I’ve been more fortunate than many with my experiences of growing up in Alaska. Many people who visit or even come to live tend to find themselves in one of the cities. While wilder than most, it still has that feel of civilization.
I grew up in the rural community of Central, Alaska. We didn’t have running water, electricity, phones or many of the modern amenities when we first moved there. We would eventually get some of it it intermittently, but we always had the wilderness experience.
One such experience for me was a sled dog team. I was young and had a handful of dogs that I trained and ran. It was fun and a lot work to properly care for the dogs. I was diligent in their care and made sure to exercise them often.
It was during one of these outings after school on evening that I had one of my most terrifying experiences with a dog team. It had warmed up a bit to about ten degrees above and I couldn’t tell if the storm clouds were moving in or moving out.
I harnessed my young team to take them on a short 7 mile run. I’d been harnessing more experienced dogs to help the young ones out, but today I hooked up my 5 dog sprint team with some of the more inexperienced dogs. We were going to run a well known route and I expected a quick trip.
I staggered the runs of my dogs making sure to take the sprinters out the day before I did a long run with the distance runners. Sprinters needed to be ran almost daily, even if not very far, but if I let them run hard for longer, they would take the next day to rest while I was gone with the other dogs.
I ran my distance runners 2-3 times a week, though I would sometimes rotate them through my sprint team for shorter runs. This allowed them to open up for sprints and stretch their muscles.
The big difference between the two types of dog teams was speed and endurance. I needed one team who could run all out over a day’s run while the other needed to be able to pull a load at a sustained rate over days.
We took off down the trail, the darkness only pierced by my headlamp on this moonless evening. The dogs excitedly took to the run and I listened to the sound of the snow crunching under the sled and the steady pant of the dogs.
I let the young lead dog set the pace for the first half a mile, then I slowly reeled them in to a more manageable pace. These guys would run all out if you let them, but they wouldn’t last the whole route that way and would slow to a crawl when they wore out.
It took them a bit to settle in as they were excited to go. I’d been working on this lead who’d shown promise despite her age. She was a bit bigger than most leads and was highly intelligent, responding to commands pretty quickly.
We were about to miles into the run when I noticed the dogs peering into the darkness to our left. Their pace slowed and their ears perked up and I tried to follow where they were looking.
My headlamp shown on the trees about 30 feet to our left and behind us, but I couldn’t see anything. I called to the dogs to keep going and my lead started pulling the others to go a bit fast and reset the pace.
I kept looking out into the dark, but couldn’t see what was spooking the dogs. Occasionally I thought I saw shadows move, but it could have just as easily been just shadows played by me bouncing along on the sled.
The panic started as a trickle, a tickle up my spine and the hair raising on my neck and arms. I don’t know if I truly felt the presence in the dark or if I was now playing off the panic of the dogs. We started slowing to an easy walk and chills ran up my spine as the dogs began to whimper.
I jumped off the runners and ran along side the dogs, encouraging them to run. I did my best to distract them and command them on and in a few seconds they had picked up the pace again. I waited for the sled to catch up and swung onto the runners.
As I looked off into the woods, I saw the shadows move and this time it was no trick of the eye as I saw eye reflection in the dark. The creature was nearly twice the size of my sled dogs and was keeping pace with us.
My stomach knotted and I reached into the sled to unzip the gun case lashed down in arms reach. I yelled for the dogs to take the next left, following our normal route and moving out into some more open terrain along a recently put in road with a cleared easement on either side.
The lead dog was now pulling hard and we missed the turn. I inserted my snow brake and called for a stop, all the while looking into the darkness, the shadow gone.
I’d heard that the Forty-Mile Caribou herd (same herd as a previous story, a couple of years prior) had moved into the Yukon Valley near Eagle Summit, but that was over 25 miles away. Nonetheless, whenever the caribou came, the wolves in the area would start gathering and I’d been warned to be on the lookout for them.
I set my snow hook and called for my lead to come back to me. She started to, but then turned and tried to run away, pulling the line taught. I tried to make my voice firm and called for her again, but I could hear the panic rise in me.
I realized now that we were stopped that a brisk wind had picked up and even though we couldn’t see whatever was lurking in the shadows, my team could now smell them. Most of the team had laid down as if to hide and they were all whimpering.
I stomped up the trail, each dog looking up at me as I passed, though their gaze quickly shifted to the woods behind us. I reached the lead dog and tried to calm her. She was still straining against the line and I petted her to calm her down.
I took her by the collar and steered her in the way I wanted her to go, calling out the command quietly as I did so. I knew she was afraid, but to be a good lead, you have to trust the musher and follow commands.
As we walked by the other dogs, they stood up and began to follow. Once I had them all standing on the right trail, I ran back to my sled and pulled the snow hook. They leapt at my command to go and ran all out.
I wanted to put the woods behind us and move into the open country, so I let them run for a little bit. And a little bit was all they would go. We made it a couple of hundred feet before they slowed and some tried to lay down. They weren’t tired, they were scared.
I got them on their feet and realized we had over three miles to get home, no matter if we continued forwards or backwards. At this pace, it would likely take us an hour and a half.
Not only had the wind picked up, but the temperature had dropped below zero again and I knew I had to keep the dogs moving. I lifted them onto their feet and ran with the lead dog until I was sure they were going before letting the sled catch up and hopping on.
We repeated the couple hundred feet run before slowing and stopping. I tried to catch them before they stopped and flopped down in hopes of keeping us going. It was during one of these runs that as I let the sled catch up I looked to the trees and spotted the eye shine of the creature pacing us.
I imagined what would happen if a pack of wolves came at us. Would I be able to shoot them before they harmed my team? Would my team cower like they had been making easy prey or would they fight back?
I pulled the gun out a bit to make sure it was loose and kept an eye on our shadow. I was so intense on tracking the creature that I missed the dogs slowing down.
By the time I got myself in motion, the team had stopped and laid down whining. I tried to pick them up, but as soon as I stood them up, they would flop back down, even the leader.
They were all intent in watching the woods and I figured the panic would cause them to want to flee, but they were choosing to hide. I flicked my light towards the woods and spotted the creature had moved out of the trees and was standing not more than 30 feet away.
I froze. Then I began pleading for the dogs to get up and run! The creature took a couple of steps closer and I knew this was one of the biggest wolves I’d ever seen.
I hefted on the gang line and bellowed out for the dogs to go. They were instantly up and sprinting as I spotted the wolf charging us. I flailed for the sled as it passed and nearly missed the handle, running to jump on.
The next part happened as time slowed down. The wolf plowed up snow as it came surprisingly fast. I got one foot on one runner and shook of my mitten to grab the gun. I twisted and pulled on the gun which snagged on the cloth case.
It was in that horrible moment that I realized the wolf was coming for me and not my team.
I twisted to yank the gun free as I brought up my other arm to fend off the first bite. I felt myself lurch to the side as my foot slid off the runner and caught the snow, throwing me off balance as the gun came free.
I tried to turn myself and the gun towards the wolf only to lose my balance and tumble off of the sled which flopped over on its side in the deep snow before bouncing back upright on the trail. I on the other hand, ended falling sideways into the snowbank, my lamp, hat and gun flying off.
The wolf had slowed and now that I was free from the sled, bounded at me again. I tried to get to my feet and put my arm out to protect it from going for my throat while searching with my other hand in the snow for my gun, a stick, anything.
But much to my surprise, the blow didn’t come. My arm wasn’t clenched in the jaws of a ferocious predator. Instead, over my pounding heartbeat, I heard the jangle of metal.
I stopped my frantic search and looked up to see the creature standing in front of me, so dark that I could barely see the tail wagging. My mind raced trying to find an explanation for this, but honestly, the adrenaline was preventing any rational thought.
When she barked and bounded to one side, I could see the outline of the chain against the snow and new immediately what I was facing. I spotted my headlamp glowing in the snow and picked up to confirm my guess.
In the light of my headlamp stood another one of my dogs, Goldie, a German Shepherd. She was massive, even for her breed, and it appeared she’d broken her chain. She wasn’t a sled dog, but loved to run with them. I’d tried to harness her before, but she would have nothing of it.
Sometimes I let her run with us, but it was usually on short trips up to the runway and back. I never took her with the young ones because she would nip at them and run at them, spooking them. Just as she had tonight.
My knees suddenly got weak and I knelt down. After a few moments to calm down, I chewed out Goldie who took it all with a doggy grin and a wag of her tail. I searched and found all of my gear except one mitten.
I unclasped the chain, which we’d upgraded to the same chain my dad used to around the mine, and slung it over my shoulder before taking off after the team. I wasn’t sure how far they would go or which way they would go, but I figured I would follow them to the main road at least and if I didn’t find them there, I would go home to get my snow machine before searching for them.
Goldie stayed faithfully with me, her tail wagging the whole time. We walked about a mile before reaching the road. I had to shift the gun from hand to hand and had to warm the unmittened hand by tucking it inside my coat.
The temperature was still dropping and I decided to leave the chain next to the road and did my best to jog home. The air stung my lungs, but whenever I slowed down, I spotted sled tracks along the road. It appeared the sled had overturned again and the dogs were sticking to their well known path.
When I arrived back in my yard, my dad had my team tied up and was starting his snow machine to come look for me. When he saw me he wordlessly shut off his machine, and seeing Goldie, walked over to his drill rig and pulled off a light chain.
I tended to my dogs, checking for injuries and feeding them before getting dinner of my own. I took the young lead dog with me around the dog yard to help establish her role as leader. When she came to Goldie, they ended up nose to nose.
I wasn’t sure either dog would react so I held the lead’s leash tightly, ready to pull her back. But they just stood there for a moment before Goldie began licking the young lead’s face before laying down and playing dead. All except her tail of course, which beat the ground mercilessly.