Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.
A letter from Germany. In which are undertaken first steps in learning how to lead a dog sledge.
Germany, December 2015
how long were we waiting for snow this year, my friend? “Too long!”, I can hear you mutter glancing out the window. I was postponing this little adventure for weeks now, months even. A whole year. Hoping for at least a thin cover of snow. Yet … all in vain. So, despite the futile outlook for snow, I was not going to change plans. Not this time. Not again.
That’s how I finally found myself driving through the rural countryside outside Berlin this morning, heading towards a solitary husky farm and starting right away into some, well … winter adventure. And it should prove definitely worth it – even without the chance for snow (and even though it thus was not really a sledge ride, technically).
A first round in the dog pound helps to get to know the crew – and to meet ‘my’ team of today. All in all, three different breeds of sledge dogs are welcoming us with excited barking and howling, already revealing their different figures and own character:
The Greenlanders with their frayed ears and tattered tails look like real roughnecks, not at all making the impression to avoid a good scuffle. But they’re a bit hesitating, almost shy towards us. The Siberian Huskies on the other hand are quite the contrary – rather wiry, with deep blue and brown eyes they are a pretty playful bunch. Curiously dashing at every newcomer, they lay down on their back, feet up, and demand some fair amount of petting. The strong and, visually still rather wolfish Alaskan Malamutes then are more reserved, it seems. They contemplate the hustle and bustle around them with great serenity, but also prove pretty reliable workhorses – yes, it seems that Malamutes are called ‘locomotives of the far North’ not without reason …
After this first ‘meet and greet’, after a short orientation in how to use (and steer!) the sledge-substitute-vehicles (actually some kind of minimalist but still pretty bulky quad bikes) and a run-through the most important commands (“go” for, well, running, “easy” to gear down, “gee” to turn right and “haw” for left), it’s finally about time to make up our dog teams. An undertaking which takes some time, since each dog wants to be picked up and lead out of their kennel, each animal has to be harnessed individually.
My first buddy is Balu, the lead dog of ‘my’ team – a good-natured fellow and rather quiet Siberian. Tina on the other hand, the second dog in our crew, is much more excited. She’s constantly jumping around, giving me a pat on the shoulder and trying to lick my hands and face. Of course she’s also constantly startling poor Balu who’s harnessed right next to her … Bit by bit Henrik and Anu are then completing my dog team. Meanwhile excitement among the animals peaked and they can hardly wait to finally start. Becoming more and more anxious, they start to scuffle and tussle – yes, it’s definitely time to get them on track, they really demand some action.
The course is about 3.5 km long and winds across country, over root and stone, past old oaks and through the bushes, up overgrown slopes (and down again, of course). The huskies know their way and dash forward so fast that I make use of the “easy” command (and the brakes) pretty often in the beginning. Handling that dog-driven vehicle feels pretty strange at first, a bit cumbersome in the corners. It takes a moment, but after a while we get used to each other and I’m growing brave enough to counter the dogs’ drive to cut every darn turn. They also begin to calm down a bit now (read: they become slower), exertion taking a toll. Okay, actually that means it’s now my turn to muck in – and to push the cart up a few slopes in our path (the dogs don’t really see the point in doing all the work alone pulling that guy behind them around). So, yes: at the end of that lap I’m feeling not less exhausted than the dogs, and the little break that follows (to add two more dogs, Karla and Ruby, to our team) is quite welcome.
But we’re only taking a short breath before returning right back to the course – this time with the power of six dogs. And now, more familiar with the parcours, we’re also a bit bolder, hardly making use of the brake anymore. We’re making good speed, really growing into an oiled team this round – even though all of us start to noticeably show first signs of fatigue now. I urge and encourage the pack, motivate the dogs, throwing myself into it, enough to still feel the muscles in thighs and shoulders (even now). But resting and leaving all work to the dogs alone? Well, that’s not how it works. Not at all: I mean, pushing yourself (ha, literally) actually is half of the fun. It really is. Everything else would be cruising, right?
And later, on my way back home – after releasing the dogs and patting them a chummy “Well done!” – I couldn’t help but imagine such a ride through crusty snow and over crackling ice; the dogs’ breath precipitating in the chilly air, a pale sun at the crisp sky high above. Yes, I think there’s definitely a Jack-London-adventure still waiting for us high up in the north, what do you say?