How musher Blair Braverman got through her worse day.
Apr 21, 2018 05:30PM ● Published by Editor
Blair Braverman's training run on Devil Track Lake turned into a nightmare. She tells her story to NPR's "Only A Game"
By Charlotte Wheeler - "Only A Game" from National Public Radio - April 20, 2018
Blair and Q, as everyone call her husband, live in Wisconsin. Dog sled racing requires long apprenticeships, because you have to learn how to care for the dogs and get them to trust you. Even though she’s been mushing for 11 years, Blair only got her own team of 23 dogs a few years ago.
"I can't imagine I ever didn't have my own dogs," Blair says. "It's like the difference between babysitting and having your own kids."
Full disclosure, Blair and I went to college together. We used to sit next to each other in our poetry writing classes, and I remember being stunned by her ability to tell a story with these stripped down, lyrical stanzas. She could, and still can, punch you in the gut with her words. She just qualified for next year’s Iditarod at a recent 440-mile race in Alaska, and she has written a book about her experiences mushing, called "Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube." She tells her stories on social media.
"So I share the dog team on Twitter, and people follow them closely, and they know the dogs," Blair says. "I tell these stories of beautiful things. And if I'm sharing the sport with people and giving them an inside glimpse, I can't cherry pick. But when something like this happens — and it’s the worst day I've had, certainly the worst day in the sport that I've had — I'm scared to tell people. It feels like a story of my own failure."
'Camping Trip With The Dogs'
It happened in Minnesota this winter, where Blair and Q had taken the dogs to train.
"We were training our yearlings, and we wanted to work with the dogs to cross lakes and to go on hills, which are two things we don't have a ton of near our house," she explains. "So we thought, 'Oh wow, there's this beautiful route up in Minnesota and we can go up and do, like, a 200-mile camping trip with the dogs.' There's beautiful hills, that's up where the Sawtooth mountains are. There's just miles and miles of lakes."
They met their friend Mary at a bush-plane lodge on a six-mile lake called Devil’s Trap. Mary’s also a musher, and she was helping Blair and Q train their dogs. Mary took one of their teams, led by Jenga, a dog Blair is very close with. Blair took the other team, led by Pepe and Boudica. Q was going to meet them down the trail at the end of the run, where they’d camp for the night.
"So I set out first and then I was going to try to stay as slow as possible so that her dogs could chase mine and learn how to cross the lake that way," Blair says. "And it's beautiful, it's a beautiful day. Like, it couldn't be more perfect. Just blue sky and it's zero degrees, which is perfect for sled dogs. And they're, like, yelping and wagging their tails and just so excited to be out there. They love new terrain. It really is exciting for them."
Blair tried to slow the pace to wait for Mary, riding the brake so hard that she was sending up sheets of snow behind her. The dogs were getting frustrated; they live to go fast. Blair and her team eventually crossed the full 6 miles of lake, but she still couldn’t see Mary and the dogs anywhere in the distance.
'I Haven't Seen A Dog Go For Another Dog Like This'
Blair worried if she went farther, Mary wouldn’t be able to find them. She tried to send Mary a text, but in the zero-degree cold, her phone immediately died.
"So I turn around, and this is something — the dogs do not like turning around," Blair says. "They like going forward. They're very forward oriented, and they don't like going back where they've come. So, I call up to Pepe and Boudica."
Pepe was not happy about Blair’s commands. She gave Blair an annoyed look but obliged, and pulled the team into a big U-turn so they were heading back in the direction they came from.
"And what do you know, but within, like, 30 seconds, I see another dog team. And Mary made it onto the ice, and she's just fine," Blair says. "So, Mary and I pass each other going opposite directions in the middle of the ice. And she's like, 'What's going on?' And I'm like, 'Don't worry, just keep going. We'll turn around again.' The dogs are — they're getting confused. Every time you ask the dogs to do something they don't understand, you lose a little bit of their trust. And you have to rebuild it. And I'm talking about over life, but also over the course of a single run. So the dogs are skeptical of me now, and I'm like, 'OK, we've got to turn around again. Sorry about this. I promise we won't do it again.' So we're in the ice, and I'm calling Pepe to turn around. And Pepe's a little bit annoyed, so she makes a sharper turn than she should.
"But all of the sudden, the dog in swing, which is right behind the leaders, attacks Boudica. And this dog's name is Gabby. And Gabby just — she just goes for Boudica's throat. In 10 years I haven't seen a dog go for another dog like this. It doesn't make any sense.
"Boudica's down on the ice in a second. I run straight into the fight. And Gabby won't stop. It's terrifying. And Gabby — I cannot get Gabby to take her teeth out of Boudica. And Boudica's on the ice, and she's screaming, and I'm screaming and, you know, there's blood on the snow. And I'm, sort of, at the same time, just using my arms and pulling the other dogs away and making sure they stay safe and yelling at Gabby and trying to pull her off. And she just will not release her teeth. She's just decided to ... to kill Boudica. And Boudica wasn't fighting back. She was lying, you know, on her back with her belly up, trying to be submissive.
"So I'm using all my strength in my body to pull Gabby off Boudica. Sled dogs are very strong. They're bodybuilders. So I'm doing everything I can, and then I'm sort of gasping for breath and trying to make sure I don't pass out from fighting so hard to keep these dogs apart."
Gabby hadn’t ever gone after another dog, but she typically didn’t get along with other girls that well. Blair later found out that a pack of wolves had been on the ice hours before, which also could have riled Gabby. There were many variables outside of Blair’s control besides asking the dogs to turn around.
"And what I ended up doing was just throwing my body over Boudica," Blair says. "I was desperate to stop Boudica from being hurt, and I wasn't thinking about myself. I just knew that if Boudica was covered by my body, she would be safe. And whatever happened to me, I would deal with. That ended up working. When she was covered by me and Gabby couldn't reach her, that was when Gabby finally stopped.
"So we reached this impasse. Boudica is, you know, just limp under me. And I'm afraid to stand up. Because I'm afraid that the moment I do, Gabby's gonna go back for her. So I'm just lying over Boudica, and I don't know what to do. And I see this dot in the distance. Jenga, my leader who was on Mary's team, saw that I wasn't coming and pulled Mary's team around to come back to me."
Blair was relieved to have help, but terrified of what might happen if the other team ran into hers while tensions were still so high. So far, none of her other dogs had gotten involved, but she didn’t know what would happen with more.
"And I'm sort of still over Boudica, and I yell at Mary when she gets close to stop her team," Blair says. "'Just stop right there. Don't come any closer.' And then I sort of gather my strength and I wrap my arms around Boudica, who's beneath me, and I stand up and lift her up with me in one movement. So she goes from being underneath me to in my arms."
Blair knew that she had to get Boudica away from Gabby and back to Q. She didn’t know what damage had been done — whether Boudica’s internal organs had been hurt, or if her injuries were just surface wounds.
"You know, she's bleeding a lot and she's licking my face," Blair says. "And I lay her down in Mary's sled and I tell Mary, 'Go back. Just go as fast as you can.'"
"I was desperate to stop Boudica from being hurt, and I wasn't thinking of myself. I just knew that if Boudica was covered by my body, she would be safe."Blair Braverman
'I Was Out There With You'
Mary and her team headed back to the lodge. Gabby was standing there on the ice, still snarling. Blair let some of the yearlings loose, trusting they wouldn’t run away, and moved Gabby to the back of the team between some of the boy dogs. She hooked the team back up and started making her way, very slowly, back to the lodge and Boudica. When Blair got back to the lodge, she picked Boudica up. Mary and Q had wrapped the dog in blankets.
"You know, she just sort of melts into my arms when I get back," Blair says. "And I feel like I don't deserve it, but I also just want her to know: 'I know that you just went through the worst part of your life, Boudica, that you've ever had. And we don't know how hurt you are. And we don't even know if you're going to survive. But I want you to know I was out there with you every second doing everything I could possibly do.' "
Boudica had a lot of skin wounds, but she was responsive, licking Blair and Q’s faces when they came near. She seemed OK.
"And then she pees blood," Blair says. "And my heart sank."
The nearest vet was in Duluth, so they loaded up the dogs in the truck and sped the two hours south, arriving around midnight. The vet X-rayed Boudica and couldn’t find her bladder. Blair and Q, panicked at this point, took her to a vet across town who had an ultrasound.
It turns out that since sled dogs are so lean, they don’t have the same layers of fat around all their organs that pet dogs do. The first vet wasn’t used to seeing a dog as muscular as Boudica, so she missed her bladder. But the ultrasound showed that it was there and intact, which meant she had a good chance of healing. Blair and Q took Boudica and the rest of the team back home to Wisconsin.
"And so we bring Boudica inside and for a couple days she doesn't move," Blair says. "And then she starts drinking, and the best thing was when I realized that she was snooping around our house. 'Cause she doesn't normally live in the house. But she started collecting things. So we're finding things in her bed like my camera or an apple that she got off the counter, and she's just starting to collect things. And that was the moment when I knew she was going to be OK. She healed up beautifully."
Primal, Painful, Raw And Real
As much as she loved her, Blair knew she couldn’t keep Gabby. You can’t have a dog on your team that puts others in danger. Blair found her a new home with a musher who loves her and who only has boy dogs. Gabby still runs, which makes Blair feel better about letting her go. She didn’t think she’d be very happy as a pet.
Blair was nervous about telling this story.
"I don't think there's a way that I could have known, but I wish that I could have kept her from being hurt at all," Blair says. "Of course, a dog got hurt on my watch. And that's the worst feeling. And I blame myself for that, and, you know, am afraid of other people blaming me, too. That other people will blame me as much as I blame myself."
But it’s not a story about blame, or about failure. At its core, it’s a story about trust, and about how much we can’t control even when we try our hardest. On that day, something went horribly wrong, but Blair and her team got through it together. No other dogs attacked when Gabby lunged, none ran away when Blair loosed them from her sled. They stayed with her. Everyone else — the other team of dogs, Mary, Jenga, Q, the vets — rose to the occasion.
Blair’s hellish experience on the heavenly expanse of Devil’s Trap Lake — and her life in general — isn’t something a lot of people will ever know. Especially now, when most of us live in tamed environments. But that day on the ice, everything was stripped away, and Blair and the dogs could only rely on their animal instincts and on each other. It was primal, painful, raw and real. Even ugly. And there’s something beautiful about that.
To listen to the audio version of this story on NPR, follow this link.
This segment aired on April 21, 2018.