…Continued from Part 1
At first, Champ led the team like a regular rookie, with lots of enthusiasm followed by bewilderment, and then fear. Most rookies get over the confused stage quickly, but sometimes the fear of leading your peers takes quite a while to overcome. It’s not natural for a youngster who is the lowest in the hierarchy, to be running in front of the adults. In a young malamutes mind, it’s not how things work. He’s supposed to be following them. But the fact is an adult doesn’t care who is leading them as long as they’re doing what they love to do. Although Champ was uncomfortable in lead and periodically glanced at me with concerned eyes, he still kept plodding along with Farmer and Shorty.
Champ on the left with Shorty in the middle, and Farmer on the right
When we traveled higher in elevation the snow became thigh deep and that’s when everything changed. This is when a leader’s fears get tossed aside, because now I’m the leader breaking trail on snowshoes in front of the team. So the lead dog doesn’t have to worry because he’s just another team member, and his only concern is keeping up with me and everyone behind him is soon forgotten.
The dogs love it when I lead. As soon as they see me unlash the snowshoes from the sled they howl like there’s no tomorrow. It’s very strange. It seems to be more natural for them to be led, but it makes sense because according to early explorers’ historical accounts the Inuit didn’t have leaders per se. They led the teams themselves, the same way I do.
Champ is on the right and showing what he’s made of.
Yet, when we are traveling in relatively good snow conditions or on the sea ice, I allow my leaders to lead and I am either riding, or walking beside the sleds. But they are most enthusiastic when I am in lead. Nonetheless, their speed doesn’t differ very much whether they are following me, or they are traveling on their own, which tells me a person’s walking pace is probably the most comfortable speed for them. If the historical records are accurate, it would explain why malamutes prefer a slow pace.
However, a small, light weight, and narrower bodied malamute will travel faster than a big heavy guy. For example, a team of 80 lbs., narrow built malamutes are going to average a slightly faster pace than a team of 100 lbs. malamutes. So, if I have one small leader along with a couple of big leaders, and we’re traveling on a trail, hard pack snow, or sea ice, the small leader will speed up the team’s pace a little, but not enough to cause discomfort to the heavier freighters. This is one of the reasons why I chose Champ for a future leader. He’s lighter and smaller boned than my current leaders, Farmer and Shorty. So he will increase the team’s pace while traveling on hard pack or sea ice. But, on the same token Champ will travel the same pace as the larger leaders when we are breaking trail in deeper snow, and this is where the iron will and intelligence come into play.
A lead dog has to figure out how to bust through chest deep snow and keep ahead of the team. A smart and determined dog will try several different methods until he succeeds. Most dogs try to hop at first, but this exhausts them quickly. Then they try other techniques, like plowing through with their chest, or they develop a sort of swimming movement, both of which work well. If a dog has the mental stamina and a strong will he will figure out what works best for him. Shorty, for example, has found a creative way to kick her front legs out like she’s marching to bust through deep powder snow. She has relatively short legs so this works well for her.
When the going gets tough, Champ gets going.
But the most important characteristic for a good trail breaker is a dog’s body width. The width gives them stability and allows them to plow through deep powder. Some dogs may have all the components to be great leaders, like a wide body, strength, passion, and intelligence, but still they cannot keep ahead of the team when the conditions get tough. The element that they are lacking is an iron will.
A dog’s will, or tough mindedness, is a paramount characteristic for a leader. Often it takes several years for a dog to develop this trait and sometimes they never do. I have found that it’s a characteristic that can be passed down genetically, and most northern sled dog breeds carry it.
Champ comes from a lineage of great leaders going back when my lead dog Mitch had guided me and the team over the Continental Divide over two decades ago. When I had selected Champ to lead and replace Bear, whom has retired, I was counting on these leader traits to prevail. Sure enough, after two months of encouragement and additional coaching from Farmer and Shorty, Champ was breaking trail like an old pro.
Now, Champ is lying outside my window as the sun is creeping back over the horizon. He’s probably wondering why winter had passed so quickly, and wishing he was still leading the team across the treeless Arctic landscape under the green glow of the aurora. Bear, Champ’s grandfather, is lying beside him, relaxed and content on the cool moss under a swaying spruce tree and probably also wishing winter’s frost was in the air. But Bear figures at his older age he cannot possibly be expected to lead the team like he once had and recognizes his leader’s position is passed on to Champ. I bet Bear is wondering if his grandson will follow in his footsteps and become capable of safely guiding the team through blizzards, and if he will learn to navigate by wind direction on the sea ice. Or maybe Bear is wondering if Champ will be strong enough to break trail over the Continental Divide and have the courage to stand his guard against threatening wolves like he had when he was young. I’m confident Champ will be like his grandfather in every way and carry on the family tradition. After all, he’s Champ!