March 8th, 2005

This IS me (by schwitters)Default

28/02/05: The Toil of Trace and Trail

It's minus-28°C. My breath condenses on my glasses and freezes. It's tomorrow and we're carrying buckets of steaming red glop to the huskies, who are yodelling and dancing with excitement, jumping on and off the roofs of their kennels and kicking up the packed snow in circles dictated by the chains at their necks. As we serve them some cower away, some push forward, and one big white fellow named Alin puts his paws on my shoulders as though greeting a long-lost friend.

Their names are carved into wooden plaques on poles. Captain, Goofy, Lotti, Swing, Bear, Tonic, Libby. Some look almost like wolves, others resemble mongrels fresh from the RSPCA shelter. They bolt down their chow and dance some more.

After our own breakfast we go for a walk with Whisky and the five poppies, who toddle fatly and fuzzily after their mother with frost in their coats. Then it's time for us to learn how to harness the dogs.

Lotte shows us how to put on the harness - both loops over the dog's head, paws through the straps and pull down - and points out some of the more biddable dogs for practice. I pick Alin, since he seems to have taken a shine to me. His ears go down as he spies the obvious amateur approaching to use him as a dummy, but he submits gracefully as I clamp my boots on either side of his body and commence mauling his extremities.

It takes about ten minutes to harness Alin, and I am insanely proud of my achievement. By the end of the week, I will be popping 'em in and out of their harnesses like shelling peas.

After more practice, we take the sleds from the garage and are each told the names of four dogs to fetch and harness. The dogs know what's up and go mad with excitement, but I am only allowed to release my allocation of Reno, White Sock, Bandit and Daisy. I get them attached to the sled with some difficulty and wait for the off, foot pressed hard on the brake and hands gripping the rail in terror. We're told the commands for 'stop' and 'go' - 'Ohhhh!' and 'OK, let's go!' - and the one rule: don't let go.

I run into trouble early on: I'm applying too much brake, and my dogs come to a stop trying to drag me up a steep hill. The solution is to step off the runners and help push, but it takes a lot of shouting to convey this to me as I'm scared that if I remove any part of myself from the sled the dogs will take off and never be seen again. Once the initial terror passes, though, it's fabulous. We cover six kilometres of snowmobile trail in a circuit, with occasional pauses to discourage Michael's dogs from shagging each other, and it's the experience of my life. I want to keep going forever, leaning into the curves, shouting nonsense words to my dogs and risking quick glances at the scenery hurtling by.

How often do you get to do something you've wanted to do almost all your life - and find that it not only meets but exceeds your expectations?

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