Friday, July 23, 2010


So I'm a fan of dogs for the most part. Dogs have been a part of my childhood, and while I've had mixed experiences with being chased around a park by an overprotective akita inu and had my face chomped on by a labrador I decided to play peek-a-boo with, the majority of my experiences with dogs have been positive. For a few years in college, I thought that a dog was what would really complete my image, but then I decided that maybe I had better just work on my people skills rather than retreat into some fantasy mountain man world. I can't say I've totally succeeded but I don't yearn for a dog like I did, and I think a large part of that has been thanks to moving to Alaska.

Here in Fairbanks, dog mushing is a pretty popular activity. However, it's a labor intensive and time consuming activity which demands discipline and care from both the musher and the dogs, so it isn't for everybody. However, for those who lack the care and discipline, a sense of humanity, regard for life, or suffer paranoid delusions, there is a second incredibly popular activity that you can take part in that is almost as much fun: dog hoarding! From the sound of things at night, you might expect that the entire city is populated by werewolves. I know the howling and yelping and barking and whining bothers some people, but it doesn't particularly bother me. It is sometimes unnerving to step into the night for a midnight tinkle and suddenly the trees all around you start moaning and howling, but you get used to it and I definitely prefer it over being woken up by sirens every other night like while living in Chicago. No, my problem is not the sound - my problem is with the affect this has on the life of a car-less individual.

Our cabin is up on the east saddle of the, as far as I know, nameless mountain next to Moose Mt., about 15-10 miles outside of town depending on what part of town you're pulling from. The cabin is located pretty close to the beginning of a major gravel road network that spiders about the mountainside and reaches far back into the wilderness like a network of tiny, delicate blood vessels. Unless you know where you are going, and unless you are prepared to fend for yourself, it can be surprisingly dangerous to explore trails on foot. There are of course the obvious dangers of running into a moose or a bear or a wolf, but definitely more likely, you'll either accidentally cross onto a game trail which will lead you onto private property or out into the middle of freaking nowhere (This is surprisingly simple to do, as this part of town is literally on the border of civilization, and if you end up on the northside or down in the valley beyond, you could very easily wander many hundreds of miles without running into anyone. I've heard more than one story of people going out for a jog or a hike and getting mixed up on a game trail and ending up dying in the wilderness miles from town. Game trails have a nasty habit of leading nowhere and everywhere, especially other game trails that will get you even more lost). During the winter it's easier to tell which is which since you can look at the prints in the snow, but during the summer, it's easy to get mixed up and take a wrong turn and end up somewhere you don't want to be.

To give you, dear reader, an idea of how many dogs there are in the area, in the half of a mile gravel road between the highway into town and our cabin, there are six yards that I can see (and more that I can only hear and guess at) directly off the road that are home to anywhere from three to several dozen dogs, only ONE of which belongs to a musher as far as I can tell. I walk very often to get around, especially since I sold my motorcycle and my truck a couple months ago. I hitchhike to work and into town or for whatever takes me further than I can walk. Also, weather permitting, I walk the mile or so down to the general store where our mailbox is every day. I have been attacked by dogs no less than seven times since moving to Fairbanks, and harassed by yards full of them too many times to count. Here are a few highlights.

* * *

When I first moved to Fairbanks, I was living down the road from my friends, Jon and Lou, in an unfinished cabin that Jon was building as a rental. Jon and I had just gotten back from a two week long caribou hunting trip, and after dropping my bag off at the rental, we drove over to their house for dinner. After dinner, I was walking home with an extra pair of tennis shoes that I had forgotten in the truck. Between the house and the cabin is maybe a quarter mile, and it passes by a particular yard with a handful of dogs. Usually they are penned up, but in the dim evening light, I could see as I approached that somehow the chickenwire fencing had come loose at one point, and that a couple of the dogs were milling about just outside of the fence. Now, having walked past these dogs a few times before, I knew they were pretty unfriendly to strangers, so I knotted my laces together and edged my way along the road, hoping not to attract their attention. Unfortunately, there is no good way to get past dogs like these - if you try to sneak past them, then they'll be surprised by you and go ballistic; if you try to be loud and present and march past them, then they will consider any distance closed between you as a hostile action on your part and go ballistic, but having no real option but to go back and bug Jon and Lou, who were very likely already heading to bed (it was quite late), I decided to just behave as normally as possible and keep as much distance as possible. A natural choke point of trees, however, brought me too close, and suddenly I found myself being chased by a very large dalmatian and a nondescript, black dog. I took off running down the road towards my cabin, and whenever the dogs got close, I would turn and flail wildly at them with my tennis shoes. After landing a substantial blow to the snout on the dalmatian, who had gotten his paws up on my jacket but failed to connect on the arm he'd been going for, they backed off a bit, and I stopped running and began backing my way down the road away from them. They lost interest in me once I had moved far enough away from their owner's property and trotted back up the road. I walked briskly and shakily down the road to the cabin and made sure to bolt the door behind me.

* * *

During the winter, Barbara and I tried our hands at skiing, but I failed to find reasonably priced ski boots that would both fit the skis I borrowed from Michael and would keep my feet warm enough to make it an enjoyable activity. After a couple failed attempts at skiing together, I decided to simply be Barbara's photo documenter. Earlier in the fall, I'd mapped out a few good trails around our neighborhood that would make good ski trails once snow fell. One afternoon we were feeling particularly listless and I suggested she go for a ski and I would trot along behind her. We usually ski down at the bog a mile down the road, but it's kind of flat and boring, especially if you're not skiing, so I thought it'd be a fun idea to try the trails.

The main road leading to our cabin from the highway makes a big L shape, and the trail I had in mind meanders about the bottom half of the L, and eventually ends by forking off into a powerline trail, a driveway, or a turnoff trail which parallels the longitudinal part of the L to the highway. Along this straightaway, there are two branches. One leads the ten feet or so over to the road on the right, the other heads off to the left, while the main trail stays true. The left trail is one of the kinds of trails I was talking about earlier. It is a wide, well defined, human traversed trail which branches off of what is clearly a major all-purpose, public, 4-wheeling, sled-dog, skiing, walking, biking, running trail, but it dives headfirst into the heart of a very dangerous property.

I happened to have taken this left path in the fall and ended up on this property quite by accident. My experiences there are a completely unique story that deserves its own post, so I won't get into it except to say that the property itself is an exaggerated extreme of a pretty common Alaskan pastime, which is collecting rusty shit and dogs on your property. If I had to guess, I'd say the property is at least 10 acres or so, and extends directly off the highway back into the woods quite a ways. Unlike the dense black spruce and aspen forest that surround it, the property has been mostly clear cut - save the occasional desperate and forlorn looking paper birch clawing its way out of the heaps of wreckage - and a labyrinth of old machinery, buses, logging equipment, mining tools, cars, trucks, trailers, campers, boats, and tin sheds has been, it seems, lovingly arranged in a sprawling orgasm of human wretchedness and folly across it. When I first turned a corner and emerged out of the trees and onto the edge of this surreal place and gazed down the hillside at this spectacle, I felt like I had stepped onto an abandoned set from Mad Max. Thankfully I was at the back end of the property, and I could seem from a distance, like ants swarming over the rotting carcass of some massive robot straight out of a steampunk's wet dream, hordes of dogs. I won't get into what happened to me on that day, but it sets the backdrop for what happened to us during that skiing expedition in the winter.

We had it in our heads to head down to the highway and across the road to the community soccer field which is hooked up to several cross country trails. I had never actually taken the straight path all the way to the highway, but I thought I knew where it came out on the road, and it was acceptably distanced from the property in question. The trail was undeniably a well travelled one, so I felt secure in saying we should take it straight rather than jump off on the right-leading trail and walk on the road. We passed the turn-offs and I noticed that as we went on, the trail moved subtly to the left. Apprehension started to gather in the corners of my mind, but I had no reason to suspect my guess at the trail's exit was wrong. Suddenly, however, we noticed hulking corrugated plates looming behind the trees beside us, and without warning the forest ran out and we were on a trail which ran right along the front edge of that wretched land. Worst, it was completely open to a little open yard where several dogs could be seen languishing in little makeshift alcoves, like a Hooverville ghetto for dogs. We stopped briefly and considered our situation. I don't know what Barbara was thinking, but I felt like I had led her unwittingly into a lion's den, and I was horrified at the very real possibility that we might be seriously injured, since I knew from previous experience that this land was irregularly tenanted, and that it being tenanted might not necessarily work in our favor. From where we stood and about 50 feet ahead of us, we could see the tree line that screened the property from the road, and the arch-like break in it where the trail emerged. As soon as we stopped and really before we had a chance to decide to turn around, we heard a yelp of alarm, followed by a chorus of answering yelps, and suddenly the deafening barks of what had to be at least 50 dogs were being directed at us. Like a startled beehive, they suddenly sprang from every metal orifice, perched on heaps of oil drums and cranes, seated in molding, doorless cars and leaning out broken and scum encrusted windows, scrambling over patched roofs and bounding over piles of snow covered tires, it was like a scene out of a horror film.

Many of the dogs were content to jeer and howl balefully at us from their positions among the debris, but a dozen at least began moving forward in a pack, coming onto the path behind us, forcing us to move forward. Before they had even started to make for us, however, I had made up my mind that making for the road was our best bet, and I didn't want Barbara to have a chance to assess the situation and become as terrified as I was, so I told her to keep going and gave her a little push-start. My rationale here was that knowing that you were being pursued by a pack of slavering dogs, while certain to incentivize motion, might not necessarily translate into the coordination necessary to ski successfully as a beginner to the sport. It seemed best to give the impression that everything was under control and push her forward. A couple of particularly vicious dogs advanced on me, and nipped at my heels. I jogged behind Barbara and tried to sound encouraging and told her to keep going no matter what, thinking that I might have to actually stop and give them something to direct their attention to while she escaped to the road. A middle sized dog with long hair that looked alarmingly like the akita inu that had chased me around the park as a child took the lead, barking ferociously and bearing its teeth. It bit at my ankle a couple times, and I had to stop every few feet and make - what, in confronting bears at least, is referred to as - "big arms" at it. When it actually connected a solid hold on my ankle, I turned around and punched it in the face. It nipped at my hand, but yelped and backed off, putting enough pause in the pack for us to break through the tree line and out onto the road. We recklessly crossed over to the soccer field and gathered our wits. A couple of the dogs followed us through the trees, but stopped short of the road and barked psychotically at us for a minute or so and then trotted back into the abyss. I think Barbara was shaken by it, but didn't quite realize what was going on behind her as she powered ahead. I screwed up my wits and brushed it off, considering myself lucky for having escaped with just a torn snowboot and a small rip on my right glove. The rest of the day was fun after that, and on the return trek, we gave the path wide berth until we had completely passed the property.

* * *

A few days ago, Barbara's car was in the shop, and after dropping her off at work and it off at the shop, I walked home and played on the internet until it was time to pick her up. The shop was running behind schedule, and with an hour before I had to pick up Barbara, I made up my mind to find Michael's truck. I couldn't get a hold of Michael after a few tries, so I decided to make some progress and call again later. Michael had just left town a week before, and since he had been housesitting Jon and Lou's place while they were on vacation, I figured that was a good place to start looking. I hitched down the highway to Jon and Lou's neighborhood. Their cabin is about halfway down Home Run, a tributary to Line Dr., which runs to the highway. The guys who picked me up dropped me off at Line Dr. and I made my way down the road. I rounded the corner and started making my way up Home Run. I was about 25 feet down the road when I looked up and noticed that maybe 200 feet down the road from me was a very very large husky. Huskies are good dogs, and one of their better attributes is that they haven't been mal-bred over the millennia to be hyperactive barking machines. It stood silently and completely still at the end of the road and watched me with silent intensity. I stopped and watched it for a moment and briefly considered my options.

I had been in an almost identical situation earlier in the summer walking to get the mail where a large black dog had walked out of a driveway and stood in the middle of the road blocking my path. In that instance, thankfully, I was able to call for the owner, who was operating a nail gun, thankfully, without hearing protection, and he called the dog off before it actually attacked me, but not before I was able to learn that even standing still or appearing to walk away did not assuage the dog's suspicions that I was a threat. I decided therefore, that I would not be able to walk away from the husky without signaling to it that I was a tasty treat, nor would I, in any universe, be able to out run it, nor would I be able to wrestle with it in shorts and sandals and a t-shirt. The road was smooth and rockless from a great deal of rain and recent travel, and I didn't spot anything that looked like it would be a useful or practical defense to me. Almost exactly between the dog and me, about 100 feet away, was Jon and Lou's driveway. I made up my mind to act naturally and make a beeline for their cabin.

I started walking forward, and as I did, the husky slowly walked forward as well. I made it about 3/4 of the way to the driveway and we were about 75 feet apart when the husky started showing signs of hostility. I could tell from the size of it that it was a very well trained and groomed sled dog, and I could tell from its jingling tags that it very well might even be a skijor dog belonging to someone nearby. I was surprised that it was being hostile because well-loved sled dogs are usually friendly to everyone. I was hoping that it belonged to someone at the end of the road, but I was afraid that it might belong to the people directly across the street from Jon and Lou, who, I recall Michael telling me, kept several sled dogs. If this was the case, I could believe that the normal reaction of a sled dog not in the presence of its owner and seeing a stranger coming between it and its home might become aggressive.

It made several of those low "huff"ing noises, which are about all the warning you get from a husky, and then started making little hops forward, coiling its back legs and keeping its tail back. I hesitated, but I was close enough to the driveway, that I felt I could probably make it safely. I was at the mouth of the driveway when it gave me a single loud bark and a growl and dashed forward a few feet and stopped again. I backed into the mouth of the driveway, which winds surreptitiously through dense black spruce before ending in a parking lot. I had moved out of sight of the dog and didn't hear it pursue me, so I turned and walked faster. At the parking lot, there is a long path to the house and a shorter path to Jon and Lou's very very large garden and greenhouse. There was no truck or any vehicle in the parking lot, and I wasn't sure how I felt about going in their house without their knowing it, although I'm sure they'd be fine with it if they knew I was being hunted by an enormous dog. I weighed the decision in my mind for a few seconds standing in the parking lot. I decided that the greenhouse was closer, more likely to have the door open, more likely to be unlocked, and would be a little more considerate given that I was on their property uninvited and entirely unawares. As I decided this, I heard another loud bark from the road, and the sudden, furious jangling of dog tags. I bolted up the path into the garden and into the greenhouse. Thankfully the door was open and I slammed it behind me just as the husky veered around the path and into the garden. I checked to make sure there were no openings besides the cutout vents and then sat across from the door amongst the basil. As I sat on the ground in the greenhouse and stayed absolutely still, there came the jingling tags as they circled the greenhouse a couple times, and then stood still for a few minutes somewhere towards the front of the greenhouse. Finally, after at least seven eternities, the jingling moved off into the distance towards the road, and then out of earshot. I stayed put for a bit longer and then milled about in the garden for half an hour or so before gathering some hefty rocks and making my way back to the highway. Thankfully, there was no sign of the husky when I emerged from the trees, and a nice lady let me ride in her truck bed back to my road.

* * *

I don't know what it is, really. You hear about cat ladies pretty often, but dog guys are far more prevalent up here, and far more dangerous to the average pedestrian. I guess that with all the sled dog breeding that goes on, for every one pup that ends up being a great sled dog, there must be four that are better suited for being chained on some dude's front lawn or let free in the yard of an abandoned property to be visited every week or so. There are a lot of people around here who honestly believe that the government or space monsters or their neighbors or Obama personally is out to get them and steal their ammunition, and the answer to this problem is apparently lots and lots of rabid dogs. I don't know why people feel they need this level of protection while the rest of us feel safe enough to leave our doors unlocked and our windows open on a day to day basis, but I know that after that german shepherd down the street got loose from the tree it was chained to and almost successfully managed to wrap its mouth around my face before its shirtless meth-head owner came out and called it off, I have developed a pretty strong dislike for whatever stupid ideology it is that cultivates this attitude in people, and I definitely get the mail less...

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