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How Not to Dog Drive

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Some of you might recall last year’s story about dog driving. There is one part I neglected to include on this blog. It involves injury to my pride and certain private areas of my person, which is what made me think it would be of interest. It also involves a bout with my old enemy, Physics. If you’ve already heard me tell it in person, I am sure you will enjoy imagining me in pain just one more time.

To recap: There I was with my girlfriend and her father in the Yukon wilderness (I call it wilderness for street cred. and dramatic effect). We hooked up two dog teams, and Sarah’s dad left the camp first. I had our art department put together the following diagram, to help you understand the layout of the area.

An artist's depiction of the scene of the accident.

An artist’s depiction of the scene of the accident.

 

As you can see, in order to leave the camp it was necessary to go around a loop that linked back to the trail we took in. This allows the sleds to enter and leave the campsite without ever having to turn them around, which is honestly a bitch to do. Sarah and I followed her father out, me driving the sled and her skijouring off a line attached to it. Everything was going wonderfully until we rounded the loop and turned down the hill. Sarah unclipped from the sled, which is standard procedure to prevent her from colliding with the sled if I crashed it (in literature this is called “foreshadowing”, by the way).

At this point you are thinking “ah, Colin crashed on the way down the hill of death.” Silly reader. No, I successfully navigated my 6-dog team down that slope, and reached the bottom of the hill where the trail was open and flat, at which point I promptly flipped my sled. Reacting quickly, I pulled it out of the deep snow and righted it on the trail. Now, the thing about sled dogs is, they really don’t give a good goddamn whether you’re on the sled. The moment the runners touched snow, they took off. Not wanting to lose the dogs and face Sarah’s dad, I lunged and just managed to grab the cross-piece below the steering bow. It is at this point that things started to go wrong.

I found out later that mushers often wear snowpants with suspenders. I was not, and thus had an encounter with my old friend Friction. The interaction between the snow and my pants, coupled with the forward motion of my dogs, resulted in an unceremonious depantsing. This would have been alright, had Friction been content with my pants. But Friction wanted more. Thence went my sweatpants, my longjohns, and, oh yes, my underwear. All stacked together in a fabric traffic jam somewhere just above my knees.

Something like this, except offscreen behind the dogs I am dragging face (and other things) down in the snow.

 

The dogs, continuing their indifferent to my plight, or perhaps enjoying it, dragged my unmentionables (and I do not just mean my underwear), through the snow for 10 or 15 more feet before I heroically grabbed the brake and hauled down on it, finally stopping the sled many metres from the initial incident. Normally one would simply transfer one’s foot to the brake, allowing removal of the hand and regaining of the footing. This is, you can imagine, considerably more difficult when all of your leg coverings are making friends with your kneecaps. I was obliged therefore, to do a freezer-burned version of the worm while pulling up my various garments one-handed in order to maintain pressure on the brake. At length I regained both my footing and my modesty, obtaining them moments before Sarah came into view.

What about you guys? What is the worst humiliation you’ve suffered at the hands of Physics?

 

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Written by Colin Hodd

July 11, 2013 at 2:47 AM

HellomynameisColinHodd or How Not to Journalism

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Those of you who know me (and at this point I can assume that most of the readership here does. If you’re not one of the twenty-or-so friends and relatives that follow this site, I cannot imagine how you got here. That being said, if you leave a comment letting me know what you were actually looking for, perhaps I can direct you.)

Where was I? Ah, yes, those of you who know me know that people are not my strong point. I don’t like meeting new people by myself. I prefer to have a buffer, someone I know who is better at people, who can perform the introductions and allow me to become comfortable. Some of you have already experienced this. God help you if you’re the only person I know in a room, because I will attach myself to you like a socially parasitic worm. Yes, you’re welcome for the image.

Hi, I'm Colin and I'll be attached to you for the duration of this party. Nice shirt.

Hi, I’m Colin and I’ll be attached to you for the duration of this party. Nice shirt.

With a social wingman (or wingwoman, or wingperson. Wingentity?) I am comfortable. Without one, I am a stew of anxiety. This is a problem, because I am supposed to be a journalist, a job which entails a fair amount of speaking to people you don’t know. Additionally, I don’t know many journalists who bring a friend along for interviews. I don’t see that working out very well. Try this thought experiment, just insert names according to the prompts.

“Hi, my name is Colin Hodd, I work for [successful paper that pays me in gold bullion] I’m here to do an interview with [career-boosting name drop here]. Who, this? This is my friend [your name if you are my friend, or imagine you are, or would like to be]. Yeah, they are here to hold my hand and make sure I don’t wet myself during the interview. Incidentally, I’d rather not do this in a room with a carpeted floor.”

Now, in that scenario, did we get the interview? No, I think not. I should confess, however, the kind of interview we just imagined is not the kind that destroys me. See, when I have a set time, and a set place, and a set purpose for an interview, I gain a kind of compensatory confidence. The fact that I am supposed to be there, and that this person is supposed to talk to me is like armour.

There is a second kind of interview, however. Most of you have seen them. Some of you have done them. Streeters.

In a streeter you take to the streets (originality not being a big part of journalistic jargon) of whatever town you work in, and ask people walking by what they think about a current event. I tried to do this last week with a total softball story about what Whitehorsians (horsiites?) were doing for Solstice. Here are some highlights from the evening of June 12th, when I walked down Main Street in a tortured attempt to communicate with my fellow man.

Attempt one: An older couple on the corner of Main and Third. One of my strategies for dealing with streeters is to rehearse my speech in my head before opening my mouth. One of the wonderful things about writing is that I can rework a sentence dozens of times and no-one is the wiser. This is less effective out loud. Some of you, however, have heard me rehash the same sentence four or five times in conversation trying to get it right.

In any case, what lived in my head as “Hello, my name is Colin Hodd” comes out as “Hellomynameiscolinhodd.” Already I’m terrified. The couple allow me to recover, older people tend to be nice that way. It turns out they are visiting from Illinois, and don’t know anything about the Solstice. I interview them anyway and forget to press record, like a boss.

Attempts two through five: Five more couples from the United States, all utterly unaware that Solstice was a thing.

Attempt Six: I stop a very friendly guy on Main. If you’re playing along, say it with me….wait for it….who doesn’t know Solstice is a thing. He has a good excuse though, since he’d just gotten off the plane. From South Africa. Because only I, looking for people from Whitehorse in Whitehorse could turn up a guy from half a world away.

Interlude: I get an e-mail from my editor telling me that she’s reserved a huge splash page for my story, which if you’re keeping score, has zero interviews so far. This boosts my confidence immensely. Oh, wait, no it doesn’t.

Attempt seven: This interview actually went fairly well. Brian Oman tells me that he is planning to have a campfire at Miles Canyon during Solstice. This will be my most successful interview of the night, and it doesn’t count because Brian is the gardener at the Boys and Girls Club, where I work as the shift supervisor.

This is Brian, my only successful interview. And yes, that is my finger on the lens. Professionalism!

This is Brian, my only successful interview. And yes, that is my finger on the lens. Professionalism!

 

Attempts eight through ten: It turns out that parents trying to herd their children downtown do not like to stop and chat with a two-hundred pound bearded male with an uninviting default expression.

 

Attempt Eleven: I try to shoot fish in a barrel by harassing the patrons of the Klondike Rib and Salmon, a restaurant whose patrons line up outside waiting to get in..Highlights include my choking halfway through my introduction to a group of four people, losing nerve and walking away, and failing to notice a blind woman was blind (despite her cane, and seeing eye dog, I held my hand in the air in front of here to shake until her husband coughed and nodded toward the aforementioned dog and cane.)

 

This went on for two hours. I sent a truncated version of what you just read to my editor in lieu of the story that was asked for. You will be unsurprised to find out they didn’t run it. Turns out “Yeah, I Fucked Up” isn’t a compelling story about Solstice. No kidding. Anyway, there’s no grand point or larger moral here. Just thought I would share a story about a time I tried something that terrified me. I’d like to hear from people in the comments. What was a time you tried something that terrified you? Did it blow up in your face the way it blew up in mine, or did you triumph?

Written by Colin Hodd

June 24, 2013 at 6:22 PM

Almost Intelligent Goes North- All About Sled Dogs

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Sled dogs are no longer the main form of transportation in the North. Like draught animals elsewhere in the developed world, they have become a form of recreation, a hobby. For anyone with the time or inclination, they are still one of the best ways to get around the back country in the Yukon. Last weekend I had a chance to go on a four-day trip with my girlfriend Sarah, her father David, and sixteen sled dogs (see the end of the story for a list of names.) This is a primer on dogs and dog-driving, without which the rest of the story won’t make much sense.

Many people (myself included, prior to meeting them), seem to think that because sled dogs aren’t pets, they must not be particularly nice. In the case of David’s dogs that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The are friendly, adorable, and in some cases utterly filthy. As David explained, there’s no advantage to be gained by having viciously-tempered dogs, because all you do is increase the risk of injury to yourself and the dogs.

David’s dogyard has twenty-one dogs in it and is surrounded by 6-foot high wire fencing. Each dog has a chain on a swivel, and its own doghouse. There was a time when the chicken wire wasn’t there. That was before wolves took two dogs some years back. The main pen is subdivided into two sections, one for the boys, another for the girls. If you don’t know why that is necessary, go ask your parents.

There is something funny about things that exist in the public imagination. They get frozen in a perpetual golden age, where it’s always thirty years ago. This is partly due to nostalgia. It is also partly due to the fact that there are too many damn things, and not enough time to constantly update our mental images of them. Dogsleds are one of these things. If I asked you to think of a dogsled, you’d probably come up with a wood-frame sled held together with sinew and rope. As is usually the case, dogsleds are significantly modern.

A fully-loaded modern dog sled. Note the lack of sinews.

A modern dogsled might have wooden runner-frames, but the runners and bed are plastic, while sections of the structure are fashioned from hollow metal. The overall shape is similar to what you might expect, long, low front with a circular “brushbow” for deflecting things away from the sled (or the sled away from things), curving up to a the handle or “steering bow.”

The system by which the dogs are attached to the sled is somewhat complex. Thanks to Sarah Murray for providing me with the following description:

The lines are attached to a “bridle” in front of the sled which centres the lines so that they are pulling evenly on both sides of the sled (Colin’s Note: Otherwise the sled flips, and if I have to tell you why that’s bad, you’re not allowed to be reading this). Attached to the bridle is the “gangline.” While you are standing on the back of the sled, the gangline looks like a single cord running down the centre length of the dog team. In fact, it is broken up into sections and each section can hold two dogs.

Two 3-4 foot “tuglines” project from the back of each section of gangline. The tugline is attached to the back of a dog’s harness. From the front of a section of gangline, two necklines project which clip onto the dogs’ collars, thus holding the dogs at the front and the back. They actually pull on the tugline, whereas the neckline keeps the dogs in line, and is used for balance when they are running hard. The dogs are not pulling from their necks, the harness actually puts the pressure on the chest and shoulders.

These are the dog harnesses. They allow the dogs to pull more comfortably and efficiently.

You can theoretically have as many gangline sections as you want, with 2 dogs per section. At the front of the line you will find the leaders. They are not attached via a gangline section. The leaders are attached on a “double-leader” which is basically two tuglines that branch off the single stem of the gangline, so the lead pair can run unencumbered. To keep them aligned, there is a neck line that goes from collar-to-collar on the lead pair.

There are four main kinds of pairing, wheel, swing, leader and team.

The closest two dogs to the sled are called the “wheel pair,” because they are the basic motor for the sled. These dogs need to pull hard, and are generally larger, and are most responsible for getting the sled around corners. Because a gangline tends to cut the corner (the sled is several feet behind the leader, imagine a circle with a line drawn inside it between two points), the wheeldogs have to pull around the corner, so that neither they nor the sled crash into a tree. Contrary to stereotype, a good wheeldog tends to be smart, it’s how they stay alive.

Swing dogs are behind the leaders, and it is often to have former, or up-and-coming leaders in this position, because many dogs find it frightening to be this close to the front of the team. Swing requires a willing dog. They are responsible for getting the team smoothly around corners, maintaining a smooth arc.

Leaders are in front and they are the brains of the team. Ideally the team will follow the mushers verbal commands. The common commands are “Let’s go”(Mush, Hike, Okay) “Haw”(left), “Gee”(right) “Whoah”(stop). Other less-used commands are “On-by”(for going past another team on the trail) and “straight ahead” (for ignoring other distractions). Some mushers will have individualized commands, but these are the most common. Leaders can be smaller than other dogs. Dogs often don’t want to lead. It is important to find a proper leader, since this is a very stressful position. A dog unsuited to the post will often either not run or develop symptoms of stress, like lick-spots.

Team dogs are any pairs that are not leader, swing or wheel. They are numbered starting with the first two behind the leader as first team, second team, third team etc. The team immediately in front of the wheel dogs is called “last team.” Team dogs provide extra pulling power.

This is the team that I had, and it gives you a good look at the lines. The teams are, starting in the foreground, wheel, last team, swing and lead. And if you have a dog-bum fetish this is is your lucky day!(Also your computer's IP address has been sent to the police. They're at your door as we speak, you sick fuck.)

Sarah’s description points out another key thing about sled dogs, personality matters. You can’t just slot a dog in to any position and expect it to work out. The first time I went dogsledding I was worried about directing the dogs. It turns out, they do most of the work themselves. Sled dogs instinctively want to run, and to keep to the trail. For my part, I was always following David, who was driving a sled in front of me. All I had to do was follow behind. My job, and the musher’s job generally, is to keep the sled upright, help steer and to watch the dogs to make sure no-one is tangled in their lines, or is showing signs of injury.

During our trips, it was rarely necessary to encourage the dogs to speed up. More often I had to slow them down. There are two methods for doing this. One is a skid pad, which sits between the runners at the back of the sled. Usually rubber with metal grips, this pad can be stepped on to produce friction. The dogs respond to the extra pull by slowing down. This is best used for times when slowing down is desired, but not urgent, as when trying to maintain distance between yourself and the sled in front of you.

When stopping is urgent, as when about to collide with the sled in front of you, there is a brake, which is a loop of metal attached to the back of the sled by hinges and held off the trail by bungee-cord. Two spikes project from the brake, these are what dig into the trail and provide the brake’s stopping power.

Unfortunately, stopped dogs tend not to stay stopped. They want to run, dammit, and your puny foot on the brake isn’t enough to hold them. Enter the snowhook. This is attached to the front of the sled by a long line, and usually rests just below the steering bow. When the dogs need to stop and stay, you drop the hook onto the trail and stomp on the back of the hook to drive it into the snow. If there is a tree nearby, you tie an additional rope, called the gee line, around it. Those two measures are usually enough to hold the sled. This is important, because the dogs don’t much care if you’re on the sled or not. If you fall off, it just means less of your ass for them to haul around.

This is a snowhook. It hooks into the snow. I cannot explain it much better.

There is your primer on dog-driving. I know it was long and kind of involved, but trust me, it will make the next post easier for all of us. “Goddamn you Colin,” you’re saying, “I didn’t come here to be educated about things!” Good news, hypothetical reader. Next post will be less education, more stunning Northern vistas and stories about me falling down and hurting myself!

Without further ado, here is the list of the dogs we took with us on the trip:

My Team

The Boys– Tofino and Mercury

The Girls– Boreal, Butterscotch, Calypso, Turin and Sadie

David’s Team(All Boys)-Katana, Hercules, Duke, Twain, Griffin, Earl, Pickle, Pingo

Sarah’s Team(Girl)-Dizzy

Written by Colin Hodd

April 17, 2012 at 10:32 PM

Almost Intelligent Goes North-Nabbed By The RCMP

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In order to get a sense of the city(read about my impressions and see more photos here) I spent the better part of a day wandering around Whitehorse “following my feet” for lack of anything better to direct me. Now, walking tends to be an uneventful activity. Suspicious people never walk, they slink. Guilty people run. Walking is for the calm, the legal and the noncriminal. It is also for the unlicensed and the carless (i.e. me.)

When I’m not trying to get anywhere in particular, I enjoy the slowness of walking. I need it in order to get any sense of my bearings in a place. When I’m in a car it just doesn’t work, and I find myself with no idea of how places are connected. Walking without a destination also increases the impulse to wander, to explore. Perhaps you already see where this is going.

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Written by Colin Hodd

April 10, 2012 at 11:36 PM

Almost Intelligent Goes North-Man About Town

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This post was updated, but not substantially changed, to include a few more hard facts. I was not content with the original version for several reasons, but felt it would be dishonest to edit it retroactively with no indication that this was done.

Downtown Whitehorse is like and yet unlike anywhere else I’ve been. Take that with a grain of salt, since the list of “Places Colin Has Been” is both short and unvaried. It is not a big city, but with some 26,000 people calling it home(according to Statistics Canada, 2011), it is not precisely small either. In relative terms, it is gigantic. Those 26,000 people represent 77% of the total population in the Yukon.

One immediately notices, however, how short it is. I am told this is the result of the town existing on an earthquake fault. A bylaw prohibits buildings in excess of four stories, giving the town a unique profile. Anyone looking for the mythical wild frontier, the capital-N North, will be a little disappointed by Whitehorse at first. Sure, there are heritage buildings and various tourist-baiting enterprises, some of which pander to that image. But it is an image, the same way Saint John is “The Loyalist City.” I do not use image in the sense of inauthentic or fake either. In the case of Whitehorse, the untamed frontier is part of the foundations of the city, a real part of its past and an influence on its present, but not the reality of the present.

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Written by Colin Hodd

April 5, 2012 at 6:28 PM

Almost Intelligent Goes North-Distance

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An Introduction

My name is Colin Hodd, I am in the Yukon, and I am far from home. Home for me is Musquash, New Brunswick, some five thousand kilometres southeast of Whitehorse. But distance doesn’t mean what it used to. I crossed a continent in order to be with a girl I had not seen in half a year. There was a time, not all that long ago, when a journey like that made legends, made fortunes.

The lack of adoring crowds, fanmail and extravagant gifts means I’m probably not a legend, and my plane ticket only cost a fortune. That being said, anyone reading this is welcome to send fanmail and/or extravagant gifts….ah, that would be a no then? Then perhaps a brief rundown of the arduousness (spellcheck says its a word) of my journey will help solidify my legend.

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Written by Colin Hodd

April 2, 2012 at 7:13 PM