|Kathleen, sleeping on the job. Rommel isn't the greatest influence.|
|A proper Points Unknown greeting|
On being an inside outsider, way up north
by Kathleen Kimball-Baker
Writer | Editor | Certified Poop Scooper
Here’s the truth: mushers are control freaks. They’re constantly calibrating something: how much
kibble to feed per dog; which dog can run next to, in front of, behind of another dog; how hot is
it outside and what’s the humidity, and do those two numbers add up to a total number that is safe
enough for their dogs to cruise through.
Nothing gets past mushers. They survey their environs like military strategists or spies. They’re
thinking ahead, calculating risks, considering the worst-case scenario. Always. And they don’t
want people messing with their dogs without their permission. Ever.
And then there’s Linda Newman.
Safety first and foremost
I really like her. Not until my third visit to her kennel did she permit me to open a double-locked
kennel gate by myself to let out one of her extraordinary huskies for a romp in a double-secure
fenced-in play area. Linda shares her life with Hedlund Huskies, a line of big, agile freight sled
dogs from Alaska that are primitive in their looks and personality. Linda is part of a project to preserve
these special huskies. They’re bigger than the Alaskan Huskies that run races. And Linda doesn’t
race. She exemplifies a niche of mushing that tends to see less publicity than the racing side of
dog sledding, events like the famous Iditarod or Yukon Quest. Linda's goal is to engage the public
gently, to introduce people to the beauty and wonder of working with a team of smart dogs in the
landscape of a boreal forest — without having to enter the stress-filled grind of racing.
What Linda offers is an introduction to and immersion in "recreational" mushing. It's a way of dog
sledding that is accessible to more people than the public may realize. So Linda teaches newbies
and novices how to mush safely, with excellent technique, and how to build upon and advance those
skills. Then she takes them on adventures far into the woods to overnight in a remote cabin.
Her associates in this endeavor are the elegant Hedlund huskies. To the untrained eye, many of them
look like wolves: sinuous lines, big paws, wide angled faces, long snouts, coats that blend into
the woodlands. They’re observers who size up a situation before deciding how to act. They can come
across as aloof, but if and when they let you inside their world, it’s like earning admission to
the VIP suite of an exclusive sports arena.
In preparation for the liberty of unsupervised time with her dogs, Linda has observed my every
movement, the tenor of my voice when I speak to her dogs, where my eyes land, which direction I
open the gate (inwards to bring in food; outwards as a cue the dogs that they could come out),
whether I remember myriad details, in the right order, and how her dogs respond to me.
Linda’s the kind of person from whom I learn best: She’s confident, centered, patient, kind, not
dismissive of new ideas, and she doesn’t pull any punches. What you see is what you get, and her
intentions are honest and good. She wants you to succeed, she’ll break down the steps until you
understand the logic and can succeed. The slope of my learning curve, which reaches back to 2007,
resembles the electrocardiogram of someone with an erratic heart rate: a bunch of hummocks, a
sudden spike, scary dips, more hummocks, spikes, dips, flat lines -- in no predictable order. Linda
is helping me even out the slope.
Twice now, Linda has entrusted me with her dogs while she’s had to be away from her kennel. The
first time was in May when she was making a move from the outskirts of Minneapolis up north some
300 miles, into wild and wooly parts of Minnesota, almost to Canada. And the second time was this
month, at her new, magnificent homestead (more about this in part 2) that she and her Brit husband,
Neil, have chopped, chipped, shoveled, and plowed into their heavily forested acreage on the
Arrowhead Trail, 7 miles from Lake Superior as the crow flies.
For me, minding Linda’s kennel is like being on retreat – in the company of sled dogs. Divine, in
fact. It’s a time for introspection, muscles singing with exhaustion, senses awakened, fears faced.
You might think being off the grid in the middle of one of the nation’s most gorgeous forests would
be quiet. It’s anything but. True, you don’t often hear the steady swoosh of cars on roads or the concussive rush of air traffic overhead. But rarely are the woods silent. Especially with sled
Room with a view – and a sound ‘system’
Linda has a perfect view of her kennel from her desk. It’s positioned right by a row of tall
south-facing windows that are open to fragrant North Woods breezes. Through these windows comes a
progression of sounds with a predictable rhythm. And through those windows come sights that tempt a
person wax poetic. As the sky lightens, there’s a full-throated trill from a single song bird –
doo-daaa dootadootadootadoot. . . doo-daaa dootadootadootadoot. And the powerful and freewheeling
buzz of dragonflies swooping around the dog yard to feast on mosquitoes. And winds brushing leaves
against leaves and needles against needles in the tall canopy of birch trees and conifers. Stuff
you don’t hear in the city unless you try really hard to. And then there’s the stuff you don’t
typically see, like a “puddle” of yellow butterflies striped in black who’ve circled around a
fairy-sized pond, which is just a tiny depression in the gravel where I dumped water the day before
when I freshened up all the dog’s buckets. They beautified it.
And now, a dog stirs.
While I stayed at Points Unknown, Ryden was always the first up. And when Ryden is up, his kennel
mates will be soon. Ryden is an extrovert with a mind whose gears, I swear, are almost visible. He
likes a good challenge and someone else to play with him. Ryden’s snout is longer, almost collie like. He was born with an overbite and has required a lot of dental work to keep his bottom teeth from boring holes into his palate. But it makes him oh-so-handsome, a Humphrey Bogart of dogs, with a personality like a mix of Cary Grant charm and Hugh Grant silliness. He’s pretty irresistible. And White Feather, a fluffy husky
of pearlescent fur who is the focus of his attention right now, will not be able to resist him for
long. He wants her to get up and play with him. He’s relentlessly play-bowing and tilting his head
this way and that, pawing and poking her here and there, whining, yipping and yapping until she
finally responds in her languid way. Ryden’s getting to be a big boy, long torso, long legs, big
brown eyes that tilt upwards, but his demeanor is so puppy-like, you’re tempted to cut him some
slack when he’s slow to mind you.
It’s all about discipline
Linda, however, doesn’t allow such slack. She’s teaching me how to be in charge, despite my short
stature. She’s shown me how to straddle these big dogs, with their backs to something solid so they
can’t wiggle out, how to apply anti-fly goop to their ears and clip their nails. She’s modeled for
me how to grab the ruff of fur and loose skin along the back of their necks to direct them, like a
mama dog would a puppy. It’s kind of heady to be able to manage these 70+ pounders and have them
Linda takes her dogs as puppies to obedience classes. Honestly, I’ve never met such well-behaved
sled dogs. A lot of mushers believe you shouldn’t try to train out of them their natural instincts
of drive, exuberance, and pushiness. Linda’s dogs have shown me there’s another way. They’re submissive to her and respectful of the human in charge, but they’re not fearful, cowed, or intimidated. Neither are they unruly. They understand the rules, and it’s important to keep those rules consistent for their safety and own sense of security and to preserve an environment of mutual respect. Their personalities flourish in this
setting, and they have ample opportunity to free-run, work on social skills, perfect their peer-
to-peer manners, gang up playfully, and regroup. But they are not allowed to be aggressive. Period.
Case closed. Linda is helping me understand how to be the human force that ensures peace in this
potentially volatile interspecies milieu. I’m learning to be a constable – and a benevolent
dictator. It’s a strange role for a natural-born-and-nurtured people-pleaser. I like it.
Ryden is wily; he pushes the boundaries and he keeps me on my feet. I just love him for that. I’m
not sure White Feather is as entertained. But she engages him and there’s a growing stream of soft
growling, huffing, and tumbling. Soon, Journey, a pretty, smallish girl who looks the most like a
Siberian husky among this pack, wakes up and begins to mill around. Ryden plies his trade with her,
but she’s better at ignoring him than White Feather. And good ole Ilo, the alpha of this group,
gets up, too, stretches from atop a wooden house and has a look at the antics going on in the 4-dog
section of the kennel. He always seems to be smiling, quietly, like a kind and knowing uncle.
The other dogs follow suit, and soon enough there is the sound of water being slurped from full
plastic buckets and the reassuring murmurs of dogs greeting each other, moving about, and anticipating breakfast. And then they begin looking in my direction—in earnest.
That’s my cue. Time to stop observing. Time to deliver room service. I rather like the “tips” that
come with this service: happy faces, wagging tails, little canine “shouts” to hurry up.
One awesome off-the-grid home, the dog yard, more about each dog, daily chores,
mosquitoes, and a walk in the woods with the house dogs.