Call of the Tame

In the frozen north country, man and dog and nature's fury combine in the drama of dog sledding. It's the story Hollywood refuses to tell.

Credit: Robert McGouey/Getty

Yipping, yapping, yelping, yammering mutts assault the eardrums. Hundreds of doggie throats fling forth every conceivable hysteria effect worked up during I million years of canine evolution. Yowls and howls and whines and whimpers combine in madcap adrenalin jubilee.

To me it was music. To me the bedlam meant only one thing: The mushers were here! Trucking thousands of miles across the snow belt, the mushers had descended on yet another obscure, frigid burg to test themselves against one another and the elements.

And I, drawn by the inevitable press release, was here, too, come to this yellow-stained, snow-packed parking lot surrounded by mushers' trucks from North America's coldest states and provinces, nimbly dodging sleds zipping to the starting line, come to plumb the secrets of our continent's least understood — in fact, hardly even noticed — pastime, come to answer the Call of the Tame.

Ah, dog-sled racing. Or was it sled-dog racing? Even the name was mysterious. And the motives: Who were these rugged mushers, their beards no doubt encrusted with ice? Why did they mush? What was the nearly sacred bond between them and their noble beasts? And — most important — did this story have the potential to be turned into a major motion picture and make me rich?

Lord, I hope so. I'm so sick of not being rich. I would find the top dog, the mightiest musher extant, and tell his stirring saga to the world.

Nome, Alaska: Finale of the race of races, the heart-stopping Iditarod. Eleven hundred miles of open tundra. Thirteen days from Anchorage to Nome, just man and dog and nature's fury. At the finish line, a scene of tumultuous drama. A siren blows to summon the townfolk. Out of the packed saloons they swarm, bored, tough, ugly men stamping in the cold. Spotlights illuminate the trail as the first team charges out of the deep, Arctic dark and a roar goes up from thousands of besotted, entertainment-starved brutes…. . . .

However, I am not in Nome. I am in Saranac Lake in upstate New York, where a professor from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine named Dr. David Kronfeld is giving me an earful of Nome at a reception for mushers and press in the lobby of the Hotel Saranac. Immediately, I realize that Nome is where I should have gone to truly fathom the great, soon-to-be-famous sport of dog-sled racing. Why am I always in the wrong place at the wrong time?

''I've been to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and I was overwhelmed emotionally,'' says Kronfeld, who favors flashy suspenders, speaks with a New Zealand accent, claims to be part German, part Jewish and part Samoan and is said to be one of the world's leading experts on bovine nutrition. ''But the feeling there is less intense than at Iditarod.''

Damn! Rats! Well, Saranac Lake isn't Nome, but it will have to do. At least the place has an authentically weird history: It used to be a huge tuberculosis ward. Sickies from all over, some as famous as Robert Louis Stevenson, would trek up here to sleep outdoors, hoping the dry mountain air would cure their TB before freezing them to death.

And it has Harris Dunlap. The name is ubiquitous hereabouts. Harris Dunlap, a three-time dog-sled champion, the man to beat here at the Alpo International Championships. I must find the immortal Dunlap, king of the dog men, musher supreme.

***

''Hello, Bernie? Guess Where I am?''

''The unemployment office?''

''Saranac Lake. Up in the Adirondacks.''

''Why?''

''This is it, Bernie, the big one. The blockbuster. It's a totally fresh concept, and it's perfect for Eastwood or maybe Newman. Hell, maybe even Richard Gere. I'm talking Rocky with snow. Raiders of the Lost Arctic.''

''No! What's the story?''

''Dog-sled racing!''

''Uh, Lew, can I get back to you? Paramount's on the other line.''

***

Standing across the hotel lobby is a bracingly charismatic figure. Golden hair cascading to his shoulders, bandana round his forehead, caribou mukluks on his feet, he could be an Indian scout or mule skinner in the Old West. Surely, this is the man himself, Harris Dunlap, musher superior.

''Eddy Streeper,'' he says, holding out a hand.

Eddy is twenty-four years old and hails from Fort Nelson, a town of 5,000 in British Columbia. He isn't Harris Dunlap — sounds a bit more like Bob and Doug McKenzie, actually — but he has a saga, nevertheless.

He and his older brother, Terry, started ten years ago with three dogs. Now they have scads and a three-ton truck to take seventy-two at a time on the road. Eddy raced in Minnesota last week, then rolled 2,000 miles to Saranac Lake. Meanwhile, Terry was in Grand Rapids running their younger dogs. ''I got thirty dogs with me; he's got forty-one with him,'' says Eddy. ''He's the farm team.''

I could see Bronson as Eddy.

''Hey, Maggot!'' a passing friend calls cheerfully. Eddy smiles.

Nah. Bronson would never take that.

Eddy has a dream. Seven years out of the last ten, he's been the British Columbia champion. His ambition is to be world champion. Take it away from Dunlap up in Anchorage. He'd like to win here, too. ''I'm peakin' for this weekend,'' he says. ''There's only one team here I'm concerned about — Harris Dunlap's.''

***

''Bernie, I'm telling you. This guy Dunlap, he's gotta be even more colorful than Streeper.''

''Who's that? Meryl Streep's up there?''

''No, no, no. Listen, here's the plot: It's classic. The young outsider, yearning to prove his manhood, goes up against the old pro, king of the hill. All of it comes down to the finish line at Saranac. Remember Gleason and Newman in The Hustler? Remember Ben-Hur? This is better.''

''Any sex?''

''Are you kidding? The night before the race, the young guy takes his girlfriend to an igloo on the trail. It could be Gere and Mariel Hemingway. Takes them a full twenty minutes to get out of their parkas, down vests, long Johns, boots. The erotic suspense is unbelievable.''

''I don't know, buddy. All that snow. . . . It's too . . . ecological. Ecology is bad box office.''

***

''Good morning,'' says the hotel operator. ''It's twenty degrees outside and a beautiful day.''

''Isn't that totally contradictory?'' I mutter.

The race course is a short drive outside town. It used to be on the lake itself. ''The people over here got tired of playing second fiddle to Lake Placid all the time,'' a town board member told me at the hotel the night before. ''They'd been making a success of winter sports, so we looked into it and found nothing had been done with sled racing.''

The first year, 1977, things went fine. Not so well later. One year, the weather grew perversely mild, and a grooming machine disappeared through the ice of the lake. Subsequently, a sixteen-mile trail was stamped out over snowy wood and dale. Then Alpo came in and sponsored the race.

The town board member said he figured it would bring about $200,000 worth of business to Saranac Lake this year. Welcome Mushers, say the signs in the town's restaurants, bars, stores and motels.

The howling doggies all around, yipping, yapping, yelping, are not quite the magnificently huge huskies one would expect. Turns out they're kind of scrawny-looking. Just like human runners, a musher explains. They're mongrels, bred for speed and endurance. No extra weight. Muttskies! But strong. A racer comes by and asks me to hold his sled while he adjusts a harness. I hop on the back and put all my weight on the brake, and still I'm getting dragged along at a good clip.

A sled is coming up to the starting line, the dogs so excited it takes about fifteen people — plus a metal anchor, called a snow hook, biting into the frozen turf — to hold them back. The dogs are in a lather, some of them literally, drooling and slobbering. Some stand quaking quietly with nervous tension. Others leap and bound against their braces, barking and begging for release, aching to go.

On the ground in front of the team, a frisky-looking dark-haired woman is on her back in the snow. She's rolling about, a dog in each arm, nuzzling them, kissing, stroking, crooning to them, ''My man, my man, my pretty little girl.'' It's so intimate I'm almost embarrassed to be jotting all this down.

''That's Ginger Dunlap,'' a PR guy says.

Hmm. This opens up dramatic new possibilities. Maybe Elizabeth McGovern as Ginger. No, Debra Winger! She's great with dogs. Up to the starting line goes the Dunlap team. The PA squawks from a tower: ''Five, four, three, two, one…. . . . Go, driver!''

Seems it's not a mass start in these dog races. They all go off separately and race against the clock. Not picturesque enough. We'll change that in the script. At the last second, a slim, goateed, pixie-like man in glasses kisses Ginger, pets his lead dogs, dashes to the back of the sled and hops on the runners. The helpers jump clear, and the whole human-dog-wood contraption spurts down the takeoff chute toward open country. At the climactic moment of release, the dogs suddenly fall silent in mid-yawp, leaning into a hard, panting lope as Harris Dunlap shouts, ''Good girls! Looks good! Beautiful!''

In a flash, they are gone.

I repair to Charlie's Inn, official musher headquarters. Charlie's is dark and noisy. Its walls are festooned with paintings of wildlife and signs like:

Houses Are Built Of Bricks And Stone
But Homes Are Made Of Love Alone.

Here, the mushers sit talking dogs and tossing back Buds, Millers and Genesee Lights. Also hot chocolate. Here, musher females diaper musher babies on the back-room pool table. These mushers seem very family oriented.

***

''Bernie, listen, we could have a whole new ballgame here. More of a probing, modern psychological drama. Dustin Hoffman is this middle-aged musher whose wife wants him to quit the race circuit and settle down to a quiet life breeding poodles for rich society ladies. But he wants one more win, the big one up in Nome, and he…. . . . ''

''Lew, I can't hear a word you're saying. Where are you, the Russian Tea Room? Call you back later.''

***

Dr. Kronfeld and his associate, Dr. Sue Donahue, sitting at a table in Charlie's, are talking about their experiments. It seems that Dr. K has been hanging around with Harris Dunlap for twelve years, doing things to his dogs. At present they are trying to find out which nutrients help dogs to best handle stress. Proteins? Fats? Vitamin C? And so poor Dunlap has to feed his dogs four separate special diets, all prescribed by the eccentric professor.

The two met when Dunlap tried to get his dogs into carbohydrate loading — a fad among human marathoners — only to find it gave them cramps. Kronfeld came to the rescue; he put them on canned Alpo chicken, and they cheered up.

Now Dunlap and Kronfeld promulgate all kinds of scientific theories. Like positive reinforcement: No punishment for Dunlap's doggies, says Kronfeld. So that's what all the kissy-huggy was about. And interval training, which involves pacing dogs carefully with a stopwatch to develop their stamina.

''Harris was the first to apply this to dogs,'' says Kronfeld. ''The others said it was baloney. They said the dogs had been bred for 5,000 years to run like hell. When I first went to Alaska with Harris in '76, we told them about interval training, and they gave us the raspberry. Then last year I heard about a guy in Alaska who hit his head on a tree branch and took twelve stitches. I was overjoyed — the reason he hit his head is he was looking at his watch! He was interval training.''

I am downing hot chocolates one after another and sinking into a cocoa stuper when Dr. Sue Donahue has to open her mouth and volunteer that Alpo is made largely from chicken necks and soybean meal and causes dogs to fart.

Oh, Christ. Dr. Kronfeld looks annoyed. I am frankly appalled. Now I have to put this quote in my damn story, and all those nice Alpo PR guys who pay for everything around here are going to get miffed and call me up, screaming about anticorporate media bias. Hey, she said it, not me. I didn't even raise the subject.

''But relative to what else is on the market, it's not bad,'' says Dr. Donahue, a small but determined woman. ''Of course, you'd be better off making your own stuff at home.''

Dr. Kronfeld says that to Alpo's credit, the stuff is supplemented with vitamins. ''You have to understand,'' he says, ''the dog-food business is based on byproducts of the human food industry — things people won't eat. Look, half the food Harris uses is pork lungs. It sounds awful, but it's perfectly nutritious.''

Outside, the PA announcers are squawking bilingually as the dogs tear across the finish line, their tongues lolling out now, panting, dehydrated, compulsively gulping snow. I really ought to watch, but it's cold out there, and Lord, this hot chocolate they brew at Charlie's, it's dynamite.

***

''Bernie, Remember Altered States?''

''Yeah, it bombed.''

''Well, this is much better. There's this mad scientist, see? Maybe De Niro. No, I got it, Paul Shaffer. Anyway, he's obsessed with designing the ultimate racing dog, so he mixes in some human genes for intelligence, and he gets this woolly looking thing that's faster than any mutt alive but at the same time has an unhealthy craving for Nastassja Kinski.''

''What is it, like a Wookiee?''

''Not exactly. More like a werewolf.''

''How about a balletic werewolf? I know a producer who's desperate for a twist on Flashdance.''

''Bernie, are you mocking me?''

***

''A cow is a very dangerous animal,'' says Harris Dunlap. ''It's what all dog drivers fear.''

Finally, I got him to myself, dinner in Lake Placid, away from dogs and family and the rest of the press. My God, the New York Times and the New Yorker are onto this thing. Everywhere you look, reporters are prowling about. Who'd have believed it? Next thing you know, Barbara Walters, Tom Wolfe and Swifty Lazar will be up here, and there go my movie rights. Gotta be careful.

Wait a minute! A cow is dangerous? Oh, he means a cow moose. Concentrate, baby.

Harris got moosed up two years ago at the North American Championships in Fairbanks. He was out in front in the last heat, victory in his grasp, when a damn cow moose jumps out on the trail and starts galloping along smack in front of his team. It seems the big mothers love sled trails because they're easier hoofing when the snow is deep.

''The scary part was that we were catching up to the moose,'' says Harris. ''I could've reached out and touched it, I was afraid that 1,000-pound animal would stop, turn around and stomp us. But I was lucky. The trail came to a turn and the moose ran straight ahead, instead of staying on the trail.''

Harris Dunlap likes to talk. He is polite, genial, low-key, college educated — not really a guy you would cast with Eastwood or Mr. T. I mean, before becoming Nanook of the North, he was an art teacher. However, in the dog-sled world, he is IBM.

In a small Adirondacks town called Bakers Mills, the Dunlaps rule a sled-dog city. They raise their dogs, 120 at a time, housed in individual elevated fiberglass units. They have all kinds of training equipment: a doggie merry-go-round and sleds with wheels, for snowless weather. Last year, Harris estimates — amused, poking his calculator watch — that his sixteen-year-old daughter Lynn opened 69,600 cans of dog food.

Alpo, of course. The company sponsors Harris, and he proudly wears its patch on his racing parka.

His whole family pitches in, and they also take on apprentices who work for room and board. ''Oh, it's a zoo,'' says Harris.

Seven and a half months of the year, Harris and Ginger breed 'em, raise 'em, feed 'em and train 'em. Then comes snow, and the Dunlaps hit the road. They pile into their one-ton truck with the dog boxes in the back, the winners who made the final cut filed cozily away in straw-packed cubbyholes. They drive from Bakers Mills to Minnesota, back to Saranac Lake and out to British Columbia and up the Alcan Highway to Alaska.

Harris has frostbite blotches all over him: occupational hazard.

''Alaska's not bad,'' he says. ''Minnesota's brutal.''

He can talk dogs forever, but when you ask why he became a musher in the first place, you never really get the deep, definitive, soul-satisfying answer. He just considers himself lucky to be a guy whose hobby gradually turned into a career. About the most lyrical he ever gets is, ''It's a neat kind of life, really.''

***

Saturday night at the Mushers' Ball. I go, hoping for a rootin', tootin', rockin', stompin' hootenanny, the kind of comic donnybrook where Burt Reynolds could slug a giant, eight-foot-tall man-mountain in the gut and then, when the guy doesn't even flinch, do one of his sheepish grin-and-shrugs.

Forget it.

The band plays country, kids run around the hotel lobby, and by eleven, most of the mushers are back at their motels, asleep. Apparently, they are more interested in winning tomorrow, the third and last day of racing, than in rootin' or tootin'.

Earlier, Harris had held a press conference — a press conference! — surrounded by scribbling reporters pointed toward him by the Alpo men. He and Ginger are about the last mushers to head for home, social animals that they are. Inveterate chatterers.

By midnight, the Musher's Ball is mushed out. History. The Times guy sits on a couch, thinking up a lead and wondering if he dares commit to print his theory that what it's really all about is mushers getting a sadistic thrill out of dominating their little doggies.

Reporters are such cynics.

***

''Bernie, I'm convinced that what this country needs is a return to old-fashioned values. Big families, cute kids, lovable pets. I'm talking human warmth here.''

''Boring.''

''No, listen. You take this big, rollicking clan — clean-cut and all-American as hell — on the road, having adventures. And see, the nine-year-old — this adorable freckle-faced kid — he's always getting in trouble. Like he's menaced by a cow moose — no, make it a grizzly bear — on the Alcan Highway, but just in the nick of time, he's saved by his dad's heroic lead dog.''

''Mmm. It might work. Except for the dogs. Couldn't they be horses? Horses are so much sexier. No — wait — I've got it! Snowmobiles! That's it—we'll call it Smokey and the Snowmobile.''

''For Chrissake, Bernie. The whole essence of this thing is the majestic silence of the mystical north country. The snow-capped peaks bearing mute testimony to man and dog's enduring struggle against nature's pristine grandeur. Snowmobiles make too much noise.''

''That's okay, the rock music will drown 'em out, anyway. Listen, work me up a treatment, five or six pages. Get in a snowmobile chase, some sex, maybe a mad dog ripping out a man's jugular vein. I think we've got something here that I can sell.''

''No problem, Bernie. I'll finish it and have it up to you by the time you're back from lunch.''

***

Harris Dunlap won the next day. Six thousand dollars first-prize money. Eddy Streeper would finish third and vow to beat Harris next year. A kid named Doug McRae, whom I somehow never got around to interviewing (maybe it was one hot chocolate too many), came in second. Eddy's lead dog, Chubby, played out and quit, and Eddy had to hop off his runners, unharness the straggler, toss him onto the sled and carry him in, losing maybe twenty-five seconds. It happens all the time out on the trail. Then Eddy would drive all night and day, 1,300 miles on his way back toward Fort Nelson, British Columbia, site of the next race on the dog-sledding circuit.

The mushers were back on the road.