It was cancelled twice due to weatherconditions but, at 3.00pm on New Years eve, they told us they’d run anothertrip. This was a bit of a surprise. At 3.00pm, in these parts, night fell anhour ago. It is pitch black, snowing quite hard and the wind is sufficientlylively to be blowing the snow horizontally!
Nevertheless, off we set for the dog compound... in a jeep with no doors or windows!
The compound is set in a small hollowsurrounded by woods. It houses 64 huskies in wire cages. There are a couple ofwooden admin buildings and the whole thing is well lit by arc lights high up onpoles. [FONT=
[/FONT]As we approach, the dogs set up a terrificbarking, interspersed with the ululating wolf howl. The snow swirls and eddiesin the amber glow of the arc lights. Outside their orbit, the forest broods,black and silent. I feel like we’re pulling up outside a Siberian gulag.
The sleds are already set up, with a team of 5gorgeous huskies in front of each. The dogs are yapping and howling, strainingagainst their harnesses. Other people arrive and the guides allocate people toteams - one driving, one sitting in the sled. The sleds themselves look prettyflimsy affairs, faintly reminiscent of the kind of rattan and bamboo furnitureyou see in conservatories. Each has a reindeer skin covering its flatbed.
I’m to drive a Swiss lady, who is very petite(which proves a real bonus) and excellent company. My wife is to be driven byone of the experienced guides
Nine months ago my wife collapsed at the gym.The miracle workers at our local A& E correctly diagnosed the issue (whichis often mistaken for a heart attack, with fatal results). They found asurgical team, with the requisite, unbelievable, skills, at a specialist heartunit 70 miles away. When the ambulance got there the team were gowned andready. I was following the ambulance in a car. She asked could she wait for me.They told her they hadn’t expected her to survive the journey- it was down to15 minutes. She signed the form, they sawed through her sternum, opened her ribcage and patched the tear in her aorta. I’m a big fan of the NHS.
I’m a bit pumped already, but watching this 61year old woman, gamely lowering herself into her flimsy sled, through theswirling snow and its backing sound track of cacophonous barking, is doingstrange things in my chest.
Finally the sleds are loaded and we start tomove off into the forest. Almost immediately the glow from the arc lights islost. My head torch is just about strong enough to make out the lead dog butfor most of the next hour my main reference point will be occasional flashesoff the reflective strips on the survival suit of the guy driving the sled infront. [FONT=
[/FONT]“Driving” is a bit of a misnomer. Grimlyclinging onto the sled would more accurately describe that initial wild rushthrough the forest. The drivers only real job is to stand on the brake (a kindof pad, between the runners, under the drivers feet, which acts as a draganchor). It doesn’t occur to me to practice that simple manoeuvre.
The very first bend is at the bottom of a shortsharp slope. I haven’t braked. As we bucket round it, like a bobsleigh, onerunner bounces over a tree root and for a few metres we are careening along at45 degrees on the left runner. Eventually it bounces back down flat. My Swisslady kindly comments “that was exciting”. I practice using the brake.
The couple in the sled ahead are decidedly notpetite. At every uphill they have to stop to let the passenger out so the dogscan get up the hill.
We stop far enough behind, so the dog teamsdon’t get entangled, and catch glimpses of their movements where the torchpicks up their reflectors.
No barking now, the dogs rest, panting. Thesnow swirls and the forest all around flutters, dancing weirdly where the windwhistles through its branches. There is no moon and no stars, just the whiteground, black forest and the white cone of the head torch occasionally catchingthe gleaming eyes of the dogs.
We wait until the dim light of their head torchhas disappeared, then I let off the brake and start to run behind the sled. Thedogs go for it, my Swiss lady urges them on, and we fly up the slope. As thedogs disappear over the hump I feel the tug on the sled handle and leap backonto the runners. Exhilarating, mind blowing, there are no words to describethis experience.
Eventually the arc lights come back into view.My wife appears out of the snow, cheeks red, eyes shining, her survival suitcaked in snow. I zip my suit down to belt level. She slides her arms in,searching for my rear end. We are getting funny looks until she emerges withthe hip flask from my back pocket. We take a couple of slugs of a fine singlemalt whiskey and join the chattering, excited crowd. Cups of hot coffee arepassed round. I pour a big slug of Scotland’s finest into my Swiss lady’smug. [FONT=
[/FONT]Jeep back, a quick change, and we are at thegala dinner. The people at the next table are a British couple in their 50s.They’d been dog sledding that morning and the lady, particularly, is a bigpersonality. The wine flows, the tales get taller, the jokes get bawdier. Atmidnight there are fireworks. At 12.30 our little party is joined by a bunch ofMancunians, the leader of which has the looks, and comedic talent, of Peter Kay(a British comedian). At one of his sallies I laugh so hard I fear I’vestrained something.
At 1.00 we clear some chairs to make a dancefloor. By 1.30 we are down to a hard core and the staff are looking daggers. Westart the 100m walk, through the snow, to our cabin. With 5m to go my wifeslides gracefully to the floor, taking me with her. We giggle, and areridiculous, for many minutes, fully emulating Bambi’s attempts to return tovertical.
There is a bit of trouble operating the doorkey. [FONT=
[/FONT]Adrenaline, alcohol and, alas for the firsttime in 18 months, nicotine, are not conducive to sleep. I lie looking at thewood ceiling, listening to the wind, the lapping waves and the light snores ...and fervently thanking something.