Bring on the Sled Dogs!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Today was a day that we were both really excited, and a little bit nervous, about: the day we were to go on our 5 hour, 40 km dog sledding trip. Our instructions were to be at the dog sledding station at 10:30, so we arranged for breakfast at the guesthouse at 9:00. The breakfast we got was huge! We each had an egg, a hot doggish sausage (we haven’t had a proper breakfast sausage yet on this trip), a bunch of brown bread with cheese, butter, and tomato, and then there were a stack of 15 bliniys with bilberry jam. (Bilberries are Russian berries that taste somewhere between a cranberry and a blueberry. The jam was just slightly tart to cut through the sweetness, and was altogether excellent). We finished 4 bliniys each before declaring ourselves stuffed.

We had neglected to print out the map with the directions to the dog sledding base, but fortunately there’s only one in Listvyanka, so Rita, the nice lady running the guesthouse, was able to point us in the right direction. “Go right, and walk along the road for 30 minutes.” Unfortunately, there are no really convincing roads in this part of Listvyanka. Rather, there were just paths with more or fewer tire tracks along them between the houses. We meandered in generally the right direction, down the valley away from the lake, until we finally stumbled across a sign for the dog sleds. At that point, I was starting to get concerned about finding it, and was getting ready to call the guide who arranged the expedition for us, so it was a great relief to have confirmation that we were going the right way.

We needn’t have worried, because we very shortly passed the last of the houses in the valley, and the only thing left was the dog sledding camp. We made our way inside, and the woman there told us that they didn’t usually start until 11:30. So much for our carefully laid plans! We shucked our outerwear, and settled down to wait for them to be ready to take us out. While we waited, we admired the collection of awards and dogsledding pictures that festooned the walls in the front room, and watched the boundless energy of the young Russian girl who spent a large part of the time running laps around our chairs.

Round about 11:30, an English gentleman showed up, and they bundled him up in camo snowpants while they went outside to harness up a sled for him. We chatted a bit as he made friends with the small cat that had wandered in, and watched the harnessing in progress out the window. The dogs made quite a racket! There were easily 30 dogs in the back yard, each chained to their own doghouse (and often sitting on top of that house).

As the mushers went out to pick dogs to pull the sleds, all of the dogs would start howling and barking, as if to say “Pick me, pick me, pick me!” Once they chose a dog, they brought him to line with leashes set on to it, where all of the chosen dogs were frisking around, jumping and playing, obviously excited to get out and run. Once they were all chosen and leashed, the mushers wrangled them in to full body harnesses, and clipped them one by one to the lead lines of the sled. Once they were clipped, the dogs started pulling right away (and even before, as the mushers were bringing them over to the lead line, they were struggling to run). They were ready to go!

Once the dogs were harnessed, the mushers called Allan (the English bloke) out to get in and go, and Bridgit and I started suiting ourselves up, expecting that we’d be heading out soon. Alas, it was not to be. It turned out that we were waiting for Alan to get back from his run (which was of unknown duration). While we waited, one of the mushers gave us instructions on how to work the sled (since, once we got to the lake), we would be “driving”. Stand on the runners, knees a little bent, and when the dogs turn, lean into the turn and push the sled handle towards the turn as well. Seemed simple enough. That finished, though, we were back to waiting in our stylish blue-grey camo snowpant overalls.

Finally, Allan returned, and they repeated the harnessing process with 9 dogs for us, hooked onto two sleds. (The sleds were hooked together, so that in our final configuration, I was driving the first one, the second was attached with ropes behind it with Bridgit driving, and the musher was sitting in Bridgit’s sled). Finally, we were off! The initial run through the village was exhilarating, as the dogs were fresh and excited, and the paths were twisted and narrow. (I was riding in the sled for that one, and Bridgit was in a mini-jeep with another musher, because it would have been disastrous if the two of us had been driving at that point.) We wended our way through the village, and under a bridge to the lake itself, and then switched so that Bridgit and I were driving. With a shout of “Go”, we were off, good and proper.

Once we were on the lake, the sledding took on a different character, almost meditative. The rushing sound of the sled runners over the snow, and the soft panting of the dogs, and just us on this vast open expanse. It was beautiful! Once we left the immediate vicinity of Listvyanka, the shores were empty of habitation, and just had steep hills, snow, and evergreens.

The lake ice was mostly covered in snow, with some bumps and ridges where snowmobiles, cars, and ATVs had been through. (Skiing experience proved useful, as the sled would often end up tipped up on one runner while going through a rut, and we had to maintain our balance despite it. Neither of us spilled!) As we went up the lake, we noticed some strange ice build up near the edge of the lake, where it almost looked as though the entire sheet of ice had slowly been crumpling into the shoreline.

Looking out across the lake, we could barely make out a hint of the opposite shore as a faint dark line in the clouds.

Bridgit managed to capture a little video of our time, one handed while balancing on the back sled.


As I was starting to wonder just how far we had come, we approached a sign standing on top of a frozen dock, pointing into the woods.

With some loud urging from the musher, the dogs took a sharp left hand turn and we cruised down a narrow path that opened up to a set of small log cabins. We stood on the brakes (levers on the backs of the sleds with ice-picks underneath), and the dogs stopped. As soon as they were done with their run, they started rolling about in the snow, trying to cool off.

Bridgit and I headed inside to wait for lunch. While we were waiting, one of the people at the camp took it upon himself to show us around. They had a full Russian banya (sauna) available, with a steam room

Birch branches for switching yourself after your bath

And a pool to jump in (though at this time of year, it was completely frozen solid)

He also took a picture of us on the porch of one of the cabins (which we think were available for rent)

Lunch was a sumptuous, three course affair (despite the rustic surroundings and minimal cooking facilities). We started with a salad of cucumbers and tomatoes in a mayonnaise based dressing, continue with brown bread, cheese and sausage, and had a steaming (in fact, boiling hot) main course of pyelmeni (Russian meat dumplings) in broth. For dessert, we had a chocolate bar filled with a blueberry cream filling, and cookies with caramel inside. Delicious! We also talked some with our musher, although between his limited English and our much more limited Russian, the most we were able to cover was our future travel plans.

After lunch, we headed out to the lake to take a few more photos (ones that we could take with more than one hand, while not bouncing around on a dog sled).

Though our guide had given us an hour to take pictures, within 30 minutes it seemed as though we were taking mainly duplicates, so we headed back, and were introduced to the dogs. There were a grandfather-grandson pair that had been right in front of me the whole time, and a huge white dog named Nome that reminded us strongly of Maggie, Bridgit’s uncle’s dog (down to the howling barking noise he made when I stopped petting him).

I also made fast friends with the lead dog, who had sired several of the other dogs on the team, and was, our guide told us, 12 years old.

Once we’d met the dogs, it was time we were off. The trip out from the camp back to the lake was exhilarating. The dogs were refreshed, and once again raring to go, so they took off down the twisty path like a shot. It was all I could do to maintain my balance and keep the sled pointed in the right direction.

Back on the lake, it was smooth sailing, for a while. The dogs proved adept at sustaining themselves on the go, not even stopping as they leaned down to scoop up mouthfuls of snow. Soon, though, the wind picked up in our faces, and the trip back turned much colder than the one heading out. By the time we slid into the dog-sledding station, both of us were feeling a bit like our feet and our faces were about to freeze off!

Once we got back to our guesthouse, we were both starting to get hungry, so we consulted our guidebook for dinner suggestions. And man, we were glad we did! The dinner was quite tasty, the d├ęcor was fun (with a fishy theme), and we got to try some Bilberry Jam Juice, which was just the right combination of sweet and tart to make an excellent thirst quencher.

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