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Test driving a dog sled: hang on and enjoy

By / January 29, 1985



Wasilla, Alaska

``Whooee,'' Lloyd Haessler shouted in greeting. The clearly relieved Mr. Haessler, an elfin legend of sled-dog breeding, hadn't been able to tactfully ask me over the phone if I was too chunky for his dog team to haul.

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What dimensions he was imagining, I'll never know, because just a short time later, ``Al,'' a medium-sized, husky-like animal who defines the term ``raring to go,'' clearly demonstrated that with my hand hooked to his collar he could drag me into the woods pronto, no problem.

It's Haessler's notion that you can't fully understand the beauty of sled dogs until you've driven them yourself. So on this arctic winter day I had to hitch up three dogs for a ride.

The Haesslers' yard here, 63 miles up the Parks Highway from Anchorage, has 29 occupied dog houses and a pen full of 13 pups. Many in the yard are destined for new owners in the United States and overseas, who have come here for good lead dogs for 25 years. Today, Al, Blondie Boy, and Nomey are destined for me.

``There's no reins, like a horse,'' Haessler explains. ``It's only voice commands. So if you don't have a good lead dog, he's liable to take you to the boonies.'' Al, he assures me, is an obedient lead dog, even if he is named after a rascally newspaper reporter from Anchorage.

The yard is full of the yips and whines of dogs who want to hit the trail. The ones not unchained from their stakes this day are disappointed, howling with their muzzles raised to the arctic sky.

The chosen ones can't contain their excitement as they eagerly wiggle into their mesh harnesses, licking happily at any flesh that comes near them. Hitching the dogs up is a very exacting art: All dogs must remain tied to a stake after being attached to the tow line, and care must be taken to keep them from getting tangled around one anothers' neck lines and tug lines (the fore and aft connections to the tow line). Remaining vertical in the ankle-deep snow while maneuvering around hundreds of pounds of canine excitement could be the toughest part of sledding.

Haessler notes that the word ``mush'' is never used. He whispers to me, `` `OK' makes 'em go. So don't say OK, OK?''

I respond eagerly, ``OK!'' Haessler winces. But the dogs go nowhere. `` `Gee' means right and `Haw' means left,'' he says, handing me crib-sheet mittens with the gee and haw commands inked on the appropriate sides. `` `Whoa' means whoa,'' he says, showing me the foot brake between the rear runners.

``Just hang on around the turns,'' he calls out as we head off down a packed trail, my team following Haessler's. The only sound in the woods is the ``shoosh'' of the sled.

Soon Haessler has pulled out of sight, and I'm alone with the dogs and the wilderness. Al moves determinedly ahead, but his partners behind have slack in the line, meaning they aren't pulling their share. I try to encourage them, shouting, ``OK, let's go!'' No response. I deepen my voice and yell again. I look around, embarrassed -- is there anyone around who can hear me? Still no response. I yell ``gee'' and ``haw,'' and ``whoa.'' Still no change of pace.

So I hang on and enjoy the ride, learning quickly that if I hadn't known how to ski, I'd be flying involuntarily over the two-foot banks of snow on every turn.

Suddenly the dogs move into double-time, and I wonder if they've seen the moose that left some tracks across the trail. No, they've glimpsed the house -- we've come full circle, and they're ready for chow.