After a terrible night’s sleep we got up early, to get a quick breakfast and start our dog-sledding day trip. I had forgot to pack some tracksuit pants to sleep in and was shivering in just my jocks, every time Daniel moved (which was every 10 seconds) cold air would rush over my back. No amount of subtle kicking Daniel in the shins or yelling, “STOP MOVING!” helped. I pulled a singlet on and then was too hot in my top half, and freezing from the waist down. We showered and dressed. Vaughan drove us the few hundred metres North up Highway 124 from the Algonquin Motel to Antonio’s GRILL (the grill is in capitals on everything).
We had three choices for breakfast: bacon and eggs variations, pancakes with bacon variants or omelette variations. Dan got an omelette. I asked for bacon and eggs with the eggs over easy and fried solid. This was summarized by the waitress as a “bacon two over hard”. Seemed an appropriate early morning description. Vaughan shuddered at his coffee; being from Melbourne he also finds drip coffee a challenge.
We were the last people to arrive at the Chocpaw Expiditions office, for the hour-long orientation. I was self-conscious we’d made an entrance: Tim’s ski jacket was bright red, Vaughan’s bright blue, my ski pants are green and Daniel’s traffic cone orange. The doorway was blocked by everybody’s snow boots. A group of students from McMaster sat around a large table, and smaller groups of older adults were scattered around the open living room. A cat curled itself up and lounged on the last spare chair. Somebody pointed at some fold-out chairs in a corner. We got ourselves sorted and sat down. The verbal orientation presentation began.
Dylan, a lanky tall young man read out the two-page disclaimer we’d all already signed. He then showed us how the sled was setup: a part beginning with the letter “R” that was delicate and we should try not to break, a stanchion, which just was, a handlebar, which had something to do with the first of Three Golden Rules, tracks, a breaking mechanism, and some bit at the front that had to go over, not under, the rope. It was like knee boarding; you want to be able to lean back and have the rope pull you up, out of the water. The lines holding the dogs was more confusing: Lead dogs, that are harnessed together at their collars, one or two Point dogs and two Wheel dogs. Or maybe it was Wing. I just remembered it was LPW, almost like the cricket acronym. And the parts of the sled were in alphabetical order: R > S > T.
Dylan trained us in the verbal commands to direct the dog team:
Ready, lets go! In a high-pitched and excited falsetto gets the team going, just like the Icelandic horses at Christmas. I was good at this.
Easy… Woooooah… said in a decelerating deepening voice while breaking should make the dogs stop (it did! Well, for me it did. Daniel managed to go a long way repeating it over and over and the dogs ignored him completely).
Jee for left and haw for right, though if it weren’t for our dogs following the sled in front I think they would’ve just done what they wanted anyway.
Dylan then demonstrated how to harness the dogs on Rachel, a slender dog that demonstrated that the dogs know how the harness goes on, and will lift their forefoot up, flexing at the wrist joint equivalent as we thread the limb through the harness. I don’t think she liked the crowd watching; her tail was between her legs and she was a bit shaky.
Everybody helps to get the dogs from their kennels and into their harnesses on the sleds. I was sent off to get Button. With a name like Button you’d think of a tiny little Chihuahua that you could lift up and carry. No. Button was the eleventh dog down the rows, as tall as my thighs and extremely excited to be chosen. I tried to keep Button calm, placing my feet in the ballet first position and squeezing my calves into his/her abdomen as we’d been shown to do. Button would have none of it. All I had to do was unclip the metal hook off Button’s collar, slip my fingers under Button’s collar and walk him/her up to the sled. Button was so keen to get going he/she was jumping up and down around in a circle, tangling me in the chain in fits of giggles. I only managed to get one other dog it took me so long with Button.
The ride was excellent: there was heavy snowfall last night so the tracks were fresh and picturesque. It wasn’t too cold so I quickly removed my middle layer, which soon fell off the sled and Vaughan had to pick up, along with one of our water bottles later on. I drove first. My stamina soon ran out. It’s one thing to run up a hill. It’s another thing to run up a hill covered in fresh snow where your foot plunges into nothing, you start to trip over but can’t because the sled is being pulled by 5 maniacal canines. At lunch I wolfed down my white bread, turkey and margarine sandwich and gulped down my salty warm minestrone soup (provided by Chocpaw) like I’d never eaten. I also needed to pee. After seeking permission from the lady behind Tim & Vaughan’s sled I sighed with relief behind a tree as I melted the snow by its trunk into a yellow-rimmed crater.
I don’t know how it happened. We were going down a steep hill. I had been perfectly on balance, I think I decided I’d let up some slack on the break, and try to steer the sled to the right. As time became slow-motion and my centre of gravity began to float to the right I yelled out at Daniel, “Hoooold ooooon too the sleeeed!” I ended up flat on my face, rolling to the right, the sled began to arc up to the left. Daniel tumbled out. Our dogs ran off, down the hill. We tried to run after them. I can’t run as fast as a dog on dry land, let alone dressed in boots, ski pants, and wading through snow. I tried. Within ten steps my lungs were burning, I was wheezing and I just wanted to lie down and sleep. We hadn’t been trained about what do do if we rolled our sled. I’d only asked what to do if one dog escaped my grip and ran off (don’t chase it; it will think it’s a game), not all five! We were the only sled to have capsized, so I was embarrassed, though secretly thrilled. I’m glad I rolled it going down a fresh hill of snow, and not into the path littered with dog shit. My clothes already stunk of dog, adding dog poo to the mix would have been a challenge.