Things are starting to look different when I look out of the window of our cabana now. The fluffy blanket of snow is disappearing and where silent woods once stood covered in white, brown patches now show on the forest floor. There’s even a hint of green here and there. Long hours of dusk have replaced the dark winter nights. The peaks in the distance shimmer until late in the evening. Yes, it’s spring!
Spring has announced an end to our sledding bonanza up here. Rocks, trees and bushes protrude through our trails, which are so hard-packed and icy that what is left of them is not a whole lot of fun to drive on. We had a last run today and will park our sleds for now, pack away our lines and put our snowhooks to rest until the snows fall again when the days shorten and the rivers stop running.
I call it season zero, this first season. Because it has been one of trial-and-error, of exploring and mapping and creating a routine for everything. Let’s rewind five months for a second to the day I arrived with the dogs.
At this point we had no dogyards, only three doghouses and really no clue about where we were supposed to go with them. I set up the kennels in the pouring rain with two friends (for whose help I will be forever grateful). PJ came with the moving load a few days later and the house and shed were a filled with piles of things and boxes. It was super chaotic, this period. We had to fix the kennels, fix the house, get doghouses, put them together, find some routine in everything, make darn sure we had everything ready before it snowed and we started new jobs at the same time. Was it the most well thought-through plan of all times? No, it certainly wasn’t.
So here we are, with eight sled dogs amidst the chaos. They have to run, there’s nothing to be done about that. PJ was a little angry at me for getting them so soon (fair enough, in retrospect) so I am assigned the burden of the work. I remember the first times I harnessed them and put them in front of our training cart. I hadn’t driven dogs in years. They were so eager, barking and jumping and pulling at the lines, and I was nervously standing besides wondering how this was all going to go. We were told we didn’t have any dogs that could be steered to left and right. So I could drive out, but how could I turn them around to come back? I didn’t know. Neither did I know where I was going either. I just went, saying godspeed and good luck to myself and maybe at some point we’ll all get back to the house.
That all didn’t go too shabby actually. I soon figured out I had a few dogs with leading potential. We only made really short laps in between work and getting things settled in the house, but they were happy to get out of the dogyards and get rid of some energy. And every time I got to turn them around, with much effort at the beginning and less in the end. So ok, we got that under control. All good.
Then, just as I was putting together the last dog houses, the snow came. We still don’t have spikes for the tires of the cart, so that put an end to control. Now it was time to head up in the mountains and find trails. I poured over maps and figured that a good starting point would be the cross-country trails. I know, it’s not 100% right to be using those, but we had to start somewhere. So one brilliant Saturday I loaded the dogs in the truck, put a sled on top and starting looking for those cross-country trails. It took me a little while to actually find them in the labyrinth of small mountain roads around here. After a few times of nearly getting stuck and turning around in narrow and uncomfortable places I could finally take them for a proper run. Only the trail I was on hadn’t been driven that day. So after a while we lost it, didn’t know where to go, turned around and came back home.
From that point on our map got a little bigger for every passing week. We went somewhere, lost the trail or took a wrong turn somewhere, didn’t know where we were, turned around, tried again next time. Again and again and again.
In snow, white-outs, storms and under beautiful sunshine we figured it out together. Sometimes when I wasn’t sure the dogs knew what to do. Sometimes it was the other way around. Once I was nearly blown off my sled. Once I tried to get them up towards Hallingnatten in a white-out and they all said ‘oh no no to hell with that!’ turned around and went back to the forest. But through it all we learned to trust each other. We became a team. Not just a driver with her dogs. But both parts working together as one. And that’s when the magic started happening.
When the two ladies in front really started to trust me I started steering them away from the ski trails to find our own routes for next winter. It’s a really nice feature for a leader dog to be able to jump off the beaten path and head out in the deep snow. So then we did the whole thing again. We ventured away from the ski trails for a while looking for ways, got stuck or lost or both, turned around and tried again next time. Little by little we created our own network of trails, repeated it over and over so we all remember it, and mapped the places we yet have to go and discover.
Out of our trial-and-error we learned so much. We got to drive tourists for the local alpine skiing center and participated in a race. We met so many other mushers and got so much valuable information from them. We planned how to rebuild our kennels, how to fence in our yard, how to make it all better and more functional and practical. We have two more dogs coming soon and a litter of puppies on the way.
It’s crazy to think that only four months ago we were looking for the start of the skiing trails. That it’s only five months ago the dogs came and I drove them off the driveway, pretty unsure if we’d make it back without having to call for help.
Even with all the mistakes we made and with everything we still have to learn, I think season zero has been a success. Now I look forward to season one, which will hopefully include three races and a whole lot more of exploring these mountains.
It’s been one heck of a fantastic winter. I can feel the tiredness hanging in my body after it. But it’s the good kind of the tired, the kind that means that something exciting is going on and that there’s always something to look forward to.