On why it's called 'Training'
Every time we stopped, the dogs grew more frenetic, the pitch and tenor of their screams accelerated. They didn’t like stopping, especially so much in the first mile. They had had a few days off and were super-charged.
As I chopped and moved the trees, heavy and iced into the ground, it wasn’t the barking that bothered me but concern that Hilde or Nibbler would stop barking and start chewing. While I had brought my axe, as always, I didn’t have a rope to tie the ATV off to, so I worried also about the brakes giving way. When the dogs occasionally grew silent, I expected to see loose dogs running at me. I pushed those thoughts aside and focused on chopping trees efficiently and clearing a path.
Earlier this week, we had a surprise snowstorm. I say ‘surprise’ because while I expected it to snow, I didn’t expect it to accumulate too much nor stick around. A few branches came down around my house, but I had been downstate for work most of the week and hadn’t been in the woods. I probably could have predicted the downed trees, the bending under the weight of snow, and I probably should have checked out the trail ahead of time.
The ‘probably’ and ‘should’ thoughts can have multiple effects. It can destroy my confidence, my ability to move forward in the world, as I let myself get run ragged the more I beat myself up, placing myself in that prison of ‘shoulds.’
‘Well of course I should have checked the trail ahead of time.’
But those ‘shoulds’ don’t mean too much when standing in the middle of the woods by yourself, facing endless downed trees, with 17 barking screaming dogs behind you.
‘Well, we are going to go forward and finish this run. I’m not going to turn around because of trees. That’s why I carry an axe.’
It’s been a long time since I had to clear a swath of trail with an axe. In the past decade, it’s been a slow decline in how often I swing an axe. It’s been the occasional tree, or when I used to train my staff on how axes cut through trees. Most of my interaction these days with trees are them lying prone on the ground while I buck them for firewood, a slicing roaring saw in my hands, a slow move up and down instead of the pendulum swing of an axe.
The trees I had to remove weren’t large. They weren’t giant hardwoods, 12” in diameter. They were bent over tamaracks, that gave way quickly when I would angle the axe directly into the point of tension where the tree was bent. It just took a long time because there were so dang many of them. I rode with the axe in my lap.
As I focused on removing the trees, I became less focused on the dogs. I could hear Bolt and Hawkeye growling at each other. Gem, who was paired with Ariel in lead, is still learning how to hold out the team and I would often come back to the two of them a little bit twisted, not around each other, but around Fanzine and Egan behind them. I listened for Nibbler, Hilde and VooDoo’s voices, because as long as they were barking that meant they weren’t chewing.
Most of the trees were simply cleared out of the way, but towards the end we hit a true wall. I couldn’t see the daylight on the other side. At this point, it had been 45 minutes since we left the truck, and the dogs…were….loud. I sighed, unsheathed the axe, and walked up to the cluster.
I designed a swervy weavy route through that cluster, cutting out a tree here or a branch there, deciding which ones we could go under and which ones we could go around. While I was working on the cluster, I could hear male voices and an ATV on the other side, heard someone saying ‘oh my god’ in response to the trees down, or maybe to the barking dogs. I kept swinging the axe. No man, no person, was going to be able to help me. I had to get the team and myself out.
There was a path just wide enough for the ATV, and for the team. It would take decision making and confidence from Ariel, and from Gem, and indeed the entire 17 dog team, to navigate the maze. Other than Inferno picking up a large branch in his neckline, we made it through flawlessly.
The remaining 10 miles of the run were fairly straightforward. We had a few more trees, but only one required me cutting it out. However, the resonating impact of that rough start to the run echoed throughout the team. The social discord, my own frustration at having to stop so much, the dogs felt every second of that. They felt my frustration with knowing that we would be getting home late, as I would still have to load, drive, unload once the run was over. It took awhile for them to start working together as a team. I had to separate Bolt and Inferno, moving Bolt up and bringing Hilde back, as those two have occasionally not been getting along well this season and patience was thin among them.
At the end of the run, the dogs were tired. I was tired. My gloves were wet and I was dehydrated, even after I drank the water I brought.
When I get tired and hungry, I think of a quote I read once from the musher Tommy Bird, that ‘if you are hungry, the dogs are hungrier.’ Whatever I feel, I know they feel it too, with immediacy.
I cared for them all, rubbed the cuts on the tops of their toes and checked feet as I deharnessed them, checking the full musculature of every dog that had shown a weird gait during the run. 10 miles in new snow with overflow, ice and mud is hard on dogs in October.
One of my early mentors said to me once, when I had talked about things that had gone wrong during a training run, ‘that’s why we call it training.’
Sure, I can control and set up scenarios to have the desired training impact. Pick trails with intersections or hills, or open water or ice. All of that does little to train myself, train that mindset. I also know myself too well that I can’t just ‘switch’ emotions on or off, that I would be lying to myself, and to the dogs, if I tried. I have to let myself be frustrated, and accept it, and stand up again and blaze the trail forward. For, if I am hungry and the dogs are hungrier, that means also that if I am frustrated, the dogs are even more so.
And that’s why we call it training. And this is how we build a team.