Doug turns the key and the diesel engine of his pickup goes quiet. Now, the muffled cacophony of fifty dogs chained outside in the frozen New England winter has me second-guessing how much fun dog-sledding is going to be. Doug, a professional dog-sled racer, our dog-sled coach for the next month and the main character of our documentary opens his door and steps out. Once the seal of the cab is broken, the quiet, muffled noises from the dogs suddenly burst into a shrill frenzy of constant barking, yelping, whining and growling. I tentatively open my door as my old friend Tommy and I slide out of the car into the grey, overcast morning and take our first real look at the animals we will be working with. There are more dogs here than I had expected, many more. In total, about fifty dogs are leashed to individual metal posts protruding from the ground. Each dog has its own wooden doghouse, though none are inside. A few scattered dogs have houses made out of old metal oil drums.
“Why do some dogs live in those barrels?” I ask Doug.
“They already chewed through their old wooden ones,” Doug casually responds. “Come on, I’ll introduce you.”
I’ve never considered myself a dog person; my family never owned a dog or any kind of pet for that matter. But somehow for me, the idea of dog sledding has always been magnetic. Since moving to Vermont last year, I’ve wanted to see as much of the region I now live in, and racing through it powered by the engine of a sixteen-dog team seems like the most exciting method of doing it. When I learned that making a documentary about a competitive dogsled team would be an actual possibility through my school, I jumped at the opportunity. Today, all the planning and daydreaming is becoming a reality, and I’m quickly learning that I have no idea what I’m in for.
“Are we going to get to run them today?” I eagerly ask Doug.
“No, today is their day off. I like to train them three days on and one day off to let them rest, and besides it’s too icy on the gravel road, it will just tear up their paws, but tomorrow we’ll run them. You boys can come back tomorrow right?”
“Absolutely, Doug,” Tommy and I both respond.
The next morning, Tommy and I show up late in a borrowed car after discovering that parking overnight in a college staff parking lot will get you towed. “That car is way too clean to be on this farm,” Doug half-jokes looking at the shiny black Prius. Sebastian, the farm’s token goat, and Doug’s closest thing to a pet, pokes its head out of the barn, and begins to make his way over to where we are gathered next to the car. “No Sebastian, NO, get out of here!” he scolds the goat, “If you’re not carful, he’ll eat the paint right off your car.” Doug slaps the goat on the head provoking it onto its hind legs, and the two begin wrestling.
Once upright Sebastian stands nearly six feet tall, roughly the same height as Doug. Doug is wearing a torn-up pair of navy-blue Dickies coveralls, the unofficial uniform of every Vermont Dairy farmer. His wiry, shoulder-length red hair sticking out from under his winter hat is turning grey and is one of the only signs of his age. Even at 8 AM, he has the energy of a teenager on Red Bull. His trademark is his orange mustache, which is complimented by the neon eighties visor-style runner glasses he is sporting. Watching Doug wrestle the goat has me tempted to grab the camera and begin shooting the ridiculous scene for the movie, but Doug’s cell phone starts ringing and he lets Sebastian down. “What did you fuck up this time?” He begins the conversation. I decide not to start recording.
Ten minutes later we’re back to where the dogs are kept for our second day of training. Doug walks over to a dog and grabs it by the collar, “This one’s name is Teardrop.” He unhooks Teardrop from the chain, gets down on one knee and gently slides a padded harness over her head and guides her feet through two loops. The dog is surprisingly calm and eager to get the harness on.
“See that?” He asks Tommy and me.
“Yeah I think so” Says Tommy.
“Okay good. Put Fitz and Boxer here and here,” Doug points to two spots on the tugline connected closest to the ATV we are using in place of a sled on this snowless morning. “You remember Fitz and Boxer from yesterday right?” Tommy and I both look through the sea of identical dogs pretending to search for the two individuals.
“Uh, no Doug which ones are they again?” I ask. Doug points out two dogs in the middle of the cluster. They look identical to the rest of the. “How the hell did you know that Doug? I mean, do you really know every dog’s name?”
“Of course, listen, when you’ve spent as much time as I have with these dogs, you know… these are my children, you’ll learn.” He tosses each of us a harness and points to two dogs both furiously barking and jerking their leashes in all directions.
“Okay Doug whatever you say,” I reply hesitantly before I turn and slowly approach the dog named Boxer. Boxer is wildly barking directly at me and I have to take a deep breath and compose myself before stepping into his territory. Boxer backs away and I’m forced to awkwardly chase him around for a few seconds before he realizes I am here to put his harness on. He settles down and for the first time I pet the dog and scratch him behind the ear. He likes that. I slide the harness over his head just as Doug had showed us, and then I unclip him from his leash. With a firm grip on his collar, I lead him through the other dogs over to the dogsled cable that Doug is securing to the ATV. Tommy has already clipped Fitz to the cable and is heading back into the sea of dogs to harness the next one. Twenty minutes and sixteen dogs later, the setup is completely rigged, and Tommy and I hop on the back of the muddy ATV.
A few odd snowflakes are now drifting towards the ground. If we want to really learn to dogsled we will need a whole lot more snow, but for now, the few snowflakes that hint at the possibility of a storm will have to do. I grab my camera and quickly film a few shots of the brown landscape with the idea of a before-and-after shot for the movie I will be able to complete when it finally does snow.
“Hold on boys” Doug says as he pulls his goggles over his face. Tommy and I do the same. Doug hits the throttle and the dogs begin to run. All of a sudden, the three of us are bolting away from the yard like astronauts strapped to a rocket for takeoff. We pass through an open field and onto a dirt road where the occasional car pulls over to watch us pass. The ATV engine is loud and the wind is howling, so Doug has to shout any time he wants our attention. As I wave at the driver of a pulled over Jeep, Doug turns his head toward me and shouts, “I swear to god if any of these cars ever hits one of my dogs, your going to have to pull me off the driver.” I’d like to think he is kidding, but I find myself praying we don’t see too many more cars.
We pass through some woods with a few houses with long driveways before we end up blazing through another field. Doug’s dairy farm sits on the horizon, framed by the Green mountains in the distance. Doug points to the farm, “That over there, that’s real life. This here, this is my escape.” He yells, “You can’t drink enough booze or snort enough coke to get as high as you do doing this. Am I right? This is my passion.”
Even with the loud rumble of the ATV’s engine, we can hear the barking of the dogs left in the dog yard before we can see them. The noise lets us know that the eight-mile training loop is coming to a close. When we finally complete the loop, Doug hits the breaks, jumps off the ATV, and runs to the front of the dogs to secure the leaders’ collars to the fence to ensure that the string of dogs doesn’t tie one big knot out of the tug line they are all connected to. Once that vital step is complete, Doug pulls out an old notebook and scribbles down notes about each dog’s performance.
“Who do you guys think did the best?” Doug asks Tommy and me.
“I don’t know. I think they all looked pretty good out there, I mean, we never had to stop once to untangle them or anything,” Tommy responds.
“Yeah well we will be doing plenty of that when we take out the B-team”
“Were taking out the B-team?”
“Well duh, how are we supposed to make the team better if we don’t train all the dogs. There are a lot of good runners out here, we need to give them a chance to see what they’ve got. ”
In the game of dog sledding, Doug is the head coach, and today is tryouts. By running the Dogs and carefully paying attention to each individual’s performance Doug is putting together a varsity team that will be ready to race when the time comes.
“You remember where all these dogs go right?” Doug asks sarcastically.
“Hell no.” I jokingly answer, hoping I read Doug’s tone right.
“Hahah, Fitz goes here and boxer goes there,” Doug tells us pointing to their respective houses. “You’ll get it.” The three of us spend the next half-hour unhooking each dog and returning them to their homes and then harnessing the B-team of dogs back onto the ATV. This team will run the same eight-mile loop. Tommy jumps back onto the ATV with Doug as the team pulls out, while I film a long shot of them leaving. Once they’re out of view, I jump in the truck and race down the road to intercept them, set up the tripod and film some more.
I’m waiting on the hood of the truck back at the dog-yard when Tommy and Doug finish their loop. By now, it’s getting to be mid-day and Doug tells us he has to go back and do some work on the farm. Tommy and I have class anyways so we quickly unhook all the dogs for the last time, before telling Doug what a great time we had and how we can’t wait to do it again. In the car ride home, Tommy and I are both beat and smell like dog shit, so we decide to go through the McDonald’s drive-through window instead of going inside and offending the other customers. While I take a bite of my BigMac in the parking lot, I begin to think that making this movie might actually be a lot of fun.
A week after our last day at the farm, no new snow has fallen, and, the little precipitation we have had has all turned to ice, preventing the dogs from training. Neither Tommy nor I have been back. Instead, Tommy and I sit behind a massive computer screen stitching what little footage we have together and fiddling with the professional editing software. All we have filmed are a few shaky shots of us riding the ATV, harnessing dogs, and playing with Sebastian. “When is it going to snow? I mean, how are we supposed to make a movie about dog sledding if we can’t even go dog sledding?” I ask Tommy.
“I don’t know, man, look up the weather report,” Tommy responds with the same impatient tone, “What does it say?”
No significant snow accumulations
No significant snow accumulations
No significant snow accumulations
No significant snow accumulations
No significant snow accumulations
“Shit,” I mutter under my breath, “This thing is due soon. We really need to get back out there.”
Another weekend comes and goes, and still no real accumulation. Each morning after tending to the long list of things to do on his farm Doug drives twenty minutes north into the Green Mountains where the sled trail he cut himself sits waiting for snow. And each morning he calls Tommy to tell him that there is not enough snow. The disappointment is fast becoming routine, while our documentary slowly goes nowhere.
With all the time I’m spending not dog-sledding I decide to find out about the dog sledding race Tommy and I had spoken to Doug about on the phone before meeting him. Doug had explained how he will load up Doug’s trailer with the sixteen top dogs and drive 6 hours North to Quebec City to compete in the famous dog sled races held in Quebec’s grand Carnaval de Québec. It is one of the longest running winter carnivals that has been held annually since 1894. Today, the festival has evolved into the world’s largest winter carnival that includes an ice palace, snow sculptures, parades, live music, canoe races and a whole host of other winter spectacles. At the epicenter of the festival is the famous dog sled race held in the snow packed streets of downtown Quebec city. It is here where dozens the most competitive dogsled teams congregate and race between the buildings and spectators for a prize of close to $60,000. Everything about this race we need for our documentary and although I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch, I find myself daydreaming about Doug winning the race and us being there to capture it all on film.
We’re sitting in our dorm room one evening listening to music and playing guitar when Tommy’s phone rings. “Its Doug” He says.
“Well pick it up,” I eagerly tell Tommy realizing this is the first time Doug has ever called us instead of us calling him. Tommy picks up the phone.
“Hey Doug, how’s the trail looking?” Although Tommy says nothing, the long exhale and serious face let me know its bad news. The Quebec race Doug had planned on competing in and we had planned on filming being postponed indefinitely due to the poor snow conditions. The climax of our movie and the purpose for all our training is being taken away from us and there is nothing we can do about it.
Tommy says goodbye and hangs up the phone. “God damnit, were screwed,” Tommy says in the most serious voice I’ve ever hard him use. “I was actually really looking forward to that.”
I walk over to the mini fridge and grab two beers. “Were going to have no movie either.” I toss a cold Labatt Blue to Tommy and open the other. “All right, well we really need to interview Doug, we don’t need snow for that.”
“Okay, maybe it will still snow too and we can just have our documentary be about how to train a dogsled team,” Tommy says realizing how lame that sounds as the words escape his mouth. Although I try to convince myself this is just a bump in the road, it really does feel like a dead end. The vision of an action-packed, adrenaline-fuelled adventure film about dog mushing that had been lingering in the back of my mind since day one now seems completely impossible. Still, something has to be made.
The next morning I call Doug to schedule a time for an interview. He’s in New York at a cattle auction but tells me he’s going to be back home in the afternoon and that he’ll call me when he is back. I charge both cameras, the audio recorder and check out a tripod from the school Library before I go back to my room and wait for Doug’s call.
Its 3 o’clock and I find myself staring at my cell phone sitting on the desk in front of me. It finally rings but its not Doug, its my friend Kurt who asks me if I want to come to a BBQ and celebrate the warm weather. I tell him I’m waiting for Doug and I can’t make it – without mentioning how his ironic invitation puts me in an even worse a mood.
10 o’clock. I’ve wasted an entire afternoon waiting for this interview and listening to Doug’s answering machine, but Doug finally calls. He tells me he’s back and ready to be interviewed. I’m a little shocked when he adds that he can come over and meet on campus so we don’t have to drive over to his farm. I tell him to meet me outside the mead chapel bell tower, the most recognizable landmark on campus.
Ten minutes later Tommy and I watch as Doug’s pickup pulls into the parking lot outside our meeting place. We go to meet him before leading him across the quad to a little known room on campus simply known as the green room. The green room is not green as the name might suggest. It is the top floor of a tower with windows looking out on in all directions over the quiet lights of Middlebury at night. A few comfortable chairs surround a long mahogany desk. Doug sits in a chair, reaches into his bag and pulls out a thick stack of photos. He spreads them out over the table and begins telling us about each photo before we even have a chance to hit record on the camera. The photos are all of Doug and his son Casey competing at different dogsled races over the last thirty years. Each photo sparks a memory and along with it a new story that Doug shares with us. He tells us about when his son fractured his vertebrae after being ejected from a sled. He tells us about the time he smashed a competitor’s sled with the heel of his boot for running into his team during a race. He tells us about the strippers wearing skimpy clothing in negative twenty-degree weather somewhere in Canada. He tells us about the one-eyed Eskimo who mentored him in the early years.
Though I know the camera is not recording and none of these stories will make their way into the documentary, for the first time I begin to feel like I know Doug Butler. He is a man with stories to tell and when you respect someone the way I respect Doug, you’re thankful to listen.
We get to a photo of a team of dogs bounding directly at the camera. The lead dog’s face is the definition of determination. A younger version of Doug is mushing the team from behind. It is an incredible photo. Doug pauses on the photo and the air in the room changes. “That was Cable,” Doug finally says pointing to the lead dog, “That was the best Dog I ever owned.” For a moment it crosses my mind that Doug actually might start to cry, but after a moment, he begins again, trying to find the words to describe his best friend. But in the end, a picture is worth a thousand words and we sit, our eyes locked with Cable’s.
By the time Tommy and I get Doug sitting in front of the camera to ask him our first official question, we have already been talking for over an hour. Tommy and I have successfully warmed up our interviewee without even knowing it, but I’m scared Doug might be out of things to say. Still, I press the record button and Tommy asks his first question.
“So Doug, What makes a good race dog?”
“A dog with a big heart.” He responds with utter sincerity. With that answer, the tone of the rest of the interview is set and I know not only is Doug finished, but the movie can be saved. Tommy and Doug go back and fourth for the next hour as I sit back, enjoy Doug’s anecdotes and think of how to piece together his answers with the footage we have. When the interview finally draws to a close, we thank Doug for all his time and ask if we can photocopy some of his photo for the movie. “Of course,” he says. For the first time in a long time, I feel good about the documentary. I know my far fetched vision of the action-packed adventure movie is not where this film will wind up, but I’m more than okay with that. This movie is taking its own path and in the end, I have no doubt it will be better for it.
Doug leaves in his pickup and Tommy and I walk back to our room together. “Holy Shit, that could not have gone any better,” Tommy says to me.
“I know, that was pure gold. We have to have a final cut in two days to show everyone. Lets sleep tonight so we can edit all day tomorrow. I think we’ll be able to finish in time.”
The next day is busy. We have class in the morning, Tommy has his first game with the JV Hockey team, I have the IM soccer playoffs and we both have a meeting for the upcoming student orientation we are leading. By the time we start editing, its eight o’clock. Almost instantly we hit a wall. Neither of us know how the movie will flow, and we spend the next hour arguing about which scenes should be cut together and which parts of Doug’s hour long interview to extract. I finally give up and leave to go buy a burger across the street, leaving Tommy alone to edit. When I come back, Tommy has completely torn apart all the edits we have made together. His new approach is a much different style that flashes between video of the interview and footage of the Dogs training. It is a unique style, and I like it.
Proceed as the way opens – if you run into a wall, its time to break out the TNT.
The next six hours run like clockwork, and Tommy and I can’t seem to stop having ideas. I particularly enjoy the segment that shows Doug training his dogs to the energetic beat of the song “Country Roads” remixed by the group Pretty Lights. I wish we could have extended this longer but copyright issues prevent us from using more than 10 percent o the song. I vow to have a much bigger budget for my next video. At four in the morning we hit play from the beginning and watch our work unfold in front of us.
“It’s like 95% there.” I say when the credits begin rolling.
“Yeah, I know what you mean. There’s some ironing that needs to happen but it’s four, lets go home, we can finish this stuff in the morning.”
The next morning we decide that we need to get a few last shots with Doug to fill in the last remaining holes. We swing by Doug’s farm in hopes of seeing him feeding the dogs. When we pull up Doug is with a man in front of the barn, watching two tractors load hay into the back of a semi. When we get out of the car to greet him, he introduces the man as Casey, his son.
“Oh Casey, I’ve heard a lot about you from your old man, pleasure to meet you.” I say.
“Nice to meet ya too, I’ve heard a lot about you too,” Casey responds. I can’t tell if his remark is a good thing or a bad thing.
“You coming to see our movie tonight?” Tommy says.
“Yeah I heard about that, it depends on how much work I can get done here today though.”
Casey reminds me a lot of his father. His red hair, his sturdy build, and that same mustache. They even have matching boots.
Casey follows us over to the dog yard and watches us shoot a few funny shots of us with Doug and the dogs. When were done, we remind Doug of the screening at five, and of the open bar. We also have to write down directions to the restaurant where the screening is in downtown Middlebury, fifteen minutes down the road from his farm. I had assumed he would know all the restaurants in Middlebury after living here for so long, but now I’m starting to think that between his cows and his dogs, Doug does not get out much.
The final afternoon is a scramble for time as Tommy and I sit in the deserted media lab adding in the new footage and polishing our final draft. When four thirty rolls around we decide we need to be done. We save the video to a portable hard drive before getting into the car and driving to where we are movie is finally going to get its premier.
We park and walk into the restaurant where brick walls and dramatic lighting surround retro couches. I instantly feel underdressed. A long table in the middle is overflowing with warm finger food. I’m on my fifth dumpling when Doug walks in, accompanied by Casey. By now the room is filled with an eclectic mix of college students, teachers, hunters, adventure enthusiasts, filmmakers, townspeople just eating dinner and of course, dog mushers. “Hey Doug good to see you. Casey, glad you could make it,” I say to the father and son and we all find a table at the back of the room. Before long the lights are dimmed and the movies start rolling. The first movie was made by a classmate who shadowed another dog musher. When the first shots of the eight dog husky team trotting along hit the screen I look to Doug for his reaction. He glances at me skeptically with one eye raised and softly mutters,
“What the fuck is that?” All I can do is try to suppress my laughter as to not draw any attention to myself. If he didn’t know before, Doug now knows he runs the fastest team of any of the mushers in the room. He settles deeper into his chair and takes another pull of his beer.
Ten short films later I’m becoming impatient waiting for our movie to play, but when it finally does, I don’t even watch. Instead I find myself looking for any sort of reaction out of Doug. From the first fade in Doug has a grin on his face. When the dogs are first shown running at top speed, he can’t help from letting out a quick “Yeah baby.” When a particularly cute shot of one of his dogs hits the screen, I even hear a faint “Awwww.” When the movie finishes, Doug says nothing but simply shoots Tommy and I a smile and a nod before the next movie starts. Not until that moment did I realize how much Doug’s approval of the movie meant for me. Throughout the entire process, I had always though I was making a movie about dogsledding, but what I ended up with isn’t that at all- I ended up with a movie about Doug.
I am reminded of something our professor Peter Lourie told us early on in the semester, “People, people, people… People are what make a story interesting, people are what make your audience care.” I think I know what he means now.
When the last movie ends and the restaurant begins to empty out, the four of us sit at the bar talking about the movie.
“It didn’t have enough dogsledding.” Doug says.
“Doug, it didn’t have any dogslessing. We never went dogsledding.” I respond.
“Well were supposed to get snow next week, you guys will have to come film the team getting ready for the race in Canada at the end of February. You guys are around at the end of February right?”
“Yeah Doug, were sure as hell coming to that, we both know our movie isn’t finished yet.”