Alice Dryden (huskyteer) wrote,
Alice Dryden

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Life in the Freezer

The long-awaited write-up of what I was doing in Sweden. With photos!

Before I went, I had no idea what to expect: how many people would be there, what my duties would entail.

As it turned out there were five of us helping out for part or all of the time plus Lotti, who runs the joint. The helpers stayed in a newly-built cabin with a youth hostel atmosphere. I'm not good at sharing bedrooms, particularly with hulking 21-year-old German boys, so the period of adjustment was quite lengthy. But it was all part of the experience.

There was always plenty of work to go round. This is roughly how each day panned out:

Sleeping under a curtainless window, I tend to wake up before six then doze for an hour and a half. At 7:30 Tobias's alarm goes off and the three of us sharing the upstairs room get dressed with varying degrees of awkwardness. Down the loft ladder, check the temperature, light the stove, watch it go out, get someone else to relight it.

0800: Dog feeding. The dogs live two to a pen based on who likes whom (this is subject to change at a bared fang's notice). A few are chained up outside the pens because they would jump, burrow, smash or eat their way out of any enclosure.

For feeding all the dogs are put on chains so they don't get more than their fair share, or fight over the food. Most will come when called and submit fairly willingly, but some are difficult. Like Tok, who growls, barks and play-bites, while his cagemate Luke tells him not to be so silly and tries to defend me from his snaps, until he decides it's time to be caught and sits demurely down.

Breakfast is the watered-down remains of yesterday's dinner. This is prepared in the dog food kitchen and transported to the pens in white plastic buckets on a sledge pulled by human power. A tin can attached to a wooden handle is used to serve; everyone gets two scoops.

0900: Cleaning. Lotti comes by one morning as we're carrying out this task. "Oh," she says, "that is funny! You take the food in, and then you take it out in another form!"

We have long-handled dustpans and pointy things whose technical name, according to Lotti, is shit-scratcher. Most of the waste is quite benign, as it freezes solid; sinking the shit-scratcher into a fresh deposit is less pleasant. This operation is euphemistically referred to as 'playing golf'.

(Halfway through the holiday I started getting pins and needles in my right hand. On returning home I consulted my GP, who told me I had golfer's elbow. I didn't tell him what sort of golf I'd been playing.)

1000: Human feeding. We don't get breakfast until the dogs have had theirs, and if there are guests staying, they have to be fed first. When it's finally time for our breakfast we spend up to an hour whacking into the coffee, muesli with yoghurt, home-made (by us) bread with cheese and jam, eggs, cold sausage...

1030: Preparing the sleds. The dogs can't be run for two hours after feeding, but preparations start now - especially if we're taking tourists out, because this means lots of sleds, lots of dogs and lots of chaos.

Lotti gets out a biscuit tin containing slips of paper on which the dogs' names are written, and decides on the teams for the day. If it's two to a sled, teams will consist of five or six dogs. Solo riders get four. Lotti goes out with up to ten, but then she's the boss.

Some dogs are leaders, some are wheel dogs (closest to the sled); some only run on the right side, others only on the left. Some hate each other and have to be kept apart. One boy, Igor, won't tolerate any other males on his team. When the running order is decided I write the names in a book so we know who's been out.

We fetch the harnesses, which hang in the dog food kitchen. Each one has been hand-made by Lotti and has its owner's name embroidered on the side in block capitals: BEAR; SOLO; WANDA; FLIPP.

The sleds are pushed to the start of the trail and tied to posts with a quick-release knot I never quite master. The dogs clock what's going on and go mad with excitement. This makes fetching them from their pens and harnessing them a tricky task, as they're very likely to make a break for it the instant you open the pen door, or wriggle away from your grasp as you manhandle them sledwards. To put the harness on you stand over the dog with feet together, trapping him or her between your legs, and pull the padded fabric loops over head and chest. Then you just have to keep your dogs from fighting, mating or chewing the harnesses until the off.

1100: Mushing. The off! When the tourists are being taken out, Lotti leads them on the snowmobile. I thought it would be hard to stay behind and watch everyone set out after working so hard to get them ready, but in fact it's a splendid sight. And sometimes I get to ride pillion on the snowmobile (driving it once, until I managed to steer straight through a small tree) in case Lotti needs an extra pair of hands. One day, as there are thirteen guests riding two to a sled, I'm a passenger. When one of the dogs gets tired, I nurse her in my arms for the rest of the journey.

The best mushing, though, is had during my final week, when there are no guests staying. Lotti forges ahead with ten dogs, while we helpers follow with four each. Instead of the broad tourist trail, flattened and compacted by snowmobile treads, we plough through deep unbroken snow. Lotti's lead dogs, Libby and Wanda, find their way by smell or instinct or memory. At one point we catch sight of half a dozen reindeer ahead, and hope to hell that the dogs follow the trail and not the potential dinner.

My last mush is a 40-kilometre trail around the Avvakko mountain. Lotti promises a ride 'like a rollercoaster'. I am rather dubious about this, as I'm still doing something wrong around corners and the sled tends to rock alarmingly. I follow advice to lean into the bend and hope for the best.

We slog up a steep slope, holding on to the sled while running behind it to help the dogs. My team reaches the top and I realise I'm looking down a near-vertical drop on the other side. Lotti's dogs are already streaming down it. It looks fast. It looks scary.

I have a brief window as we teeter on the summit to think about all the people I love and what a shame it would be if I never saw them again. Then, with a protracted yell of "HOLY FUCKING CHRIST!", we're off. Knees bent, I put my full weight on the brake with both feet, soft snow spraying up to my waist. Long seconds later we arrive at the bottom and I turn to watch the last sled descend. It looks terrifying, and I can't believe I've just done that.

1300: Return. The harnessing and sled-fetching process is reversed. In theory this should be easier now the dogs are tired, but this isn't always the case. When there are tourists staying, they need to be fed on packet soup. When it's just us, we raid the fridge and wolf down whatever we can find.

The afternoon programme varies. There are usually tasks to be done, like baking bread or cleaning out the ducks, but some downtime too. Then there's the onerous duty of walking the puppies.

There are five puppies: Samba, Tango, Humpa (a Finnish dance), Rock and Roll. (Their mother is called Swing, as in dance.) They were born in December and have boundless energy. The puppies won't stray too far from their mum, so we walk Swing on a lead while her offspring orbit around her, darting off to sniff trees, wrestle each other or flump in the deep snow. If they get too far away they can be summoned by making the Puppy Noise: in as high a voice as possible, call "LIDDLEIDDLEIDDLEIDDLEIDDLE!" and they come bounding back, ears, tongues and tails flapping. Those tourists who haven't fallen asleep or gone out cross-country skiing often demand a puppy walk, and I'm glad to forsake duck poo or flour for their entertainment.

If the tourists demand it, or we fancy it, we light the stove in the sauna and break a hole in the frozen lake for post-sauna dips.

1600: Dogs' dinner. The main meal of the day must be at least an hour and a half after the dogs finish mushing, or they might swell up and die. For dinner they get meat, fish and biscuits along with any suitable table scraps, mixed with water to make a vile satanic stew.

The standard ration is a scoop and a half of this stuff, but skinny dogs (enthusiastic types who burn more calories running than they can replace) get two and tubby dogs get one. One of the few dieting dogs has dear chubby little forelegs, and lifts them up and down in a dance because she's so excited that the food is coming.

After the dogs are fed and the empty dishes removed, tomorrow's food is prepared. This means fetching slabs of processed meat (four blocks of meat and half a block of fish) from the deep freeze, which is easily my least favourite job. As well as the meat there's a supply of huge and ghastly bones in there which I try to avoid touching, but my real fear is that the door will swing shut on me as I'm reaching in for the meat and I'll be trapped and freeze to death, even though there's a big glow-in-the-dark emergency handle inside, and also that I'll dislodge a slab from the shelf above and it will fall on my head and knock me out.

I worry too much.

1800: Humans' dinner. Lotti takes charge, though we lay the table and sometimes contribute to the cooking (my apple crumble, accompanied by custard made from a tin of Bird's powder with a Best Before date in 2004, goes down a storm). Over the three weeks I eat reindeer, pike caught in the lake, caviar from pike caught in the lake, pasta with apple sauce, raclette and rosti.

After dinner we run the dishwasher. ("Now we can dish!" says Lotti.) Loading, unloading, drying and putting away can take up to an hour, and by this time we're all knackered. The bulk of the dishwashing usually falls to me and Wiebke, a South African on a gap year, and we make the time pass by singing the few songs we both know. This repertoire consists of 'Hey Jude' by the Beatles, 'I'm A Believer' by the Monkees, and the soundtrack from The Lion King.

2000: Free time. The day is almost over. If the sauna's been fired up we go and sit and sweat and chat and drink beer, with occasional pauses to cool down by standing naked outside in the snow or climbing into the ice hole. I also get a heck of a lot of reading and cross stitching done in the healthy absence of internet.

At 10, or 9 if there are no guests staying, the diesel generator is switched off and nothing works except the small bedside lights. If you don't fancy brushing your teeth and going to the loo in the dark, be ready for bed before then.

Around 9:30 the dogs start howling. (You can also set them off by howling at them, which I find endlessly entertaining.) First one starts up, then everyone else joins in. It's possible to distinguish the puppies and the year-old dogs, and I like to think I can recognise some of the individual dogs' voices too. I'm often in bed by this time, and the sound makes me feel simultaneously far from home and right where I belong.
Tags: hols, huskies

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