Pilot was my up-and-coming star in 2016 and my standout lead dog from 2017, doing more than his share in our record-setting Iditarod effort that year. He helped me train a fast team for 2018 but went home from the Iditarod early with a pulled tendon in his left hind leg. We worked on him with hands-on essential oils and laser therapy daily for 6 months and began running him again in September. He was sound.

I moderated his training to prevent reinjury as his conditioning caught up with that of the team. I diligently monitored which side of the gang line he ran on to avoid over-stressing one side of the dog. And, I didn’t run him in lead much during training. He drives harder in lead. He stayed sound, and I felt he started the 2019 Iditarod race at 100%.

Between Rainy Pass and Rohn checkpoints there were several open creeks, due to the warm weather this year. Not large, but enough to make some dogs hesitate crossing. I was aware these were coming and left Rainy Pass confidently with Pilot and Keyes, another top leader, in front. We made good time.

To my surprise, Pilot balked at the first water crossing while Keyes tried in vain to pull the much larger dog into the water. I had to retrieve the front-end of my team from a thicket and lead them across myself. So accustomed to near trouble-free passage of any obstacle with Pilot in lead, especially with Keyes up there as well, I hadn’t said a word to them as we approached the water. The unspoken message was, “just keep mushing.”

The second open creek crossing was better but not good, and I began to realize I should have used Pilot in lead more during training, thus re-instilling his position of responsibility. Keyes at 58 lbs. did his best to go straight ahead across the water and Pilot at 69 lbs. hit the brakes. He was thinking it was someone else’s job to jump in the water first. The hesitation allowed the team to bunch up as we piled into the creek. The tangle here involved some rather large brush which had been cut and tossed in the creek, probably part of a now-melted snow bridge, or an attempt at one, by the diligent Iditarod trail crew. I spent some time in the creek sorting things out and had to cut one line to resolve an urgent tangle. The water wasn’t deep, but of course, over my boots.

The next water crossing came on a 90 -degree corner and a steep downhill. Keyes was on the outside and lost a half-step leaving Pilot clearly responsible to plunge in first.

“Straight ahead Big Guy.” He charged in and the team followed in order. “Aswut I’m talkinbout.” Pilot was back.

There were three or four more open creeks which we crossed without incident or fanfare. That’s what I’m used to. There’s a lot of water where we train, summer and winter.

The last 5 miles or so into Rohn is on the Tatina River so the trail is flat and smooth and that’s where I noticed Pilot’s gait was off. I pulled him out of lead and put him closer to the sled to watch him as we approached the checkpoint. Left triceps. Not the same injury as last year but that hardly mattered now. I sent him home. It turned out later to be nothing really. Probably more like a muscle cramp.

So, here’s the thing about Pilot. He travels fast and will literally pull the whole load as long as he’s able. The other dogs join in, of course, but we never really slow down with Pilot. It’s a bit like training a team on an ATV. I can just drive the correct speed for the conditions, and the dogs learn to run that speed. Not faster, not slower.

Pilot is like that engine. And he breaks sometimes. He has a huge cardiovascular capacity and eats like a pack of wolves, so his well-fueled, oversized engine seems to overstress the more pedestrian parts of his anatomy at times.

Pilot isn’t perfect but he’s like that most inspirational player on any sports team. As he performs, he inspires the rest of the team, and I suppose myself, to be our best.