Day three, after another sensational sunset. We weren’t due to start dog-sledding until 1.30, so spent the time with showers and a leisurely breakfast. I’m generally a yoghourt and muesli sort of person in the morning but all that bracing fresh air and fallingover in the snow seemed to make bacon, eggs and toast quite welcome. Although I have decided to introduce the ladies to the concept of kedgeree next time, that must be possible on a camping stove.
Espying The Mad Musher restaurant on the way to our appointment with winter fun, we decided to pop in for (remarkably decent) coffee and thoroughly get ourselves in the mood. Much of the talk was about how it’s just like skiing. (Valerie had tried it before, but then Valerie has done most things before.) I had my first inkling that this might be harder than it appeared. Although, I should confess right now that when she first mentioned dog sledding I had visions of the sort they did in Narnia, all wrapped up in furs in a comfy sledge eating Turkish Delight. I only realised that this was the kind of thing where you stand on the back and yell at your dogs when I checked out the website of the company Valerie had booked us in with and saw pictures. But we were committed by then.
The talk of skiiing was a bit perturbing. I’d tried cross-country skiing once and had entertained all and sundry with my hilarious impressions of your classical upended turtle, it sounded like today would follow similar lines.
The first job when we arrived to meet the dogs was to sign a huge waiver full of items to initial. We had to acknowledge that we knew dogs to be unpredictable, that people fell off things and that stupidity got people hurt. I had an OMG moment and then merrily signed it all thinking that this stuff merely applied to stupid people and we were all at least intelligent and capable, if not very athletic. It would be fine really. Off we went to beard the beasties in their dens, which turned to be a clutch of little individual kennels in the woods, impeccably clean and tidy. The dogs were lazing about, sunbathing on their little roofs or standing on their houses better to see who was approaching. It was an idyllic picture until we hove into view, whereupon they got the idea that there may be some running about soon and the noise level went ballistic.
We had instructions for how to stand on the sled, how to take bends, how to go down hills how to stop and how to fall off. Some of it was hard to hear over the noise of the dogs but we did our best to get it. The main things seemed to be; remember where the brake is, lean into turns and if you fall off…hang on to the sled at all costs. I reckoned I’d be ok at that bit, when I fell off that horse last Thanksgiving I had landed still clutching the reins with all my might. It hadn’t been a useful skill then, so I was glad to think I’d already practiced some dogsledding finesse. Hanging on to the sled when you fell was a vital safety feature since the dogs would keep running otherwise and the unweighted sled would fly about hurting people. You would fall if you didn’t lean the right way taking turns, as centrifugal force would lift the inner ski and deposit it and you into the snow. Braking on hills was to keep the reins tight, otherwise you’d catch the dogs up and get tangled.
‘It’s pretty simple if you can ski’ said the lady. I looked worried and the other three laughed at me.
‘She’s a Brit, they don’t ski.’
‘Oh, a Brit, you’ll fall off, they always do.’
‘Yes, but they’re nice about it, they always laugh.’
Well that was good to know.
Then we had a lesson on how to harness the dogs, apparently it was good for them to be handled by us before we set off…that made sense. Getting the harness on was easy enough, but the walking them to their sled to clip them in had me dragged all over the place getting tangled in this that and the other as I finally realised how strong these amazing animals were. ‘You’re quite light aren’t you? We’ll only give you two dogs.’ I was a bit miffed, everyone else got three dogs. But it had to do with us all going at about the same speed instead of the pint-sized person racing ahead, so I decided to be flattered that there was somewhere in the world where I was considered to be small, and be pleased with my two gorgeous dogs. Both white husky-crosses, although it was hard to see what they were crossed with and I forgot to ask. The sleds, now that I came to look at them properly, seemed a little flimsy. There wasn’t going to be much between me and the ground, and it did look horribly like skiing.
The final lesson was Husky-speak. Mushers are mushers but they don’t say mush. The word is ‘hike’ but it didn’t look as though we’d be needing it, all the dogs by now were beside themselves with glee and pulling to get started; I had my entire bodyweight on the brake, spikes that cut into the snow, and it was only just enough. ‘Oh, your dog is a leader,’ I was told just before we set off. ‘Mostly they just follow the one in front but you might need to tell her which way to go if she develops a mind of her own. It’s ‘gee’ for right and ‘haw’ for left.’ I nodded sagely and immediately forgot both words. I was still transfixed by the mantra ‘don’t let go’…
‘Is there anything we shouldn’t say to the dogs?’ asked Valerie.
“Not really, just try not to scream. They don’t like that.’