Here are some basic tips for driving dogsleds for the first time. When it is time for your safari, be assured that our guides always go through everything that you need to know before you start.
Before you start, we will talk through and demonstrate all of the points that you need to know for a safe start, secure turns, speed control and stopping, as well as ‘counterbalancing’ the sleigh, ascending and descending. Those joining us for longer safaris can also learn how (and why) to supervise the teams during breaks.
The starts are high-adrenaline moments for the huskies and the mushers. The atmosphere can be electric. At rest, the sleds are tied to an immovable object such as a holding post (on the starting line) or tree. We will help the passengers to settle comfortably on their reindeer skins with blankets tucked in around their feet and we will take pictures of you primed and ready to go if you like.
You will then simply wait with two feet on the brake and both hands firmly on the handlebars until all the teams are ready. We will remind you to pay attention when we come to release your line so that the dogs won’t immediately jump forward and pull you off balance. The guide will then untie your team, and will remind you to wait for a hand signal before proceeding. Once you are in this position and ready to go, your hands must be kept firmly on the handle-bar at all times. The only time when you should ever consider letting go with one hand is to signal for help from a guide). (Nearly every day we see clients become relaxed half-way round, and maybe reach for their cameras, or just loose grip. And then, suddenly, the passenger is enjoying a free ride with the dogs, whilst the driver is left behind!).
We make you leave a good gap between you and the sleigh in front to make sure that you understand how to hold your team since if you can hold them, we know that you can stop them. It also gives the dogs a chance to settle into a running pace with no pressure from the team behind. Smaller women may have to lift the sleigh a little as well as simply having their weight on the break to hold the dogs still. Once you have been given the instruction to go, you can release the brake by putting first one and then the other foot onto the anti-slide position on the runners. If the dogs have been waiting for some time, you may have to push the sleigh forward with a couple of steps to break the inertia but be very ready to quickly jump on!
The most common difficulty for novice mushers is being able to relax when mushing. The adrenaline and the fear of falling off usually makes you tense up and hold on really tightly. Tensing up exhausts you very quickly. It also increases the likelihood of falling off since you need to be able to hold your stomach firm whilst absorbing bumps, turns and sudden twists in the trail with your knees, in a relaxed manner, much as you do whilst skiing. Luckily, it doesn’t normally take too long before you will realise that you are managing fine and you can enjoy the experience.
Once out on the safari itself, a safe distance between sleighs is 10m, since this gives you time to react to problems within your own balance or team and also to react to any sudden change in speed from the team in front of you. Always be aware of the speed of the sleigh in front of you and brake appropriately. We explain that any reduction in speed at the front end of the sleighs should be passed down the line, as when a stacked set of dominos is falling. NB: However, that it is better for the dogs for you to come to a complete stop and wait for a while to give yourself some distance from the sleigh in front, rather than to ride with one foot controlling the speed with the brake or brake mat all the time. It depends a little on the situation, however, and those of you coming for longer safaris will soon learn how to judge each situation appropriately.
NB: Your guide will quickly spot if your team seems to be consistently faster than the team in front and he will call a halt and change the order of the teams if need be. Please do not attempt to do this yourself or your dogs might become tangled in the lines of the team in front in the process.
As with biking or skiing, balance your body-weight in the direction of the turn; lean your body towards the left when the bend turns left, to the right when the bend turns right. Your weight should primarily be on the inside runner but you will need to keep a bit of weight on the outside runner (as you do on the outside pedal when biking) to counteract the possibility of the sled tipping inwards.
Do all of this while keeping your feet on the skis and your hands on the handle-bar. In other words, if you think that you are going to need to reduce speed in order to take the turn safely, break before you get to the turn and then balance your body strongly, for the turn itself. This is particularly important before tight turns or turns in which snow is banked on one side. Sometimes the turn is so tight that you have to almost stop the team and then run the sled around the corner before the dogs tug on it again, to avoid it over-turning. But most turns are easy and you can make it by simply lowering your centre of gravity by crouching down and possibly altering the position of your feet on the runners. All of this will be explained to you, as appropriate, during your pre-safari training. We will warn you if there is a particular need to pay attention.
• The brake is situated at foot level, between the skis. The harder you press, the more resistance is applied to the dogs. Use the break to ensure that there is at least a 10m gap between you and the team in front, and to reduce your speed before taking turns. Use it also on descents to ensure that the sleigh doesn’t overtake and injure the dogs and to prevent it sliding out sideways.
• NB The 10m security gap is because the dogs are naturally competitive and want to pass each other, or at least stop side by side, but when they do so, unsupervised, there is a high chance that they will fight or get tangled.
• To stop, it is advisable to place two feet on the brake (and maybe pull upwards, hard, if light-weight) and to keep that position for as long as you wish your dogs to be stationary.
• All of our routes follow tracks that we work hard to maintain in good condition. Whilst you might not actually notice this during your safari, you would definitely notice it if we didn’t put in this work. It is definitely one of the many points of differentiation between our farm and many others.
• On either side of these groomed pistes, however, the snow is softer and more powdery. In some conditions, it can be difficult to make out the hard track and in others, the sleigh can simply start heading towards the soft sides if you are unbalanced. When this happens, the sleigh will often start to tip outwards and potentially get stuck. If you feel that happening, immediately counterbalance by placing two feet and all your weight on the opposite runner, (if the sledge is leaning to the right of the track, place your feet on the left runner etc) and gently pull the sleigh in that direction. This action, combined with the force of traction of the dogs will automatically pull the sledge back onto the harder track.
• Whatever you do, even if you end up on your knees, with the sledge tilting almost impossibly on its side, don’t let go. If it overturns, the guide will help you. However, it is more likely that the forward momentum of the dogs combined with your helping force in the correct direction will right the sleigh and you can continue on the next phase of your adventure.
• When there is a steep up-hill section in the trail, don’t hesitate to help your team by pushing on one leg, as if you are on a scooter, or maybe even walking or running behind the sledge (whilst keeping your hands firmly on the handle-bar).
• The huskies will know quite quickly if you are a good musher or not and they will be testing you to see if you are aware of and responsive to, their needs during your first couple of outings with them.
• When descending, it is recommended to brake and even to have one foot lightly, but constantly, on the brake if the side is steep or long. This will help to prevent the sleigh slipping sideways under you and it will also ensure that you do not hit the dogs.
Each driver is responsible for his or her team during the safari and it is important to always keep an eye on the dogs. If you see anything untoward or even anything that you are not sure of, please err on the side of caution and call for help from a guide. Common problems to watch out for, include:
• The leaders starting more slowly than the two swing dogs and the line therefore getting tangled (you can reduce the likelihood of this by keeping one foot lightly on the break when you start off to ensure that the gang line is always taut).
• The wheel dogs getting their legs stuck in the line or neckline.
• A dog running on 2 or 3 legs (this indicates that they are either trapped in the line, somehow, or that they have injured one paw or leg).
• A dog being carried through the snow on its back by the momentum of the other dogs (this can happen if a dog has tumbled into the loose snow outside of the tracks and has lost his footing. You can generally just stop and allow the dog to right itself again, and it is normally fine, but double check for lines wrapped around legs, or neck chains that have become too tight as a result).
• A dog is constantly shaking his head or looking backwards all the time.
• Dogs relieving themselves. We teach them to ‘go on the run’ but some do this better than others. To help them, just break gently or completely and allow them to resume their place in the line once finished.
• NB: If you see two dogs running on the same side of the main line, this is not a problem. We try to train them out of this but some like the confidence of feeling another dog running close by (whether the other dog really appreciates it or not).
For the passengers the only instructions are to remain seated and to keep hands and legs inside the sledge rather than holding on, as is the natural instinct. If you hold on and the sledge overturns, you run the risk of hurting your wrists or fingers. During the ride, the passenger can take photographs or film and can, of course, help the driver who may otherwise be occupied, with the surveillance of the team; making sure that none of the dogs are tangled in the lines etc.
Of course, if any of the passengers happens to be both athletic and used to dogs, then you can jump out yourself and sort out a tangle that would otherwise require you to ask for a guide to come to help. (NB: The driver cannot do this, since they cannot let go of the handlebar!). You could also, potentially, pull the sleigh back onto the track (pulling from its front) if it happens to have slipped off to one side.