Friday Column: Sled-Dogging

Richard came by on Sunday, only a few minutes after myself, Mia, Börje, Lisa (Fisa) and Claes had returned from our improvised shooting range down at the Blåsbo farm, and in the midst of making lunch (a sort of ‘pyttipanna’ – Swedish for mung – omelet arrangement) he asked if I wanted to come along to train the huskies.

“When?”

“Now.”

“Like, right now?”

“Yeah, now.”

“Okay.”

I did manage to gulp down my lunch in three or four hurried bites, clambered into my new-to-me-but-old blue overalls that Mia’s dad gave me for collecting the firewood, attached my scarf and put on my Hestra cross-country skiing gloves, which I would later discover are not in fact dog-sledding gloves, to the detriment of the dexterity in my fingers.

Oddly it is January, and as of Sunday there was no snow on the ground. So we set out more or less on a dog-four-wheeling journey through the forest.

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Richard in the hundgård

Hooking up the huskies is not really an easy task. They know what is about to happen and can barely contain their excitement. We secured them to a chain in their outdoor pen – the ‘hundgård’ – lined up one by one and separated by enough space to make it less difficult to put their harnesses on and hook them up to the sled (quad). Once secured, Richard opened the gate and drove the quad inside (it’s a large hundgård), stretching the mainline of the harness between the front of it and a steel post hammered into the ground on the opposite side of the yard near the fence. The main line is a piece of polypropylene, like waterski rope, divided into four sections, with leads coming off the right and left side of each. Each lead is about three-feet long, made of thinner poly, with a brass clasp on the end of it. The dogs wear x-shaped harnesses (some of them very difficult to put on, as the dogs are bouncing-off-the-ground motivated to run), to which this lead is attached at their after end, on their back. They pull the sled (quad). Their snouts are attached to the mainline via a short six-inch lead clipped to a collar around their neck – there is no tension on this line, but rather just keeps the dogs in line and following one another.

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Utah

The hitching-up process took several minutes, where after Richard drove the quad (and the dogs) out the other end of the hundgård while I stayed behind to keep tabs on Utah, the newest addition to the gang, a three-month-old husky youngster that Richard plans to use for breeding purposes when it gets a little older. Utah created the biggest ruckus and was even more excited than the others to get out and run, but she’s too young yet and wouldn’t keep up. Once Richard and the dogs were clear of the fence, I locked Utah in and joined him on the back of the quad.

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In Swedish, they call it ‘ut på landet’ – out in the countryside. It has its advantages. ‘Dunderbovägen,’ the name of the road which isn’t really a road but leads up into the village from the main road about a kilometer down the slight hillside and out of the forest, terminates just to the north of the house here, splitting off into the driveways of Richard’s and a few of the other neighbors. The ‘road’ ends, but a path continues into the forest and further afield. Mia and I often run on the myriad paths that bisect the woods out back, and Richard and some of the other neighbors often see moose and deer wandering around not far beyond their houses.

It was back in these woods last summer that Richard, his five-year-old nephew Liam and I wandered off into with the idea of camping out overnight. Richard and I each had rustic old leather packs filled with hammocks and rain tarps, and he carried a newly dead pheasant along for supper. I had three Kostrizters with me I intended on enjoying upon setting up the campsite. A half-hour hike in the woods is long enough for a five-year-old, and must have felt far from home, so we set up camp on a small hillock with lots of nice flat rocks to sit on. Richard and I set up the hammocks between some large pine trees, and he set about teaching me how to make fire without any matches.

The caveman way of rubbing two sticks together works after a while, but is incredibly inefficient. Instead, we made a bow out of a springy tree branch, stripped of its bark, and twisted another piece of wood into the string. Laying this against a flattened board with a gouge notched out of it, you simply held the small piece of wood in place and ‘played’ the bow as if it were a musical instrument, and at a frantic pace. Eventually an ember would fall out of the dent you made in the board, and if you’re careful, you can transfer that ember to the firepit that would have been set up by then. If you’re not careful, the whole mess will burst into flames in your hands, as it did for me. If you’re not careful, the forest will be too dry for such things, and the fire will very quickly spread outside the nice pit you made for it and will be very difficult to put out, threatening to burn down the whole wood.

After two hours of fighting the fire – which I had successfully started without any matches – we decided we’d had enough stress for the day, drank the beer and hiked back home. I took the train back to Stockholm that evening and surprised Mia and her girlfriends at the Södra Theatre bar on Sodermalm.

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With the dogs hooked up to the front of the quad as if it were a sled, we set off on the trail in the direction of our old campsite (also the same trail where I asked Mia to marry me). Driving the four-wheeler is almost an afterthought – the dogs pull the thing merrily along in neutral on the flat bits, and only require the slightest bit of throttle going up the small hills or around a tight bend. Incredibly, once they’re off and running, the barking and whining and general excitement is translated into forward motion – under way, the dogs are silent.

We took the first right-hand fork in the forest that heads out towards one of the field. The interesting thing about agriculture in the region surrounding the village is the division between forest and field. Things grow around here, but on much smaller plots of land, interrupted often by tracts of pine forest, the floors of which are covered in lime-green moss and granite grey rocks, creating an oddly beautiful contrast of colors, especially with patches of snow interspersed among it. Within the fields themselves are often piles of granite boulders amongst a clump of trees – originally the land around here was incredibly rocky, so to tend a field of any kind required some serious plowing up of the hard bits, which were apparently piled in the middle. The crops grow around these piles.

The dogs followed a path to the right of the field, edging along just outside the forest until we came to another dirt access road used by the neighboring farmers. The road exited the wood and we turned down onto an open plain. It was icy on many bits of the path, and the less-experienced dogs slipped and slided there way along, while Avalanche, the lead dog out front, smartly avoided the shiny spots.

In mushing language“Zjee!” means left and “Hhoaww!” means right, and this is all Richard had to shout to Avalanche, some thirty feet out in front of the quad, in order for her to change direction or follow a particular fork in the road. The rest of the huskies followed in lockstep with one another, and we turned back to the left and back towards the forest.

About halfway through the 12-13 kilometer course we followed, Richard stopped the quad and offered the dogs a rest. They seemed to know this was coming, and like an athlete will when he knows he needs it, the dogs immediately dropped to the ground and lay on the sides in the snow, licking at the ice because they were thirsty, still connected to the mainline. I took a leak.

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Varg and her pups in the house

Avalanche, the all-white dog with different colored eyes (like my childhood dog Pepper, who I think now more than ever was part husky), is the lead dog, hooked up at the front of the sled. Her and Kiruna are hitched together at the snout, and their jobs are to follow directions and be the brains. With six dogs behind them, they have less weight to pull, but still put in some effort. They are the smallest of the pack, and the smartest, and they’re both female. At the opposite end of the line, Sarek and one whose name I can never remember do the heavy lifting closest to the sled (quad). They are the biggest, strongest, craziest and last to tire out. In front of them, still participating in the heavy pulling, Fjäll (the friendliest dog) and Oden (the other all-white dog) are paired off. Nanook (Eskimo for ‘polar bear’) was hitched up in front of them, alone this time, as his partner Varg (Swedish for ‘wolf’) was busy in Richard’s house tending to her newborn pups, which by then were about three days old. Richard explained all this to me while the dogs chilled out in the slow-motion dusk that accompanies a winter sunset at 60º north. Then we were off.

I drove the second half of the route, and it was during the end of this, riding through the forest with the quad’s headlights on in the waning daylight, my hands in my Hestra gloves, inside big nylon mittens designed to go around the quad’s handlebars in wintertime, that my fingers went numb. My right hand was in charge of the thumb-operated throttle, and that was the first extremity to go first cold, and then painful. By the time we returned to the house – and the whining and yelping of Utah, who still had not forgiven us for leaving without her – my fingers were downright frozen, and it was difficult to operate the throttle as I could not feel my thumb.

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I drove the dogs back into the hundgård after Richard opened the gate, this time unconcerned with the whereabouts of Utah (with the other dogs around there was no way she’d be running off on her own), and we reversed the process of hitching them to the line. While I removed their harnesses (after which several of the huskies immediately laid down and nodded off to sleep), Richard retreated to the kitchen to fetch their meal for the evening. He scored a huge coup for his husky operation after meeting a local butcher and cutting a deal where he’d pick up all of the scraps from the slaughterhouse and feed it to the dogs. With twelve of them now (including Utah and the newborns), food is the single biggest expense, not to mention the benefits of feeding the dogs real meat every night.

In the light cast by the spotlight setup in the hundgård we fed the huskies, Utah scrambling about trying her best to make an impression on the bigger dogs while not getting growled at. I went inside the house and said hello to Varg and her pups, all three of which are pure white. I went home next door and took off my blue overalls, and my fingers eventually regained their feeling.