Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Big Great White

I guess it was time to take my guiding experience to the next level as my boss had decided to send me on a week tour, which meant traveling to "far far away" camps where I have been only once before... However, a recent event had made me nervous about traveling along the river.

We had some bad weather back in December. I was heading up for one of our regular camps by the river in the middle of the afternoon, in the darkness. It was very windy and my headlamp was shining its light against a white curtain of snowfall. I could hardly see passed 2 meters ahead of me. I could not figure out any of the landscape behind this white curtain. The trail was blown away and the wind had covered it with about half a meter of snow, which made it very difficult for the dogs to move forward. The sled often got stuck sideways in the deep snow and I had to push it with all my strength while encouraging the dogs to jump forward in their harnesses.

I finally made it to the camp and was hopeful that the way back in the morning would be easier because we would be driving in the first hour of daylight. However, my hopes were far from being fulfilled. The trip back turned into a nightmare. The wind had been blowing all night and the snow had been falling all night. The trail I had made the day before was completely invisible. It was still snowing and the wind was still blowing. I thought that driving close to the river bank would help me find the trail going out of the river into the forest but I became totally disorientated and could not recognize any of the landscape. My lead dog seems to head randomly for the forest and I kept redirecting her away from it. I had to break the trail in front of the dogs, walking fast or jogging as the dogs were walking faster than me, hitting my legs with their heads.
It took us an hour to travel a distance that would normally take 15 min. Exhausted and disorientated, I decided to call for a scooter to break the trail in front of us. After a few phone calls, a colleague of mine agreed to come to my rescue. I decided to remain on the spot and to wait for him with my four guests. When he arrived, I realized that I had passed the entrance to the forest trail by about 300 meters. I was definitely lost.

Since that trip, I get a little nervous when traveling on the river with bad weather so this week trip was the next big challenge for me.

The first camp we would drive to is further down on the river. Not many locals go down that way during the early winter so there is often very little trails or even no trail at all to get there. A very good friend and colleague of mine was going to follow me on this trip. I would be the main guide, driving first, but he would be my back-up in case I could not find my way.

It was a perfect training trip since the weather turned bad again! Heavy snow falls, followed by strong winds. My dogs had to break the trail while I was pushing the sled. Although I was determined to do my best not to ask for the help of my colleague, I had to turn to him about 4 times (over 27 km) to direct me to the "invisible" trail.
I learned several new trails on this trip and I now feel more confident about the "big great white" that you can encounter on the river during bad weather.

And I will finish this post with Indianette Jones, who came back into action recently, for your own pleasure, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I was on a simple, uncomplicated weekend tour. I was wearing brand new leather gloves, with quite thick inner gloves so my grip around the handlebar of the sled was not as good as usual.
We stopped for lunch with my guests but the area was full of reindeers so the dogs were barking and pulling like mad. As we stopped, I turned back to tell my guests to hold on tight to their sleds and that I would come to help them to park their teams. I remember being half way through my sentence as I felt my sled slipping away from my hand. Within a split second, I turned to my team and saw it running away from me... Immediately, I ran to the dog team behind me, pushed the guest off the sled and just had the time to say: "I need your team" and drove off chasing my team with her team!
I was screaming to my runaway dog team to stop but, as any musher knows, that did not help at all. The 2 front dogs of the team that I was driving came to the level of my run-away sled but the runaway dog team speed up and got further away from me. I chased them for about 2 km before they slowed down and came to a halt. During this chase, the famous movie tune was playing in my head... ;-)