Posts Tagged ‘dog sled’

Duff, dog sled, and death

March 9, 2015

I wouldn’t mind being the Duff
Had my leader charisma enough
Mine did, for sure,
Though there was no cure,
He was courageous, kind, brilliant and tough.

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, travelled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. After three years working with a Community Health Center, I am back having adventures in temporary positions until they have an Electronic Medical Record System (EMR) I can get along with. Right now I’m in Nome, Alaska.

I find the Gold Coast Cinema here in Nome so unique that I saw The Duff, a teen angst genre film.  The title refers to the Designated Ugly Fat Friend; while not necessarily fat or ugly, to qualify as a Duff one can’t be as attractive as one’s friends.  Find a clique, you will find a Duff. Not a surprise  though  we don’t like to think that human groups have pecking orders.  If you have an alpha, you must have someone lower on the hierarchy, and the one at the bottom, the omega, becomes the Duff.  In my experience, and in the movie, the Duff has more IQ points than the hot friends. 
The script pointed out that for every measure of social desirability (looks, strength, money, power), someone always occupies a higher position.  Thus the omega depends on the alpha as much as the alpha depends on the omega.
Taking the sled dog ride I bought at the Nome Preschool annual fundraising auction, today I learned more about sled dogs than just their hierarchies..
Tom, the musher who donated the item, picked me up on a very clear, very cold day, and brought me to his home 15 miles north of town.  Of course I quizzed him on the sport.
Working dogs are happy dogs.  Most come from the Alaska Husky breed, which lacks AKC credentials.  A team usually starts with 12.  As the years have gone on, the race has ended more quickly and the dogs do better physically.  While mushing, these animal ultra-athletes will eat the equivalent of 22 Big Macs a day.  Deciding to run the Iditarod requires a 3 month commitment and a huge monetary investment.  A good long-distance dog trots rather than gallops, in a smooth, level-back gait.
The lead dogs, furthest from the musher, have standing in the hierarchy, but must make a lot of decisions.  The next pair back, in the swing position, have the responsibility for making sure the turns aren’t made too sharply.  The pair closest to the sled, the wheel dogs, take a lot of jarring from pulling, and females have more resilience than males.  Most dogs prefer the other, team positions between the front and the back.
Tom kindly surveyed my gear, gave me toe warmers for my socks, and lent me a seal skin hat and a balaclava.  He let me mush on the return trip.
The immense work in dog sledding comes from maintenance of the team; just yelling HIKE was pretty easy compared to harnessing the canines.  Learning to keep the tug line (that nylon rope that connects to the sled) came easily.  I found my short ride in a dog sled exhilarating, in a primal way difficult to describe, and very cold.  At the end, despite my arctic grade layers, the cold had sapped most of my energy.
When I returned I learned a friend had died.  An excellent physician, a good husband, and a devoted father, he taught me a great deal about leaving judgment out of my day, and, in the process, having more energy and getting better clinical results.  My tears lasted a short time, we had watched this event approaching for years.
He led the team by example, he kept us focused on the clinic’s mission, and, in the process, kept us believing in it.  His charisma bound the group together and prevented us from breaking under terrible strain.  His guidance, hard work, and good, sound personal advice brought light to my three years at the Community Health Center. I admired his intense personal courage, maintaining a strong work ethic and a sunny countenance in the face of terrible disease.
With a leader like that, I never objected to not having the lead dog or alpha position.  I wouldn’t have minded being his Duff.

Technically, I’m still an anthropologist, but I don’t want to sound like one

August 12, 2010

I feel so high on the hog

Though Denali was hidden in fog

     A bull, cow, and calf moose   

     Were out on the loose,

And we watched a fivesome of dog.

We took our time at breakfast in the town outside of Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley) National Park.  I had the opportunity to speak a few words of Russian to one of the waiters, who comes from Moldova.

My acquaintance with the Russian language came when Tashkent immigrants arrived in Sioux City.  My pronunciation of a few words is very good, but I don’t speak the language.

In the park we took the Natural History tour.  From a distance of a couple of kilometers we saw a bull moose with antlers large enough to see with the naked eye.  We also saw a cow moose with a calf at heel which crossed the road thirty meters in front of us.  For a very short time the peak of Denali poked out from behind the clouds. 

At the turnaround we listened to an Athabascan Native talk about being a subsistence hunter inside the park.  She comes from a village of 30 people with cable and Internet but no school; the young people go to Fairbanks.

She opened and closed her talk in her own language.  My third language, Navajo, is in the Athabascan family but the only things I recognized were the possessives. 

What I really wanted to do was to ask about her language (one of eleven Alaskan Athabascan languages) and her clan structure, but I didn’t want to sound like an anthropologist.  Which, technically, I am, even if no one pays me for it.

We returned to the cluster of buildings near the Park Entrance, and boarded the bus for the Dog Sled Demo.

Denali is the last National Park to use working dog sleds. Park rules forbid motorized traffic past park roads, and dog sleds provide the means to patrol an area the size of Massachusetts in the winter.  The Park Rangers breed, train, and handle the dogs. 

In the winter, they use three teams of ten dogs each.  No one goes out alone, which leaves at least one team resting at all times. 

The dog handlers seem like very happy people.  The dogs themselves are very happy, mellow animals.  I could see their eagerness to work as they were being hitched up to the sled. 

Jen, the Ranger in charge of the dogs and the dog lecture, said that the dogs were happy working, and happy during summer vacation.

Of course I thought of myself.  I love my work, but I’m enjoying the heck out of my vacation.  As a generality (which means exceptions exist) people are happiest when they get regular vacations from work that they love.

At the restaurant Bethany and I split a “scoop” (really two)of chocolate ice cream.  I said, grinning, “This is lush.”

Bethany said, “We had cheese and crackers that we packed ourselves, and a scoop of ice cream.  That’s lush?”

“Maybe,” I said, “It feels lush because I’m not in a hurry.  But it sure feels lush.  Posh.  De luxe.” (I made  the last one rhyme with ‘three kooks.’)

We fell into conversation with two couples who had attended the dog demo.  One couple left Denver in mid July and drove all the way, the other pair had left San Diego; they met in Oregon.  Having been happy in their work, they are happy in their retirement.

Happiness is something you bring with you, it’s not something you find when you go looking for it. 

I’m a family practitioner on sabbatical from Sioux City, while my  one-year, thirty mile non compete clause expires.