His body language indicates he is trying to calm himself (licking his nose). He did remain very calm.
On Tuesday we hooked up eight dogs to head out and explore the lake and hoped to set a new trail. We were prepared to be out for quite some time and to take it slow and help the dogs through the snow drifts and slush. We had done it many times before while spending winters on Gunflint Lake so the dogs were familiar with these conditions and we welcomed the challenge. What we found shortly after our take off, made the slush on Gunflint Lake pale in comparison.
The run began well. Phoenix and Tuloon took the first command out of the chute and began to take us around the island before we headed south and under the railroad bridge. As we began to approach the bridge, the snow depths rose above the dogs shoulders and they were swimming in it. I began to push from my position on the back of the sled runners to help them with their arduous task. I could see that there was some frustration building up amongst the dogs and I wanted to lessen the load. Phoenix slacked for a split second to shake off the snow and Oken, who had displayed great disappointment and protested at take off that he was not in lead, caught up with him and a fight ensued. This is so unlike my dogs that I knew the going had to be tough. Rebecca instantly jumped out of the sled to stand back on the brake while I waded through the snow to break up the argument. It didn't take long to do and there was no harm done. We rested a moment, wrote the incident off to frustration, hugged the dogs after a stern reprimand for fighting and decided to continue our mission of trail breaking.
Once under the bridge, it was apparent we were not dealing with anything I had seen on Gunflint Lake. The drifts were neck deep to a person and in between two drifts and under the bridge was glare ice then open water about 2 feet deep. After traversing the first drift, I glanced up and noticed that Ilo's leg was wrapped around the gang line and he was struggling. If I were to stop at that moment, the lead dogs would continue to pull with full strength up the snow drift on the opposing side and Ilo's leg could be dislocated and/or badly injured so I allowed the gang line to go lose while I planned my intervention. At the same time, the leaders were over the snow drift, however Oken was somehow pinned up against the drift and Ilo, vulnerable as he was, collided with Oken who was also in a compromised position. Two otherwise calm and non aggressive dogs can easily be brought to a fight or flight mentality when placed under such circumstance and another fight ensued because "flight" was not an option. This one required quite a lot more time to break up as Ilo was also now tangled around Zala's harness and we had just a plain mess on our hands. Rebecca was holding the sled and it was secure as I walked up the line to untangle our mess.
After struggling to remove, untangle and separate, both dogs appeared to be fine other than come puncture wounds on Ilo's face which were not life threatening. Both dogs looked physically worn out and the entire team looked emotionally affected by our very short and very eventful run so we would turn the team around the first chance we could get. Once around the bend and out from under the bridge, we finally reached a patch of snow where I was able to hold the sled securely while Rebecca ran up, attached a neckline to the leaders then lead them on a wide circle back and to the right. We didn't need any more pile ups and since emotions were high, it was necessary that they received some assistance for this "gee come" (come back to the right) turn. While doing so, we hit a pocket of slush so deep that once the dogs were heading back in the right direction, we literally water skied for the next 20 feet and I could not feel the bottom.
We rounded the bend and now had to go under the bridge again. Even though frazzled by the recent events, I've learned over the years that it is necessary to remain calm and appear unaffected for the dogs' sake as they soak up their musher's emotions and then react to them. I praised the dogs like crazy as we up the first snow drift then under the bridge. The next snow drift had us already tipped almost over and to the left but I knew we could not tip, because the sled would be swung to the left on what would be glare ice under the bridge and we would both knock our heads on the bridge pilings as we went under. Rebecca and I leaned so far to the right that my boots came in contact only on the edge of the runner as my body hung off to try and stabilize and she was almost out of the sled on her lean. Somehow we did it and remained upright as we passed under the bridge. The dogs had no idea what was taking place and were only concerned about heading home.
The remainder of the run went as though nothing had happened. The dogs seemed happy to be out on the trail and appeared to have forgotten the earlier events. We stopped to praise them and enjoyed the remainder of our short run back home.
Each dog received some extra attention as we removed them from the gang line. Walking Oken past Phoenix uncovered some unresolved resentment so we spent some time with the two boys next to each other trying to remove the "charge" which did eventually go away. I assessed Ilo's face and determined that I was too tired to try to find the staple gun and do a proper job of fixing him so I called the vet. We had a scheduled visit a couple days from then for White Feather and Topa to receive their Rabies boosters so I hoped we could just bring everyone in at the same time and save a visit.
Ilo's wounds were deeper than I had realized and he needed a few stitches so I'm happy I opted for professional care versus my own potentially less thorough fix. Topa watched intensely as Ilo got his stitches and was quick to comfort him when he came off the table. I'm sure she was hoping she wasn't next. We brought Wimzi along as well, for the ride. She hadn't been weighed for a couple months and we were curious since she is a such a tank. SIXTY pounds! She is officially the largest female in the kennel. And there's not an ounce of extra fat on her heavy frame.
Our day ended with Ilo and Journey in the house, sitting on the couch with us and the little dogs, being thankful that our adventure earlier in the day hadn't turned out worse. Journey needed some attention as Zodiak had taken his frustration out on her during our run and punctured her ear. We reflected on what we could have and will do differently in the future should something like this happen again. What a loss if we can't gain some knowledge from the unfortunate incident. We'll now take a few days off so that the dogs can settle back in and wind down. We've been working on eliminating any bad feelings between the dogs involved and we'll set the next run up to be a light and simple one to help build more positive experiences before we challenge them like this again.