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A history with sled dogs

Ann Swanson

When my son was growing up, we had a white German Shephard. It was not the ideal dog since we lived on a farm. That beautiful white fur was often covered with grease or animal waste depending on where she was.

When I went to the hospital to have a baby the dog refused to eat. I had been the one who fed her although she spent most of the day with my husband at the barn.

She instantly bonded with the new baby. If he was outdoors, she was right there. As he got bigger, he liked to sit on her back. She took it for a while, then gently eased herself out dumping him out on the ground.

They were great buddies. If he wandered in the barn, she was at his side to keep him safe. There is a home movie of them in the barn when it was being remodeled. My son was petting the cows and the dog was standing nearby.

When we moved up the road to Hickory Heights, of course, the dog moved with us. Now, she rode on the four-wheeler to get to the barn. She was only at home when Dick was.

Todd came home from school all excited one day about a story that they read in school. The story was about working dogs. He thought Duchess would make a great sled dog so he began training her. He made a harness out of baler twine.

Since Duchess was his buddy, she tolerated all the fittings necessary to secure the harness. All was well until he fastened the harness to my wooden runner-sled. Duchess took off pulling the sled without him on it. No matter what he did he could not get her to pull him. He soon abandoned that idea.

On my first trip to Alaska I took an excursion to a sled dog training facility. The dogs were used in the Iditarod. They go through extensive training for this event.

The facility we visited was the home of Jeff King, Iditarod winner. Although he was not at home at the time, his daughter explained the training process and showed us all of the equipment. Having people around was part of their socialization training.

I could not resist purchasing a copy of his book for my son’s birthday. Since he loves to read true things, I thought he would really appreciate it. He knew the connection with his own experience instantly and laughed when I presented it to him.

I bought a second autographed copy for myself. It was a very interesting book. I learned a lot of facts about the Iditarod and about sled dogs.

This weekend there is a sled dog event nearby. It is part of Winterfest. I am not sure if they will be able to race or not, but there will be snow.

Back to when our son was trying to get Duchess to pull him on the sled. The sled I was talking about was a runner-sled. There was a wooden platform on top of the runners. It was my sled from the time I was little. Grandpa built a wooden box for me to ride in when I was young. My mother used to pull me on the sled to visit Grandma and Grandpa. At that time, we had a lot of snow in Dunkirk. The sidewalks, although they were plowed, almost always had a layer of snow on them.

As I grew, Grandpa removed the wooden box. I used the snow to slide in the street. Yes, you really could ride in the street when it snowed because people stayed at home. After the people who went to work got out, it was clear sailing.

I remember taking that sled to the Athletic Field to slide down the big hill. Usually, someone drove me there with my sled, but I pulled it back home when I was done sliding for the day. I had to pull my feet up when I was sliding because the sled body was very small.

My mother brought it over for my children to use when they were old enough to go sliding. Although we had saucers and another runner-sled, mom’s little sled was the favorite. Sometimes I had to take the first ride to cut a path, but then it worked fine for the children.

Our family used to take time to play in the snow. One year we got a toboggan for Christmas. We took that up on the hill and rode it. I remember one time when I was sliding, my knee went out of joint. I could not walk on it so my husband had to carry me off the hill. The children were in charge of the sleds. I had hurt my knee doing the physical fitness test when I was in the seventh grade and it has been sensitive ever since.

I never used the skis that we had, but the rest of the family did. Often, we would slide with the neighbors. That meant there were four adults and at least four kids, sometimes the neighbor kids joined us. We have movies of this, too. I remember Dick taking a movie of a ski going down the hill on its own. The skis we used were nothing fancy. They did not even attach to your boots. There were two sets, so they had to take turns on them. After sliding we came to Hickory Heights for hot chocolate.

I served the hot chocolate with crackers since that is what I was used to. Candyland, a little restaurant in downtown, used to serve it that way. The cocoa always had either marshmallows or whipped cream on it.

All of this activity probably took only a couple hours on a Sunday afternoon. Farmers had to make time to have fun. That was about all the time we could put together.

Ann Swanson writes from her home in Russell. Contact at hickoryheights1@verizon.net.

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