Villmarksenter is a smelly place. When you mix 48 dogs and an unknown number of breeding eider ducks (and duck poop is really, really nasty) it can get right ripe. However, it’s summer, the ducks are in nesting mode, and the ladies are underfoot everywhere under every single floorboard. They are so well-camouflaged that it’s very easy to nearly walk on top of on until she ruffles her feathers.
But that’s not why you’re here. Manon, the French national who has made Svalbard her home, leads us around to the opening of the dog pen. She warns us that it’s about to get very loud. She’s not kidding. The dogs, mostly a mix of Alaskan Husky and Greenland dogs, are already sending up quite a howl. They know it’s time to do a run, and boy are they ready.
Our small group gets instructions and we do our best despite the noise to put the harnesses on the dogs, who do their best to wash our faces. These animals adore people, but they love pulling sleds even more. Once all the dogs are set up while still chained, we carefully release them one by one, pick them up by the harness and drag them by the back feet out the front gate to the waiting sled.
Why not lead them? Because if their front paws hit the ground they are off and running with those powerful front shoulders and you’d be lucky to hang on for four steps.
Finally everyone is set up, three teams are ready to go. Manon is with me, and we head off down the dirt road.
What’s fascinating is how each dog pulls differently, some surge, some heave into the job, and some are hesitant. Manon sometimes stops us to move a dog around to pair it with a better match. When it’s my turn to run the sled you can see everything that’s going on among the dogs- who’s tired, who’s lazy, who has to poop.
A set of brakes is the single most important part of the gear, as it prevents the sled from taking off without you in it, and it also keeps these powerful animals from running themselves into the ground. The ideal pace is a fast trot. For our time out, we stopped four times for icy cold water from the nearby running streams, which they happily lapped up.
On the way home, Manon pulls our big Greenland dog off the line and onto her lap. He’s overheated. Now he’s sitting happily watching the scenery go by, and letting his teammates do all the work.
Once we’re back at the center, we put our tired dogs away for the night. Then Manon gives us the best treat we could ask for. She lets the puppies out. Five nearly-grown pups launch themselves at us ( I nearly lose a braid and two girls make mincemeat of my down hood) but that’s the whole point. Enthusiastic wonderful happiness in the form of puppy love.
The good news is that Villmarksenter provides coveralls and boots so that when you get puppybombed, you leave the smell there, but take the memories home with you.