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Misadventure and Redemption on the Otryt Trail
by Pawel Szafranek
It happened two years ago, in February 2010. It was an unusually cold winter; temperatures were about -25 degrees Celsius (-13F). Together with my family (my wife Marta and our two boys, Igor – 3 years-old and Olaf – 6 months-old), our friends and dogs we had a short holiday in Bieszczady, a lovely mountain region in the south-east part of Poland. Thanks to my colleague and the good will of people from the local forestry, I had a possibility to drive my team in Bieszczady national protection area which is away from people’s houses and everyday noise.
Starting out early as usual, about 6 am, I took my team of 3 Greenland Dogs and 2 Alaskan Malamutes. From the place we lived we had about 12 km (7.5 mi) to the wood yard (sawmill) the starting point of our trail, the Otryt trail (the part of western Bieszczady). I left my car and the trailer at a small forest parking lot and teamed my dogs up: Nelly (GH) and Vappu (GH) at the lead, Noel (GH) and Hornet (AM) at wheel and Coco (AM) as team dog. It was our 4th run during this holiday. Taking my camera to make some short movies of the landscape, I started our training. We were supposed to drive about 18 km (11 mi) to the place where charcoal is produced, and then come back the same way to my car. It was the only way I was allowed to drive the dogs in the park.
It was a perfect cold but sunny day, dogs full of power and hungry to run. And I regained the strength that I lost from the trainings we had before. The trail was challenging: up and down all the time, a typical hairpin bend road with just couple of long straights. I love it and my dogs love it too. Every couple of kilometers when we saw herds of deer, I felt like I was driving not a five, but at least a ten dog team – they were so excited by the view and the smell!
We made it to the turn back point. It took us about 1.5 hours. I decided not to rest, just come straight back. Then it happened, just about 2 km (1.3 mi) from the place we turned back. I think that many mushers have a similar story to tell. I stopped to check harnesses and lines. I kicked the snow hooks deep into the snow. I checked dogs and the equipment and came back to my sled. I took the hooks out of the snow and my team started to walk. Somehow I missed my grip and fell on the snow. I stood up immediately and started to chase my dogs. The road was going up hill and they were walking pretty slow, just about 12 km/hr (7.5 mi/hr). At first I started to run and shout, "Stop!" to my dogs. I was sure they would and we would all come back safely. I was wrong. Because of the cold, my constant screaming and quick running, I lost my strength. I started to walk as fast as possible, then just walk. I saw my team disappear after a few bends. There are no words to describe how terrified I was. As I calculated my dogs would reach the wood yard in about an hour, I would arrive there in about 3 hours. It was impossible to get some help. My only hope was that the dogs would see deer, leave the trail to get to them, then once in the forest enmesh amongst the trees. After about 15 minutes I was so tired that I almost decided to stop and get some rest. But after another bend I saw my dogs at the top of a hairpin bend about 1 km (.62 mi) from me. I was not sure, but it seemed as if they had turned back and waited for something. I stopped, called Nelly and started to go back the direction I came from. Nelly heard me and moved the team to me. I stopped behind the turn and waited. After a few minutes I saw them coming my way, in perfect order with lines OK and the sled standing!
Nelly Photo: Marta Szfranek
We came back home
and I still think how Nelly managed
to turn back the team without any mess. I knew she was a great
lead dog, but
after this adventure I saw her in different light. She is great!
Jussi Valiaho and Suvi Tauriainen - thanks for everything!