Just the Other Day: The Sled Dog Wannabe

June Bug has an appointment with her veterinarian this week. Even though we’ve been in northern Minnesota for over five years, I still take her back to Ottumwa, Iowa, to Thomas Vet Clinic. Dr. Kylee has been taking care of June, since she was a puppy. To clarify, that’s since June was a puppy, not Kylee. However, I must say, Dr. Kylee was just a little girl when her Dad, Dr. John Thomas, was taking care of my previous dog, Harry.


Years later, when we moved to Minnesota, we established a relationship with the Ely Vet Clinic to treat our cats, Salem and Eve. When Edgar joined our family, we took him to Ely for shots, check- ups and such.  We certainly feel a loyalty to both clinics, so June goes to Iowa and Edgar goes to Ely.


Dr. Jenn Freking, at Ely, is a great vet and such an interesting person. She and her husband, Blake, raise and train sled dogs. Both have dog teams and compete in dog sled races and events. If you’ve never looked into mushing, you should. There is a special bond between a musher and their dogs that is very heart warming.


I’ve shown June online pictures and videos of Edgar’s vet, Jenn, and her family, working with their dogs. June is fascinated by it all and assures me, “Dad, I could do that. I want to be a sled dog, too.”


I gave her a rub on the head. “You can’t be a sled dog I need you to travel with me. You’re my driving buddy. Besides, I’m not sure you know what the word ‘woah’ means.” We shared a pretty good laugh about that.


On a recent trip, June and I took advantage of a good night’s rest while pulled over in the mountains. When I let her out in the morning, a blast of cold air rushed in the open door. After we ate breakfast, I put on my coat for our morning walk. In just the length of the van, I knew I would need warmer clothing and we climbed back inside. The thermometer on the dashboard read -11 degrees. I decided we would walk later, when it was warmer and started driving south on US Highway 20.


Two and a half hours later, we turned off on Highway 33 for Rexburg, Idaho. We stopped to get coffee. When I stepped out of the van, the air felt great! The wind was very light and the sun was shining, making it feel much warmer than the actual temperature of 9 degrees. “Wanna go for a walk, Bugs?” June wiggled her body and wagged her tail; her head moved back and forth like a bobble head doll. She was excited to get out for a stroll.

I had never paid much attention to Rexburg. Hosting the Idaho campus of Brigham Young University, the town is quite nice and very well kept. June and I noted how clean the sidewalks were and clear of ice and snow. I set a timer on my phone – I wanted to walk out 15 minutes and back the same to get our thirty-minute walk. In the brisk air we set out walking on North 2nd East Street; an odd name for a street, but who am I to judge. After a couple blocks west, we came upon a paved walking path and followed it alongside the Teton River. The setting was beautiful.


Water rushing over rocks in the river, created white rapids on top of the water that looked tropical green. But the color was deceptive. You could tell the water was clean and very cold. The tropical feeling was enhanced because I was very warm – almost too warm. I loosened the top of my coat and pushed my hood back to let some heat out. Trees along the trail seemed to block what little breeze there was. Part of my warmth was coming from the sun and part from June on her leash, who was pulling me along.


When walking on a leash, June has three speeds; very brisk, fast and faster! Sometimes we will pretend she is a sled dog – a team of one, pulling her sled-less musher along behind. June keeps me on a good pace for exercising.


I started making whip noises, “Wwha-kish, wwahkish! Come on girl, show me what ya got!” June knew what I was doing and started pulling a bit harder. My walk became a jog, then we ran for a while. “Whoa, June, slow down girl!” I called ahead, pulling back on the leash to slow her pace. We were coming up on an intersection. The trail continued straight ahead, or we could take the walk bridge to the left, crossing the river.


We opted to turn left. After the fast run, I was ready for a little break and slowed down to take in the beauty of the river, the blue skies and everything all around me.  Very warm now, I lowered the zipper on my coat a bit more. June tugged on the leash, “Come on, Dad! Let’s go, the other sled teams are going to catch up to us!”


I imagined the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon; an annual race from Duluth to Grand Portage, Minnesota. Blake Freking won the race last year, his wife, Jennifer, (Edgar’s Veterinarian) came in second place. I looked behind us, they weren’t even in sight, yet. “June, you have to learn from the real mushers. We have to pace ourselves accordingly to finish the race.”  June looked at me with disdain, as if to say we ARE real mushers. “Okay, Bugs, let’s go a little faster.”


The trail took us alongside a large open field, then led to another city street, West 2nd North Street. That’s an odd name for street, but who am I to judge. A bit puzzled, June asked, “Didn’t we start on second street?”  I explained, that was a different Second street. June insisted, “Are you sure, because…”


I interrupted her, “You pull the sled and let me navigate, okay?” Although June is an excellent navigator, she was good with that and we turned north on the sidewalk. Across the big open field was a waterpark, Rexburg Rapids at Riverside Park.  It looked like a pretty fun place…for the summer months.


The sidewalk took me across the end of the waterpark driveway, which wasn’t well plowed, but why should a waterpark driveway be plowed in the winter months?  The opening had that gritty, coarse mixture of snow and sand where cars have driven through – the stuff that doesn’t pack tight. As I walked into it, I could feel it was very icy and slippery under my feet. I was trying to get June to slow down for me, due to my unsure footing.


Just then, June saw a rabbit. “Oh God, no!” I prayed and yelled at her, “No June!” In her excitement to quickly switch modes from a well-disciplined sled dog to a great hunter, she was confused. Did he say, “No June, Woah June, or Go June?” It didn’t matter what I said, she heard “Go June,” and began a hot pursuit.


June lunged toward the furry critter with lucky feet. Reaching the end of her leash, it jerked her backwards and also gave me a good tug forward. Without steady footing, my sneakers slid out from under me and I went down to the pavement. I managed to get to my hands and knees. With my bare hands in the dirty snow, I held the leash tightly in my right hand and started to get up. June lunged toward the rabbit again when I was almost upright, taking me down again. This time I managed to fall backwards into the fresh clean snow at the edge of the field. Trying to get up and hold the leash, I seemed to move more into the field before falling flat on my back yet again.


In the mayhem, my hat came off. The snow was really cold on my somewhat bald head. The hood on my jacket was down, which allowed snow to reach my bare neck. Brrr.  Something was pulling on my right arm strong enough to spin me in the snow – it was the confounded dog on the other end of the leash.


When a water skier goes down, it is important to let go of the tow rope otherwise it will pull them under the water. I was afraid if I let go of the leash, I may never see that dog again. I held on tightly.


As she continued trying to go after the rabbit, June dragged me, snow plowed down my neck into the back of my shirt. Apparently, my coat had worked up during the fall as the seat of my pants was taking on snow as well. Snow was working its way up each pant leg. I wondered if this is what it feels like to be caught inside an avalanche.  Laying on my back in the snow, holding onto the leash for dear life, I yelled, “June! Leave it!”


The tension on the leash eased as I laid still in the snow, trying to figure out what just happened. The leash began to recoil.  I heard June running toward me; like a Saint Bernard coming to rescue the distressed man buried in the snow slide. Help was on the way.


June charged into the field of snow, but she wasn’t there to save me. Seeing me down, she assumed I wanted to play and started jumping in the snow around me and over my body, kicking snow in my face and now down the front of my open coat and shirt as well. “June! Stop!” Finally getting the point, I wasn’t playing, she sat and rested – on my chest, and began licking the snow off my face. “Stop it!”


Still sitting on my chest, she stopped licking me and looked down at me. “Why are you laying in the snow, Dad?” I scoffed and gave her a dirty look. “Are you making snow angels?”


“Do I look like I’m making snow angels?” I growled. “Get off me.”


Sitting in the snow next to me, June offered, “If you can’t get up, I could pull you back to the van. Just hang on tight to the leash.”


“You’re not funny, dog!” Sitting in the snow, I took off one shoe at a time to shake out as much snow as I could. “Sled dogs do NOT chase rabbits!” I put my other shoe back on, then got up from the snow to brush myself off. The snow in my shoes had partially melted. My feet were wet and getting cold. We needed to get back to the van; our walk was over.


Ironically, as I stood up, my alarm sounded. I reached into my snow-packed rear pocket and pulled out my flip phone. I brushed the white stuff away and silenced the alarm; our fifteen minutes had passed. I zipped my coat all the way up, picked up my hat, shaking off the snow and put it back on my head. I reached in my coat pockets, looking for my gloves, but all I found was more snow. The gloves were nowhere to be found. We started walking south, back to the van.


As we turned from the sidewalk back onto the trail, the light wind from the west was in my face. Even a light wind is really cold when you’re wet. I pulled the hood back onto my head over my stocking hat and pulled the sleeves downward to cover my hands.


June walked ahead of me. She is a good navigator. It’s amazing how she knows exactly where we came from. When we came to it, she turned left onto the bridge. On the other end, she turned right onto the path taking me back to the van. I stopped long enough to pick up my gloves on the paved trail. Apparently, they fell out of my pockets when we were doing our “dogsled run.” I struggled to push my cold, wet hands, into the gloves.


June looked like she was shaking. I called her to me to make sure her paws weren’t too cold. Hmfph. She wasn’t cold – she wasn’t even shivering. She was still laughing at me. “Not funny, June!” She continued to lead the way. The wind seemed to be picking up a bit, making it even colder. From the time I spent down in the snow, my wet cheeks were nearly frozen and my face was cold, too!


There was tension on the leash as June pulled me along. Occasionally, she paused, looking back to assure I was still with her. I thought to myself, except for the rabbit issue, she really would be a good sled dog. I started making whip noises, “Wwha-kish, wwah-kish! Come on girl, show me what ya got!”