Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Of Huskies And Scary Car Trips

I'm currently in Colorado visiting family. As an outing they had made plans for us to have have afternoon with some dogs up in the Rockies - Alaskan Huskies - we were going dog-sledding. Of course it was something I have never before experienced so I was curious. I also approached the activity with some trepidation because wasn't that a form of exploitation?

The journey up into The Rockies took a couple of hours. Most of the journey was straightforward, but we knew there were weather warnings in place for later. The weather started rather sooner than later. As we approached the ranch where the activity was to happen we found roads like this. 

The ski run some considered a road.
We had already been up and down steep mountain roads. They weren't the hairpin bend type I was used to in the Alps, but they were steep nonetheless.  Adding snow and ice made them more hazardous. We went on. 

We found the ranch, Rancho Escondido on the outskirts of Leadville.  It looked like a jumble of dilapidated wooden barns and shacks, but I was later assured it looked this way because it was one of the oldest ranches in the area and the buildings were being restored in keeping with their 1930s origins.  We found the office and signed in. Signing meant signing away any potential claims for compensation. I did not realise that what we were about to do was likely to be quite so dangerous. 

In the end, the experience was much more interesting and fun than I had anticipated. The three adults in the party were able to take turns driving the team of eight dogs while the four children took turns at riding in the sleigh.  The dogs were amazing. They were all very affectionate and we were encouraged to spend a little time making a fuss of them and getting to know them. It is only since being moored up at the farm that I have found dogs interesting. I wouldn't go as far as calling myself as dog lover, but I am willing to pet and talk to dogs these days, something I would not previously enjoyed. These dogs were delightful. They were also very keen to get on with the job. It appears these dogs love to run. Apparently given the chance they would run fifty to seventy miles a day. These dogs routinely run twenty miles every day - not the sort of undertaking the casual dog owner would want. Eight of the 140 or so dogs on the ranch were hitched to the sleigh (or sled?) and after some brief instruction we were off. 

The snow started falling again as we set off. The job of the driver was to stand on the back of the sled and hang on while the team hauled the cargo round a six mile track. These dogs rely on scent to find their way, which is one of the reasons they don't take visitors out on fresh, deep snow. With two children tucked up inside the sled and the rest of the party waiting their turns on a snow scooter-drawn sleigh that set off in front my only job as the driver was to keep the harness line taut and lean the sled round the bends. Braking is achieved through adding resistance to the sled - signalling the dogs to slow down is done by stepping with one foot on to a pad attached directly to the harness that adds the required  resistance.   To stop, the driver steps onto a different bar with both feet. This action drives spikes into the snow.  The parking brake is applied once stopped by driving four anchors into the snow. Older, more experienced, dogs lead the team while the remaining six dogs provide the rest of the engine power. The dogs are carefully paired up to suit their individual behaviours and personalities. 

A driver's eye view of the engine.

When working the dogs need eight thousand calories per day.  The meat bill was staggering.

But then ...

The journey home was all we needed to take the enjoyment out of the day.  By now the snow was falling steadily and settling.  We had mountain roads to negotiate (both the up and the down versions) and the one we needed was showing up on flashing road signs as closed.  We had no choice, but to pull off the highway and try and find somewhere to stay overnight.  Finding accommodation for seven was not going to be easy.  With phone batteries fading we found lists of places to stay and started to call them as we crept along in nose to tail traffic.  There was no room at the inn, or any other inn unless we could afford between $1,200 and $5,000 for a night!  We stopped and spoke to several hoteliers to ask for advice and, of course, none was forthcoming.  My daughter-in-law put out a call on Facebook and someone suggested she phone the police to ask about emergency shelters.  Surely, in this part of the world this was not the first time heavy snow had interfered with traffic!

The police said that the I-70 had been reopened, so we crept our way back towards the road, stopping first at a garage to refuel, fill up on garage food and set off.  Six hours after leaving Rancho Escondido we arrived back home, fortunately still in the same number of pieces in which we set out.  I have to come clean and say the journey was one of the scariest I have ever undertaken and that I do not wish ever to have to do that again.  Still, the dogs were great.

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