The Dogs Could Teach Me

The Dogs Could Teach Me 

from Woodsong 

Gary Paulsen 


Cold can be very strange. Not the cold felt running from the house to the bus or the car to the store, not the chill in the air on a fall morning, but deep cold. 

Serious cold. 

Forty, fifty, even sixty below zero—actual temperature, not wind chill—seems to change everything. Steel becomes brittle and breaks, shatters; breath taken straight into the throat will freeze the lining and burst blood vessels; eyes exposed too long will freeze; fingers and toes freeze, turn black, and break off. These are all known, normal parts of intense cold. 

But it changes beauty as well. Things are steeped in a new clarity, a clear focus. Sound seems to ring and the very air seems to be filled with diamonds when ice crystals form. 

On a river in Alaska, while training, I once saw a place where a whirlpool had frozen into a cone, open at the bottom, like a beautiful trap waiting to suck the whole team down. When I stopped to look at it, with the water roaring through at the bottom, the dogs became nervous and stared down into the center as if mystified and were very glad when we moved on. 

After a time I stopped trapping. That change—as with many changes—occurred because of the dogs. As mentioned, I had hunted when I was young, trapping and killing many animals. I never thought it wrong until the dogs came. And then it was a simple thing, almost a silly thing, that caused the change. 

Columbia had a sense of humor and I saw it. 

In the summer the dogs live in the kennel area, each dog with his own house, on a chain that allows him to move in a circle. They can run only with the wheeled carts on cool nights, and sometimes they get bored being tied up. To alleviate the boredom, we give the dogs large beef bones to chew and play with. They get a new bone every other day or so. These bones are the center of much contention—we call them Bone Wars. Sometimes dogs clear across the kennel will hold their bones up in the air, look at each other, raise their hair, and start growling at each other, posturing and bragging about their bones. 

But not Columbia. 

Usually Columbia just chewed on his bone until the meat was gone. Then he buried it and waited for the next bone. I never saw him fight or get involved in Bone Wars and I always thought him a simple—perhaps a better word would be primitive—dog, basic and very wolf-like, until one day when I was sitting in the kennel. 

I had a notebook and I was sitting on the side of Cookie’s roof, writing—the dogs are good company for working—when I happened to notice Columbia doing something strange. 

He was sitting quietly on the outside edge of his circle, at the maximum length of his chain. With one paw he was pushing his bone—which still had a small bit of meat on it—out and away from him, toward the next circle. 

Next to Columbia was a dog named Olaf. While Columbia was relatively passive, Olaf was very aggressive. Olaf always wanted to fight and he spent much time arguing over bones, females, the weather—anything and everything that caught his fancy. He was much scarred from fighting, with notched ears and lines on his muzzle, but he was a very good dog—strong and honest—and we liked him. 

Being next to Columbia, Olaf had tried many times to get him to argue or bluster, but Columbia always ignored him. 

Until this morning. 

Carefully, slowly, Columbia pushed the bone toward Olaf’s circle. 

And of all the things that Olaf was—tough, strong, honest—he wasn’t smart. As they say, some are smarter than others, and some are still not so smart, and then there was Olaf. It wouldn’t be fair to call Olaf dumb—dogs don’t measure those things like people—but even in the dog world he would not be known as a whip. Kind of a big bully who was also a bit of a doofus. 

When he saw Columbia pushing the bone toward him, he began to reach for it. Straining against his chain, turning and trying to get farther and farther, he reached as far as he could with the middle toe on his right front foot, the claw going out as far as possible. 

But not quite far enough. Columbia had measured it to the millimeter. He slowly pushed the bone until it was so close that Olaf’s claw—with Olaf straining so hard his eyes bulged—just barely touched it. 

Columbia sat back and watched Olaf straining and pushing and fighting, and when this had gone on for a long time—many minutes—and Olaf was still straining for all he was worth, Columbia leaned back and laughed. 

“Heh, heh, heh . . .” 

Then Columbia walked away. 

And I could not kill or trap any longer. 

It happened almost that fast. I had seen dogs with compassion for each other and their young and with anger and joy and hate and love, but this humor went into me more than the other things. 

It was so complicated. 

To make the joke up in his mind, the joke with the bone and the bully, and then set out to do it, carefully and quietly, to do it, then laugh and walk away—all of it was so complicated, so complex, that it triggered a chain reaction in my mind. 

If Columbia could do that, I thought, if a dog could do that, then a wolf could do that. If a wolf could do that, then a deer could do that. If a deer could do that, then a beaver, and a squirrel, and a bird, and, and, and . . . 

And I quit trapping then. 

It was wrong for me to kill. 

But I had this problem. I had gone over some kind of line with the dogs, gone back into some primitive state of exaltation that I wanted to study. I wanted to run them and learn from them. But it seemed to be wasteful (the word immature also comes to mind) to just run them. I thought I had to have a trap line to justify running the dogs, so I kept the line. 

But I did not trap. I ran the country and camped and learned from the dogs and studied where I would have trapped if I were going to trap. I took many imaginary beaver and muskrat but I did no more sets and killed no more animals. I will not kill anymore. 

Yet the line existed. Somehow in my mind—and until writing this I have never told another person about this—the line still existed and when I had “trapped” in one area, I would extend the line to “trap” in another, as is proper when you actually trap. Somehow the phony trapping gave me a purpose for running the dogs and would until I began to train them for the Iditarod, a dog-sled race across Alaska, which I had read about in Alaska magazine. 

But it was on one of these “trapping” runs that I got my third lesson, or awakening. 

There was a point where an old logging trail went through a small, sharp-sided gully—a tiny canyon. The trail came down one wall of the gully—a drop of fifty or so feet—then scooted across a frozen stream and up the other side. It might have been a game trail that was slightly widened or an old foot trail that had not caved in. Whatever it was, I came onto it in the middle of January. The dogs were very excited. New trails always get them tuned up and they were fairly smoking as we came to the edge of the gully. 

I did not know it was there and had been letting them run, not riding the sled brake to slow them, and we virtually shot off the edge. 

The dogs stayed on the trail, but I immediately lost all control and went flying out into space with the sled. As I did, I kicked sideways, caught my knee on a sharp snag, and felt the wood enter under the kneecap and tear it loose. 

I may have screamed then. 

The dogs ran out on the ice of the stream but I fell onto it. As these things often seem to happen, the disaster snowballed. 

The trail crossed the stream directly at the top of a small frozen waterfall with about a twenty-foot drop. Later I saw the beauty of it, the falling lobes of blue ice that had grown as the water froze and refroze, layering on itself. . . . 

But at the time I saw nothing. I hit the ice of the stream bed like dropped meat, bounced once, then slithered over the edge of the waterfall and dropped another twenty feet onto the frozen pond below, landing on the torn and separated kneecap. 

I have been injured several times running dogs—cracked ribs, a broken left leg, a broken left wrist, various parts frozen or cut or bitten while trying to stop fights—but nothing ever felt like landing on that knee. 

I don’t think I passed out so much as my brain simply exploded. 

Again, I’m relatively certain I must have screamed or grunted, and then I wasn’t aware of much for two, perhaps three minutes as I squirmed around trying to regain some part of my mind. 

When things settled down to something I could control, I opened my eyes and saw that my snow pants and the jeans beneath were ripped in a jagged line for about a foot. Blood was welling out of the tear, soaking the cloth and the ice underneath the wound. 

Shock and pain came in waves and I had to close my eyes several times. All of this was in minutes that seemed like hours, and I realized that I was in serious trouble. Contrary to popular belief, dog teams generally do not stop and wait for a musher who falls off. They keep going, often for many miles. 

Lying there on the ice, I knew I could not walk. I didn’t think I could stand without some kind of crutch, but I knew I couldn’t walk. I was a good twenty miles from home, at least eight or nine miles from any kind of farm or dwelling. 

It may as well have been ten thousand miles. 

There was some self-pity creeping in, and not a little chagrin at being stupid enough to just let them run when I didn’t know the country. I was trying to skootch myself up to the bank of the gully to get into a more comfortable position when I heard a sound over my head. 

I looked up, and there was Obeah looking over the top of the waterfall, down at me. 

I couldn’t at first believe it. 

He whined a couple of times, moved back and forth as if he might be going to drag the team over the edge, then disappeared from view. I heard some more whining and growling, then a scrabbling sound, and was amazed to see that he had taken the team back up the side of the gully and dragged them past the waterfall to get on the gully wall just over me. 

They were in a horrible tangle, but he dragged them along the top until he was well below the waterfall, where he scrambled down the bank with the team almost literally falling on him. They dragged the sled up the frozen stream bed to where I was lying. 

On the scramble down the bank Obeah had taken them through a thick stand of cockleburs. Great clumps of burrs wadded between their ears and down their backs. 

He pulled them up to me, concern in his eyes and making a soft whine, and I reached into his ruff and pulled his head down and hugged him and was never so happy to see anybody probably in my life. Then I felt something and looked down to see one of the other dogs—named Duberry—licking the wound in my leg. 

She was licking not with the excitement that prey blood would cause but with the gentle licking that she would use when cleaning a pup, a wound lick. 

I brushed her head away, fearing infection, but she persisted. After a moment I lay back and let her clean it, still holding on to Obeah’s ruff, holding on to a friend. 

And later I dragged myself around and untangled them and unloaded part of the sled and crawled in and tied my leg down. We made it home that way, with me sitting in the sled; and later, when my leg was sewed up and healing and I was sitting in my cabin with the leg propped up on pillows by the wood stove; later, when all the pain was gone and I had all the time I needed to think of it . . . later I thought of the dogs. 

How they came back to help me, perhaps to save me. I knew that somewhere in the dogs, in their humor and the way they thought, they had great, old knowledge; they had something we had lost. 

And the dogs could teach me.

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