On a sunny, chilly Saturday this winter, local trapper and wildfire fighter Guy Couture didn’t realize he was about to become a hero.
He was simply helping his friends offer a local dog musher an extraordinary birthday gift – a ride with the longest dog team in Dawson!
The idea was this: bring together as many dogs as possible and create a long string, then let the musher mush them. It sounded crazy, but it was perfect.
With only two days to plan, meetings were held, strategies were discussed and dogs were chosen. Friends would even make a video documenting the adventure.
Couture and friends gathered at the Top of the World Highway and Sunnydale Road intersection, across the Yukon River from Dawson City. The plan was to run the dogs 12 miles to a rest stop, then turn around and come back.
The sled, with the first team of six dogs attached, was tied to a highway sign for extra security.
Over the next 20 minutes, more teams arrived, were attached to a snowmobile driven by Couture, and taken to the front of the team to become the new front.
As the canine volume rose, so did the human excitement. Eventually all dogs were attached – 38 in all! – and off the team went with the trapper on the runners and his wife in the sled.
The rest of us jumped on snowmobiles, or on sleds attached to snowmobiles, and the chase was on.
Everything went smoothly until mile six. One of the dogs in the middle of the team got caught up in a momentary slackness in the gangline. The line went around her neck, and as she stumbled, the line tightened and she started to choke.
With so many dogs, it took a snowmobile and several people to finally stop the team. By then, the dog had been dragged for some distance.
Couture and several others spent three minutes trying to untangle her. They moved her away from the team, and Couture remembers seeing the blank eyes and saying, “She’s dead.”
In the next second, the hero kicked in.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision to save that dog,” says Couture. “One minute I remember saying she was dead, the next I was on the ground trying to save her.”
Couture has had years of First Aid and Wilderness First Aid training, has fixed broken bones and sewn up dogs, but he says he’s never tried to revive one.
“I squeezed her chest to see if there was a heartbeat, but I didn’t feel anything,” he recalls.
Couture says he doesn’t remember anything that was happening around him. The noise of the dogs as they were disassembled into smaller teams, the shouts of the snowmobilers – nothing pierced through the reactive bubble he was in. All of his attention was focused on the dog.
At first he blew through the dog’s nose. When he didn’t see the chest expanding, he held her nose shut and blew through her mouth. The dog’s chest expanded several times, then there was a gasp and she went into convulsions.
Couture has no idea how long it took, but eventually the dog got to her feet and demanded to be let back into the team.
“When that dog stood up, I had an adrenaline rush so strong, I needed support to stand up,” says Couture. “In 20 years of firefighting, I’ve never felt anything that strong … I can’t describe it.”
As Couture leaned on a snow machine for support, the longest team had now been reconfigured into six smaller teams. The recovering dog was put into the sled basket of one of the teams and started her free ride home.
Days later, Couture is still somewhat shaken. He has had to piece together the details of the event based on other people’s accounts.
He feels there must have been some life left in the dog, under her blank stare. “Just because an animal appears dead, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a heartbeat,” he emphasizes.
When told he was a hero, Couture seems shy and uncomfortable.
“I’ve never really saved anything before,” says Couture humbly, “My training just kicked in … I’m not a hero.”
Guy’s six-year-old disagrees. Watching some video footage of the initial team hook-up, as soon as Couture comes on-screen his son pipes up, “Look, there’s the hero!”
In the end, Couture not only saved an animal’s life. In his son’s eyes, he saved the day as well.