It happened so fast and so suddenly that the whole incident seemed unreal, even during the days of shock and mourning that followed. One moment we were contemplating dinner, the next I was sprinting across the garden, toward the open driveway gate from behind which had come feverish cries and swearing, cut off by the squeal of tires, a synchronized gasp, followed by the thump of metal hitting flesh and an inhuman cry of pain. As I ran my first thought was a prayer of denial. Please, don’t let it be. From the sounds I guessed that one of my host’s dogs must have been hit by a car in front of his eyes. This, I knew, he would take hard. The two endearing mongrels were like his surrogate family.In a way, my prayers were answered. Lying flat on the road, unmoving and surrounded by a semi-circle of onlookers, was not one of his dogs but my own Airedale terrier Mops, an inseparable companion for the past four years. She had followed my friend out as he went to close the gate, and another dog across the road was too much of a temptation, at the worst possible moment. We rushed her to a vet but she was dead on arrival. The speeding Subaru had driven right over her chest, mashing the ribs and lungs. For a few moments she tried to eat the air, biting at it feebly, but then this too had stopped. Blood trickled from between her limp lips and from under the tail. Even the vet cried as she turned off the oxygen.The following day I buried her on our favorite stretch of the lake beach, and turned around to face the void her departure had left, the sudden absence of that undemanding, eager-to-please and always happy canine who until now shadowed my every step. For a time, I found myself gravitating towards people who still had dogs, a lame attempt at the continuity of my own dog experience. It was ultimately unsatisfying because each bond between the human and beast is as unique as its participants and does not lend itself to any sort of ménage à trois. But then the mushers came to town, and that changed everything.They came in a convoy of pick-ups and trailers, pausing briefly along the lakefront to gather and re-group. Every vehicle and trailer was a mobile dog kennel with dog’s name stenciled above each door—names like Cheech, Jasper, Charlie or Bean. The entire procession moved in its own soundscape of howls, barks, baying and yapping, as it headed up the snowfields of the Pisa Range near Queenstown.You could tell the dogs knew. Running on real snow was a treat they lived for. They had trained and waited the entire year, and now were so close they could probably smell it. To my ears and heart this cacophony was like music. Dogs. So many dogs.Without preamble, I fell into an easy “dog-talk” with a musher named Tony Turner. “Come on up the hill,” he offered. The event on Mt Pisa’s snowfields was the national championships and the largest annual gathering of sled dog enthusiasts from around New Zealand. “Every man, woman and their dogs are going to be there,” he added, as if I needed more convincing.At dawn next day I pulled into the carpark of the Snow Farm, the country’s only Nordic ski field, altitude 1515 m. The mountain horizon already glowed with the promise of a sunny day but on the ground it was still dark and the tires crunched hard on refrozen snow, the chains barely biting. The breaths of people and dogs condensed in clouds of vapor thick as smoke from wet wood. Among the heavy 4WDs and trailers, several dozen dogs—Alaskan and Siberian huskies, Malamutes, even a team of German Short-Hair Pointers—were staked out and milled about the radius of their tethers like wheels looking for purchase. The hubbub of feverish yapping and high-pitched barks was deafening, each dog vying for attention, yanking at its chain, terrified that it may be left behind. The trucks and trailers to which the dogs were anchored rocked on their suspensions. Then one of the mushers lowered a sled to the ground and the madness erupted. The dogs threw themselves at the chains, flying through the air in tight arcs, and the mushers caught them, and wrestled their struggling bodies into harnesses, then dragged the dogs one by one, to their places along the tug-line.Somehow, they managed to line up all the teams at the mass start, the dogs never stopping to yap and pull, straining against the anchors. I stood there, hands clasped to my ears, marveling at this apparent chaos. Then an air horn sounded, the mushers pulled up the snow hooks and the dogs’ feet suddenly found purchase on the snow. At this, each team shot forward like a projectile from a catapult, the mushers hanging on to the sleds’ handlebars, frantically balancing this way and that, their feet on sled runners in a wide stance of a beginner skier out of control. With the release of snow anchors, the hellish hubbub of tormented canine souls had instantly ceased, replaced with the sounds of happy, eager panting and the sweet swish of sled skis on snow. Within seconds the teams reached the first turn in the trail and disappeared out of sight. “Phew!” said the race time-keeper clutching her clipboard. “A clean start, with no tangles. Always feels like a minor miracle.” Minutes later, having circumnavigated the race course, the teams began to arrive back. Then they were again in the carpark, the dogs staked out again, happily spent, drinking and eating, the mushers wandering among them, attending to endless chores, crooning sweet gaga to their charges, their faces aglow with odd beatific grins. Kirsten Wylie, a vet who volunteered at three Iditarod races, meandered among the resting teams, stethoscope around her neck. She checked the heart rate and temperature of each dog, examining its general condition and paying particular attention to the paw pads and claws. Like seasoned athletes, the dogs enjoyed the attention and fuss. For now, all was quiet, though Tony assured me this state of affairs would not last for long. Like some internal geyser of desire, building up pressure to a point of bursting, the genetic compulsion to run and to pull would soon begin to rise again in the hearts of the dogs, the pressure which the mushers would be only too delighted to vent. In the process and perhaps by resonance, something would stir in their own genetic makeup, something as old as the day when a wolf first approached a camp of the early humans and our symbiotic relationship was born. Together it was easier to answer the call and the demands of the wild. You might think that sledding with huskies in New Zealand, so far out of their natural environment, is a little odd, an extravagant eccentricity, a misplaced Jack London nostalgia or another take at Cool Runnings. But it’s not so. It is still within living memory that the dogs were a preferred mode of transport here. They also became some of the most traveled dogs in the world, having run the expanses of both polar regions. The case for huskies’ superiority in polar conditions was well-proven during the Amundsen-Scott race for the South Pole by the confident victory of the first, who knew and understood dogs, and by the tribulations and tragic fate of the other who did not. From those days onward, until the arrival and dominance of modern all-terrain vehicles—the tin dogs as the Antarctic old hands called them—the exploration of the ice deserts around the South Pole relied exclusively on dogs of Arctic lineage. With that, the culture of dog sledding was born in countries with claims over the great south continent, and this included Australia and New Zealand.The first time the presence of huskies was noted in New Zealand was during the 1928-30 South Pole expedition led by Admiral Byrd. The expedition’s ship anchored in Dunedin, and the dogs were housed on the nearby Quarantine Island. Meanwhile, Norman Vaugham, the chief dog handler, set about his unenviable task of providing enough dog food for the entire trip. Working on a shoe-string budget, Vaugham sought help and secured sponsorship from several Dunedin businesses, including the Hudsons’ Brothers Chocolate Factory (now part of the Cadbury empire). In his memoir, With Byrd at the Bottom of the World, Vaugham wrote: “For eleven hours a night, twenty-five straight nights, I mixed fish meal, meat meal, beef tallow, wheat germ, molasses and cod liver oil. Next I moulded the mixture into meat cakes that look like bricks.” And next, he had to clean the work space and the mixing vats so that the day shift workers could go about their business of making chocolate. There are no references as to what that chocolate tasted like. The next and the longest chapter in New Zealand husky history came in 1957 when, freshly from success on Mt Everest, young Ed Hillary was nominated a co-leader of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. One result of that was building of the Scott Base in McMurdo Sound and the need for a mode of transport to get about the ice and snow. Huskies were the obvious choice. Those early efforts at mushing down-under were fraught with failures and frustrations, and resulted in a motley crowd of disparate dogs and inexperienced handlers. A mountaineer Harry Ayers was sent to acquire 28 dogs from Mawson Station in Antarctic where he was also given a crash course in dog handling by the Australians who were only just learning themselves. To these dogs, twelve random Greenland huskies were added, then another fifteen dogs from Auckland Zoo. Together they made up a veritable zoo indeed. The dogs went into a training camp on Tasman Glacier in Mt Cook (where the name Husky Flat still stands) and arrived at Scott Base in January 1957. In the end, Hillary opted for converted tractors as the main means of transportation though the dogs did play a peripheral role in the expedition. Over the next two years it became increasingly clear that the zoo dogs were unsuitable for Antarctic conditions. They did not have the stamina and the discipline, but above all else they lacked the true sled dog spirit. Accidents, illnesses and culling of weak and chronically disobedient dogs took heavy toll. It was at this point that a young British explorer Walter (Wally) Herbert was hired to select and train a new team of twelve dogs, to inject both his skills and new blood into the old pack. Herbert was to go on to become one of the most important polar explorers, his feats equaling those of Amundsen and Shackleton. In 1968-69 he would lead the 6,000 km British Trans-Arctic Expedition, from Alaska to Spitsbergen, which powered exclusively by sled dogs was heralded as the “last great journey on Earth.” At the time he got his job for the Scott Base Herbert had already sledded some 5,000 km around the Antarctic Peninsula and he was about to further his experience by staying with and learning from the Greenland Inuits. Herbert picked his dogs from among the best of Greenland huskies, the oldest and the least diluted sled dog bloodlines. The true husky spirit was evident from the start among the Herbert’s dirty dozen. He was bitten three times before he both asserted himself as the pack leader and found his way to the dogs’ hearts by feeding them copious amounts of fish, which they loved. But the gambit had worked. By the time Herbert had completed his second season at the Scott Base, the population of New Zealand huskies rose to sixty-six and their performance in the field improved dramatically. The early 60s too were the heydays of dog sledding in Antarctica with mapping expeditions clocking up to 2,500 km of dog travel during a single outing. Ray Logie, now retired and living in New Zealand, was there at the time, first as an electrician, then as a deputy base leader. He over-wintered at Scott Base with Herbert and they became such good pals, Herbert later named a glacier after him. “There were still plenty of blank areas on maps and so we routinely went out into the field to survey and map,” Ray recalled. “Dogs provided the horsepower for that but even then we were asked to test some of the early Polaris motor toboggans that would eventually replace the dog teams.” On one such trip they had two dog teams and two skidoos and it was Ray’s job to compare the performance of the two. “Maybe I was a little biased but when the going was good and smooth, the Polaris was superior, certainly faster,” he said. “But when we hit rough ground – sastrugi and pressure ridges – the tin dogs were no match for the furry ones.” But there was a problem with dog food. In their first year on the ice, the huskies ate 350 Weddell seals, slaughtered for the purpose, but subsequently, at the outcry from conservationists, the quota was lowered to 52 seals a year, providing the huskies with no more than a weekly treat. By contrast, the Brits fed their huskies on penguins, one Adelie per dog per day being the ration.The treatment and the living standards of the Scott Base huskies also came under fire from lobbyists against the cruelty towards animals. The dogs lived outside, summer and winter, sunshine and blizzard, and their lifespan was considered to be only around eight or nine years. “They were certainly working dogs, not pets, and we treated them as such. They’re incredibly tough and well-adapted to the cold. You wouldn’t think of bringing a polar bear inside because it was getting too cold for them out there. Same with Greenland huskies, they’re essentially wild creatures, used and controlled by man. You should have seen some of their brawls! We had a rule never to break up the dogs’ fight with bare hands, or you were sure to lose them, or needed them stitched. They were big brutes, 120 lbs a piece, and there were no niceties in the ways they dealt with each other. So we, the drivers, had to be the top dogs or they would not respect us at all. “Overall, I think they still had much better lives at Scott Base than they did in Greenland. We made sure of that because our work and survival depended on their well-being. You understand that when you’re in the middle of icy nowhere, and it’s minus 50 (Celsius), and they’re wagging their tails at you.” Those tail wags, and the dog-supported expeditions came to an end when the 1991 Madrid Protocol banned all introduced species (except humans) from the continent and specifically called for the removal of all dogs by 1 April 1994. The Brits held out the longest, taking their dogs off the ice in 1993. The last of the New Zealand dogs were removed from Scott Base in February 1987. They found new home in the kennels of Will Steger in Minnesota and went on to take part in several of his ventures. They lived the lives of true sled dogs until the end of their days.The Antarctic era of huskies came to a close but by then the seeds of passion for running sled dogs took solid roots in New Zealand. Today there are clubs, and races, and social gatherings held regularly on both islands. Most of the runs take place on forest trails and the dogs pull wheeled sleds, tricycles, even modified mountain bikes. Once or twice a year, more often if, like Tony Turner, they happen to live nearby, the mushers take their dogs on a pilgrimage to the snow. There, in pre-dawn twilight, the humans and the beasts lose themselves in this particular form of symbiosis that is mushing.The centerpiece of Tony Turner’s home in Athol is a wooden cabinet with three wooden caskets, each containing the ashes of a dog. Vignette portraits of the three Malamutes adorn the caskets, and so do the dogs’ names: Timitu, Ploddy, and Badger. Fittingly, the rest of Tony’s house is a veritable museum of mushing and all things sled dogs, decorated not so much with furniture but with pictures of dog races, old snow shoes, sleds and harnesses, all overlooked by a larger-than-life portrait of a timber wolf. Tony’s lifetime dream was to become a dog handler at Scott Base, alas he says, he was born too late for that and so he did the next best thing, traveling to learn the ropes of mushing in Alaska instead. There, he worked for a season as a dogs’ body in the kennels of an Iditarod competitor and, on the way back, paid homage to the New Zealand and Australian huskies whose off-springs now run sleds in the winter woodlands of Minnesota. And, like Herbert from Greenland, he also returned with a dozen of dogs the likes of which have not been seen here before. This was his way of introducing New Zealanders to the joys of having and running the Alaskan huskies. In the best of mushing tradition, Tony’s dogs are his life. “They cost me a marriage, and they keep me poor,” he said with a never-mind-that smile, “but they always give back more than you give them. By these standards, I have been a rich and fortunate man.“When you see them streaking out in a line, feel the cold wind in your face and hear the sled runners planing on snow, you are at once a part of the pack, its leader and care-taker, and you know the pure unconditional happiness of doing what you were all born to do.” One frosty July morning I too sampled this happiness when, in the Snow Farm’s carpark, we hooked up all of Tony’s eleven Alaskan huskies to a wooden sled. Hama, the last of his Malamutes, too old to run and living out his days as the pack’s patriarch, howled a mournful protest at being left behind as we man-handled the dogs and the sled around a hairpin bend, then both leapt on to the sled and let the dogs take it away. After the initial burst of acceleration the team settled into an easy gait, the lines taught, happy tongues lolling, the face of each dog trailing a comet-tail of steam. We streaked up and down and around corners like one long organism, with many legs but one mind, one heart, and one purpose. On a particularly long and steep uphill Tony stopped the team with a soft “Have a rest kids,” and to me he said: “You’ve gotta give them a spell before they get too demoralized by the climb.” The dogs panted hard, and greedily bit and swallowed chunks of snow. Then, after only a couple of minutes, Tony called out to them again:“Ok-kay kids, let’s go.” The dogs took off like sprinters from starting blocs and the sled shot forward with such a lunge I had to clutch a hand to my chest, lest I’d lose the precious bundle I carried there. Presently the bundle, furry and warm in the kangaroo pouch of my anorak, was equally eager to go, to join in the commotion, but at only eight weeks old she was safest where she was. I let only the black-and-tan face poke out of the pocket and I saw that her brown eyes were taking in this wonder of the world with unbridled curiosity. It was not a husky but a puppy Airedale. Though I did not want to believe it at first, Tony and other mushers showed me by example that the only way to get over the loss of a best-friend dog was to mourn her with passion but also to get another pup. Their lives are shorter than ours so the change of guard is inevitable. I called the pup Maya and, knowing Airedales, I doubt she’d ever pull a sled. But I’m sure there are many calls of the wild and the not-so-wild that we shall answer together, of snow and mountains, rivers and forests. I look forward to that already because, as a fellow dog-lover Jim Thornton wrote, no one seeking to live a full life should have to face such fate without a dog. Derek Grzelewski is a freelance photographer, writer, and mushing fan. Derek is a frequent contritbutor to New Zealand Geographic magazine. Derek and his new dog, Maya, are pictured above.


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