Eye on the Trail: Dogs – Ernie & Cletus

Iditarod is more than a race.  It’s people, places and dogs.  Each aspect adds immeasurable character to the Iditarod.  Iditarod is all about the dogs yet we often know them only by how fast they ran and where they finished as a team.  Certainly every musher could tell stories about every dog they’ve ever run.  Observing the canine athlete is a skill every musher possess.  Pam Flowers ran Iditarod in 1983.  When she walked into the Iditarod Office which was situated upstairs in Teeland’s Store in Wasilla to sign up for the race, she was greeted by Joanne Potts.  Upon hearing that Pam wanted to register for the race, Potts said, “Oh goodie, another one!”  Another one referred to woman entering Iditarod.  There were 8 in 1983.  Pam shares this story about two dogs on her team, Ernie and Cletus.  

There’s Room For Everyone – Written and shared by Pam Flowers

When I first moved to Alaska I had no idea there was a race called the Iditarod. However, I was lucky enough to spend a year with Earl and Natalie Norris, who not only taught me how to be a dog musher but how to be an observer of dogs. By the second winter I was so in love with the sport that I just had to enter the Iditarod.

My entire kennel consisted of nine dogs, not enough to run the race. So I leased one dog and my neighbor, Bob Chlupach, generously loaned me a dog named Cletus. Just like with humans, blending new dogs into an already establish society can be tricky. The leased dog came from a big kennel and was used to working with a lot of other dogs so I wasn’t concerned about her blending.

Cletus was a big, long legged, goofy, happy-go-lucky fellow who loved everyone. Just like with people, someone who comes on too strong and wants to be a part of the group can be off-putting. So the day I walked Cletus home from my neighbor’s kennel, I was a little concerned about how he would fit in.

One of the dogs in my kennel was a big guy named Ernie. We have all known of people who seemed to be disliked or not easily accepted by other people even though they are good people. Well, it’s the same with dogs. Poor Ernie, the other dogs tolerated him but they never really liked him or let him join in any of their play. How would Cletus react to Ernie?

The entire kennel burst into an uproar when Cletus and I came within sight. Everyone was barking and spinning around. I put Cletus at the dog house next to Ernie and walked away without saying a word. From just a few steps away, I turned and there they were, Ernie and Cletus sniffing each other’s noses, tails wagging.

Standing in front of a window I looked out and saw the most beautiful sight. The other dogs had settled down and the kennel was once again calm and quiet – except for Ernie and Cletus. Cletus was in a playbow (Yogo down dog), with his front legs down on the snow and his behind in the air. Ernie was standing perfectly still with his mouth open looking at Cletus with a big doggy smile spread across his face. It was as though Ernie was thinking Wow! This guy actually wants to play with me!

From then on they were inseparable. A happy dog team is made up of happy dogs. All dog mushers can tell you stories about two dogs who were friends, who wanted to run together, eat together, rest together out on the trail. So it was with Ernie and Cletus. I always hooked them up side by side when we trained. During the Iditarod race, they ran beside each other almost all the time. On the rare occasion that I hooked them up beside another dog, they would often glance over at each other. So I seldom separated them. I always made certain that they could eat with their bowls side by side and snuggle down beside one another when we stopped for long rests.

Those two dogs and how they formed such a close friendship with one another is one of my happiest memories from the race and the entire year of mushing.