how not to do a winter trip with dogs

Nooka was bucking like a bronco, twisting backwards in an attempt to get out of her harness while Milan sat erect like royalty, completely immobile. Old Leshi had walked ahead and was stopping now, wondering what we were waiting for.

Nooka was bucking like a bronco, twisting backwards in an attempt to get out of her harness while Milan sat erect like royalty, completely immobile.

Old Leshi had walked ahead and was stopping now, wondering what we were waiting for.

“Bloody dogs! Why are they always acting like total idiots?” I yelled, myself tethered to a loaded plastic sled. Sam was valiantly trying to get Nooka to move forward instead of backwards. Milan looked like a lost cause, his rear end glued to the snow and a haughty expression on his face that said: “You may be able to hitch me up to a sled but you sure won’t get me to pull all this junk.”

It had seemed like such a good idea: throw some gear and food together, distribute it on four toboggans, and go on a three-day trip with the dogs. The nights weren’t cold enough anymore to freeze things inside our cabin and the chickens had a pile of snow to peck as a substitute for water.

It was not a major expedition, merely a trip that wouldn’t overtax our arthritic old dog, to the closest trapline cabin of our neighbour Rick. Just to get out, enjoy the spring weather and do something fun together. Some fun.

From past experience we knew that it wouldn’t work to hitch up the dogs together as a team because Nooka always ended up being the only doing any pulling. Leshi was too old for any work, so the best way was to get Nooka and Milan pull individual sleds with gear while Sam and I also each had a toboggan.

We hadn’t asked the dogs to pull anything in a couple of years and they were obviously not impressed with this new development. Eventually, Nooka gave in and lunged forward with her usual five-minute burst of energy, after which she invariably slows to snail’s pace again. I cheered her on and we decided to just get going even though Milan still refused to budge.

“He’ll come running after us. Once he realizes we’re leaving, he’ll come,” I said to Sam, confident in my dog expertise. And so we headed out after Nooka who was still chugging along. Leaning into the skijoring belts that we were pulling our sleds with, we followed right on Leshi’s heels who was trotting ahead unencumbered. From behind us rose a plaintive whine.

“Come on, Milan, let’s go!,” we encouraged him, but no luck.

He was rooted to the spot, the only thing moving were his lips, now pursed to send forth a heart-rending howl.

“Let’s keep going, he’s going to come,” said Sam. We continued on the hard-packed snowmobile trail, followed by Milan’s sounds of desperation but not himself.

“This is all totally stupid! Why can’t that bloody dog just pull his sled?”

I was ready to have a fit—actually, I had one. A beautiful, perfect spring outing ruined by a stubborn dog.

“We can put his stuff on our skimmers,” Sam suggested. “Come on, we’ll figure something out. No reason to get all upset about it.”

Defeated by our dog, we turned around. Nooka was immensely happy with this unexpected turn of events, suddenly summoned astounding reserves of energy and shot by us like a rocket, her little sled bouncing merrily behind her.

Leshi, too, was glad we were going back so soon—returning to her pillow for yet another extended nap is always a happy occasion for her. Milan even rose to a standing position as we drew close, regally wagging his tail in approval that we had abandoned our foolish plans.

The only grumpy ones were Sam and I.

We decided to postpone leaving for one day, and after getting over my intense annoyance and finding the humour in this utterly unprofessional and chaotic proceeding of things (certainly not how one would expect an outing of seasoned bush people to go), after it all didn’t seem so bad anymore, I spent the day re-introducing Milan to the concept of sled pulling. Which, of course, we could easily have done over the previous days.

After walking him first with his harness on, then with an empty toboggan behind, and finally with increasingly heavier loads on it, and making much of his (pretty reluctant) willingness, Milan condescended to do us this absurd favour and pull his sled.

I’m happy to report that the next day, we got off without a hitch and had a fun trip—made all the more memorable by its awkward start.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who

lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.