“To mush my own dog team under the crisp moonlight …”
The words of the newspaper ad came to mind again during the 20-minute drive up Fish Lake Road. Earlier in the week, those words had matched up nicely with the approaching full moon indicated on the wall calendar in the kitchen.
A few phone calls and two days later, our small group arrived at Sky High Wilderness Ranch just as darkness was taking over. We were greeted by the happy barks of some 150 sled dogs … and our guide Valerie Bussières.
We all trudged into the lodge and the propane lamps were lit for our orientation.
“Did everyone bring a headlamp? If not, there are some spare ones here.”
Bussières explained that we would each run our own team of four dogs. This would keep the speed slow enough for us first-time mushers to handle.
Fairly strong afternoon winds had created snow drifts on the lake too deep for the dogs so we would follow the trails through the woods.
“And is everyone wearing good mittens?”
The cardinal rule of dogsledding is “Never let go of the sled”. Your dogs want to run and run and run, whether you are hanging on or not. Keeping your fingers warm and flexible is a key consideration.
Laird Crow was down at the yard lining up the teams. Leaving the cozy lodge, we were each shown to our own sled and introduced to our four dogs by their names. The dogs strained against their strong wire stakes alongside the sleds while we learned our next important lesson: how to use the brakes!
There is a snow hook, a main brake and a mat brake. Once they are all released – slowly – away you go.
There was a lot of enthusiasm and just a touch of apprehension as we stood on the main brakes of our sleds while the dogs were hooked up to the lines. The tethers to the trees were released and the snow hooks were lifted. One foot at a time we stepped off the main brake onto the runners, using the mat brake to maintain control.
“Ready and … GO!”
One at a time, leaving a polite distance in between, we left the yard under dogpower. Crossing the road, we joined onto the trails that cut through the bush. Bussières, in the lead, directed traffic with “gee” and “haw”.
“Woah, Ruby, Woah!”
The lead dogs wanted to front the whole show, not just their own sled! One or two teams tried to pass the one in front. Time to lean on the mat brake just a little.
The sleds swooshed and hissed along the snow. The thin layer of sheer cloud had moved away and the full moon shone with dazzling strength. Sharp black tree-shadows lay on the brilliant white snow. It was so bright I considered turning off my headlamp.
“OK! Stop! Stop!”
A series of “Whoah” calls came from the sleds as mushers braked to a halt.
“There’s a sharp left hand turn just ahead. Try to help your dogs.”
Slowing down to take the corner, the team can become a bit bogged in the drifts. It helps them along if you can kick against the snow, pushing the sled forward.
Every now and then, coming around a corner, a light breeze lifted off the lake and swirled past. The fresh, cool air was invigorating.
“All OK back there?” hollered Bussières, turning back and counting headlamps.
No one answered. We were entranced.
Only the lights from the ranch as we neared the end of the journey brought us back.
We thanked each of our dogs in turn, petting them and calling them by name as they panted happily. A crackling campfire barbecue and a chance to compare notes about the adventure rounded out the evening.
For information on Moonlight Mushing excursions phone Sky High Wilderness Ranch at 667-4321 or visit its website at www.skyhighwilderness.com.