A lead dog named DIAMOND by Daniel J Westbrook
There were moments of pure peace in the Yukon, this majestic diamond of harsh extremes. Among those moments were the times when I would mush my dogs up river for the day.
That day the smell of old leather and dog hair rushed in my nose as I opened the door to the old shed. In the dim light washing over my shoulders, I could see my dog harnesses hanging from a rusty nail, on an old wall stud, empty and limp, but ready to be filled with life. I took three of the best harnesses I had, and several parts of the lead line, I snapped together the line making it appropriate for three dogs; two side-by-side and one alone out front. With one motion I turned, stepped out into the snow, and shut the door behind me. Even though it was now almost all the way light out, the sun wasn’t yet peeking over the horizon. Stepping out of the shed, I could hear the crunch of snow underneath my mucklucks, as I picked up my Trapper Nelson backpack. I was glad the morning chores were done, now ready to spend some time alone, free of responsibility.
My sled was laying upside down next to the side of the shed. As I rolled it over, I checked it for any repairs that may need to be done. I loved that sled. I built it myself, by hand! It consisted of a three-eighths inch thick piece of Teflon for the bottom, with a tapered front that had an exaggerated circle fashioned to almost lay back down upon itself. The curled front was held in place by nylon rope weaving it’s way up two wooden side poles that ended about waist high at the back for two handles to hold onto. These sides were supported at the back with a plywood bulkhead that had holes drilled for threading sinew through. All pieces were lashed together in an overlapping pattern creating flexible joints.
I loved working with my hands. I remember, as a boy, looking at the hands of people who spent a lot of time outdoors working hard. I admired hands that were thick and meaty, not fat, but strong, with distinctive lines, and cracks going every which way. It was knowledge and wisdom I saw in hands like that, and I wanted mine to be the same way. Of course now as I am writing this, after twenty years of remodel construction in the Seattle weather, I’ve just described my own hands, only… I’m still searching for knowledge and wisdom.
“Quiet!” I yelled at the dogs as they were barking and yipping, standing on their hind legs, pulling their chains tight against their collars. They were in an excited frenzy as they watched me pull the dog sled up to their area, for they knew that today they would go for a run. I made sure my gear was secure, and then I tied up the sled to a tree. This of course would keep the dogs from running off while I was hooking them up. Not a good thing to happen, I’ve heard that sometimes dog teams would break loose and end up twenty miles away!! That’s a long hike! I laid out the lead line on the snow, in front of the sled. I went to Diamond, unhooked her from her chain, slipped her harness over her body and hooked her into the lead spot. Rooster and Cockburn were my other two dogs.
Both, brothers and both the same age. They were good-spirited dogs, and humorous too, not unlike John Wayne’s movie character Rooster Cockburn. However, if they didn't have to work that would be fine with them. They liked to play around, as all young dogs seem to want to do. They also had each other and I think that only made it worse, because they would play off each other. A little nip on the tail here, a bite on the ear there, and before I knew it I would have a full fledged wrestling match on my hands! Yah, I can see them now, the little twinkles in their eye, laughing. “Hay this sled thing is boring let’s stir things up a bit before the run! Yahooo!”
I finally got the dogs hooked up, tangles out of the line, and was standing on the back of the sled untying the rope from the tree. “Ok, let’s go!” I yelled. With a burst of energy, the dogs lunged forward and in a moment we were in a dead run. I had one foot riding the break on the way down the trail to the river. Snow seemed to be flying everywhere. My hands gripped tightly, knees slightly bent. On the trail through the bush the small poplar trees would speed by, sometimes jumping out, my sled deflecting off them like a spring board. Now you know why there is such a large toboggan style curl to the front of the sled. It was all I could do to hold on and keep the sled upright through the turns. The wind in my face was cold, but I was hot. And then suddenly we were out into the open of the frozen snow covered river. Instantly, everything slowed down, oh, the dogs were still at speed, it’s just that out into the open things are much further away, giving the perspective of going slowly by. The Stewart River was wide, maybe a quarter mile, and the trail was straight on.
As the dogs settled into their own rhythm, tongues flopping to the side, I could feel the world melt away with each passing mile. My lead dog did a fine job of setting the pace, a fast trot. A self-starter that one, and smart, Diamond was her name. She was black with a white diamond on her chest. The smartest dog I had ever seen, and we had a connection, it was almost as if we knew what each other wanted and were willing to do whatever it took to foster that connection. We understood our roles in that connection, I being the boss, and Diamond worked for me. Diamond worked hard for me and I paid her well with extra scraps of rabbit and squirrel meat. I already knew what it was like to be in charge of responsibility, however this was my first experience, where being in charge meant that I had another life in my hands. An employee, of sorts, that lived only to please me. I could only respond with equal dedication and care. In this context I began to learn about the boss/ employee relationship. However, as life went by, honing this skill, I soon learned that unlike a dog, people are different. People are competitive, fickle, advantage takers, sellouts. I learned the hard way to protect myself from being a doormat. My utopian world being crushed under the wanting’s of other people, people I was in charge of, people I only wanted to treat the way I treated Diamond. Looking back, I am now thankful for the relationship I had with my dogs, for it was honest, honest truth. I looked ahead from my perch at the back of the sled and saw Diamonds ears folded back straight at me, waiting to hear any next order I might have.
“Rooster, Cockburn! Let’s go! C’mon!” I would yell. The slack in their harness line would instantly tighten up and I could see them take the load in their harnesses around their shoulders.
It was quiet, I could see the frozen cottonwood trees on the river bank slowly drift by. The mountains were a majestic white, layering the spruce forests, and then reaching toward the heavens. The sky was blue and the snow crystals caught the sun’s rays, shining like a thousand diamonds. I could hear the quiet panting of the dogs’ breath, and the mesmerizing shhhhh of the sled as it slid effortlessly along the well-packed snow machine trail. My mittens gripped the handmade handles of the sled as I helped push with one leg. Much like a child pushing a scooter, I wasn't going anywhere, I was only after peace. There to enjoy the tranquil beauty around me. I guess in a way I was escaping the tightknit quarters I shared with my family. It was a good time to think and rejuvenate.
My dogs were very much a big part of my life, that is up until the disappearance of Diamond. One morning I came out to feed the dogs, and she was not there. Gone! Her collar lay limp on the snow at the end of her chain. Her dog house bare in the middle of jumping, barking, and howling of the other dogs. In an instant I had feelings of worry, anxiety, like a parent whose child was missing. “She’s too smart for her own good.” I said aloud. “She slipped her collar!” I ran back to the house. “Mom, mom, Diamond’s gone! She ran away” “Oh I’m sure she’s around here somewhere,” my mother said positively, trying to reassure me. In a moment, the entire family was mobilized. “Diiiiiiamond… Here Diiiamond.” The sound could be heard bouncing off the surrounding mountains and hills. The calls getting weaker and fainter, the further the family fanned out into the wilderness.
We looked and called as long as we could before the duties of the day’s chores were upon us. I was allowed to keep searching, my brothers and sisters picking up the load of my chores. Papa walked into town, to see if he could find her there. The day wore on. Nothing.
As evening came the talk of the family was what happened to Diamond. Supper came and went. Evening chores had to be done; hauling wood, dishes, and such. I was worried. We talked about how smart she was and how we had animals get loose before. Hopeful talk. Soon it was time for bed. I didn’t get much sleep that night, and when morning came, I was ready to keep searching if I could.
I went down to her dog house and started walking around, looking for fresh tracks. And there she was lying on her side, with a blanket of fresh snow covering her black fur. My body became like lead, and I sank down to my knees. My sight was obscured by the tears filling my eyes. I noticed her tracks, and it looked like she had literally crawled home, leaving a trail of blood that was now, just a discoloration beneath a layer of soft snow. My mind was just a skipping record, saying she came home, she came home. I realized that even in her pain and agony, she knew where she was going. Home. The place where she was cared for, nurtured, given a purpose and loved. To me, Diamond’s last desperate act, hanging in the balance where death is inevitable, was an act of loyalty and respect. An act of true love.
I could hear the fast pace of crunch, crunch, crunch, of someone walking up behind me in the snow. Papa’s heavy hand rested on my shoulder. “Get back to the house” He soberly said. I stood up, turned my back and began lifting my heavy legs, towards the house. It was snowing harder now, covering the dirty snow, making everything fresh and clean. In that instant before my emotions of sadness and loss took control of my mind and body, I knew by Diamond’s actions in the last moments of her life, that she was speaking to me. She said that I treated her right, loved her and gave her a home.
As the days and months went by, mushing dogs was never quite the same for me again. Maybe because of what happened, maybe because youth was giving away to manhood. I think mostly though, I just sort of moved on, accepting what life’s future had in store for me.
You know? After twenty-five years of meditating on this experience from time to time I realized that I was being cut and shaped into something beautiful.
Thank you, Diamond,
….for being a part of shaping us into one, too.