's negativity, arrogance, and pessimism wore on me more than I realized. Early on, he asked me about racing, and I told him I was not interested in sprint like him, but really wanted to do mid-distance racing. In his head, I don't think there is a difference between mid-distance (something like 30 to 200 miles) and distance (everything longer). He constantly told me his very colorful opinions on distance mushers and distance-bred dogs, even though I would remind him I wasn't interested in doing 1000 mile races. When we were taking the dogs on a run with the side-by-side at a fast trot, he would always say, "You could win the Iditarod going this speed." He didn't have much respect for what long-distance mushers achieved since he always bragged that he could do Iditarod if he could sleep at a hotel every night. Going slow was boring to him and he always implied that distance mushers were weird or crazy for enjoying it. Ed had many retired distance-bred dogs from other mushers - many of them champion bloodlines and Iditarod finishers - but he would call them "freighters." He thought them unable to go faster than a trot, and only good for hauling the heavy loads of his tours, even though the trained distance dogs were far better command leaders than his hounds. They actually ended up teaching his hound leaders gee and haw, but Ed would never see it was the distance dogs teaching it.
One evening, I was helping Ed put together a PowerPoint for a sleddog presentation for a big tour trip to Winnipeg. One of the slides was the different kinds of dogs used for sledding: Alaskan, Siberian, and hound. We were looking through his photos for a dog to use to represent Alaskan Huskies and he pointed out one photo in particular. Ed giggled and said, "Let's use this big, fat one." The photo is a marshmallow of a dog that looks like an ugly backyard bred sibe mix, with excess fat and sad drooping eyes - nothing like a real Alaskan.
Ed also had one purebred racing Siberian, Brighty. He was such a character - every day when I went to give the dogs water, he had tipped over his house in a way that was suitable for him. Every time I stuffed fresh straw in his house, Brighty would instantly pounce on it with excited woos, and happily dig it all out and spread it around his chainspot. I called him a master interior designer. Even Brighty and his Siberian registration wasn't spared from the condescending arrogance; Ed was always telling me "they always have Alaskan husky in them and the breeders try and act like its pure."
Ed had a strange opinion on Siberians. He was convinced they had no drive and were terrible sled dogs - even the ones bred for distance racing, like Brighty. He thought he could fix them by breeding his own litter of Siberians and raising them with a litter of hounds, even though he hardly socialized those litters either. Ed was convinced they would pick up the nonstop energy and overexcitedness of his hounds by being raised with them, since if a dog wasn't nuts and raring to go ALL the time, Ed thought it was useless. This was actually why he bought Brighty, but he was never able to secure a female to breed him to.
The distance musher insults, of course, were all at least partially directed at me, since I made the mistake of telling him I like mid-distance racing. Some of these were even more direct - one of his go-to insults when I was shivering, or struggling to do something, was "How are you going to run Iditarod with ____?" ("those gloves", "that knife", "that attitude".)
Yet even with such a deep disrespect for distance mushers, he thought he knew what they wanted. He had bred his sprint hounds to the distance dogs he thought were valuable - which usually meant the bigger the better - and the first litters were yearlings when I was at the kennel. He had bred Legend as well, a dog I ended up buying, even though she was only a year and a half old at the time of breeding, to the biggest hound in his kennel, Tex. The puppies were about 6 weeks old when I arrived at the kennel at the end of September.
Ed's sole goal with these breedings were to sell them to distance mushers. He thought that he could combine the speed of his hounds with the heavier coat of the distance dogs, but he failed to take into account the flaws his hounds would pass on that were unacceptable in distance racing. Many of the dogs had bad feet that would split, or didn't have the attitude or endurance to go long distances. Despite this, he managed to deceive several Iditarod mushers in Alaska into purchasing these mixes. I heard through Ed about how none of these dogs made their racing teams due to getting splits in their feet, or burning out before the end of runs. He couldn't understand why his breedings had failed, and so he continued to do them.
Some of the dogs Ed bred using this theology - Dalton, Darla, and Brent. Darla, Brent's brother Bob, and Dalton and Darla's sister Dolly all were sold to mushers in Alaska in autumn.
His pessimism wasn't limited to the distance dogs he disliked in his kennel. I was lucky to get through a conversation without him complaining to me. One of his favorites was "I'm so sick of fighting Mother Nature, I could puke." And apart from constantly complaining about the weather and the work, he would always complain about finances and how broke he was. Ed constantly envied tour kennels with better locations that could charge hundreds of dollars for tours, and was upset with his own failing tour business. He wasn't racing anymore and blamed that for being the reason he couldn't sell his overpriced dogs. Even with the constant financial complaints, it couldn't mask his arrogance. He would brag about dogs he sold for thousands, brag about how much his antiques were worth, brag about how much money he used to make when he was racing and selling dogs. He wanted to blame everyone and everything but himself, and the sheer volume of his complaints, and having to listen to them daily, dragged me down into a dark place just like him.
During one training run, the leaders Shana and Jake, were trying to take a right when the trail Ed wanted them to go was to the left. Ed held the brakes on the side-by-side and told me to go put them on the right trail, so I hopped out and jogged up the hundred feet or so to the leaders.
Ed had no semblance of control over his dog teams. He told me that since sprint races were so well marked, there was no need to teach his dogs directional commands, or how to stop, or when to slow down. But when we were hooking up 10 or more crazed, powerful dogs that knew no commands - and often, it was 16 or 18, even 20 - I could not understand why safety was not a higher priority for him. When a situation arose when the dogs went down the wrong trail, he would yell "Gee! Gee! Gee!" or "Haw! Haw!" over and over at them, while the dogs screamed and howled and jumped forward, nearly frothing at the mouth with their intense need to RUN. He did not know how to train leaders to turn, and every single time, I would have to get off the machine and turn the leaders myself. For Ed, it was easier to block off the wrong trails for each tour than train the leaders to turn.
I reached the leaders, grabbed the neckline, and lead Shana and Jake to the left trail. Satisfied that they were pointed in the correct direction, I turned around and started jogging back to the side by side. Suddenly I heard Jake's barking way too close behind me, and I glanced over my shoulder, horrified. Jake, a yearling leader-in-training, had decided that since he wasn't moving, it was time to take action. He was dragging little Shana not to the right trail, but PAST it, turning the 14 dog team all the way around in a large loop - and the line and dog team were right behind me, closing in fast. I started sprinting to get away, the gangline riding on the back of my knees, nearly tripping me several times. Fear of getting tangled in the lines or being trampled powered my frantic pace. Jake and Shana finally completed the turn and the gangline snapped tight, finally tripping me and I collapsed on the ground, shaking. Ed was already rushing over, grabbed the leaders, and turned them around again, pointing down the correct trail. Once he got them pointing in the right direction again, he took out his frustration on them - hitting them over and over again, as hard as he could. He would tell me it was part of his training method, but what was the lesson he was trying to teach Shana and Jake? They wouldn't understand it. And as I caught my breath, I couldn't help but think about how the whole situation could have been avoided with some effort put into controlling and training the dog team.
(Jake is the tan dog, Shana is the black one.)
Whenever I was not in my cabin, I felt like I was being watched. Even when I was working in the dog yard by myself, and Ed was back at the house, I never took a break because Ed could come back at any second and the idea of him catching me taking a break, petting a dog, or warming myself up in the warming shed next to the dog yard terrified me. Efficiency was key at Streeper Kennels, and anything less than peak efficiency was unacceptable. I would never complain about the work, never complain about the unfairness of the monstrous tasks he would assign me because I was so, so intensely afraid of him by this point.
Monstrous tasks like scooping the poop of 120-130 dogs by myself daily, or watering every single one before mealtime - dragging the buckets and filling each bowl took me about 2 hours, and then I was expected to be finished by the time Ed showed up to help feed. Finally, at the beginning of November, the day to level out the dog yard for the year came around, and Ed's friend showed up with his machine to fill in all the holes and break down the ridges that naturally formed from the dogs' chainspots. Ed moved the barrel houses to the edge of the yard, leaving the more difficult task to me - leading about 90 dogs up the hill to the staging area to be picketed, then leading them back down to their chainspots after the area had been flattened. I can't even begin to describe what a monumental task this was. Leading one or two of the big 65-70lb hounds would exhaust me since they pull in every single direction at once, jumping with all their weight against the collar, crazed and overstimulated. But leading 45 or so of these dogs, combined with the easier half of the dogs (all of the dogs that Ed hadn't bred and weren't agents of chaos), absolutely destroyed me. I wasn't allowed to rest immediately after, or take breaks to catch my breath. It was time to feed after, and I have never felt so bone dead tired before or after that day.
Ed would even monitor what I did in my cabin. He would poke his head inside when I was out working in the dog yard, leaving me no privacy. I didn't know he was doing this until he confronted me about leaving the heat in the cabin on when I left. He thought it was wasting energy; I wanted to return to a warm cabin to rest after working and not have to wait an hour for the old heating unit to warm the cabin. There were to be lots of these little restrictions over time, innocently small at first but violating and damaging. As the weather continued to cool through November and December, the old heater seemed to barely do anything. I would shiver in my cabin and wear my heavy parka under my blankets to keep warm. Ziggy was curled in as tight a ball as I had ever seen her to conserve warmth. Falling asleep was difficult since I couldn't stop shaking. The warming shed next to the dog yard seemed to keep warmer than my cabin. Yet I still never complained for the fear.