Posted by: adventuressetravels | November 25, 2011

Dog Sledding at the End of the World

The first orangey fingers of dawn streaming in the huge plate-glass window woke me.  Ordinarily the crisp chill in the air would have made me snuggle down and pull the thick down blankets high over my head, but not today.  Today I threw them off and bounced right out of bed and pulled on my warmest clothes as fast as humanly possible.  Even on the last day of winter, the End of the World was not a warm place.

As I waited for the tour van to arrive, the excitement built in me to a boiling point.  I inhaled deeply, relishing the clean fresh smell of deliciously cold air and my heart beat a little faster.  These brisk temperatures only served to heighten my spirits.  I was really braving Argentina’s great white south, going on a snowshoe trek and exploring the nature in this remote location.  I was going dog sledding.  By the time the tour van arrived I was practically bouncing I was so excited, and not merely to stave off the cold.

The white minivan sped smoothly down the highway past the spectacular scenery of Tierra del Fuego.  Soon the frigid grey waters of the Beagle Canal melted into weathered trees and majestic snow-covered mountains.  I pressed my nose to the window and soaked up every moment.  So this was Ushuaia, I was really in the southernmost city in the world.

 

The sparse tree cover trailed off to a flat snow-powdered landscape.  We slowed down at a row of snowmobiles, and pulled onto a long driveway leading down to a wooden lodge.   As we got out, high chain-link enclosure caught my eye.   Breaking away from the rest of the group, who were making their way towards the cabin for a last warm-up before our adventure, I headed straight for the kennels.

The groom was harnessing up several teams of sleek sled dogs for their last day on the job before their off season.  The dogs wagged their tails as their master carefully helped each one into its harness, some red nylon, others yellow or blue.  The leader of the team of white dogs licked my hand and leaned into me as I gave him a good pat before heading back to the group.

Erin, the group leader had just started helping everyone strap what appeared huge white plastic platforms to their feet.  As she tightened the snowshoes around my feet, she explained how to walk in the enormous clown shoes.  The apparatus consisted of a platform shoe with a black track on top into which you fitted your foot.  They took some getting used to, but you just needed to walk normally.

It seemed easy enough in theory.  In practice however, having a huge sheet of plastic attached to one’s foot did take some getting used to.  We walked away from the dog kennels along a long white stretch of snow  towards the woods where we would do our real trekking.   By the time we reached the woods, I was feeling more confident in these new boots, and I was ready to try my luck exploring.

We had barely made it 50 feet into the trees when Erin stopped and regretfully told us the bad news.  The thaw had melted more of the snow than she had thought.  It was the last day of the winter season and the last day this trek was really possible may have been yesterday.  She explained that if would be walking over land, there wouldn’t be a problem, but perhaps the melt had created a wide river under the snow making it dangerous to walk over.  If anyone really wanted to go on, she would go ahead and see if we could make it, but she really wasn’t sure.

Myself and Josh, an adventurous young backpacker from Germany, were all for forging ahead.  We had signed up for adventure and nothing would dissuade us.  We carefully picked our way over the soft snow, our shoes squishing down in a forebodingly soft way that threatened give at any moment.  Erin in the lead, the heavier Josh right behind.

Cringing every time the snow creaked, I followed Josh at what I judged to be a safe distance, trying to think elevating thoughts so the top layer would hold.  With a loud “sploosh” Josh’s left snow shoe punctured the top layer of snow.   Erin was by his side in a flash trying to help him get his submerged foot out of the icy water back onto the snow bank.  Unfortunately the compromised bank couldn’t hold his weight, and his right plunged down to join the left submerged in the water.

By some miracle Erin managed to haul our sodden companion onto firmer snow, where he caught his breath before heading back to safer footing.  Did we still want to go on? Our guide gave us another chance to back out of our perilous expedition.  Caught up in the moment, I was all for it.  After all, Josh had been a large man.  The snow wouldn’t give under my petite frame.

Less than a minute later I felt a creak, a  crack, and my leg was plunged ankle-deep in numbingly cold melt-water.  Erin tried to explain how to extract my foot without putting too much weight on the other foot.

Flattening my body against the snow, trying to distribute my weight as evenly as possible, I pulled and pulled, but it was no use.  I was stuck; my snow shoe, trapped under the water, held my foot submerged.  I moved my foot this way and that; I divided my efforts between trying to keep the initial panic away and attempting to dislodge the snow shoe.

The more I yanked my foot, the more stuck the shoe seemed to get.  I was beginning to think I would lose a foot when our experienced guide reached down the two feet into the water and maneuvered my snowshoe to an angle where I could extract it from the icy clutches of the snow bank.  After that there was no discussion about it.  We were heading back.  It wasn’t safe to push on.

We carefully inched our way to the edge of the woods, praying for the snow to hold.  Thankfully our prayers were answered.   When we reached the final trees we gratefully unstrapped the cumbersome snowshoes to wait for the dogs.  To my surprise and delight Erin produced two pairs of thick, fluffy, dry socks from her pack which we pulled on gratefully.  Dry feet made all the difference.

The four sleds skimmed across the white horizon, Argentine flags flying from masts called to mind visions of nearby Antarctica.  Tails up, the dogs pulled in unison, stretching their legs out and racing joyfully towards their waiting passengers.

The teams padded up to us on their furry snow shoes, a magnificent team of perfectly matched black and tan huskies in the lead.  Lolling their pink tongues out, they wagged a greeting.  Crunching over the snow, our group surrounded the dogs giving them pats and telling them how good they were.

The honey-colored wooden sleds the teams pulled were impressive.  With sloping wooden sides to keep the passengers from sliding off, and padded burgundy leather seats these sleds were certainly built for comfort.  Dividing up, I slid onto the smaller, 2-person sled in front of Josh, my sodden comrade.  Admiring our team, who were the team of 6 yellow-white huskies I had been consorting with before the hike, I settled into place on the very front of the sled.  When the driver was sure we were all set, he climbed on the foot boards on the back of the sled, clasped the handlebar, and waited for

 

the signal.

One by one the sleds pulled away, tentatively at first, but picking up speed.  Soon we were fairly flying over the snow pulled along by our sturdy malamutes.  The fresh breeze in my face held that tantalizing promise of spring and new beginnings.  I felt my heart soar watching the snow-blanked fields whiz by with the snow-covered mountains offering the ideal background.  This had to be how adventurers in the arctic felt, it was what made them stay in such a harsh climate.

And then there was a change.  From one moment to the next something didn’t feel quite right.  That light airy sensation of gliding over the snow was gone.  In

its place the sled felt bogged down, heavy, the dogs now appeared to be straining to drag the sled.  The spring thaw was ahead of schedule.

A frozen stream that ran through the field had woken from its hibernation and was shaking off its snowy mantel.  The softened snow couldn’t hold the sleds weighted down by their passengers and the sled runners had hit mud.

 

We all piled out of the sleds while the drivers helped their teams get the sleds

across the little stream.  At last everyone was across the water hurdle and a safe distance away from the stream’s melting influence.  We climbed back onto the sleds and held tight as the dogs whooshed us away.

Everyone was in high spirits as we approached the last curve leading to the lodge.  The drivers joked and laughed with the good humor of students on their last day of school.  Even the dogs seemed to understand their vacation started as soon as they reached the kennels and pulled with all their

 

might.

We sped towards the turn with exhilarating speed.  The wind blowing in our face lifted our spirits to jubilant new heights.  I had taken my hands off the sides earlier, and was relaxing, soaking up every second of the experience.  And then it happened.

Maybe we headed into the turn too quickly or maybe it was the thaw.  One moment we were flying forward, and the next I was flying through the air.  I got a few seconds of real flight before I landed face-first in a large bank of snow.

The sled had tipped over, catapulting me with the efficiency of the eject button in one of James Bond’s cars.  The driver and the other passenger, inside the protective wooden sides of the sled, had managed to stay with the sled, but as front passenger I had gotten a little extra excitement.

 

The driver fell over himself apologizing, but all I could do was laugh.  Laughter bubbled out of me in a never-ending wellspring of merriment.  Like snow melting into water excitement and energy of the day had transformed into amusement.  Tears streamed down my cheeks, my tummy hurt, and still the laughter wouldn’t stop.

At long last, the chuckles subsided to giggles, and finally I was able to help right the overturned sled.  After our little band walked the last hundred feet back to the lodge just to be on the safe side.  There piping mugs of rich hot chocolate, steam billowing off of them, were waiting for us.  I sat by the roaring fire, drying my socks and clothes.  Before I knew it the drivers were buying me beers, and everyone alike; drivers and passengers were all celebrating the last day of the season in a wonderful gathering full of laughter and camaraderie.

The Tierra Mayor Dog Sled and Snowshoe Trek is offered June through September.  You can either get a package tour at agencies like: http://www.argentinaforless.com/packages/tours-ushuaia-detailed.php or a

less expensive ($120 Argentine Peso) ticket from any of the tour agencies that line Ushuaia’s main street.   This trek is a fantastic way to have an exciting adventure, try something new, and see an incredible part of the world.   Dog sledding is an unforgettable rush, and walking on top of the snow is a unique feeling (provided you don’t end up falling through to ice-cold water).  As entertaining as my experience was I don’t think I will be rolling around in the snow or subjecting my feet to frigid water again in the near future.  I recommend taking the tour a little earlier in the season.

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: