MUSHING WITH DOUG
Pebbles crunch under the weight of our car as we turn off the paved road. Before us lies a beautiful farm. Complete with aged barns, a white clapboard house, and black-white dairy cows, it is a familiar sight in central Vermont. Two men stand in front of a teal-colored building watching our approach. I roll down my window as the car comes to a stop.
“Are we in the right place?”
“I dunno, are ya?”
“Are you Doug?”
“Yeah, did you bring me coffee?”
“Hmmmm. Remember where I told you you’ll end up if you fuck up, right?”
“Uh huh.” His grimace stretches into a big toothy smile as he sticks out his hand and laughs, “I’m Doug, nice to meet you.”
As I step out of the car, I grasp Doug’s callused hand and look up. He is a tall and broad man, dressed in a plain well-worn blue sweater, jeans, and boots. His face is gently wrinkled and weathered, punctuated by deep blue eyes, unruly auburn-grey hair, and a thick mustache. He is a captivating presence, and I don’t realize the strength of his grip until I release my throbbing hand from his. Doug turns and meets my pal Tito, and we are promptly renamed, “come on TNT, let’s go see the dogs, they’re just down the road.” We follow Doug to his ruby red pickup, sit three across in the cab, and listen as he begins to tell us his story.
Doug is a dog musher, and a serious one at that. His love affair with the sport began one Sunday afternoon in 1977 when he went to his first dog race in Shelburne, VT. The next day, Doug found and bought a five-dog team in the classifieds. Since then, his stock of dogs has swelled to fifty, and he has become one of the most competitive racers on the US-Canadian circuit. In the truck he recalls old war stories of besting Quebecois, millionaires, and hicks alike on circuit. From the fire in his voice and the spark in his eyes it is clear that he is excited to share his passion with us.
Our short drive down the road from the farm is over as we pull into the driveway of a small maroon house. I open the cab door, and a deafening chorus of barking erupts. Fifty beasts, big, small, yellow, black, and spotted, come alive. They pace and bark, whimper and howl, their chains clinking and buckling as they run around in circles. A chest-high chicken wire fence contains them and their doghouses, identical in every way. Made out of plywood, they are lined up in rows, spaced out just enough to allow someone to walk between them, but not enough to avoid getting nipped. Amidst the raucous blend of sound I half-jokingly ask Doug if he knows all the dogs by name. “Oh yeah,” he says with a grin. I don’t quite believe him – Tito and I already have the same name.
Doug’s dogs may look like mutts, but the majority of them have a very specific and celebrated genealogy. Their bloodlines date back decades to the first crossbreeding of Siberian huskies and German shorthair pointers from the US. The endurance of the huskies and the agility of the pointers create, as Doug says, “the perfect combination of power and speed.”
Doug turns and walks towards the dogs, his wiry amber hair flowing in the wind behind him. He grabs one particularly loud dog by the collar,
“This one is named Asshole.”
“Because he’s notorious for beating the piss out of other dogs.” I look into Asshole’s piercing ice-blue eyes as his white teeth emerge from dark lips in a growl. Doug senses my apprehension and tries to ease my worries. “Oh, but he’s just a big sweetheart to people,” he says as Asshole jumps into his arms for a big bear hug.
“Come on boys, I’ll show you how to put the harnesses on.”
Doug grabs a big green bucket from his ATV and lugs it to the line of doghouses. He grabs the nearest dog by the collar as it spins around its chain. The dog immediately settles down. He unhooks the dog’s chain, grabs a blue racing harness from the bucket, and slips it on. “You see how I did that?” Tito and I exchange unsure glances. When we look back, Doug is holding out two identical harnesses with a big smile, “now you boys go do it.”
After the harnesses change hands, Doug reaches for a clipboard hanging on the chicken wire fence. Scribbled in black ink are today’s lineups. Scanning the paper, Doug assigns me to a “brown and black looking dog” named Twister. I am to hook him up to the “right point” position (one space back from the lead dog, on the right side of the gang-line).
“Why’s he named Twister?” I ask.
“Oh you’ll find out” Doug chuckles, pen in hand, already reworking the line-up.
I walk up to Twister who is sitting on top of his doghouse. He is surprisingly calm – no barking, no pacing, no nipping. Grabbing him by the collar I guide him down to the ground and slip on his harness. Easy. We start to walk towards the gang-line, and Twister drives his haunches forward in anticipation of the run. It takes two hands to keep control. I get him in the “right point” position and go to attach his collar to the chain. Almost on cue, Twister explains his namesake by beginning to spin in place. He doesn’t run away, but just keeps on twisting, yipping as he chases his tail. I turn to look to Doug for help. He comes over, laughing, and forcefully spins Twister around and hooks him in. He offers some advice, “Don’t be afraid to be tough with these dogs. Remember, you’re the boss.”
Eventually the team is ready. Well, the team minus Tito and me. We are breathless and sweating beneath our heavy jackets. The dogs heave forward against their chains, jumping, barking, and frothing at the mouth – locked in a tug-of-war battle with the parked ATV. Tito and I exchange a wide-eyed glance, as our minds ask the same question: “What the hell did we get ourselves into?”
Doug hops limberly onto the ATV and starts it up. He’s got his dog mushing gear on now – blue coveralls, blue sweater with the hood up and pulled tight, and a giant pair of John Deere shooting glasses. “Hop on boys!” he yells over the roar of the dogs and the ATV. Before I can throw an arm around Tito for any remote sense of safety, we take off.
To run their dogs year round, mushers have adopted a training method that doesn’t require snow. They hook each dog’s harness to a gang-line made out of high-grade aircraft cable and attach it to an ATV by a bungee cord. Doug then drives behind the dogs at a slightly slower speed than the dogs are running. This resistance simulates the pulling of a real sled.
On this makeshift mechanical dogsled, we power forward. I‘m pulled backwards and my stomach drops. In seconds, the dogs reach their top speed of 23mph. Doug quickly puts this familiar feeling into words:
“YEEEEEHAWWW IF THIS DON’T GIVE YOU A HARD-ON NOTHIN’ WILL!”
The training loop that Doug uses is eight miles, a distance that will be extended as the season moves along and the dogs become better conditioned. The trail goes through fields, along dirt roads, and even the main paved road in front of Doug’s farm. The look on the face of an unsuspecting runner is priceless.
Around mile four, we hear the muffled sound of music. Doug unzips his coveralls and reaches into a breast pocket. He pulls out a cell phone, and we hear his “Smoke on the Water” ringtone. He flips open the phone, checks the number, and greets the person on the other end:
“What’d you fuck up this time?”
Doug has to yell to be heard over the growling ATV.
“Well we gotta get that tractor fixed before the feed comes tomorrow”
Doug owns and operates a 600-cow dairy farm. That’s large for Vermont standards, where the average farm has 130. Dairy farming is an exceptionally difficult profession, and it takes exceptional management skills to be successful. Doug ensures he makes a profit by controlling product from creation to market, “It costs me $1.40 to produce a gallon of milk, but I’ve got to sell that gallon for at least $1.60 to make a considerable profit.”
Recently, to produce another source of income, Doug has expanded his business to include beef cattle. He has analyzed the cost per day to feed the cow versus the amount of weight the animal puts on. This precise cost analysis at the most basic level allows Doug to make a profit.
This profit, however, is never at the expense of his product or his animals health, “We use no hormones, none of that stuff. We’re as close to organic as you can be without being official.” I noticed as Tito and I walked around the barn that the dairy cows acted almost like pets, licking you, nudging you as you walked around their pens. This is a result of Doug’s care for them, “these animals are treated right, no hitting, no nothing. You’ve got to take care of them, and they’ll take care of you.” This philosophy extends to each cow, the stray kittens around the barn, and most of all his dogs.
Back on the ATV around mile 7, one of the dogs named Teardrop begins to struggle. The gravel road tears at the soft pads beneath her feet. Doug tries to coax her on, but his words are useless. After another hundred yards, Teardrop collapses. Doug slams on the brakes of the ATV, gently unhooks the dog from the gang-line, and places her in my lap. “I’m so sorry Teardrop” Doug says with a frown. We round the final turn and stop in front of the dog yard. Doug grabs Teardrop from me and carries her to her doghouse. He sits there for a while. On the ground, with the dog on his lap, he comforts her and inspects her paws for a good five minutes. “I think we’ll have to retire her for the season. Sucks, she’s a good dog.”
The dogs are all back in their houses except for one – Peanut. She is a small, sweet, grey-and-white dog who is quickly becoming my favorite. She barks and wags her tail as I approach her on the gang-line.
Peanut was given to Doug from a fellow musher a few weeks back. Since Doug uses a double-lead system (two dogs in front), he’s been looking for another dog that works well with Asshole. This has been tough, because he intimidates most other dogs. But one day, Doug decided to give the little Peanut a try. Amazingly, Peanut fought back when the big Asshole tried to intimidate her. For the rest of the run, Asshole kept to himself while Peanut ran her heart out.
“That’s on hell of a dog,” says Doug.
With everything cleaned up and put away at the dog yard, our first day of training is over. I have learned a ton, and have gotten my first glimpse into the world of competitive dog racing. Before today, I had a very romantic view of dogsledding in my mind – Siberian huskies running great distances across a snowy Alaskan backdrop. It was a sport I had only seen through the lens of a National Geographic cameraman, so when sixteen skinny mutts attached to a growling ATV took off down a snowless dirt road, I was quickly brought back to the gritty reality of things. Now, with my feet firmly grounded in the basics of the sport, I am excited and ready to continue.
Our second day of training begins much like our first. Pulling into the farm, Doug greets us, asks if we have any coffee for him, and is disappointed once again. But there’s one main difference – Tito and I have changed. Driving home yesterday, the car was overpowered by the stench of dog feces on our clothes. We had seen some of the workers wearing single-piece garments that protected them from the filth. So after scouring the area asking around for “farmer jumpsuits,” we found a store that sold what we really needed – jean coveralls. Doug checks out our new get-ups, “Whad’ya know, you boys are startin’ to look like real farmers.”
Feeling a little less out of place, we climb back into Doug’s red pickup and drive down the road to see the dogs. On the drive down I realize the hilarity of the location. The property is a half-mile down the road from Doug’s farmhouse. That’s far enough for Doug not to hear his own dogs barking, but much closer to six other houses.
We get out of the truck and Doug tells me to pull the ATV out of the shed and to attach the gang-line to it. Yesterday he explained how to use the dirty lime-green machine, but I didn’t think I would actually have to drive it. I climb on the ATV and manage to start it and put it in reverse. But where’s the throttle? I step on a pedal – nothing. I twist the handle like a motorcycle – nothing. Looking over my shoulder, I try to find Doug for help, but he has disappeared. Doug is the kind of guy who shows you how to do something once, so I have to figure this one out on my own. But I just can’t do it. I step down from the ATV in defeat and see a guy dressed in well-worn tan coveralls approaching me. With a smile acknowledging my struggle, he shows me the throttle underneath the handlebar.
“Thanks man, I’m Tommy,” I say as I stick out my hand
“Mike. Nice to meet ya” he replies with a thick Vermont accent
Mike is one of Doug’s seven employees. Aside from working on the farm, he also helps Doug take care of the dogs. He’s only 26, but the deep lines on his face suggest otherwise. He has a scraggly short beard and unkempt dark brown hair. His deep-set, sorrowful blue eyes speak to his life. Mike has seven kids, with an eighth on the way. Working a near-minimum wage job on the farm is hardly enough to support his family, but he manages to get by. Doug helps out all he can, giving him “half days” during the winter months (7:00am to 7:00pm instead of 5:00am to 9:00pm) and paying him generously. “It’s tough,” explains Doug, “Those guys count on me to have a good year, and if I don’t its hard to pay them enough.”
Mike grabs the big green bucket of harnesses and assigns me to a few dogs. Today I am more comfortable with them, and them with me. As a result, the process is a lot smoother, and I start to see their personalities. Dee likes to hide in her house, but when I sit down and gently call her name, she comes out timidly and lies on my lap as I harness her. Muffin is a “lover” as Mike says, and she’ll get in as many licks on my face as possible. Holliday is a big dumb yellow dog, his droopy tongue always out of his mouth. Peanut is a little dog with a big personality, and Twister still loves to twist. And wouldn’t you know it, Doug turns out to be right – Asshole is the biggest sweetheart of them all. He buries his head in my arms as I harness him, and I don’t even have to hold his collar as we walk to the lead dog spot.
Comfortable now on the ATV, my perception of the dogs deepens as I begin to take an interest in the effectiveness of the team. During training, Doug must continually rotate dogs in and out of the 1st and 2nd teams in order to find the perfect winning combo. This requires a daily analysis of each dog’s performance. With Doug’s help, I begin to see some of the dogs in this analytical way.
Peanut and Asshole are out front charging. They are focused and keep the team on course, however they need to learn to run on the right side of the trail to avoid collisions with other teams. Behind the lead dogs I recognize the yellow Holliday. He leans across the gang-line from time to time, kissing the dog next to him. He may be dumb, but boy he can run. The line connecting his harness to the gang-line looks like its about to break. Muffin is on the team today. She’s not the strongest runner, but Doug puts her there to keep the big Cougar under control. His rationale?
“Cougar’s got one hell of a crush on Muffin.”
I notice two identical black dogs running in the wheel position (1st in front of the ATV). They are perfectly in sync, both their lines taught.
“Who are those two?” I ask
“Those are the Psycho brothers. Aren’t they somethin’?”
We finish up training for the day. Tito puts the ATV back in the shed, and I put some of the more difficult dogs back in their kennels. I begin to realize that many of the dogs share the same characteristics – ice blue eyes, black coat, with touches of white on the muzzle. Asking Doug about these similarities, he explains that they are related to the same dog. A dog named Cable.
Now Doug has had hundreds of dogs over his thirty-five years of racing but Cable, he says, “was different.” He was Doug’s pride and joy – and the leader of his winning team for eight years. Though Cable didn’t look like the typical dominant lead dog, he possessed one characteristic that Doug values more than strong legs and a sharp mind. “He had a big heart. A heart of gold.” Doug’s voice cracks as he continues, “He was so determined. God, he was such a good dog.” Doug has bred that heart into the stock of 50 dogs that make up his rotating race team.
I would learn later in the month from Doug’s son that Cable died the week before Tito and I arrived. He was fourteen years old, retired and sick, but Doug kept him around the yard and the farm till the end. Doug was heartbroken after the loss of his best friend, but it seems that now, more than ever, he is determined to achieve his life’s goal.
The Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship is a 3-day, 75-mile sprint race in Anchorage, Alaska. Known as “The Rondy” to many, it is the single most competitive sprint-dog race in existence. The race starts and finishes in downtown Anchorage, with 21 miles of bike and ski trails in-between. The competition is tough, the course unforgiving, and the weather brutal. It’s all Doug’s dream, and he plans to make it a reality as soon as he and his team are ready.
The truth is, Doug has been preparing for this race for 35 years. Over that time, he has become a skilled musher, and has raised and bred hundreds of dogs to create a winning team. Finally, he and his dogs are almost ready. All he needs now is a new lead dog.
“The key is those leaders. Doesn’t matter how good your team is, without great leaders you can’t win.”
Asshole is aging, and doesn’t have the endurance for a race like the Rondy. However he maintains a crucial role. Doug hopes to put younger energetic dogs, like Holliday, in lead with Asshole so that they may learn from the expert and build their confidence.
But Doug is also aging. His amber hair is turning grey, and the lines on his face show the years. I asked him one day if he ever thought of quitting. His response was simple and direct – “that’s for old people.” Though Doug may be shying away from the reality of things, he has one characteristic that I believe will keep him going till the day he dies. It is a characteristic more valuable than a fit body, more valuable than being young. It motivates him every day, and explains his undying love for the sport. It is a characteristic that will get Doug to the starting line of the Fur Rendezvous. Doug, like his dogs, has a big heart.