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HERE'S DOGSLEDDING FOR TENDERFEET: A WAY TO IMITATE 'SERGEANT PRESTON'
Lowell Cohn
November 26, 1979
The cry of "Hite! Hite!" rings out over the snow-carpeted valley and echoes off the mountain peaks. Thirteen huskies, lying obediently on their bellies, spring to their feet and make a mad dash up the winding path into a forest of gray-white aspens. Behind them the sled shoots forward. Over the excited howling of the dogs and the hiss of runners on snow and the festive jingling of the harness bells, the driver calls out his commands. High, trilling, birdlike sounds spur the dogs to sprint furiously down a hill. Low, throaty moans slow them.
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November 26, 1979

Here's Dogsledding For Tenderfeet: A Way To Imitate 'sergeant Preston'

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During a ride, MacEachen stops his dogs every so often and orders them to lie down. They reluctantly get on their bellies and wait. The dogs are by no means tired; indeed, their six-mile trip is ridiculously easy for them, so easy that MacEachen is afraid they'll get bored (it's like asking Clydesdales to give rides in Disneyland). He stops them to enforce discipline, to let the dogs know they are part of a team and he is the boss. He also uses the rest time to allow passengers to take pictures of the landscape. (At these times, MacEachen forbids me to pet or speak to the dogs.) "The dogs are fiercely independent," MacEachen says. "If you're not even more bullheaded and persistent, they've got you." Keeping control is all-important. During a recent trip, Kaweasuk, eager to get going, rose without permission. MacEachen immediately hit him unceremoniously on the head with a rolled-up newspaper. Kaweasuk contemplated the situation for a brief moment and sat down.

There are two classes of sled dogs: followers and leaders. Most dogs are content to follow. They will pull until they literally drop and are virtually oblivious to pain. "The dogs are stoic and don't express hurt," MacEachen says. "By the time they complain, they're almost dead." But one dog in 50 is born with a fierce desire to lead, a quality that can't be taught with much success. It must be instinctive. Seventy-five percent of lead dogs are male, but the best ones are female, because of their calmness and stability. The lead dog guides the others, keeps them strung out and sets the pace—she'll automatically slow down if the other dogs are tired. She is not distinguished by physical strength or aggressiveness (in fact, she may be submissive around the kennel) but by intellect and the willingness to subordinate herself to the collective purpose of the team. A good lead dog like Kiyu eagerly translates MacEachen's commands into action (when the team is stopped he won't take his eyes off the driver) and resolutely refuses to fight while harnessed. Tovarich is a different story. Unless tightly controlled, he slackens the pace, wanders aimlessly in the path or stops altogether. Tovarich is not stupid; he is simply demonstrating his independence. Sometimes, a lead dog's urge to lead can be downright heroic. Mace once had a dog named Nanki who went blind but had memorized the trail and was able to fool him. It was only when Mace changed the route that he discovered the truth. Even so, Nanki continued to lead by the sense of touch and smell until he went deaf and could no longer hear Mace's commands.

Because of the close interaction between the dogs and their master, a dogsled team reflects the personality and determination of the driver. Mace's teams were spirited and feisty. MacEachen's are calmer. "I try to be relaxed," he says. "Any anxiety I show transfers immediately to the dogs." Jim Kern, a first-year driver at the kennel, is still learning, and his teams mirror his tentativeness. One day he took me out with a team led by Amarak. Amarak is 10 years old but had never been a lead dog before last winter (MacEachen has only six leaders and is always desperate for others). He seemed to understand the commands but showed little interest in being directed by Kern. Amarak would respond to a stern "Hite!" yet a few minutes later he'd slow down and soon he'd be lifting his leg in front of a tree—the supreme gesture of canine disdain. While a serious, well-behaved dog may do this to mark the trail, Amarak was leading the way to mutiny. Before long, the others were following his example—Nausatak and Nanuk and Enuk were malingering as well. Biddy was so uninterested, her tug line went slack and stayed that way; she was strictly going along for the ride. By midtrip the team was obviously running Kern.

Despite the battle of wills between driver and team, the dogs feel no aggression toward man. It is a common misconception that Arctic huskies are mean brutes capable of reverting to wolves at any moment or without provocation. The fact is, they are among the oldest domesticated dogs—Malamutes served the Innuit (called Mahlemuts) tribe of Alaska thousands of years ago. During World War II the Army was completely unsuccessful at training them to be attack dogs. Their gentleness to humans (though they sometimes fight to the death against each other and can single-handedly bring down an elk) resulted in some curious problems on the Sergeant Preston set. "Sometimes we wanted them to spring at an actor," Mace explained to me with a shake of the head. "They wouldn't. So we'd put a piece of meat under the hood of the actor's parka and yell, 'Up!' The howls and snarls were inserted in the sound track later, and we always had to be sure that the camera didn't pick up the wagging tails."

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