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Out on the Trail
We’ve reached the height of the season for dog sledding trips, and are now going out on an overnight trip about once a week. Just yesterday we got back from a three-day trip–we spent two nights at our established winter campsite, with five of us staff members, five clients, and 20 dogs.
A trip like this takes a lot of work. Preparation began a few days in advance, with me packing out all of the food we would need. The day after all of the food was organized, I went with one of my bosses to drag the food into our campsite by snowmobile and to move dog sleds to the trailhead. That evening, our five clients arrived–we settled them into our guest lodge, outfitted them with all of the warm clothes they would need, and told them to be ready to go at 8:30 in the morning.
The next day we fed the dogs at 6:30 in the morning, then all of us staff ate a quick breakfast together and got moving: backpacks and skis and snowshoes and ropes and all sorts of extra equipment and parts had to be loaded into the trucks, and then the dogs were loaded, and we were off, driving to the trailhead.
Once we’re at the trailhead, the dogs stay in the truck until the last minute. They’re always ready and raring to go, so as soon as they’re hooked up to the sleds you have to leave right away or else they’ll get frustrated. But there’s plenty of stuff that has to happen before the dogs can get hooked up: our ski guide set off with two of the clients (they need an early start since they can’t move as fast as the dog team), and the lines on the dog sleds were all laid out and prepared, and the qomatik was loaded with anything that there wasn’t room for in the three sleds, and then the qomatik was attached to the snowmobile by a tow bar, and finally we started unloading dogs from the truck. We divided the 20 dogs into three teams: an eight-dog team and two six-dog teams, each with a staff member mushing and a client inside the sled. Me and my fellow apprentice took turns mushing the last team and driving the snowmobile, which follows behind the last dog team. And we set off, winding down our trail onto the lake, and then into a cove where our campsite is.
The campsite has several canvas wall tents that we leave erected all winter. Each tent has a bough floor and a wood stove. As soon as we got to camp, half of us tied the dogs up in camp and gave each one of them a bed of hay while the other half went out onto the lake with an ice chisel and a sled full of empty pots to collect water.
Once the dogs were all watered and the sleds and qomatik unpacked, we ate lunch together out on the ice. After that there were chores to be done: finding firewood and bringing it back to camp, and cutting up meat for the dogs, and fetching and boiling more water as needed, and collecting boughs to add to the tents, and chopping wood, and keeping stoves running, and finally making dinner. After dinner we did the dishes, and then we went down onto the lake for my favorite part of every overnight trip: the campfire.
In a normal year, guests and staff would all eat together in the largest tent (the cook tent), passing around food, telling stories, getting to know each other. But with COVID, we can’t all be in one tent together–we have to eat separately. So every night, we make a campfire out on the lake. That’s where storytelling and socializing happens this year.
The wind blows jets of smoke and sparks, causing us to engage in a perpetual dance around the fire as its direction changes. On this night, the stars were the best I’ve seen them here–they reminded me of my trip to Big Bend this fall; they were almost as bright.
Thanks to the nature of the service that we provide and our rigorous safety policies, we have been able to keep taking folks on these amazing trips, even while COVID is still an incredibly dangerous threat to many people, businesses, and communities. It’s a pleasure to get to spend time meeting new people after months of isolation, and it’s so much fun to watch them experience the wonder of the dogs and the outdoors, and incredibly rewarding to know that I helped facilitate that experience.
I’ll be here for about two more months–I’m so excited to spend more time with the dogs, and with amazing people out on the trail.