Thursday, January 3, 2008

Close to the Earth

Becky, the sleddog

I spent the first day of 2008 with one of my favorite people: Jan Shaw.

Jan is straight-forward. If she needs help, she’ll ask for it; self-sufficient, and well-acclimated to a life that isn’t easy, if offered help she doesn’t need, she’ll come out and tell you this, too. She is quick to praise dogs and people, but without a change in tone, she’ll scold just as quickly. She is quiet, with quick, blue eyes and a generous spirit. Jan and Bob have been running dogs for about as long as I’ve been alive.

Jan leads me into the barn to look over three sleds and decide which one I should use on our run today. There is a wheelbarrow at the entrance of the barn full of caribou bones and a small basket of dead red squirrel. Behind three dogsleds is a fishing boat. Bob is originally a fisherman before musher. It is then that Jan says, “you know I’m going to scold you,” looking up at me with her blue eyes. She is referring to my losing the team after falling in the water pit the other day. “Are you ready for me to scold you?”

“Yes, go ahead, I deserve it,” I reply.

She explains the real dangers that go with losing a team, and it involves much more than the danger of being stranded in arctic temperatures. Dogs can go off the trail, getting tangled, stuck, breaking the sled or get hurt. Worse, they can get in dog fights and even be killed. What’s more, I didn’t know the trail system, and it was a very good thing it was 15 degrees instead of 15 below. And I was lucky snowmobilers were there to catch my team.

I hang my head in shame. I know all of this is true. Once she says her peace, however, we move on.

We hook up three teams: first, who Jan calls the oldtimers, Cedar, Rusty, and my two dogs. Jan leads me with the snow machine the whole time. In the final run, we hook up Becky and Zoe, two of my favorite dogs from the Shaw kennel. Becky is smaller in size, and prefers to be cozied up inside the house than outside. In fact, when I unhook her from her doghouse, she immediately runs to the backdoor, expecting to be let in rather than to run. I coax her to the line, but once hooked up, she runs with such a joyful, expressive gait, it makes me laugh out loud to watch her. She resembles a coyote, with long legs and delicate facial features. She smiles often, revealing her huge canine teeth. She bounds along the trail when she runs, smiling all the while, and it is a thrill to see her run.

Zoe, the sleddog

After each run, the dogs get a snack of venison scraps, thrown to them while they’re still on the line. Then, I help Jan feed. Her dogs are fed very well. Their broth is a concoction of venison and warm water, and they each get two cups of high performance kibble along with the broth. Additionally, they each receive a vitamin E supplement, a fiber supplement of psillium and flax seed, and a multi-vitamin. The old timers get an additional glucosamine supplement. The dogs wolf it all down graciously.

When we come in, Phil, his wife Lisa and their son Dale are inside. The house is warm and still full of Christmas décor. I sit by the register under a blanket, thankful for the heat.

Phil is tall and thin with blue eyes and shaggy salt & pepper hair. He has a thick northern accent, drawing out all “o” sounds, saying “out” like “oot.” He takes his hat on and off repeatedly, but as we sit down for a bear roast dinner, he takes it off altogether, reverence for his hosts. Bob slices through the bear meat on the platter in front of him. It glistens with fat and is reddish brown and rich in color. Must have been a late bear.

Over dinner, the talk is of a recent caribou hunting trip to Quebec. Phil talks of roasting caribou “on the hoof,” and of the many caribou they saw in the tundra.

After dinner, Helga, one of the older white dogs, comes in to lick the bear plate clean. Jan, Lisa and I do dishes while the men sit talking of the upcoming Tahquamenon race.

I think as I leave about what good people the Shaws are. Many of the people I’ve met in the U.P. encapsulate qualities I admire. They are hearty, wading through knee-deep snow to feed over twenty dogs or hunt caribou. They are strong survivors who live close to the earth, to animals and life cycles.

As I leave, the snow is still flying. It zooms toward my windshield, my headlights creating a hollow tunnel in the white darkness.

I wonder, as I drive, about what it feels like to shoot a bear or caribou.

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