2. Mischa (Mirror, mirror)

Mirror, Mirror, on the wall…the sled story

After Flagstaff and after moving to Eastern Washington and living all summer in a tent at a US Forest Service campground, and sending my son Devon to the 5th grade bathing in a canning kettle in water that I heated over an open fire…we moved into an old homestead cabin that we were offered in exchange for our caretaking it for the winter.  At the cabin, we had to haul our drinking and cooking water. There was a small stream in the meadow down below the cabin and I was able to use that water for the dogs and general washing, but our drinking water came from the spring by the campground at Lyman Lake.

I decided to build a sled. Buck could pull it up to the campground carrying our empty water containers. I could fill them and Buck could pull them back to the cabin. Phil, Paul’s brother, had a basic woodshop at his home, and a small lumber pile. He offered me the use of his woodworking tools and said I could have any of the wood I wanted.

I fashioned the sled runners out of two 2×6 boards, cutting a curve at the front end and planing that smooth. I used 1x material for the crossmembers of the seat of the sled, and attached an apple crate to this for hauling things. I also used 2x material for the uprights. I selected a particular tree limb for my handlebar. It had a nicely even diameter of about 3 inches from one end to the other. I made it about two feet long. The sled had no brake. It was a primitive job at best, but it worked well enough.

To get water I would harness Buck and we would go up the road to the lake at the campgound. There a good spring emptied into the lake at one edge. The Forest Service had placed a galvanized aluminum garbage can into the lake bed where the spring came in. The garbage can was open at the bottom to allow the spring water to flow in, but had a regular garbage can lid for the top, to keep things from falling in the clean spring water. People who used the spring, though, sometimes failed to replace the lid. It was frustrating, then, to walk all the way up the road with the sled to find that some thoughtless person had used the spring, left the lid off the garbage can, and there were two or three dead mice floating, drowned, on the top of the spring water there inside the garbage can. I would have to find a couple of sticks and pick the dead mice out of the water. Then I’d have to wait until the garbage can filled up again with fresh water before I could fill up my containers.  I didn’t want to take home water to drink that dead mice had been in.

One day I decided I would hook up the dogs and go for a run. My own small team. We could try out the sled as a group.  I had regular sled dog harnesses for four dogs, and one old leather walking harness.  Max, Maggie, and Pips – the pups born in the campground and now old enough to run on a sled team – and Buck, wore the sled harnesses, and Mischa wore the old leather walking harness.

At the cabin I put the dogs in their harnesses and hooked them up. Buck ran lead. Maggie and Pips were in the middle and Max and Mischa were at the back. I had a rope gang line that I hooked from the front of the sled to the dogs. I rode on the runners at the back of the sled.

It had been a very icy winter that year. Not much snow at all. As we ran with the sled on the road, we were running on ice a good deal of the time.

The five dogs and I headed up the road toward the lake, turned and went past the lake and up a mountain road, came to the cattle guard and turned around. The dogs were moving along at a pretty good clip, around 12 or 13 miles an hour. As we headed back from the cattle guard we made a turn and came into a straight stretch and there directly ahead was a large rock frozen in the road, right in our path.

The sled was sturdy, but not flexible. It also had no brake. I had never ridden a dog sled before and had never driven a team of 5 dogs. I wasn’t prepared for an unexpected emergency.

One of the sled runners hit the rock dead on.

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I woke up lying on my back on the ground, on a berm of snow that the snow plow leaves when it makes its pass down the road. I was lying with my neck stradling the berm, like it was a pillow. I was looking up at the blue blue sky through the trees. Mischa was sitting next to me. Somehow, there she was. For some reason I touched my head or face and there was a hole in my wool cap at my forehead, and there was some blood there, half dried/half sticky.

I gathered myself up realizing I probably needed to get back to the cabin. There was a little trail not too far down the road that headed across a wooded area, coming out in the meadow below the cabin. I headed that way and Mischa went with me. We passed by the sled and the rock in the road. I saw that at impact I had completely broken the 3 inch diameter tree limb handlebar. I must have flown through the air ten feet or so and hit my head.  There was a large pool of frozen blood – about 3 feet in diameter – in front of the sled. I will never know how long I lay there at the sled and bled, how and when I got up and walked down the road and lay down on the berm, or how long I lay there.

I walked with Mischa back to the cabin, managed to get a fire going, and got out Paul’s EMT book. He had been taking an EMT course and I knew there would be some useful information in his class manual. I read that a person with a concussion needed to lay flat, possibly with feet or legs elevated, and stay warm.

I pulled the bench from the kitchen table up next to the wood stove, lay down on it, and kept the fire going until Paul and Devon got back to the cabin from their trip to town that day.

When they got home from town it was almost dark. After I told them what had happened and Paul saw that I would be all right for a while, he and Devon headed out to look for rest of the dogs. A little way up the road they heard the dogs making sounds off to the left in the trees. A short walk over and they found the whole group, still in their harnesses, still on the rope gangline, tangled around a tree, all together.

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How did Mischa pull out of her leather harness…and when?  Did she pull out directly at impact and was she there with me as I flew threw the air, hit my head on the ice, lay there, got up and staggered down the road and lay down on the berm?  Or did she run down the road with the rest of the dogs, somehow finally get herself out and come back to sit next to me? What would she have done if I had not gotten up?

This is the dog that has led to all the dogs that have come along since then.  Ten and eleven generations of Mischa’s descendants are with me as we approach 2020. You can see from this story and her behavior why I feel so very grateful that Mischa was the beginning.  I don’t think I could have asked for any better dog.

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I spent most of the remainder of that winter hanging around the cabin, doing small chores, and recovering. I would look in the mirror and recognize the person that I saw.  The face was mine, but the eyes that gazed back at me did so from a galaxy many light years away.


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