Sunday, March 8, 2015

Well King, it Looks Like This Case is Closed

When I was a kid, Saturday mornings were comprised of forts and television before the parents got out of bed.  The living room was covered in a sea of blankets stretched across the sofas and lounge chairs, looking vaguely like a Bedouin village populated by midgets.

One of our favorite telephone shows was "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon", with his faithful husky dog, King.  Because this was the 1950's, they didn't actually have to go into the snow; we were just a couple of years after radio and were willing to imagine anything.  Sergeant Preston would walk into the cabin and a "poof" of white stuff would follow him from the outside, with a noise like wind, and we just knew it was cold, blustery and snowy outside.

I don't actually recall King ever pulling a sled.  It was probably a union thing and he was a Los Angeles husky, "Call my car, I don't do sleds."

As a kid though, you knew that old Sergeant Preston would hop onto his sled, yell "mush" or "heave ho" or "let's get going," and King would be off pulling the sled and the Sergeant over the snow after the bad guy in that show.  Spoiler Alert!  The bad guy was always the one guy in the cabin/bar/lodge who hadn't shaved and his plaid shirt might have a couple of wrinkles.  Everyone else was clean shaven and had neatly pressed clothes.

So, I was very excited about going on a DIY dog sled tour.

We were at the far North end of Norway, fairly close to Russia (which I understand is teeming with unshaven people with wrinkled plaid shirts).  A small group of us got off in an unpronounceable Norwegian port, lumbered into a bus and were driven through the snow and ice to the husky sled dog camp.  As a bonus, in addition to the husky sled dog ride, you could pick either a reindeer ride or a snowmobile ride.  We opted for the reindeer ride since we had separately booked a midnight snowmobile tour (which ultimately was cancelled because of gale-force winds, the problem with winter sports) and, well, it was a Reindeer Ride near the North Pole.

They herded us into a cabin where they outfitted us with winter gear, winter overalls, together with huge boots and gloves.  We basically looked like Stay Puft Marshmallow Men, but with fewer moving parts.

We left the cabin and followed our guide to the husky dog sled station, lumbering slowly in our outfits, like a group of Boris Karloff impersonators in search of a Frankenstein sequel.

The dogs were very lovable and excited!!  One thing was clear at that camp and a separate husky dog camp we went to later, they WANT to run and pull the sleds!  There was nothing more heart-rending than hearing the dogs who were tethered at their doghouses wailing at the sleds as they left.

We had a cute Laplander blond girl who was to be on the lead sled.  She gave us about ten seconds of instructions, "Here's de brake", then walked away to her sled.  Karen sat in the sled and I took up the helm, which was standing on the two narrow runners and holding onto the handle, with the "brake" (which was a thing that you stepped on to dig into the snow) between the two runners.  That was it, no reins, no gearshift knob, no steering wheel, nothing else.  My options were to "hang on" or "brake".  To turn the sled, you were instructed to lean a bit one way or the other, but that is basically like telling the end person skating in "crack the whip" to try and control everyone else, it doesn't happen.

When our guide went off, each of the teams of dogs and their sleds went bounding after them.  It was an amazing feeling, the wind and snow in my face, the dogs speeding along and me trying to balance on the narrow runners.  That is, until I came to a hill.

I'm just speaking from my perspective.  Our husky dogs may have their own blog where they are posting "You Should Have Seen the Huge Guy I Had to Tow Last Week".  However, what you don't see in the short husky sled videos is a group of huskies coming to a hill and sitting down, obviously waiting for a T-Bar to tow them up the slope.

Perhaps it would be different if I was a bit smaller, but I like to think of myself as a man of substance.  Apparently, the dogs thought so too as they stared back at me with that "you go first" look in their eyes.

So, to get up the hill, I had to step off the runners, yell a "gee haw" "mush" and generally pant, to get the dogs to start moving.  The trick here is to not let go of the handle or to let the sled start to go faster than I am able to go.  It was a distinct possibility that the runners would outrun me and at any moment my wife would be the head musher sitting on the sled without the benefit of brakes.

The first half of the journey consisted of what seemed to be a lot more "ups" than "downs".  Karen would periodically call back to me with "are you all right", "are you still breathing", "are you having a heart attack" to which I would bravely respond with pants and groans.

In fairness, these were not large dogs.  Karen, god bless her, suggested that larger or more dogs might have been able to pull us with less effort on my part.  She didn't give actual sizes or numbers, but at least there was the hope that a huge team of mutant dogs could be mustered for future sled rides.

Our guide did stop mid-way and come back to check on us.  I mentioned that our dogs were having a hard time on the hills (hers looked bigger and well-rested and I was hinting at a trade), but she assured us that the rest of the trip was going to be downhill.  Fortunately, it was.  All in all, it was a lot of fun, but it would have been nice if Sergeant Preston would have warned me about the challenges of sledding uphill.

After the dogsled ride, we hopped into a van and took a short ride to the reindeer camp.  Our guide was another Laplander.  He and his wife ran the reindeer side of the business, which was comprised of a few of the reindeer who got to pull the sleighs and a few hundred additional reindeer that they herded and as to which the Laplander said "we use all of the reindeer."  I remember an example of the difference between the words "involved" and "committed".  With a ham and egg breakfast, the chicken is "involved" and the pig is "committed".  The reindeer who were not involved in sledding were committed.

The reindeer sleigh ride was very relaxing and beautiful.  The Laplander led the lead reindeer on foot and guided us on a two-mile sleigh ride through a beautiful snowy valley.

We then returned to the cabin at the dogsled camp, put on our regular clothes and enjoyed a hot cup of coffee, some lefsa for dessert and reindeer stew for those of us with a sense of humor and irony.  Not everyone joined in the stew.

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