Conor Power goes to the Dogs in the French Alps
It has been something of a recurring dream of mine to be pulled through the silent snow by a team of huskies. I’m not the only one who feels this. In the top ten of favourite dreams, I imagine that an animal-propelled sleigh-ride in the snow is up there with sprouting wings and flying or visiting a billionaire’s chocolate factory.
Arriving at the place where we were to do it was not entirely without anxiety, however. I grew up with a pet dog but that was a long time ago. These days I’m not sure how to deal with man’s best friend. I’ve kind-of lost touch and he’s not really my friend any more. I’m much more familiar with the behavioural patterns of a cat at this point in my life and a pack of huskies, quite frankly, looks like it would eat you in a split second if it wanted to. Their icy blue eyes don’t stare warmly and dolefully at you like my brown-eyed female cocker spaniel Topsy used to do (God rest her soul), but instead stare almost past you with an unnerving steely determination.
While I pondered all this standing in the dog-pen by the side of the road high in the French Alps, my youngest eight-year-old son was hunched down talking to them and rubbing them while they licked his hand, while his two older brothers looked on.
I looked to the owner – Danny – to ensure that it was all right.“Yeh, no worries,” he replied in his inscrutable multi-national accent that seemed to veer from England to America and on to Australia via France and back – all in one short sentence.
That made me feel a lot more relaxed but I did wonder how these relatively small animals would manage to pull an Irish family of five that had just had lunch.
In any case, Danny seemed to be in no hurry. He was of Canadian nationality, he told us, but admitted to always feeling a certain amount of national confusion himself as he had been brought up “all over the place”. He had been an Alpine husky man for about six years, having married the daughter of the previous owner of the dogs and then taken over the reins, so to speak, when his French father-in-law retired.
He actively encouraged us to do as the youngest of us had done and get up close and personally acquainted with the dogs. We started bonding, going from one animal to the next. The dogs were not the emotionally impenetrable sled-hauling potentially homicidal machines that had thought they might be. It turned out that they were just little doggies and all doggies want is a bit of craic (i.e. throwing a stick or other implement) and lots of cuddles. These dogs were no different in that regard only their idea of fun was pulling heavy things. If they portrayed a certain amount of anxiety, it was because they knew from experience what these strange people were here for and why Danny was now going through the routine of taken out the harnesses and then going carefully around to each one and putting it on. They kept looking around to see when the next stage of the exciting fun was going to happen. One of them couldn’t contain himself any longer and started jumping around in circles barking repeatedly like some toddler shouting “Hooray!”.The sled was sleek and light – essentially a light metal frame with some stiff cut-off sections of carpeting of some sort for sitting on; all designed more for speed rather than for sitting around in with a glass of eggnog in your hand. Our objective, said Danny, was a restaurant about 4km away, where we’d stop and have a nice hot drink before coming back to base. That sounded good to us. I was so excited, I was tempted to run around in circles barking like a very excited 40-something Irish tourist.
But I didn’t.
The journey was mostly uphill. We all got on board except for Danny. There was physically almost no room for him anyway and the dogs would have struggled to pull him as well, he told us. He shouted an order that sounded something like “Up, ya boy, ya!” in colloquial Savoyard French and the dogs immediately stopped yelping and began pulling with all their might. The only sound you could hear was the stuttering slide of the runners and the laboured wheezing of the animals.
But they were determined to fulfil their mission. The temperature was about -5. We were all wrapped up well and I wondered how the dogs were feeling.
“They’re Siberian huskies,” Danny told us. “They say that they start to operate at their best level when the temperature goes to -20 or below.” Every pack of dogs has a leader too, Danny explained. This one was called Sacha and he pointed him out at the rear of the peleton. In the canine world, the leader has to be at the back. This way, he can keep an eye on all his dominions, as well as keeping them in their place. If he was at the front, he would keep turning around to make sure none of the beta-males weren’t getting any notions of taking over his position in the pack.
I was thinking about this and keeping one eye on the progress of the sled. I couldn’t help but keep turning around to keep an eye on Danny who had taken up alpha-position at the back of the sled. I shook my head and barked quietly. We were making good headway in slight lurches along a wide piste flanked by tall pine trees on either side. There was a nasty enough drop on the lower side of the path and I wasn’t all that trusting that we wouldn’t slide over the edge.
“Naaw… it’s not possible – you’ll be fine,” Danny assured me before barking another mouthful of abuse at the dogs. I began to relax and take it all in. I was sitting towards the rear of the sled with most of the family leaning back on me. The fresh Alpine air was tingling my nose and filling my lungs. Skiers passed by in the opposite direction, some managing a smile and a wave at what must have been a pleasant sight.
I had to get off to allow the dogs negotiate one or two particularly steep and sharp corners, but other than that it was dog-power all the way.
I swear that I could hear Christmas carols from my childhood as we reached our rallying point. The dogs were panting happily and seemed to be delighted to go through with the next part of the routine of being tied up while we went inside for respite from the cold and to have refreshments.
The wooden restaurant/bar had a beautiful setting overlooking an immense valley flanked by enormous mountains. Amongst the many peaks in the distance, the distinctive somewhat blocky shape of Mont Blanc stood familiar. Inside we went. The boys went for hot chocolate while the adults chose a couple of vins chauds – literally ‘hot wine’, it’s a sweet mulled wine that contains a lot more wine than mull.
As we sat together, Danny told us about the many months of the year that his dogs live when there isn’t snow. They need three months of solid training in preparation for the season. And as for the hierarchical thing and sorting out who’s the top dog, that’s something that they have to do themselves.
“You just have to let them at it,” says Danny. “Sometimes I’d have to intervene if it starts getting too serious… but only if they’re drawing blood, really.”
One warm drink later, we re-emerged into the crisp air and crunched along the thick snow to where the dogs had been waiting with exemplary patience for the last 20 minutes. I turned to take one last look at the view. Maybe the high-altitude alcohol had something to do with it but it was so beautiful, I could feel a tear coming to my eye.
The journey back was mostly downhill and therefore a little bit faster than the first run. I’d stopped worrying about the dogs dragging the whole family over the edge and huddled up and enjoyed the ride. The chill wind, the panting dogs, the trees swishing by, the snow spraying up from the galloping hounds and the sled cutting along behind… Nobody said anything. There was no need. It all felt just like a really nice dream.
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