Mushing is always an adventure.
Sometimes it is the kind of adventure you’d prefer not to have.
Today started off on sort of the wrong foot anyway when Shawn called me with a flat tire and a ticking clock for them to get to work. Perhaps we should have just given up then and gone back to bed. Perhaps bed would have been the most “Onward” for us today. But we didn’t quite know that yet.
Shenanigans with the tire ensued; eventually, after three car shops and many hours, it was resolved. The afternoon, for me, was actually pretty productive. I managed to accomplish some work (that whole “day job” thing), and chipped away at more projects around the house. This, that, and the other. I was feeling good; I was feeling up.
Sarah had friends over to help her complete one of the toughest stages of her yurt construction. Then they had a grilled cheese party. I made myself a quick sandwich and wrapped it in foil and stuck it in an insulated back for an on-the-trail picnic. I was excited to get on the quad. Mushing day in and out has brought me closer to the team, as it should be. Getting out on the trail feels peaceful and right. Also as it should be.
Four and a half miles from home– exactly half way into our run– we turned a sharp corner. Ophelia and Belle were helming the lead. It was the first time they’d led together and they both have strong personalities– So I wasn’t sure how it would go. So far, it had been phenomenal. These dogs were maybe the two best dogs on the team, at this point. Probably my two best leaders. They were kicking butt and taking names.
As we turned this sharp corner (I remember it like it was slow motion) I saw the line bunch up, and as I came around the bend, I could see that the team was piled up on top of each other. Shit, I thought, Belle and Ophelia decided to go at it for the millisecond I couldn’t see them. It seemed unusual though, they way they were piling on each other– I’ve seen many fights like that before, in other situations. Never with my girls. But dogs are dogs and fights are always possible. I yelled at them to quit it, and started to stop (remember this was slow motion still), and then I saw a horrible sight.
Ophelia was jumping straight up in the air like a fox, but her face was full of white barbs and she was throwing her head back like she was being shocked over and over.
And so was the rest of the team.
They’d run over a porcupine.
Or maybe they tried to eat this porcupine. I don’t know.
What I know is that the team was horrifically tangled and included in their tangle was a creature half Sundance’s size, shooting my dogs full of quills.
The dogs were in pain; confused; angry; frantic. They tangled themselves more thoroughly and somehow the porcupine got free. Maybe I pulled the dogs off it, maybe. I don’t even remember getting up to the dogs but I was among them, in the middle of the tangle, when the bastard waddled off to the side of the trail, threatening all of us. The dogs still full of instinct to bite it back. The ones who hadn’t met its attack only hyped and curious and trying to pull the quad forward to get this weird beast. I yelled at the porcupine; I tried to threatened it with big gestures. The porcupine was not threatened. It raised its quills at me and I remembered in some recess of my mind that the quills could be shot out, or maybe I made that up. I realized the porcupine wasn’t going to give ground, that we had to get by it. I ran back to the quad and I slipped in the mud and caught myself on my right thumb, jambing it fully backwards. Fuck. I scrambled up and told the tangle of dogs we had to go we had to go come on Ophelia come on Belle let’s go let’s go and I revved the quad with my alarmingly non-functional thumb (use the palm of your hand instead!) and we lumbered past the porcupine as it lumbered away.
As soon as we got by it I stopped the quad again and jumped off and ran to my dogs. We were as far from the house as we could be on this run, no shortcuts available. No service on my phone. My dogs were full of quills, crying, trying to dig them out of their faces. They looked like they had gathered a thick hoar frost around their faces, especially the front of the team.
The tangle was bad, and only made worse by the leaders who were so covered in quills they couldn’t orient themselves, much less line out.
Somehow Annie, in swing, had managed to come through relatively unscathed. I switched her up front, put Belle (who maybe had the worst of it) further back. I debated– should I try to carry someone? That would take more time, it wouldn’t work, and who out of all these dogs would I pick? I only had one options, a sucky option, but the only one. We had to get home FAST.
In my untangling, Rogue and Aurora became free and I just let them go, because I knew they’d stick close. I debated letting everyone free but decided that was too many variables. With Aurora and Rogue running gleefully ahead (both seeming to forget that their muzzles were be-poked with many quills), the team felt motivated to focus on forward instead of on all these jabbing needles. Ophelia rallied in a way that made my love and admiration for her bloom even stronger that I thought possible. This was an incredible dog. All of them.
When I mush I mush slow. We go slow and steady and keep a sedate pace. I never use the gas on the four wheeler. The dogs pull the quad themselves, in gear.
There was no pulling now. I drove and the dogs ran. I drove as fast as the dogs would go. By general mushing standards, it wasn’t that fast (about 12 mph at our fastest moments), but for us it was pure speed.
I thought about pulling into a neighbor’s yard, which would be closer than the house. But I thought, no, that will create a bigger problem. I need to be home where I can address this.
As the dogs ran, loping full out, I held my cell phone in the air, trying to grab bars of service. The moment I had anything (not even one bar, just the 4G symbol!), I texted my friend Amanda, who had just been telling me of her own misadventures with quills this summer. Somehow, miraculously, the text got through, and Amanda dropped everything and said she’d be over immediately. Just as quick as that, the service was gone again.
We roared over hills and through puddles. My thumb was screaming but it was a very small pain against the pain of the whole team. I put that little pain aside and we went.
Finally there was another bar of service. I called Shawn, who was obviously asleep, from their voice. “Is everything okay?” they mumbled. “No, not okay. We ran into a porcupine. I need you guys to be ready the second we get home. We should be back in fifteen minutes.”
One of my favorite things about Shawn is that they are really good in an emergency. I know I can rely on them. That’s huge. I called again a few moments later to tell them that Rogue and Aurora were loose and to look out for them. They said, “Okay,” and they said, “We’re ready for you.”
I met Amanda half a mile before home on the road. She let me zoom in front of her, the team doing an impression of a group of sprinting pin cushions. When we pulled in. Sarah and her dad and Shawn and Sarah’s gentleman caller Nick were all waiting. We parked and immediately began triaging.
I think, ultimately, eight dogs got quilled. The back half of the team was mercifully unscathed. I will be checking them thoroughly and regularly, you can be sure.
The front half of the team had wildly different luck.
Amanda, Eric (Sarah’s dad), and I worked on the dogs for maybe and hour. Aliy Zirkle left an important in-town matter of her own to get to Two Rivers in record time. Our neighbors and friends were immediately there when we asked, without question. It was humbling.
We piled the worst dogs– those with major face, and especially wrist and/or chest quills– into the dog house and onto the “dog shelves” where they sleep when it’s exceptionally cold out. Amanda showed me how to pull the quills from the bottom, so they wouldn’t break.
The dogs were confused and in pain, and they didn’t understand why we were hurting them as we tried to remove the quills. Apparently much worse has been had, but not to my dogs.
At last, after the very worst of the dogs proved most likely un workable at home, we knew it was vet time. Shawn, Sarah, and Nick piled into the Subaru (the very same flat-tired one from earlier!)(but now fixed) along with Rebel, Sundance, Belle, Ophelia, and Marnie. All of the dogs had taken a calming pill and it was having its effect– until we tried to pull quills. They were fine with the car ride though. I admire those folks for diving full-throatedly into riding in a car full of quills.
Meanwhile, Eric was also giving his all. I found out as we worked on Aurora and Annie that Eric planned to drive south towards home– starting in the morning! I apologized for the sleep he was missing, but he claimed it was a good last adventure.
Amanda, Eric, and I finished the quill removal on the ones who didn’t have it as bad. Meanwhile, the crew heading to the vet made it in and sent me texts to update me on their condition.
The vet would have to put each dog under to remove the quills. This was definitely a good call. Even with some various “pro” techniques in play, we just couldn’t win the war against those five.
Once the at home removal was complete, I prepared Todd and set out on our maiden Fairbanks voyage since getting the new box.
At the vet, Padee, Sarah, Nick, and Shawn and I hung out, had a picnic of chips, watched Rebel and a couple others piddle their pants, and received and talked to and cuddled dogs returning from the procedure. The dogs were out cold, their tongues hanging out of their mouths like cartoons.
It took four or five hours all told.
I am so damn grateful. For Shawn, for Sarah, for family and helpers. For everyone in Two Rivers who didn’t look twice about dropping anything or everything to help.
And mostly I’m grateful for my dogs. Incredible, goofy creatures.
The five who went in are still definiely sore. We’ll have to keep a razer eye on them.
I owe them that,
Now the five are splayed out inside, sleeping tight. Ophelia is on a dog bed, where she belongs. The other dogs are on the dog shelves, curled up and passed out.
It’s been a really hard, long day.
It is definitely time, now, for “Onward” to be bed.
I don’t know how the future will be. I don’t know how recovery wil go for them.
I know I love them. I know if that porcupine came back i’d fight it tooth and nail.
These are my guys.
Well, this year they are all girls.
But they are my team. I’d walk over fire for them.
We’ll heal. We’ll rest. (Shawn’s alarm is going off for their work day– I haven’t slept yet). I’ll be here on my couch with the dogs.
And soon enough, we’ll go back to the beautiful open skies like tonight. The streaming aurora. We’ll howl to the moon and run under the stars. We will keep going. It might take some time, but we will.