Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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October 26, 2009

"A tired puppy is a good puppy," so the saying goes, and with infinite variations, like "A tired malamute is a good malamute." When I got puppy Travvy, I figured he'd get his most serious exercise accompanying Allie and me on trail rides. That, after all, was how Rhodry Malamutt got his workouts once Allie joined the family.

I miscalculated. When I got Allie, Rhodry was almost five. In malamutt years, five is still impish, but Rhodry was considerably more mature at five than he was at two. Last winter and early spring, after the worst of the ice melted, Travvy -- barely a year old -- came along on a few trail rides. First excursions were encouraging. He'd bound after deer and rabbits -- but then he'd come back. Deer carcasses, however, were more compelling than game that vanished into the woods. When he didn't come back, I'd go to the nearest carcass I knew of, and there my wayward puppy would be, chowing down as fast as he could.

One afternoon in April, Travvy didn't return and I couldn't find him. A couple hours later, well after dark and after several anxious phone calls, he returned to the barn where Allie lived at the time. I caught up with him shortly thereafter. No harm done, but the handwriting was, as they say, on the wall.

Add to the mix the penchant for latter-day Vineyarders to do their bit for "the rural character of the island" by raising chickens and letting them run loose on their two- or three-acre "farms." Travvy views free-ranging chickens as a food source. The rural character of the island means even less to him than it does to me. If he disappeared into the woods, I was 99% sure that he'd eventually come back -- but totally uncertain of what he might do while AWOL.

In case a further complication was needed -- well, if you've been following the news on Martha's Vineyard for the last 16 months or so, you'll know that Siberian huskies have been repeatedly in the headlines for escapades in which the killing of chickens plays a prominent role. These particular Sibes are, in my opinionated opinion, completely mismanaged, but the backwash remains: Travvy is taken for a Siberian husky about 85% of the time. This is understandable. Alaskan malamutes look to the untutored (and even the tutored) eye like Siberian huskies, and there is good reason for this. The breeds have plenty in common, and part of the commonality is a penchant for preying on small animals that try to run away. Chickens, for instance. Also rabbits. And, occasionally, cats. My Alaskan malamute might even eat your honor student if he fled squawking in the opposite direction.

Just kidding. Travvy loves people and is great with kids, especially our neighbor kids, Ava and Willa. If your honor student is a cat or a gerbil, however, all bets are off.

How to give Travvy the exercise he needed? He's physically capable of running for miles. I'm not. I started ponying him along on trail rides. My Allie is a saint; everyone says so and I agree. Travvy gets great exercise on these rides. Allie, being bigger and longer-legged, doesn't. I dance on the verge of nervous-wreckdom, managing Allie with my right hand and Travvy with my left. I duck under branches, maneuver around wind-felled logs, face down four dogs rushing in our direction . . . These dogs are usually Labs or Lab crosses. On Martha's Vineyard, hardly anyone thinks Labradors or any retrievers are capable of any kind of miscreant behavior. Hah. Don't get me started.

From other malamute people I learned about the Springer. Springers connect a dog to a bicycle and absorb (so they say) 90% of the dog's pulling. This sounded like fun. I ordered us a Springer.

The Springer is an ingenious, even elegant device. A clamp is firmly nut-and-bolted to the seat post of the bike. Into the clamp fits a strong tube that extends horizontally for almost a foot, then drops abruptly downward and starts to rise again. Then it stops. Onto this end fits a tight coil of thinner tubing. From the coil rises, like a snake doing a rope dance, a vertical, at the top of which is a loop. After a couple hours of teeth gnashing, hair tearing, and cussing (mostly due to a nut that disappeared into the gravel and dirt), I managed to attach the Springer to my bike. To the loop above the coil I connected the safety release (a string of four plastic circles, each a little smaller than its predecessor), to which I knotted a short length (a little over a foot) of rope, to the end of which I knotted a plastic snap. This I snapped to Travvy's new red harness. (For good measure, and on the advice of my Springering friends online, I added a backup rope with snaps on each end.)

If you're having a hard time visualizing this contraption, check out the Springer website.

At first Travvy was not too sure about what I'd gotten him into. He woo-wooed at the bike the way he never woo-wooed at Allie. Now, however, we've done several runs down the dirt road we live on. Yesterday we even ventured out onto Old County Road. Travvy's getting the hang of it. So am I -- I can swing my leg over the back wheel without worrying (too much) about whacking Travvy in the head or getting caught in the rope. The other day a UPS truck passed us on the dirt road. UPS trucks carry all the goodies of the rainbow. Travvy knows that and so was eager to pursue it. He ran. I took my feet off the pedals and flew. Wheee! It was very, very cool.


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