Graduate Studies at Howling Dogs U., Six Life Lessons I Learned from Sled Dogs

This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 edition of Centrepiece.

“A sled dog,” mused our guide, making distinct eye contact with each of us in the surrounding circle, “is any dog which, when properly harnessed and attached to the gang line, will pull a sled.”

It was my first day of an Elderhostel (now called Road Scholars) program at the White Wilderness Sled Dog Adventures in Ely, Minn.  

His simple and truthful statement came in response to an elaborate question posed by one of our trip participants who hoped to snare a supposed simple north woodsman into an elaborate semantic trick. The directness of answer completely deflated the irrelevant presumptions hidden deep in the questioner’s words. There’s something to be learned here about successful organizational management, I thought, and promised myself to closely observe and analyze the day’s events. 

Dog sledding in the rough is an exhilarating experience. It involves acquiring knowledge and eventually (one hopes), wisdom. Do not imagine that working with “dumb” animals relieves duty to serious observation and study. 

A day on the trail begins with assembling teams. This occurs in the dog yard, where upwards of 100 dogs, each in his own little house, are barking, yapping, howling, and screaming their heads off with “Pick-me! Pick-me!” excitement for the adventure. Selection of who gets to go is largely based on the degree and genuineness of this enthusiasm.

Dogsledding Program #8177 Ely, MN

Point No. 1: It occurred to me that this is a good way to select members for any project.

Lead for each rig is chosen first. This dog will be the brains of each team, a fact which, as the morning progresses, becomes embarrassingly apparent to the “human cargo” element of the expedition, many of whom arrived under the impression they would be in charge of their sleds. The lead dog is attached to the gang line and reminded of duty with the words “Up tight!” (Avoiding slack in the line is a must.) 

Point No. 2: Leaders should be assigned objectives from the outset and be trusted to achieve them.

Next attached are wheel dogs; strong, obedient, single-minded creatures, whose motto—“I will pull harder!”—may remind some of the honest and faithful Boxer in Animal Farm. They repeatedly overcome mired-down situations by brute strength. 

Point No. 3: Everyone’s contribution to an organization should be appreciated and acknowledged.

The remaining positions are filled by team dogs. These are dogs in training, or ones of middling ability not strong enough for wheel position, nor personable nor eager to lead. 

Point No. 4: Two-thirds of participants in any effort are, with regard to skills, within one standard deviation of the mean. Given opportunity, some will rise to new heights, some will fail, some will simply remain who they are. Everyone should have opportunities to beat the odds.

Sleds are lined up in a row and facing the direction of intended travel. At this point the shrieking has often grown to a frighteningly intense level. Oh, did I mention that barking does not stop when a dog is successfully selected, but grows in intensity with heightened anticipation of the launch?

Surely the reader wonders how to get a variegated amalgamation of people, equipment, and dogs off in a manner with some semblance of order. It’s easier than you might imagine: simply release the lanyards securing each sled to its binding post, and instantly we are off. And then . . . eerie quiet, save for soft panting and the gliding whoosh of sled runners. A team free to run is a happy team, and a happy team is quiet. There is so much to see, to hear, to smell, to taste; time to think as world glides by. 

Point No. 5: Adhere to points 1 through 4 and a well-organized effort will run itself. 

There are physical obstacles to be negotiated, in the form of bumps, boulders, drop-offs, and sharp turns. These present opportunities for wild adventure and upset. Fortunately, sled dogs are conscientious and sensitive to the egos of their human guests. They stop immediately when a problem develops, or so we were told.

That last statement was a test of the reader’s credulity. In truth, freed of drag, the team is delighted to show just how fast they can pull an overturned sled, all by themselves, to the head of the line. Allow your mind’s eye to imagine spilled contents as Goodwill store merchandise, not neatly classified, but strewn across a frozen Minnesota lake in a long straight line. If fair grace prevails, this will be remembered wistfully and recounted over the years as That Fabulous Linear Yard Sale in the Snow. 

Point No. 6: Upsets are inevitable. Accept the unthinkable as normal (else you simply aren’t trying hard enough and would never buy insurance), clean up your mess, and carry on with a good cheer. 

In classic lore, things happen in threes, fives, seven come 11s, and unlucky 13s. All primes, un-factorable. Strangely, my adventure revealed six. While pondering this lack of adherence to classical form, my eye glanced over at an issue of Centrepiece here beside, with a visual of Old Centre with its . . . would someone kindly count those venerable columns and confirm?

by John Ligon ’65
May 15, 2020

John Ligon ’65 double-majored in economics and English. He holds an M.B.A. from Miami University (Oxford, Ohio) and has applied the liberal arts in academia, advertising, heavy industry, partnership investments, and real estate.

By |2020-05-22T08:35:06-04:00May 22nd, 2020|News|