Clark leading the team in 2001.
The early snow had covered the canyon and close to the top, near the Pondtown area, only one truck had driven up the road in the 24 inches of white stuff that had fallen on the ground.
There was my son and I, behind a team of dogs being pulled up the mountain in the dying sunlight of a short December day. We found a place where the roads diverged and I got out of the basket of our sled as he turned the 10 huffing and puffing dogs around so we could head back down to Tucker and link up with our truck for a ride home.
As with any sport, dog sledding has its good days and its bad. Today had it had a mix of both.
On a good day, we get out on a all skate day with blue skies, perfect snow, and dogs that are in the mood to pull hard. We feel the spray and of the dusting of snow above our heads as the team tears through the fluff for 30 miles of exhilerating speed.
On a bad day, dogs get into scuffles, become obstinant and sleds fall apart.
I have found that a dogs attitude is a direct reflection of the sled driver. If you are negative, they will be negative. If you remain positive through adversity, things will turn out okay.
It's just like every other sport I have ever participated in.
But just like every other sport there is also tragedy. The career ending injury; the dog that despite good breeding and a powerful body, mentally just doesn't want to pull.
Or the dog that gets sick and never recovers his or her capabilities and drive.
And then there is death.
Anyone who has ever owned an animal for any length of time knows about this part of bonding with a species besides our own. Some take it in stride. For others it is traumatic.
Growing up on a dairy farm, death for me was just part of the business. Hardened old farmers and ranchers are used to cattle dying and horses having to be put out of their misery. But dogs, even to these guys, are generally different. They're not called man's best friend for nothing.
Even my dad, who was a grisled and tan old farmer, would get a tear in his eye when one of the many barnyard dogs we owned would be found dead in their doghouse or on the road where some piece of machinery killed them as it buzzed down the highway.
Death in a sport is the ultimate let down. The football player who collapses on the field from a failed heart; the race car driver who doesn't make the turn and never walks away; the fisherman who doesn't come home and his boat is found capsized in a lake.
In the animal world, sporting injuries or weaknesses usually don't end well. A knee breaking injury that ends the career of a star basketball player is tragic. However he can still go on and do something else. But for sporting animals they generally have one talent in life; to jump, to pull, to run.
One of those feats is their claim to fame. They have no college degree to fall back on. They lose their ability to do the only thing they know how to do. If they are lucky they have a master who takes care of them in their diminished state until their days naturally end. In other circles, a lame animal is a dead animal.
That day on the trail had been one of those days where the good and the bad had come together. My son's truck had blown one of its hubs in the snow trying to get out of my driveway. Consequently we took my truck. At the beginning of the sled adventure for the day we ran a newly purchased touring sled into a cattle guard, ripping off part of the frame and nearly taking off my leg. After that my son lost his cell phone somewhere along the trail. We counted; one, two, three. Things come in threes, so we knew things would get better.
And they did for almost the entire ride of 20 miles. As we whizzed down the canyon the dogs seemed to have more strength than ever, despite a constant 10 mile climb on the way up. All the dogs were pulling like maniacs and in fact we had to fight hard to keep the sled on the trail they were whipping us around corners so fast.
When huskies are running and pulling they have a look on their face that can only be described as ecstasy. And these 10 dogs were in that frame of mind.
Once in awhile when dogs are running fast and one gets tired he or she will just stop. Sometimes they even lay down in the snow and get pulled a little ways to tell us they want a rest. And so we stop, unhook them from the team and let them ride in the sled for a bit. Some take to this tactic too well. They learn that a dip in the snow means a ride home and then they start to make a habit of it.
As the sun was dying in the west, we came down the canyon and could see our truck in the distance. It was at that point that Clark, one of our best pullers, quit. He laid down in the snow and we stopped. I jumped out of the basket to unhook him but he just laid there as his nine teammates looked on.
Clark was always kind of an enigma. He would hide in his doghouse when we fed him or watered him. He would hide there when we came in to check on him. He would hide there when we would go out to sled, and we would have to lift the top off his house to latch onto him and take him to the truck. But once in harness he changed his identity; kind of a Dr. Jekyle and Mr. Hyde of sled dogs. Maybe even Clark Kent as I sometimes called him. The harness made him lose his secret identity. He had a huge drive to pull. But like a star player he would sometimes act like he was hurt to give everyone a rest for a few minutes on the field of competition.
But on this day there was no act. Here was only death.
Kneeling over him, I recognized he had stopped breathing; I saw his lips turn blue. He had no pulse. His heart, the heart of a competitor without bounds, had quit. He had died a thousand feet from a soft straw bed and a ride home to his warm familiar doghouse.
My son cried as we put him on the sled and traveled to the truck. I tried everything I could to stop the tears coming from both of us. I said all the right things there and on the way home.
The atmosphere was subdued at the kennel as we put away the other dogs. They know when one of their number passes away. When a dog dies in his sleep I can almost tell by the way the other dogs are acting before I even discover the body. But todays death had come not during a canine dream about running through a field of snow, but while really doing it.
My son took Clark and buried him alongside Dakota, his first beloved sled dog. With tears still in his eyes, I left him standing on the back porch of his house.
And then I had my chance to bawl, as I drove home in the dark, thinking about that knothead we had loved so much.
Today I hold his grandchildren in my arms and see him everytime one of them licks my face or nuzzles my neck. Only one of the four is a male, but I can see they all have that big Clark heart; one that will make them great sled dogs, as well as great companions.
They are a true tribute to a great animal that gave his all until the end.