Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 22, 2017
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Gone to the Dogs

Bolt across Ontario's Moose River with a husky team of your very own

"Baron's your dog," says Carman Tozer, handing me a harness and pointing to a Siberian wildly jerking at the chain. The husky greets me by straining further on his line, his voice rising from a deep moan to a high-pitched bray. This discordant sound is matched by all 30 dogs in the yard, a raucous cry as sharp as the wind blowing at -30o Celsius.

Moosonee, at the tip of James Bay, has a mean annual temperature of -1o Celsius and its rivers are frozen half of the year. These conditions are ideal for dogsledding, a sport for which the most suitable temperature is -20o Celsius.

Before the development of the snowmobile, dogsledding was the sole mode of winter transportation in the James Bay region and everyone's backyard was filled with as many dogs as Tozer's.

Dogsledding is a Cree tradition; Tozer inherited his first team from his grandfather. The shrill wails that resonate from his backyard are voices of pure excitement. These working dogs are bred for pulling. They love the sport and are anxious to go.

Baron is difficult to approach and I glance around to see what the others are doing. One man has straddled his dog and is offering pats and soothing tones while his husky continues to thrash around wildly. Another has successfully approached his dog from behind, but loses his balance trying to reach for the dog's wriggling head.

I join this hapless group with similar harnessing misfortunes. Baron doesn't drop to the ground in submission. He bounces anxiously up and down between my legs, hampering my every effort to pull the harness over his head. Tozer comes to my aid, making the whole process look easy. He grabs Baron's collar and holds him gently with his knees, leaving me with both hands free to release the snap, open the harness and pull it over the dog's head. I lead Baron away, turning around to make sure that Tozer is still with me. But he's already off to help another frustrated musher.

I am left to grapple with the next three dogs on my team alone. By the time I've hooked Ringo, Spotty and Charlie to the sled, my foiled attempts have been replaced by some measure of competence. With handling and harnessing completed, the trip on the Moose River begins.

Ready or not?
All the commands and techniques we were briefed on come into practice within the first few minutes of mushing. As the team ahead of me pulls out, I begin releasing the foot brake. My team surges forward in what seems the only speed these huskies know -- straight ahead at full clip. I yell the commands I've been taught, but my voice doesn't rise above the sound of the sled churning on the snow.

It's not easy being a lightweight musher. The dogs are at the heels of the team in front of me. Farther on, the musher tumbles and as he inches his way back up, I lean to turn around him, throwing all of my weight onto the brake. The dogs take a while to stop and I jam the clawbrake into the snow as soon as I can. I'm relieved to hear an expletive behind me and a crunch of footsteps near my heel -- I'm not the only one having difficulty.

My troubles don't end there. At the next stop, my dogs refuse to halt. I head down the path alone, passing those who are standing still. I continue to ride the brake until the team stops. Based on my difficulties, Tozer removes the strongest dog, Ringo, from the team. Without him, the rest are manageable.

As chaotic as it sounds, a symmetry extends from the helm of this sled -- three powerful dogs bolting across a frozen river, snow swirling in rays of sunlight around me. I loosen my grip, relax my firm stance and settle into the motion. One less dog has made all the difference. I now feel comfortable on this sled and can enjoy the scenery.

It's the barren edge of the river that draws me out during the lunch break. After moose stew, tea and bannock, I strap on a pair of snowshoes to explore the desolate terrain. The outing gives me a new appreciation for the dogs. With layers of clothing, heavy boots and a bulky parka, each of my steps is awkward and what seems like a short distance takes a long time to reach. With the dogs, we cover 30 kilometres in one afternoon. To cover the same distance on snowshoes, I'd be out here for days.

Homeward-bound is a much smoother ride. I've passed the learning curve, understand the dogs and am used to the cold air. Now I can focus on the details of the landscape. The setting sun casts a shadow to my right. I watch my silhouette drifting along the snow. A fusion has taken place. We are one moving entity, the team of dogs, the sled and my outline, blended into one shadow as we return down the frozen river.

Back at their kennels, the dogs rest quietly. Gone are their frenzied movements, their shrill squalls and their anxious whimpers. My presence is now met with silence. They are fulfilled. And I leave them behind with my own sense of satisfaction, lightweight and all.

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