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facts & arguments

Fly by night

When the sled dogs set off at full speed, it’s like liftoff at Cape Canaveral, K. J. Hunter writes

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Sparkles cling to the snow and the chill air sends shivers down my neck. A silver sliver of a moon peeps through the blanket of dark sky near Atlin, in northern B.C. Dozens of bright eyes gleam from the dog yard in the light of my headlamp. I can tell they know what will happen next.

I’m visiting an old friend, but I’ve also travelled north to experience a sled-dog race and, hopefully, the Northern Lights. It is cold, it is dark, yet the warmth of the small family unit that has welcomed me into their home is strong. Their cabin is off grid, self-sufficient, with all the comforts of home, almost three hours south of Whitehorse. And they have sled dogs.

I am ready for the adventure.

The musher brings a handful of harnesses from the shed. The dogs crouch in their houses straining to be still. One by one the musher approaches them. There is no question as to who is in control.

One word and the dog is outside the shelter – waiting. The musher reaches and slips the harness over its head, fitting one front leg and then the other. Another word and the dog returns to its house to wait. There is no sound except the voice and the chain.

I watch from the sled, inside a large, heavy, canvass bag that attaches to the sled basket to hold supplies. It zips right up to my nose. Last time I was in something this snug it was under the stars in the Australian Outback near Uluru – snug then to keep out critters, not cold.

This is very different. I have a -40 C down-filled bag to protect me from the -30 C night. It’s pulled up to my nose and I try not to make any sound or movement that might break the concentration of the dogs or their handler. For these dogs, compliance means they get to run, and the team has been selected to ensure the best experience for musher, dogs and the passenger – me.

It’s like being on stage with the actors and trying to be invisible to the audience.

I watch the play unfold.

Wearing a wide belt, the musher clips all eight dogs to his waist, walking the team as a group to the gangline that attaches them to the sled. The dogs move and surge, flowing around the musher like a living tutu as he patiently walks around the yard allowing them to settle as a team.

Incredibly, with all that energy there is still no noise. A trembling mass of muscle and fur, the dogs are attached one by one to the gangline by the neckline and tugline on their harness. The energy builds, the dogs know the command to run is coming.

The musher takes his time. The dogs seem to focus their energy to be able to bolt together as soon as he does.

Allez! Allez!” he cries.

The dogs explode at full speed. They launch – it’s like a liftoff at Cape Canaveral. It is raw and breathtaking and I grab the sides of the basket, afraid that we might flip at the first turn. The dogs are joyous and I am filled with elation as I settle into the speed, the air full of snow and clouds of breath. Never have I witnessed such collective delight – the musher, the dogs and me.

The trail is only lit by our headlamps and the wink of a waxing crescent moon. The snow flashes brightly as we fly by in the dark and bushes loom and swing at us as we pass. Once or twice a stop is necessary to correct an offside dog or one that is tangled with its lead. Occasionally the air would be full of pungent scent and the musher knows to stop to let a dog answer the call of nature. Human and canine are so in tune, it’s like they can read each other’s minds.

To keep the dogs responsive to him, the musher periodically requires them to halt and lie down and wait – for good reason. There are dangers in the forest, animals that may take their attention away from the trail, a moose that may wish to inflict harm on the team. The lead dog and the musher must keep the team in check.

I begin to relax and soak up the experience on a visual level. The steam from my own breath and the cloud that flows back from the team give the ride a Polar Express feel. As we move again, bits of snow and ice and branches whack at my face and I try to imagine what we look like as we fly past the other woodland creatures. I peer hopefully, trying to spot glowing eyes looking back from the bushes.

The snap and sizzle of the trail is mesmerizing. Never knowing what is around the next bend just out of sight, I keep my hands ready to deflect a branch. There are tracks everywhere. We had seen them during the day but now the number seems much higher as we leave the more travelled areas and head into the bush. Each print appears deep and dark, the light changing their shape as we pass and leave them in darkness while others replace them.

I didn’t want the ride to end. When it did I was speechless with happiness. The dark night and the bright stars and the heavy breathing of the dogs after a job well done, leaves me thrilled beyond words. I roll myself out of the basket and tip my head back to gaze at the stars and I see long green fingers of light playing above me tugging the sky-blanket toward the treeline. The aurora borealis – another bucket-list wish granted. I can’t stop smiling.

K. J. Hunter lives in Vancouver, B.C.

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