Sunday, March 14, 2010

Rule # 1: Hang on. Rule # 2: Don't let go.

We set off in single file, with the lead chap in front of me, Barb behind me, Karen behind her and Valerie at the back. Valerie had done this before and was therefore trusted not to need nursemaiding. The first few seconds were terrifying.That optical illusion of speed near the ground kicked in...perhaps experienced skiers are used to this but, well I've mentioned that little issue. Holding on was about all I could manage and there was a bend looming. Frantic that I'd forgotten which way to lean, I ran little diagrams of train crashes in my head to make sure I was going to get it right, but I got my weight on the correct ski, stayed on the sled and made the turn.

I was just congratulating myself on a job well done when a driverless sled slapped into the back of my legs. The leader chappie stopped his sled as it crashed past him too. I remembered where the brake was and stopped mine behind him as a pile of extra dogs appeared from all directions and mayhem broke out. Karen had fallen off (presumably not holding onto her sled in the process) and Barb had left her braking a little late, when she saw us stopped in front of her.
It took a while to sort everyone out, get Barb's dogs backed up, get Karen back on her sled etc. but eventually we all set off again. This was much better, I knew I could do it now. I made it round the next turn relaxed and began to grin; but the loose sled and overlapping dogs thing happened all over again and we stopped to see if Karen was ok. She was unhurt but had decided that maybe her skills lay elsewhere, she didn't really want to go on. So, we waited a while for another worker to come out to us, who popped Karen in the seat at the front of her sled and took over the driving.

The leader was beginning to get a bit irritable with Barb by this time, who was still stopping her sled a tad late when something happened. I was getting the point of all that, since I nearly lost my balance each time her dogs cannoned into my knees and was starting to feel a bit bruised. The third time it happened he lost patience, popped Barb into the seat of Valerie's sled and rearranged the dogs to give her more pulling power. Thus re-organised again we all set off somewhat grumpily. Especially Barb, who hadn't really had the chance to fix what was going wrong, it seemed to me that a spot of more attentive training might have done the trick.

But then we were off properly, taking turns, bouncing about, having a blast. I fell once, misjudging a tight corner, and landed in the snow. I held on to my sled! 'Use the brake' came an instruction wafting from behind somewhere and I remembered that technique, pushing the brake into the snow as you turn the sled upright so that the dogs can't run off while you get back on. And then it was even better because I knew that I knew how to fall off, so the turns got a bit more daring and I finished the course with no more incidents and a huge soppy grin on my face. Want more dogs next time.

As the only newbie to finish the trail actually driving (and the daft Brit) I got a bit of a 'you did well' from the staff as we unharnessed the dogs and calmed down from the trip, but my happy dance of success had to be put off for another time, since Valerie's sled arrived back with a spot of damage. They'd managed to hit a tree. Grumpiness spread. I think I was the only one who actually had a good day, so I will celebrate here and now. It was the most marvellous fun and more like driving that like skiing and I am cock-a-hoop that I picked it up.

But you did have to learn fast or people got hurt. I ended up thinking that they should maybe have had a little practise run to put everyone round before setting off for real, after all no-one expects you to get in a car and get it right first time. I asked Valerie later whether she'd been given any advice on how to handle a sled with a passenger in. It stood to reason to me that the change in weight distribution would mean you had to take bends a bit differently, but she said she'd not been told anything new. Which is probably why they met the tree.

We stopped off for consolation at The Mad Musher, had the finest French Onion Soup known to man and some very passable chips and the girls perked up a bit. We polished off all the leftovers of food and booze that evening, had one more night in the yurt and headed home to tell tales of snow and derring do. Well, I did.

So, would I go winter camping again? Probably. Dog sledding again? Absolutely, but maybe with a different company. Perhaps this lilly-livered Brit has finally found a reason to be outdoorsy. I've picked up a brochure for longer back-country trips where you sled all day and camp at night. Must call Valerie and suggest it for next year.

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