Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tribute to Torus

I first met Torus when we were filming for the Weather Channel's documentary When Weather Changed History - The Race to Nome.  I needed to borrow a dog or two to help fill out the team, and Tammi Rego offered the loan of her great leader, Torus.  He truly was great, and really helped make the day and the program.

Torus was whelped, raised and trained by Eric Butcher, a middle distance champion and long distance musher.  Eric once told me in an Email that Torus was the first puppy of the litter, born literally in the snow.  After bearing the puppy, his mother (a Susan Butcher bitch named Sister) went to her whelping house to finish the job, leaving Torus stranded.  Eric heard a little squeak while doing his kennel chores, and found the puppy, which he reunited with Mom.  I think that explains some of his later behavior.

Torus was running in the team position in Eric Butcher's team pictured here.

When health issues forced Eric to leave the sport of mushing, he gave Torus to Tammi and Manny Rego, where he was the "main man" through many miles and many races.  As their team grew in speed and Torus aged, he was unable to maintain the pace of the team.  Knowing how much I loved him, Tammi gave him to me as a working retirement home.

Torus was without question the very best lead dog I've ever driven.  I can't recall that he ever missed a cue.  He would run through anything, in any weather, over any trail.  He maintained a nice, steady pace and kept "his" team in line.

Every great dog deserves a story, and here is one for Torus.  One day I was running a team of 8 dogs down by the Chena Lakes Recreation Area, and got myself a bit "geographically challenged."  I wasn't exactly lost, but I was certainly a might confused.  As we trotted down the trail we came to an unmarked, three way intersection.  I had no clue which way to turn to get us back to the truck.

Torus was looking back at me, waiting for a cue.  Seamus and a couple of other dogs were barking and impatiently pounding their harnesses, obviously not caring where, just wanting to GO.  Finally, in exasperation, I told Torus "Hell, I don't know.  You decide."

Torus did so without hesitation, taking the team into a hard "haw" that took us down onto the more frequently used trails nearer the lakes, and in short order we were back on familiar ground (well, familiar ice) and well on our way back to the truck.

From the day he came to our kennel Torus wasn't just a lead dog, he was also the "boss dog".  I can't recall him ever instigating a fight, and until earlier this summer no other dog dared to challenge his authority.  He had the kind of natural demeanor and authority that all dogs (and most humans) immediately recognized and honored. 

Torus was the consummate professional.  When hooking up, even when every other dog on the line was wild with excitement, Torus just laid down and let things happen, resting up for the run ahead apparently.  As soon as everyone was ready he'd stand and then lead the team out with a vigor that would surprise someone who didn't know him and his sometimes quirky little ways.

For most of his life, Torus refused to sleep in a dog house.  Instead, he'd drag his straw bedding out of the house and make a nest.  I've seen him curl up in a ball to snooze outside of any shelter at temperatures well below minus-50, and no amount of coaxing would get him inside.

Torus especially loved to go camping, and when Amazing Grace was but a young pup we took a trip up into the White Mountains.  It was Grace's first overnight camp out with a team, and when I hooked the dogs up to their picket line, I snapped Grace into place in between Torus and Just, both veterans of long distance racing trails.  Just and Torus both settled into their nests of straw, but Grace, being a young dog in an exciting new adventure, was fidgety and jumpety and being a pest tugging and pulling on the picket.  Finally Torus gave her a low growl, as if to say "settle down and sleep."  Grace immediately complied.

Last year, Torus' age started catching up to him.  As much as he still loved to run, and was especially good at helping to train the young dogs and LITs (Leaders In Training) he became injury prone, and it was clearly time for him to retire.  On the truly bitter cold nights we would bring him inside the house, knowing that otherwise he would curl up in his nest of straw as he always had done, and shiver.  In time he came to accept "inside" as preferable to bitter cold, though we always knew when the weather broke, because Torus would quietly but firmly ask to be let back out with "His" team.

Through the summer the signs of aging were increasingly evident.   Torus grew more fragile, finding it more difficult to move around.  He was less willing to jump up on his house for handling, and I was less willing to ask him to do so.  When playing runamok the young dogs would dash off in a million directions while Ol' Torus would just amble about the yard, visiting his friends, peeing on stuff, and ignoring the chaos around him.  The lenses of his eyes were growing clouded with cataracts, and at times it seemed his hearing wasn't so good as it once was. 

As fall progressed, Torus began using his dog house as shelter - a first for him and probably a sign he wasn't able to regulate his temperature so well as he used to.  This record breaking early cold snap we've had the past couple of weeks were the last straw.  One day my handler found him sleeping in the snow, well away from his straw insulated nest.  When he stood he was unable to maintain his balance, his head was wobbly, and he seemed terribly disoriented.

Then, over the course of the past week, it appears that he's suffered a small stroke.  No longer sure on his feet, wobbling around, dragging his rear feet as he tried to walk.  The past few days have been difficult.  While I was at work Torus became obviously confused, unable to walk and refusing food and water.  Then he developed hematuria, blood in his urine, which is a sign of kidney failure.  Ted, with the help of good neighbors, got Torus to the vet, where he seemed to rebound a little.

The hope of the rebound was a false hope, though.  This morning Torus was weak, uncoordinated and just not doing well.  He refused all food, even salmon or chicken, he refused to drink water, and in essence told me it was time for him to go to another, better place.  He didn't like being unable to move around, to do the things he did so gleefully in his youth.

Tonight, Torus is in that better place, and I'm shedding tears not just for my venerable brilliant leader, but for all of those dogs that have passed before him.  Some believe they are waiting at the Rainbow Bridge, playing and cavorting until my own time comes.  I like to believe that upon my own death I'll be reunited with all those other wonderful dogs.  When that happens I'll have one hell of a great dog team to whisk me across those new, unknown trails that await our Spirits.  When that time comes, you may see us as a streak of light across the night sky.   If so, you can bet that Torus will be running lead.


  1. With tears in my eyes, but just lovely, Swanny.

  2. A beautiful tribute to a rock-solid leader. Thanks for this, and for all you write. Peace through your grief. I hope you are right about the fresh trails that wait for us when we reunite with our companions and friends on the other side.