Be Like Bella

A tribute to bella, RIP

Bella and Smulan. The most perfect lead dogs you could ever wish for. Alert, attentive, calm, excellent stamina and strong. The two sisters who triumphantly led the pack at each and every single tour in my first season. Attached at the neck line and sharing the same kennel, side by side at every turn. These dogs were inseparable, the very best of friends.

If there was a well groomed track to follow, or it was full of powdery snow, these two dogs would charge powerfully onward, breaking a comfortable trail for the rest of the pack to follow. Their talent was never more evident than on a compact lake where you could witness the dogs in full flight, performing prompt lefts and rights, zig zagging like a snake, as the teams weave in an almost hypnotic synch to match the girls smooth dance at the front. Bella and smulan would seemingly make the turn before the command left the mushers lips, they displayed a telepathic sense of direction.

Consistently demonstrating Strong leadership, excellent listening skills, powerful strength and speed, but if you didn’t know them on a personal level, like the musher did, you wouldn’t know they were such an important part of the team, staying humbly quiet, confidently obedient, and never causing any trouble with the other dogs.

And in the moment, at the time, I did not know how much she’d be missed, until she was gone.

Bella was the first dog that listened to, and understood the directions that I instructed. The first (and only) Swedish words that I’ve used to any great effect. I could comfortably ride on the back of a 14 team sled and use the words hoger and vanster, and get a rapid response in any direction. It greatly improved my confidence in training but certainly over exaggerated my ability as a competent musher.

Smulan appeared to favour taking left turns, it’s for that reason, Bella was deemed to be slightly better than her sister Smulan. Bella was impeccable no matter the situation, we often turned to her with a command to get us out of trouble. When a new track needed to be formed or cut, Bella would be asked to make the first move.

Bella was a thrill to work with, the utmost professional and dedicated to her job. These traits are ones I admire, and take with me everywhere I go, she inspires me when times get tough. I felt a deep connection to Bella, in a sense because we shared a common goal. That common goal was to work hard, produce a quality result, without any attention or ego attached. I was working as a volunteer and I am pretty sure she wasn’t getting paid either. If my body ached, and mind was unsettled, I could look to her for guidance, and she would always be giving her full potential. If she could happily and humbly lead every tour of the season, then I could do the same.

I was reminded of her importance when myself and Richard ran tandem tours. Richard was running a tour through the forest and onto the lake, while I was up on the mountain guiding an exclusive mountain tour. Richard decided to take both smulan and bella, while I had Jacob out the front with Svea. I came to a fairly standard fork in the road where we needed to go right. Jacob took a left turn and stubbornly refused to straighten the pack when commanded. I persisted with the call but he wouldn’t budge. I embarrassingly continued on the tour in the wrong direction but thankfully ended up back at the starting point.

When it was time to load the dogs into the truck, Bella and Smulan would stride enthusiastically out of their kennel and leap elegantly into the same box side by side. Once at the starting point, the door to the box could be unlocked and the sisters would confidently strut to the front of the pack. They could loosely stroll around as we prepared the sleds and dogs, or get hitched to the stake out, it didn’t matter for them for they were happy to be of service to their grateful mushers wherever we need them at any time. Every single tour, Bella and Smulan led the pack that first season.

I returned for my second season with the dogs and it was business as usual, until one day, we were training the dogs in the forest using the quad bike, we couldn’t help but to notice her trailing the pack. Her tug line was loose and neckline tight as she struggled to keep up with Smulan, despite the pack going at a slow and steady pace. It was an uncharacteristic display from Bella and it was clear that something was wrong. We decided to rest her, and monitor her progress over the next few days. We assumed that she was having an off day, and in her subsequent rest days she did appear in better spirits, perhaps lacking some energy. We attributed it to a rare off day, she remerged with the pack but again, couldn’t keep up. She was taken from the team and carried back to the kennel, huddled in my lap on the back of the quad bike.

Bella came back to the house to rest. Her condition deteriorated. She refused to eat but drank enormous amounts of water, her bladder movements were uncontrollable and there was excrement all through the apartment. She was taken to the vet and determined to have internal bleeding, an operation could be performed that would not guarantee her survival. The cost to go ahead with the operation was huge, with no guarantee of survival. All things considered, the decision not to go ahead with it was not made lightly.

We were quietly confident that she would turn the corner, and make a miraculous recovery. It was a theory that went against everything the vet prophesized, but this is Bella, the ultimate fighter, our wild spirit lead dog, the last dog in the entire kennel you would think to not make it to the first tour of the season. But in reality, Bella’s fragile body grew weaker by the hour. It was difficult to come home from work, and witness her decline. Her recall remained strong, attentive to every command, when it was time for a piss she heard her name, and responded as she always had. But It was the way in which she responded that was out of character. Her traditional sprint and alert gaze had been replaced by a shaky crawl, and empty eyes, it seemed she was ready to go, and asked to leave through her tired stare.

To keep Bella in this misery any longer would not have been good for her or for anyone else. We loaded her in the truck and drove her to the kennel, we got out, she responded to her name, but again she could barely walk unassisted. She managed to be guided gently through some shrub, into the forest, and far enough away from the kennel that the other dogs wouldn’t see. We escorted Bella to the exact same resting place as kenzo had gone to just weeks earlier.

At the kennel, the silence amongst the pack was deafening. You could walk into the middle of the walkway and hear a pin drop. It was clear, They knew that she was gone. Their spiritual and literal leader of the pack. Gone at age 9, in her absolute prime. In four or five days I realized How life can be so cruel. This was a top dog at her peak just one week ago. The best sled dog we had, out of 80 powerful performers. I went back to the house and cried in the shower for so long the hot water ran out and I continued until my toes turned blue.

As the devastation of bella’s death was sinking in, we needed to get to work. The season was literally days from starting. We had no lead dog, the lorry wouldn’t start and there was barely enough snow to cover the grass. We had been training the dogs on the quad through the forest, trying new starting points and attempting to prepare the new track for the forest and lake tour. We were clearing tracks, pulling down trees, and chopping away tree stumps in preparation for driving tours straight out from the kennel, as opposed to up the hill with the lorry. We were struggling. Mentally and physically exhausted, before the season had begun.

The biggest issue we faced was how to replace Bella. After relying on her for so many years Richard conceded that he should have trained younger dogs, using bella as the guide. We built a makeshift ‘play park’ and here we took potential leaders on a crash course around obstacles and trees to determine which ones would respond to the commands. We experienced mixed results in the play park and could only really gauge who was suitable for the lead by trying them next to smulan on the sleds.

If there were any positives to come out of losing dear Bella, it was the emergence of our new number one lead dog, Polaris, and of course the unshakeable endurance of Bella’s sister, Smulan. Before Polaris arrived on the scene, the lead dogs were mostly female. Polaris was a natural born leader, he was made for the job and now it seems surprising that he hadn’t been in the role all along. Polaris immediately sprung with his trademark leap to the number one position, his chest puffed out and a chunk missing from his left ear. It was an obvious choice in hindsight, and in many ways, Polaris was the savior of the season. The tragedy of losing bella meant that a new shining light had a chance to glimmer, and lead the pack. Polaris is now lead dog on almost every tour and is now helping to train younger dogs to learn the directions, another strong lesson learnt from the spirit of Bella.

Bella is a constant reminder of how cruel life can be, and how near death is, for everyone. It was devastating to witness bella’s decline while she was at the peak of her life. It didn’t need to happen to such a beautiful soul, and this is where many life lessons can be learned. My memories of bella are of her pulling the teams relentlessly out on the sled, I remember her affectionate calm character at the kennel, she would burrow her ear, and lean into my palm as I would attempt to remove her harness after a long day. She would do anything you asked of her with a smile. Its these characteristics, and more, that I remember and attempt to emulate in my own life. I may be fit and healthy and young, but so was she when we went for that fateful walk in the woods. I want to live like Bella, to Be Like Bella.

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