With me since 4/2013
On a steep hill at the end of a dirt road in VT, I could only pick two dogs. It was early in my mushing career and I was always cautious before adding dogs to the team. Objective analysis, and the advice of the musher, had me bringing home two of three sisters, and leaving behind one. A few months later, after realizing how strong and fast and capable her sisters were, I brought home the third sister: Wembley.
Within a week of her arrival, she slipped her collar and bolted. It was the middle of the day and I was at work. I came home to the empty collar hanging at the end of the chain. Dogs have gotten loose before, and it is a horrible feeling. It was my neighbor who spotted her six days later, and called me in my office. Armed with house dogs Quid and Plexico, only one leash, and a fistful of sliced ham, I rushed into the car.
Our standoff happened in the parking lot of the hospital in Berlin, which was roughly 10 miles away from home. It took three hours. It took four different hospital employees. It took all of the ham and a smooshed up whoopee pie. It rained on us. There was a shift change at one point and the parking lot was full of cars coming and going, confusion that risked pushing her into the woods.
But she stayed.
Then she sat down.
The parking lot emptied.
I was standing, still, when she just walked right up to me. I grabbed her and she didn’t move, didn’t flinch, didn’t try to flip away.
Most of my dogs who got loose like this, including Quid herself, let themselves be caught. There is a choice they make. A tipping point. It is a commitment to stay.
From that point on, I still treated her as if she would bolt, I didn’t trust her, she didn’t trust me, but ultimately we both needed to trust each other. Wembley trained that winter, and was an average team member. She ran in races, and barked at photographers. When we scratched in my first Can Am 250, Wembley, and her sisters, were all standing and ready for more. They were the only dogs that still looked good.
‘Put Wembley in lead,’ my friend Maria said, after the race was over and I was trying to move forward. Training leaders that year was tinged with failure, and thus the future of leadership for my team was looking pretty bleak. I had tried both of Wembley’s sisters in lead without great success, but had never put her up front. Why would I? She had run away and therefore was impossible to catch. She wasn’t the best sled dog. How could she be willing to lead? But, also, what did I have to lose?
So, on a short fun run in March, I put Wembley in lead.
With a wild click into place, with an electricity that ran from her harness to my hands on the sled, she exploded forward. The whole team followed. The whole team supported her. It was all I could do to hold on, the wind screaming against my face, the sky bright and blue. After the confusion of scratching from my first big race, on that morning I found hope as we flew around the trails with Wembley in lead.
Over the course of the next year, Wembley became a lead dog. She learned from Bayley about speed and drive, and she learned her commands from Bryn. Wembley led us that year to a surprising array of strong finishes: fourth in the Eagle Lake 100, third in the Wilderness 60, second in the Great Northwoods Sleddog Challenge, and leading us to the finish in our first Can Am 250. Some of this was the strength of the team, but a lot of it was the true arrival of Wembley.
Wembley was not a perfect dog. She consistently refused to lead when things were easy, such as ATV runs on a rail trail or the UP200. She was weird and spooky with people she didn’t know. She possessed a physical and mental strength that if turned against you was impossible to match or tame. She had an insane prey drive, once, when in lead, killing a porcupine dead and then seamlessly running the 10 miles back to the truck with a mouth full of quills, and also spending a lot of time stalking my sister’s cats. She could lead like a steering wheel but had no interest in being a single leader and was fairly picky about who she led with. She was ambivalent in the team unless paired with her half-brother House or Foreman.
But Wembley matched all of those things with an incredible athleticism, endless appetite, endurance, devotion, and wild intelligence. Her ears would peak forward as she made decisions in lead, and she always stood up from her straw. Videos of the team showed her loping at the front, driving the speed. At the 2018 Eagle Lake 100, a tough 110 miles of plowed road, overflow, ruts, sleet, and deep snow, she shot forward into every challenge as she led that entire race. In her last Can Am 250, where she had to put up with Inferno in lead for 100 miles, she came into that finish line with the biggest freaking grin, and then proceeded to bark at some misbehaving children.
In the spring of 2017, we had a few late season storms that kept snow in the higher elevations. I switched to a trail system we don’t use very often, and with small teams just started following random snowmobile tracks, going off trail. As the tracks got narrower, the intersections more unfamiliar, I usually had an idea of where we were, but there were times I wasn’t quite sure how we’d get back to the truck. Wembley, with Ariel, just went faster. Her ears and heart faced forward in search of the next turn.
Places like that, with lot of decisions and total control, was where Wembley was the best leader she could be. A mere whisper of a command and she’d take it, across ice, across plowed roads, from a groomed trail into unbroken snow, onto a single snowmachine track so we could loop around a field and back onto the trail. In new trails, I always wanted Wembley in lead because I knew we’d get back home safely.
The connection between Wembley and myself was a connection born and built in dark places, starting from a place where we really had to learn how to trust one another. She had to learn why she needed to stay, and I needed to learn why I could give her responsibility. Together, we learned. I became the musher I am now, with Wembley at my side and in front of the team.
At nine years old this year, Wembley was not going to be asked to race, no matter how much I wanted her to be on the race team. I did want to ask her to lead teams at times, in training, and help train new leaders. Ariel still had learning to do. Joan would be coming back in the spring. As Wembley despised ATV training, she only led a few runs and I only ran her a few times a week. During one run this fall I had thought about leaving her behind, but she smacked me and insisted on going. I backed her out of the team when the runs got longer, and removed her from the training log once we switched to December. She became a permanent house resident.
Wembley, also, was brewing her first batch of puppies, thanks to an accidental tie with Inferno. X-rays and ultrasounds showed a group of healthy puppies, we counted their spines and the rhythm of their heartbeats. Wembley, as well, was healthy, bursting to the front door as if she was not carrying a full litter of puppies, and at 5 weeks would bite at me to try to be loaded into the truck to run. The only sign of her giving in to her pregnancy was that she was more willing to lay down instead her usual steady pace of the kitchen. After years of trying to breed Wembley, I had known that she would only allow herself to be bred once she was done running. I watched her carefully, and fed and watered and walked her and brought her to the vet for checkups. I built her a new box for the front room.
Her death was sudden. She was alive one moment, and then gone the next, a crash in the next room alerting me that something had happened. It was the most hollow horrible sound I made when I found her and I knew she was dead. There was no space for my brain. There was only the wracking twisting vision-clouding confusion of sudden, inexplicable death. I carried her body, limp and slippery and heavy with milk and puppies, and vocalized myself through every step because I couldn’t think. ‘Open the door’ , ‘close the door’, ‘take off your hat’ ‘find your keys.’
I sat with her on the floor of the vet’s office and couldn’t stand up. I hadn’t seen her die. I couldn’t believe it. When I’ve sat with dogs as they die, breathing with the last breath, being there in the moment the life ends, that moment of bearing witness is what brings me back up off the floor. I still expected her to jump up, and look for the door. The pump of blood in my own fingers I still hoped would be the pump of blood in her body, despite the professional analysis of the vet and the nurse. Her body felt so warm, her muscles still so soft. The rigidity and steely strength that had always defined her was completely gone. My hands felt her smooth soft fur, and that spot behind her ears still smelled sweet. I touched her head, and then the puppies, and her head, and then the puppies. ‘I’m so sorry’, I kept saying. ‘I love you so much.’
Wembley possessed a strength that was more than her physicality. It was sourced in a deep and unique kind of rebellious nature, a raised eyebrow and a sharply delivered opinion. It was not just independence, for I have had independent dogs that simply require space to roam. Wembley was willing to turn her independence into strength, for the right person and the right team. When we would go for walks in the woods, Wembley would quickly turn around and come back to me, always, when I asked for her.
Wembley was only with me for five years, but she was a main leader for four of those five years. She and I traveled over 9,000 miles together, 1,800 of which were races and over 1,000 of which were her leading races. I could rely on her to lead some of the toughest miles, such as the entirety of two Can Am 250s. I respected her, and never put her in lead when things were too easy, and never put her in lead when we were going through the motions of putting in miles. Her race record is long, as she ran in every race team since 2014, and there have been a lot of races.
Thank you, Wembley. Thank you for the love, the respect, the leadership, and even the occasional chewed shoe. I had wanted so deeply to give you the gift of growing old, and give you more chances to boss around young dogs and feed you the rest of my popcorn. I have learned from you about how to build a dog team that works together, how trust leads to respect, and what it means to lead when things are hard.
‘If you suddenly and inexplicably feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is the way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyways, that’s often the case. Anyways, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.’—Mary Oliver.