Sled Dogs and Pirate Ships
a musing on the life and influence of a dog named Chasseur
I have been crouched for an eternity in a tiny sky blue room at the vet's, trying to remember what I read about Linda Tellington-Jones' massage techniques. I remember some of the things for horses, and that she wrote books about doing massage to ease pain and to heal for dogs and cats. And that she practiced these techniques on everything from downed event horses to pythons. I am, perhaps ineffectually, practicing them on a dying Siberian husky, female, about 46 pounds, named Chasseur, aka Chase. She was fine yesterday morning, galloping through the dogyard in the fog and snow, chasing her buddies, lagging behind as she has for the last year or so. Probably has something to do with the arthritis affecting her spine, something she hid from me until the x-rays taken today. Something she hid along with the tumor, the enlarged gall bladder, and the enzyme numbers that are not only high, but literally off the charts. I run hands through varicolored agouti fur, each hair banded in wolf shades from black to greys to bluff buffs and sand and white. Her yes, three shades lighter than the blue sky walls are not focused on this world anymore...
I am balancing on the wooden deck of a War of 1812 privateer, roaring on a reach between Baltimore and Chestertown Maryland. Above me the sails curve under the wind like the backs of sled dogs, hauling on the intricate harness of lines connecting this Force of Nature to the wooden hull, like a gangline channeling dog power to the wooden hull of a sled. The shrouds bracing the masts hum with the power like a vast harp, the sharp bow slices through the Chesapeake chop as easily as waxed runners over swells of snow.
A half hour ago I stood at the helm, as all guest crew are allowed to do, once. A young sailor girl showed me how to turn the wheel, read the wind and the shape of sails, what the compass teetering in its binnacle meant, what the shape of the clouds told us about coming weather, and which blit on the horizon I am steering toward. I turned the wheel and maddeningly, the great unicorn horn of the bowsprit, a hundred feet ahead, swung across the horizon in the wrong direction, like dogs off course because they smelled a squirrel. I corrected, the bowsprit (not unlike the gee-pole on the old freighting sleds) continued to swing in the wrong direction, then ground to a painstaking halt and slowly, sloooooooooowly, began to swing back across the horizon.
“There, did you see that?”
“Her head came up into the wind...”
Right. Sure. I can read the body language of a horse under me, or under a newbie on a lunge line. I can see the horse break gait a dozen strides before he does it. I can read the trot of my dogs, see the hitch that means they've spotted a squirrel, or goats in the field ahead, or chickens on the trail. This huge breathing hull of wood and cloud of canvas is a mystery. The girl beside me is half my age and twenty times my experience. She's crewed on the Lady Washington... that's the ship Captain Jack and Will Turner stea... er... commandeer (it's a nautical term) in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film.
Life is definitely weirder than fiction... I'm being taught to drive a pirate ship by someone who walked the same planks as Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom.
The lesson ends before the wind picks up, and we find ourselves heeling till the windward side shows bottom paint to the wind, and on the leeward side, the waves are washing the feet of the cannons on deck. Ahead of me on that deck is a bright red Zodiac (an inflatable boat) and under it is a lovely period wooden ship's boat. Across the wooden boat's stern is painted “Chasseur”.
The ship is the Pride of Baltimore II, a reproduction of the wicked swift and agile privateers of the War of 1812. While Pride is based on the overall concept of a “Baltimore Clipper”, she is not based on a specific ship. Her name, (and that of her ship's boat) however, comes directly from one of the most famous of the privateers; Chasseur. The exploits of her Captain Thomas Boyle earned Chasseur the nickname “Pride of Baltimore”. The teenaged America with its miniscule Navy (16 ships at the start) was up against the Motherland with its vast armada, the likes of which had never been seen before on the planet. The Chesapeake itself offered up a solution: the sharp hulled, agile “schooner, pilot boat built” (later called the Baltimore Clipper) that had evolved to navigate the twisting, shallow, shoaly waters of the Chesapeake. They could outrun what they couldn't outgun, and outgun what they couldn't outrun. The “seawolves” cut out fat British merchant vessels from the herd, the “flyers” ran goods past the blockades. Letters of marque and reprisal made them legal, at least from our perspective.
The Brits, on the other hand, thought it might be a good idea to invade Baltimore and wipe out that “nest of pirates”. Fort McHenry gave them pause.
One of the most famous of the American privateers, Captain Thomas Boyle sailed his Baltimore clipper, Chasseur, out of Fells Point, where she had been launched from Thomas Kemp's shipyard in 1812. On his first voyage as master of Chasseur in 1814, Boyle sailed east to the British Isles, where he harassed the British merchant fleet and sent a notice to George III, by way of a captured merchant vessel, declaring that the entire British Isles were under naval blockade by Chasseur alone! Despite its implausibility, this caused the British Admiralty to call vessels home from the American war to guard merchant ships sailing in convoys. Chasseur captured or sank 17 vessels before returning home to Baltimore on 25 March 1815. Perhaps her most famous accomplishment was the capture of the schooner HMS St. On her return to Baltimore, the Niles Weekly Register dubbed the Chasseur, her captain, and crew the "pride of Baltimore" for their achievement. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pride_of_Baltimore
Chasseur [sha-sur; Fr. sha-sœr] (a French term for "hunter"... literally chaser) is the designation given to certain regiments of French and Belgian light infantry (Chasseurs à pied) or light cavalry (Chasseurs à cheval) to denote troops trained for rapid action. The privateers were also light, lean, swift ships, not a bit like the heavy warships they outran, or plodding merchants they preyed on. Chasseur is also the “hunter's sauce” used in French cuisine. And I've read a passage where it is used to describe the French Canadian trapper/mushers.
I decided it was a good name for a dog. Blockaded the entire British Isles with one ship. Yep. Good name that.
Siberians and Pirated goats
My first Siberian got my goat.
My pygmy goat, tied in the backyard, began screaming in panic (like a roomful of third graders), I ran out to find an inept young Sibe chasing the goat in circles. Contained the dog, tracked down the owners. Lovely people, the conversation went something like...
Them: “She doesn't really listen to us...”
Me: “It's a Siberian.”
Them: “She gets loose...”
Me: (observing four foot fence that the dog has just walked up like a ladder) “It's a Siberian...”
Them: “...likes to play with the cat...”
Me: “She's trying to eat the cat...”
Them: “We'd like to find a new home for her...”
Me: “I got a friend in Siberian rescue...”
Me: (three days later) “Nevermind, keeping the dog...”
It's like potato chips, you can't have just one.
I'd had four: Nikki, B'loo, Agliuk... Nikki had passed on, Agliuk had succumbed to a mysterious illness, a friend had found a “malamute” at the SPCA. He turned out to resemble our friend's Siberian/Shepherd cross (or the breed called the Northern Inuit Dog, which is simply a designer cross of Sibe/Shep/Mal, you've seen them on the TV series Game of Thrones). He also strongly resembled Agliuk. I brought him home, named him Legolas because my Siberian guru had named her favorite Siberian after her favorite Tolkien character, and if you can't clone Orlando Bloom, you can at least name a dog after one of his characters.
Legolas (unlike his Tolkien namesake) did not play well with others. Or at least with B'loo, or team up well with him either. And B'loo was getting oldish.
Despite now having a one dog team, I wasn't really looking for another dog.
I was at a friend's place, another friend called, hey, there's this dog at the SPCA, a Sibe, nobody in the rescue has a place to foster it, can you pick it up...
Like Hermione in the Harry Potter films, my hand shot up.
The volunteer at the SPCA was happy to hand her over. A maniacal grey and white Sibe, blue-eyed, wheezing like Darth Vader on helium.
“Is she OK?”
“Seems to be, she just always sounds like that...”
Might have been partly due to nearly choking in her enthusiasm to be outta there. She never did entirely stop kind of snorking through her sinuses though.
She was a scruffy, wild-eyed pirate chick. Flecks of loose fur escaping (briars, encounters with wild things, or fences, and blowing coat), bits of fur missing, scars, scratches, and a bare spot on one front leg that never did grow in because she just liked to lick it. She'd been rounded up with a buddy, trying to pirate someone's goats.
Goats. Nikki. You sent her didn't you?
I stared down at the scruffy mess of a wench... pirate wench.
At some point, some official paperwork needed a name, I blurted out “Chasseur”.
I never did hand her over to the rescue.
She took to Leggy, and was soon running down the trail beside him, pulling the rig. I shot photos from the rig, video, edited it and posted it on Youtube with the idea of showing everyone else how easy and fun it was to mush, even if you didn't live in the Frozen North. When Leggy took a Dancing With Your Dog class, I took Chase. Once.
The very proper instructor was used to obedient Border Collies.
Chasseur was no Border Collie.
We went home and did Dancing With Your Dog whenever she felt like it, however she felt like it, and with lots of bikkies. Then we ran some more.
She lived up to her name, loving the pools I placed in the kennel in the summer. Her ice sky eyes always had a glint of pirate mischief.
B'loo aged, passed on, and I had a two dog team. Handy, convenient, two dogs is nice.
Nope. It's like potato chips, you can't have just two. They keep finding me.
Four Dog Team
My friend Heather Hanna had huskies, the first Siberians I'd ever met, on, of all odd places, a Virginia island called Chincoteague. It was she who had named her favorite Siberian Strider (causing me to swear I'd name the next one of mine Legolas).
“I have a dog that needs a home...”
Her friend had rescued a nephew's girlfriend's dog... blah blah blah... Heather shows up in a big white van with lots of books and one black and white blue-eyed female, spayed, in a crate in the back.
Denali joined the team.
It was clear from day one that Chase was the Queen of the Pirates, the Alpha Bitch, She Who Must Not Be Questioned. There were usually no actual teeth involved in the discussions because Denali was happy to acquiesce, rather like a British merchant ship handing over their goods to a privateer. Chase looked more like the Chukchi dogs Team Beringia ran in the Iditarod in 2013, stout, deep chested. Denali looked more like a racing Siberian. Both were probably random, accidental breedings, pet quality dogs by the standards of those who pay attention to such things. Denali was a bit faster, Leggy a bit taller. They were all sort of greyish blackish with white countershading, a nearly matched set of mismatched mistakes. Dogs that had got loose from someone else, and never been searched for. Dogs maybe loved as puppies, then they grew up, became independent minded Siberians and were left out, lost, and forgotten.
They were perfect.
We ran on the rig, on the Rail Trail, straight on till morning. I filmed, I photographed, I posted on Youtube. We ran the winding paths of Pinchot's campground roads. We took newbies out mushing: me on the bike, someone who had never driven dogs before on the rig, one toe hovering near the brake, hands gripping the handlebar, me with a Flexi lead on my leader. We took a friend's toddler in a booster seat on the rig, and when Max the “Hobbit Husky” (a 16 pound Schipperke) came to live with us, he rode in a backpack on the rig... until we stuck him on the gangline with the rest. We got a sled, a buddy, (Nichole and Willow)I ran four dogs for the first time on the rig.
Then the snowpocalypse, and an editor from the York Daily Record calling and asking if we were going “mooshing”.
I'd been posting photos in their photo gallery: kayaking, tall ships, sled dogs.
“Um, yeah. Pinchot answered my phone call and has their parking lot plowed...”
“We want to send out a reporter and a photographer.
The photographer wanted the Epic Adventure Shot, with all four dogs on the sled.
I'd never driven four dogs on a sled. On the rig, last week, yes. That's the RIG, a solid steel-hulled beast with brakes, not a feather light wooden hull which will fly on the wind if I get off to redirect squirrel sniffers or if I fumble and go overboard.
We put Leggy, and Willow in lead, Chase and Denali in wheel, me on the drag brake, which was also a new thing. Nichole wrangled as Trail Help, holding the front end, pointing them in the general direction.
The addition of a third dog to a two-dog team is a leap of power. Like when a Cheapeake schooner only sets a topsail... then adds some headsails... then the fore... then the Main...
...adding the fourth dog was like setting the whole mess of sails at once. It was the Pride of Baltimore II screaming under the Francis Scott Key bridge with her full cloud of sail up, with every car horn honking and every small boat circling and me wondering how I could take the picture.
I didn't even have a camera on this mushing four-dog expedition. Both hands were on the driving bow.
We galloped down the first slope, the drag mat piling up a small Mount Everest between my feet. As we came to the bottom of the hill, I realized the brake had to come up... stop? Don't think so.
“Uh...” I crouched in my Charlie Brown layers, rumpled around in the snow, found the drag brake and hooked it on the support under the driving bow.
We trotted through the foot of fresh powder, got lost, got unlost (thanks Leggy), got distracted (Leggy!)... I learned I could jump off the sled, hand over hand down the gangline... one hand for yourself and one for the ship... and set the dogs back on track.
Chase plowed along as gamely as anyone, tongue hanging joyously.
The photo appeared on the front page of The Daily Record, Willow and Leggy in lead, me looking nearly competent, Chase's distinctive pricked, close-set ears appearing just over Willow's butt.
I had noticed Chase seemed to be slowing down a bit over the last year or so.
We ran all winter, on the Rail Trail with the rig, with all four dogs, with two on one team and two on the other. With bike and rig, with sleds, with Max on the gangline (slower) with Max in the sled bag. Chase, Denali and Leggy played in the dogyard... then Leggy and Willow. Then Leggy, Denali and Willow.
And at last, I introduced Chase, the Pirate Queen, the Alpha Bitch to the whole mess.
She was fine.
She was fine in the next few snowpocalypses. She was fine running in the whiteout that day the snow and fog made the world look like World's End.
Then she didn't eat.
And the next day she was worse.
And blood tests and x-rays showed she was dying.
The Pirate Queen, Lady of the Privateers, should not linger. Should not sink slowly over weeks.
She did not.
The Rainbow Bridge has become a symbol for pets passing. We forget that it is The Bifrost. The flaming rainbow bridge of Norse mythology that leads from Midgard (Middle-earth, our world) to Asgard (world of the gods). That it is the rainbow that appears after the thunderstorm, and that thunder and lightning are Thor keeping the world safe from those pesky Frost Giants.
The Norse were farmers as well as the best seamen of the time, and whether their dogs were hunting or herding, they were mostly spitz types, northern dogs like the Siberian from the other side of Middle-earth. Frigga, the wife of Odin (leader of the gods) is often depicted traveling in a chariot drawn by dogs (the goddess Freya drives one pulled by cats... and Thor sticks with his goat chariot).
Viking Age art depicts many dogs, especially in runestone scenes depicting the arrival of the slain warrior into Valhöll: The warrior is greeted by a Valkyrie, bearing a horn of mead, and behind her waits the warrior's faithful hound. Like many dog-owners, the Vikings apparently could not conceive of an afterlife in which their canine best friends were not present. This probably explains, in part, why many warriors' graves contain the bones of one or more dogs, sent to the afterlife to accompany their master. In Scandinavian belief, the dog is the guardian of the underworld, and it is speculated that one reason for including dogs in Viking Age burials was to provide a guide for the deceased to lead them to the underworld.
And in Siberia, from the tribe that originated the Siberian husky: according to Chukchi belief, two Huskies guard the gates of heaven turning away anybody that has shown cruelty to a dog in their lifetime.
For the pre-Christian Celts, the end of October was the end of the harvest, of the old year. The new year began at dawn the next day, the night between belonged to neither world, the veils thinned, and spirits walked. We remember it as All Hallow's Eve.
The Night Between the Worlds
On Halloween night, 2007, I walk with friends through the very spooky dark streets of the Inner Harbor of Baltimore, Maryland. I'm carrying a plastic pumpkin full of candy, lit with a wooden-ship-safe battery powered candle. I find the Pride of Baltimore II lying in her berth, dark, quiet, a chunk of wood, some poles poking into the night, miles of tangled rope holding it together. One sailor answers our hail, the only one aboard. I clamber on, one of the two guest crew taking this voyage from one side of the Bay to the other.
In the morning, she rumbles to life, two great Caterpillar diesels powering twin screws shove her around Inner Harbor, loading up necessary supplies, then she chugs out, past Fort McHenry, out of the waters that trash boats sift for plastic bags and styrofoam cups.
Out in the open, away from the glass towers, from the noise of the place that was once a thriving port, a shipbuilding center, and a “nest of pirates”, the miles of line above us come to life, shrouds and braces hold steady, halyards and sheets sing out like a gangline stretching under dogs raring to run. We begin throwing canvas into the air. A foresail, headsails, a topsail, another, then the Main. We drift under the Francis Scott Key bridge, a rainbow arch of a continuous truss bridge, the longest in the world of its type. Pride's cutlass blade hull and vast cloud of canvas pick up speed. She heels under the light wind, the water breathes on her hull, she treads the water as if it wasn't there.
Cars honk, small boats close in, drawn by Pride gravity. I look up: this is The Picture, the one from all the books and T-shirts, and mugs and posters and paintings. I pull out my camera, stumped. I can't take the picture because I am in it.
Above me the lines tighten like Karen Ramstead's gangline. The sails curve like the backs of a team on the Iditarod. We sail out of the old world, the old year, into a new sunrise.
Teacher on Board
The four leggeds who've shared my life, horse or cat or dog, have been patient teachers to this floundering student. Saraf, the little bay horse who carried me through my horrible teen years, Bazraf, the grey Elf-steed whose death taught me to write, B'loo, the big black Sibe cross who taught me when to let go, Agliuk who taught me that there is Grace in the world.
And Chasseur the Privateer. For guest crew passages you have to say something about why you want to make that voyage. On paper, and in the interview the Captain gives you. You are not lounging on deck sipping mai-tais. You do not have to know anything, but you have to want to learn something. You do what you can, you haul on a line (if it's a rope on a ship and it has a job it's called a line), you help raise anchor, you paint the gun doors as you chug up the Chester River. You check the bilges, you watch the path of a shooting star arc across the rigging, your camera catches the sweep of the stars as the ship rides the quiet night swells.
You confront your own insecurities, shortcomings, possibilities.
I drove a pirate ship, taught by a girl who walked the same planks as Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom.
The other Chasseur was a challenge too, a learning experience. You haul on a gangline, you loose the anchor rope, you shout on-by at a dozen squirrels and horses and goats (sorry Thor). You remember that someone said there are two kinds of Siberian people: those who try to turn the dog into something else, and those who accept the dog for what it is.
A Force of Nature, like the changing wind, harnessed.
Fly on little pirate wench. The old night is ended. Wait for me at the Bridge.
I never noticed this small blit before on the kennel wall, in Chase's old room...
A moment of appreciation for Dr Anne Parker and Compassion Animal Hospital of East Berlin PA.
Visit her pages by clicking on the hearts above.
Visit her pages by clicking on the hearts above.