The ice camp at that time was a single tent, three dog sleds and a long row of dogs.
After a short hello to the two guides that had remained in the camp and the dogs, we got a short lesson on how to set up our tents and complete the camp.
Next morning it was finally time to get acquainted with the daily dogsledding routine.
First task was taking down the small tents and packing all the gear onto the sled, followed by a large breakfast in the large tent.
While the large tent was packed away, it was time to put booties on the dogs.
I had never done that before, but it turned out to be easier than expected. While dogs usually don't like booties (at best they ignore them), none gave any trouble when I tried putting the booties on. It still was a rather tedious job though due to sheer numbers. There were ten dogs for each of us, so even when it took less than a minute to put on a bootie, it took nearly an hour before all the dogs were finally ready to go. Luckily, the dogs don't need booties all of the time. On the sea ice, they all needed them to protect the paws, but on more snowy ground, it's usually just the wheel dogs (the dogs directly in front of the sled, which provide the main 'pulling power') who get booties.
Putting on harnesses went much quicker. Partly due to the obvious reason that there is only one harness per dog (as opposed to four booties), but mostly because putting on the harnesses means that we're almost ready to go, so the dogs are happy to get them on.
Then the sleds are put into position, the ropes and cables laid out and it's time to put the dogs before the sled.
First the lead dogs are attached to the front of the 'gangline'. Then the driver stays with the lead dogs (so they don't start pulling just yet) while the rest of the dogs clipped in to their positions on the gangline (neckline clipped to the collar, tugline clipped to the harness). When bringing the dogs to the sled, it's helpful to pull them up with the harness, so they only have the hind legs on the ground, since they're harder to handle if they got all four paws on the ground (they're good at pulling and they easily can pull a person behind them, who, after all has only two legs on the ground).
After all the dogs were in position, we stayed with out lead dogs while the dogs were hooked up to the other sleds
Once all sleds were ready, we rushed to our sleds, stepped on the brake as hard as we could, removed the snow hook (which, for the starts in the morning, where the dogs were quite energetic was attached to a log fastened to the ground with an ice screw) and tried to give the start command ("Hup-Up") before the dogs started to run. (It's not like they really need a starting command, but it's nice to keep the pretence that you are the one that is in control and not them.)
And off we were across the Arctic landscape.
The procession then proceeded as follows:
One of the guides went first with a snowmobile (or snowmachine, as they were usually called), dragging a heavy skimmer behind, thus breaking a trail and flattening it. Then our three dog teams followed that trail. Behind us, one of the guides drove an unencumbered snowmobile to be able to rush to assistance (or follow a run-away dog sled), if necessary. At end were two guides on the third snowmobile, pulling the second skimmer and keeping the landscape clean by collecting dropped booties. (On some days, the dogs shed booties like an autumn tree leaves...)
Every five to ten miles (depending on trail conditions and temperature) there was a break to check and re-boot the dogs and give them a chance to rest and roll in the snow. And give us the chance to eat some snacks or have something to drink.
At some point we stopped, put in the snow hooks, tipped the sled over to the side and went to the front to stay with our lead dogs, while the guides stretched out three cables and fastened them to the ground with ice screws. Then the dogs were unclipped to from the sled, clipped to that cable, were de-harnessed and de-bootied and it was time to set up camp.
On the first day, I started with eight dogs in front of my sled. One of the reasons was (presumably) that I had next to no experience with dogsledding, but the main reason was that a couple of dogs had been injured on the way out, so they were running free next to the sled, since they were not yet ready to pull. (While this is not a proper dogsledding term, I usually called them 'wing dogs'.)
On the first day, my team was:
My first day on a dog sled went surprisingly well. No serious falls and no letting go of the dog sled. (You get advised no to let go of the dog sled if you fall off. Unless there's a serious chance of injury, in which case you're supposed to let self preservation take precedence over staying with the sled. You ignore the second half of this guideline at your own risk. Literally.)
But I was very lucky with my team. Surprisingly enough, they even responded to my commands to stop. (This is not necessarily a given. I've read a number of reports that "Whoa!" is more like a hint to the dogs that you will hit the brakes real hard now and that they'd better take note than an actual stopping command. My dogs tended to stop on "Whoa!", even though I pronounced it wrongly and turned it more into a "Whooooooaaah!" (it's supposed to be a real short command like "Stop!").
And even better, the dogs tended to stay stopped.
When we had a break, we were supposed to stop at about ten to twenty meters distance from the sled in front of us (roughly one sled length). When I was on the sled in the middle (I was on the last sled for the first two days and then on the middle sled for the rest of the trip), after about three minutes of break I often heard a loud "Whoa! Dino, Blue! Whoa!" behind me and some dogs stood beside me. While the dogs were quite reliably in stopping, it seems that after three minutes of pause they decided that it was time to move on and started on their own.
While they were impatient in getting back to moving after a break, Dino and Blue took it easy once on the trail. Sippi described them as a "couple on holiday", looking left and right at the scenery ("Look over there! A patch of snow! Impressive! And there's a piece of wood. I like pieces of wood. And there's another one! Look!") and not paying too much attention to the trail.
Luckily, Spirit and Shrek did pay attention to where they were going and even after changing lead dogs around after a couple of days, I still got lucky and had a team that behaved well, which was really nice for a beginner like me.
Here's me and Spirit, one of my lead dogs after our first day of dogsledding together. No need to point out who looks more confident, competent and altogether cooler...
Time for the second night on the sea ice.
By the next day, the proceedings had almost become routine.
Taking down the camp, putting booties and harnesses on the dogs. Put the leaders in front of the sled and stay with them until all other dogs are attached.
Do some dogsledding.
Take a break.
Continue dogsledding with a snowmobile and skimmer in front of you, followed by two snowmobiles in the distance. (For most of the time the snowmobiles kept some distance, so that the main sounds to be heard were the panting of the dogs and the dogsledding commands.)
Tip over the sled at the end of the trip and stay with your lead dogs, praising them for work well done. (Not that they really cared, but it felt like the right thing to do anyway.)
And finally set up the camp.
The scenery started to change, though. While the first day and half of the second day were on sea ice, we continued on the coast and along rivers after that. So while the following camps were still set up above water (on rivers), there were hills and bushes around (though little else).
Since the third camp was next to a little hill, snow had been blown over the hill and deposited on the ground, so (unlike on the open sea) there was a thick layer of soft snow at the site, so some trampling around with snowshoes was needed to prepare the place for the tents.
Since the weather was great and we made good progress and the next day was a layover day anyway, we had a little cocktail party outside the tent. Slush ice is available in abundance, so with the addition of some lemon or strawberry juice and some tequila, margaritas were easily made.
There was nothing much to do the next day. (At least for us clients - two of the guides drove on with the snowmobiles to check the snow conditions ahead and search for a path for the next day.) Luckily, the weather was great and while (technically) cold, there was very little wind and lots of sunshine, so it felt quite comfortable. So we did some walking around, went up the nearby hill to get a better look at the scenery around us and drove around on the remaining snowmobile for fun, slightly inconveniencing a moose in a nearby valley.
The next day started out pretty cold (temperature at night was about -24°C) and it was supposed to be windy, so it was not only time to put booties on the dogs, but overcoats as well.
This made the whole thing look and feel a bit ridiculous (like little children dressing up the family pet for a tea party) and we started to wonder what might be in store for the rest of the trip. Silly hats for the dogs? Tassels to put on the tails?
Fortunately the day didn't turn out to be as windy as expected and it got much warmer after that anyway, so it was the only day with fully clothed dogs.
By now, most of the dogs had recovered so by now I had nine dogs in front of the sled. There had also been a number of changes, so Tucker and Spirit were moved to other sleds, while Sam, Caesar and Roo joined the Team.
Weatherwise, the next day was a bit of an oddity.
It had obviously snowed overnight and the dogs were trying out their "Holstein cow look", which suited most of them better than the red overcoats.
But it was quite warm, barely below freezing (temperature had risen nearly 20°C compared to the previous day), even though it was also the windiest day of the trip.
Side remark: I was quite impressed by the tents. My last 'proper camping' had been ages ago (somewhere in Greece, 22 years ago) when tents were prism shaped with rigid poles and straight cotton canvas, so I missed out on the developments since then. (Though I had been 'winter camping' on recent trips, in Antarctica, the tents were fixed tents, so I didn't set them up or dismantle them, in Greenland we used 'huts' (basically wooden boxes with a door) and at the North Pole someone helped me setting up the tent, so it doesn't really count.) So this was the first time I really had to deal with 'expedition style' geodesic tents. And they were fairly easy to set up. Usually we helped each other with this, but on the last day I put my tent up alone, just to see whether this would make it more difficult to handle - it wasn't, it just took longer. There were a lot of fairly clever details about the tent, which made it quite easy to work with, such as identical poles (so you don't have to remember which goes where), colour coded straps (so you know which ones are the corners), clips to connect the tent interior to the poles (so you don't have to fiddle the poles through loops or cloth 'tunnels'). Not at all standard features, it seems. I'm pretty sure that the tent used at the North Pole required threading two different types of poles through the fabric of the inner tent, which was a much more fiddly task. Also, the inner and outer tent could just be pushed into their (identical) bags, so there was no need to carefully fold them in the morning, which made things really easy. I liked those tents! And, of course, they were pretty roomy, but that's because we had them for ourselves. Supposedly they are for up to four people, but that seems to me overly optimistic. They would be ok for two (and leave some space for gear in the middle) and work for three (if they are used for sleeping only and the gear is stored somewhere else), but for four people it would probably only work for summer camping with very light sleeping bags. But for this trip, they were great!
And while this looks sort of out of control, it actually isn't:
And though that makes it look cold on pictures, it was actually warm enough to go without the insulated parka and without the warm headgear and just drive around with a leather jacket above a simple fleece layer, which seems kind of odd in an environment like this, but just felt right.
By then, my team was brought up to the full size of ten dogs (though there's nothing magical about that - there is no fixed maximum size for a dog sled team - but for this trip, ten dogs were the largest teams we were running), which is a pretty formidable size.
It's hard to avoid assigning character traits to the dogs (such as describing Dino and Blue as a 'couple on holiday'), though it's difficult to tell how much of that is anthropomorphising and how much fit the actual intention of the dogs.
For example, when stopping, Spirit used to back up a couple of steps and then throw himself forward into his harness. Now, a lead dog is supposed to keep the gangline stretched out during breaks, so that the other dogs stay in line and the gangline is not down on the ground, risking dogs getting entangled and hurt. But it is hard to tell whether Spirit was intentionally doing his job of keeping the line straight or whether he just was impatient to get going again.
There was also one of the dogs back in Whitehorse, who was beautiful looking and obviously knew it and was a bit 'diva' and haughty about it (or so it seemed), so we ended up discussing whether Martini (who was part of the 'Booze Litter', which also included dogs named Pinot, Ouzo and Molson) was more a 'Paris Hilton' or a 'Nicole Kidman' (we settled later on Gwyneth Paltrow, which seemed to fit just right).
And I haven't got much experience with dogs (never owned one, for example), so my interpretations of what the dogs were doing may be way off. So don't take my remarks about the dogs personalities as well researched facts - they're mostly just vague assumptions.
Though I'm quite obviously not the only one measuring dogs up to human (well, in this case actually non-human counterparts). One of the dogs on the trip was originally named Aragorn (who was, not very surprisingly, from the same litter as Frodo, Sam, Arwen and Legolas). But when the puppies ran around, that particular dog, while quite strong, tended to be the slowest of the bunch (and also not one of the brightest). Strong, a bit dim-witted and always lagging behind? Surely not Aragorn. So now the name of the dog is Gimli.
Coming back to the dogsledding trip: On that particular day of the tour I had Herschel on the team.
Herschel is a bit like 'The Professional Sled Dog'. From the basic built, Herschel should be a wheel dog, but he's experienced and smart enough to be a lead dog. (At some point someone asked what you do when you are going through an area of deep snow and don't have a snowmobile to break a trail. The answer was "We put Herschel in front and let him plow one.") Herschel obviously has lots of experience (I was quite amazed that, when I put on his harness, he actively stepped through the foot loops) and stays calm and professional when put before the sled.
When we started, out that day, I had Paila and Shrek as the lead dogs and Herschel in second row (Shrek was later replaces by Caesar, while Herschel was moved back a row). The lead dogs had to follow the trail made by the snowmobile and the sled in front of them. But at times there were two snowmobiles in front, so their tracks diverged. At that point you could see the lead dogs wavering between the tracks and going slightly towards the middle of both tracks before switching to the correct one, while Herschel, who had been paying attention to the current track as well to where the dog sled in front was going, stayed in the correct track like being on rails. Since Herschel was also a lot stronger than the two lead dogs, this pretty much gave the feeling of having a lead dog in second row, with two free running dogs in front, which got pulled over by the second in line than vice versa. Herschel pretty much gave the impression of "I know the right thing to do and I won't let the two rookies in front convince me otherwise".
Essentially, Herschel was the kind of dog where you get the feeling you should sit down with him in the morning, show him the map and tell him "Aklavik. In three days. Pace yourself." and be done with it.
I haven't got a picture of that, but after the last day of the trip, Herschel sat there in a relaxed way and Sippi remarked that what this dog needed was a cigar. Herschel looked a lot like he should be sitting in some old fashioned gentlemen's club, reclaining in his leather chair, with a brandy at the side, puffing on a cigar and telling about his exploits. Herschel seemed really old-school professional...
And while on the subject of dog personalities - the dog most likely to establish a society for equal rights (or at least equal weights) was probably Paila.
Paila was my lead dog next to Caesar, but Caesar is a fair bit larger and heavier than Paila. So when we stopped on a warm day, Caesar would immediately move to the right of the track and roll in the snow, to cool off. Which was ok, even desirable, as long as the gangline remained reasonably straight and the dogs didn't move too far off the track (which they didn't). Put Paila did her best to be professional and tried to keep the on the track and the gangline straightened out, but Caesar didn't even notice her pulling sideways.
So while Paila tried to perform her job well, it didn't make much of a difference and you could easily imagine her rolling her eyes and exasperated muttering "Boys!" under her breath...
But enough of dog personality impressions for now.
When we stopped at the end of the day, not only had the wind abated, but the grey skies had turned to mostly blue.
Time for staying outside and having another round of margaritas!
But the weather was still quite volatile while it started out like this...
...an hour later the sky turned grey again and it started to snow.
Time to head back into the tent.
At some evenings, a dog was allowed into the big tent.
And this showed the main 'problem' with these dogs - they all seem to thing they're lap dogs - 'sled dog' is only their day job.
All of them are pretty socialized and really like to be petted, cuddled and scratched behind the ears. And since they're not little Yorkshire Terriers, but fairly powerful sled dogs (even though Ali above is one of the smaller ones), you have (probably) about 20 to 25 kg sitting in your lap, which gets heavy after a while.
Fortunately, dogs (like Arwen here) can be convinced of sitting beside you as well...
Although Arwen doesn't quite manage the smug grin that her mother Ali has:
Next day the season had finally turned into spring for good.
Blue skies, the temperature barely below freezing at night and quite warm during the day. By now I had given up on gloves and the leather jacket completely and was just wearing the insulating trousers and a fleece pullover, which felt kind of inappropriate for the general situation (dogsledding in the Arctic), but perfectly right for the specific situation (being outside on a warm spring day in the snow).
This was the last full day of dogsledding and it was a perfect 'final day'.
I had another change in the team, with Herschel, Roo and Ali leaving, to be replaced by Nahanni, Arwen and notorious troublemaker Kona.
So for the rest of the trip my dog team was:
Kona wasn't really the troublemaker I expected. But Kona had been on Sippi's team for the previous days and I kept hearing "Kona! Stop doing that!" or just "Kona!" from behind me, so I pretty much had the impression that Kona wasn't a good dog to have in the team.
Since I had a great team all through the trip, I feared that it was now my turn to get a bad team.
But Kona wasn't really a bad sled dog, just a bored one. (And, admittedly, not much of a team player.)
There's the old adage that "unless you’re the lead dog, the view never changes", so Kona obviously got bored of the view and tried to create a third row.
For a lot of the time, Kona was literally out of line.
Guess which one is Kona?
Since Nahanni (who was running beside Kona) was a bit smaller than Kona, she couldn't pull Kona back in line. For some of the time Sam moved over to Arwen's (left) side of the gangline to counteract Kona's pulling to the right.
While they are not supposed to be on the 'wrong side' of the gangline for an extended amount of time, their necklines and tuglines were clear from each other (so they didn't run the risk of getting entangled) and it all evened out in the end, so even with Kona in the team, it still worked out well.
And for most of the time, Kona even managed to stay (more or less) in line.
But even a real nice dogsledding day has to end at some time (though it was by far day with the longest sledding time and longest distance) and we put up our final 'wilderness camp' at the side of a river.
On to part 3