May 20, 2012

Good-Time Charlie

When I let Charlie out of the truck he seemed shocked. The barren arctic landscape and blowing snow was very different from his home in the tall spruce trees where he felt secure and sheltered. But the frigid environment struck a chord with him, a yearning to see more of this foreign Arctic land where the hills and wide river valleys lay open seemingly to the ends of the earth. He felt a sensation of being home, yet he had never been in the Arctic. He was dumbfounded yet invigorated like he had never felt before.

Good-time Charlie.- 623

It didn’t take very long for Charlie to settle into the expedition routine of traveling and breaking trail every day, camping on the open tundra and getting to know his 22 teammates. One of the team members who befriended Charlie from the start was Shorty. Shorty is an energetic and playful gal that has the strongest positive attitude I have seen in a dog. Nothing will get her down. No matter the conditions…deep snow, cold temperatures, hard work… Shorty is always wearing a smile and a curled, wagging tail. They became friends immediately and played together every evening for hours on end. But Dino, a handsome, solidly built, red male hated Charlie. He became fitfully jealous of Charlie. After all, Shorty was his gal, but now she took a shining to the newcomer.

After several weeks of breaking trail across the windswept hills, working our way toward the mighty mountains of the Brooks Range, Charlie started to change. His physique was transforming. He wasn’t the lazy, soft, couch potato dog anymore. Now, he stood stout and broad with muscled chest and shoulders with leathery, impenetrable paws. He developed a new ready-to-take-on-the-world attitude.

Charlie discovered a facet of his character buried deep within his soul he never knew existed. It awakened his passion and he couldn’t ignore it. It tugged on the very fiber of his being. Charlie knew he was in his element, his ancestral land, where his blood coursed vibrantly through his veins. Even his howls were strong and vigorous and chimed in tune with distant wolves.

Watching Charlie change was inspiring, and reassured me that the Arctic element is ingrained deep in Alaskan malamutes’ DNA and when it’s awakened there is no resisting the call.

Charlie came into our lives six years ago as an eight week old puppy we had purchased from a local breeder. Immediately Andrea and I fell in love with him. He was smaller than our other malamutes, but he had a feisty and personable character and it was difficult to look at Charlie any other way except as a new member of our household. Charlie settled into a lifestyle of ease. He grew accustomed to the soft couch, belly rubs, table food, classical music, sleeping on our bed with us, and his favorite dish…popcorn coated with melted butter. But as Charlie grew into adulthood, occasionally he stood on his hind legs and stared out the window at the other dogs in the kennel. They intrigued him. When they thrust their muzzles skyward to sing their ancient tunes, Charlie joined in, filling the house with a mournful song. And when winter covered the ground in its white blanket and the night skies danced in a ray of multi-colored northern lights, Charlie paced to and fro across the floor.

Charlie as a puppy.Charlie 025

But last July, life changed for good-time Charlie. The birth of our beautiful daughter meant Charlie had to join the others outside. No more couch or other luxuries he’d grown accustomed to. It wasn’t that he would harm our new baby, but between Andrea, the baby and I, and our companion black lab, Melvin, there wasn’t any room for him in our small house. Charlie had to set up new digs outdoors.

Melvin and Charlie. Best friends and partners in crime!Charlie 189

I gave him a nice house under a leaning spruce and plenty of room to run. He dug the roots of the tree, killing it sufficiently and in winter he peed on his house until the long yellow icicles hung down thick over his doghouse door so he couldn’t enter it.

One day as he pace continuously, whined and howled such a sad song I just couldn’t take it anymore.

“That’s it! I’m taking Charlie with me this year!” I said as we sat down at the dinner table, glancing at Charlie standing in front of his yellow-fanged doghouse glaring at us just outside the window.

“Do you think he’ll be okay in the Arctic? He’s a 6 years old “baby” and pretty much a house dog.” Andrea replied with concern.

“Of course…he’ll be fine. He might be an overgrown baby now, but come springtime, after a season in the Arctic, he’ll be a man.”

The following day I introduced Charlie to a small team, harnessed him and placed him on the gangline. Now, he was used to having the run of things and he thought he’d strut his stuff and tangle with the young females behind him. Well, they weren’t impressed with his advances and Petra, one of our feistier girls, put an impressive scar on his snout. Day one in harness and Charlie was taking on the look of a real Alaskan malamute. Eventually, I got Charlie to focus on running instead of the ladies, and once he realized the fun of it he pulled like there was no tomorrow.

After several training runs on local trails, I felt good ol’ Charlie was ready. He was ready to go north to the Arctic, but one question remained—how would he do around the big boys, the veteran fellas who knew the bitter sweet taste of the Arctic trail, the guys and gals who were only interested in a good day’s pull, breaking trail in an untamed wilderness, and doing what they were born to do? The veterans didn’t care for a newbie strutting around and messing with their girls. They just wanted to put their noses to the grindstone and pull.

At first I just couldn’t find a place for Charlie in the team. He had a demeanor about him that offended everyone, especially Dino. Charlie carried himself stiff legged, and bristled which ticked everyone off. Being a small dog, I didn’t want Charlie in wheel position, which is reserved for big muscled brutes, and lead position was out of the question because of his lack of experience. Finally, he found a comfortable position next to Bear, a 12 year old retired leader, and Shorty.

Two months into the expedition I noticed a dramatic change in Charlie. He didn’t carry himself like a dominant male anymore. He walked humbly amongst his peers and no one bothered him. Now he was one of them. When soldiers fight in battle they bond with one another. Malamutes experience this comradery and bond as they work together every day. Though they love their work, they know when times get tough they have to pull together to keep going. This teamwork is a natural bonding extinct for both man and beast.

One morning I crawled out of my tent, glanced at the thermometer… -65°F… and I noticed Charlie and Dino, lying close together, practically on top of each other, combining both their body heat into one unit. Charlie had become part of the team.

Our boy is all grown up!charlie_team


  • Melissa

    A great story. I loved reading it. At first I was sad for Charlie that he was thrust outside but then I was so happy that he thrived in the way his ancestors have. Go Charlie!

    • Carolyn Schlick

      Great writing Joe! I remember Shorty, she saw he was smaller and helped show him the ropes. Instinct in animals is amazing to watch. I think a lot of human instinct is muted or ignored because we are too busy in our world of technology, deadlines, traffic and imposed pressures. Fortunately, YOU have found a solution to THAT!!!
      Hope you, Andrea and the baby have a nice summer.

      • alaskanarcticexpeditions

        Hi Carolyn,
        Thanks, great to hear from you. Yes, Shorty and the rest are something else, and a person can learn lots from them. Hope you have a great summer too.