The dog team wound down the ridge through the trees and on to Paxson Lake. On the open lake, the north wind struck like a blow. It was full dark and snowing lightly, the visibility zero. The lake surface was drifted hard with no trace of our previous trail. My headlamp was useless in the blowing drift, and there was nothing for the lead dogs to feel under their feet.
The dogs up front were young, fast and steady but clueless in these circumstances. We traveled for a mile or better, the team moving hesitantly as the leaders cast for the right direction. I called the team to stop, and the front end came back to meet me: "Help, show us which way ..."
There was one dog back in team that I could depend on -- Sadie. I put her up and immediately she took charge. She turned the team back the way we had come, running them at a fast lope for a few short minutes and then made a hard haw. I let her have her head and soon saw a dark line of trees on my left hand. We were on our way home!
There are dogs who will lead, and there are lead dogs. Sadie is a Lead Dog. Ten years old and still as strong as ever. She is showing some gray around her muzzle, but her eyes are as bright as those of a pup. She still jumps and screams to go at hook-up.
Sadie was born early in 2002 at Lynda Plettner's kennel. She spent the majority of her early years training with Tom Knoylmeyer, Martin Buser and Sven Haltman, and several other mushers ran her as well. Sadie was a favorite, valued for her drive and toughness. Tom taught her to lead and ran her in the Iditarod in 2005 and 2006.
Sadie is a quiet, polite dog in the yard. Loose, she is always around your feet, though never obtrusive. All of that changes when she leaves the yard. No longer gracious, she barks and bites at the dog next to her. The faster we go, the crazier she is, at times still barking 20 miles into the run. Some dogs will not run next to her, irritated by her yapping in their ear. But her excitement is contagious and the team feeds from it and goes faster.
Speed is one of Sadie's greatest attributes. She can pace without loping at 18 mph. Her gait never seems easy, she rolls from side to side. "There is no way this dog can go a thousand miles," I think. Miles later, she is still rolling along.
Pacing dogs rarely can travel long distances without tiring. A dog normally moves his right hind in conjunction with his left front and vice-versa. That is the trot. In this most efficient of gaits; the back remains almost motionless. In the pace, the dog moves the right hind and right front together, imparting a rolling motion to the spine, thus creating the potential for fatigue. I don't believe Sadie knows that word. She led the 100 miles of this year's Knik 200 and was barking at the finish line.
Sadie came to our yard in the spring of 2006. Tom is a surgeon with the military and was being sent to Afghanistan. He offered Sadie and her sibling, Harley, to us. Both have been welcome additions to the kennel.
Harley warmed to me immediately, but it was soon apparent that Sadie was a girl's dog. She would jump up on my wife, Zoya, but walk cautious circles around me. Zoya used Sadie as one of her main leaders for several seasons and raved about her ability. I would take her out and she would barely move the team along, although in team she was flawless -- if you didn't mind the barking and the picking at her running mates.
I saw a different side of Sadie the second or third summer we had her. Tom and his wife stopped by to visit, and Harley and Sadie both jumped around Tom like pups. I expected that from Harley, but Sadie? I thought she didn't like men.
I started to spend more yard time with the old girl and she began to accept me. Soon I was running her in lead when I needed a steady dog. Sadie became my utility leader.
Almost any decent 12-dog team will have a minimum of eight dogs that will run in front. Of those eight, probably four are true leaders -- dogs that will lead when they are tired or in adverse conditions. The tougher the circumstances, the fewer leaders you will find.
Sadie is the dog you use when the trail comes down on you -- the north wind in your face, a foot of new snow and too far to the next shelter. With her usual exuberance, she takes over and brings you in. At the end of a 400-mile race, you always have her as a safety net -- the dog that will finish you fast.
Sadie will be 10 years old this spring and still travels with a bounce. Iditarod 2012 will again see her on the trail with Zoya, with Sadie leading the way with her bright brown eyes and her funny, wobbling gait.
John Schandelmeier of Paxson is a lifelong Alaskan and Bristol Bay commercial fisherman. A former champion of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, he has written on the outdoors for several newspapers and magazines.