This weekend finds us on a long-delayed, Corona-cancelled birthday ‘experience’ for the Nearly Beloved. It’s a welcome chance to escape the city whilst we still can, even if ‘sledding with huskies’ isn’t my ideal break.
But I mustn’t complain, unlike the Nearly Beloved, who wasn’t at all happy with last year’s gift of a ride in a microlite. Thankfully it was a solo trip in what turned out to be a dodgy, flying lawnmower. And we didn’t want a repeat of the dislocated shoulder from indoor skydiving, the paint-balling incident that ended in tears, or the life-flashing-in-front-of-my-eyes moment on the river jeep-safari. I mean I’m not a big fan of animal adventures, unlike my fear-free other half, but life in lockdown needs some spicing up. And what could possibly go wrong?
I wasn’t counting on the great UK segregation system. The night before we leave, South Yorkshire slides into tighter restrictions, meaning household bubbles can no longer mix indoors and more importantly, Grunting Teen can no longer stop over with his big sister. He’s officially too old to need child-care provision but is he old enough to be left on his own?
The boy himself thinks so. But the Nearly-Beloved isn’t convinced. ‘You’ve babied that lad. What’s he going to survive on? He can’t even make toast without setting off the smoke alarm. So, I’m certainly not trusting him with the cooker.’ Grunting Teen rolls his eyes. ‘I’ll have a couple of Pot Noodles,’ he says, ‘and there’s always the biscuit cupboard…’
So, it’s all decided and, whilst Darling Daughter breathes a sigh of relief that she’ll no longer be eaten out of house and home, I stock up the shelves with non-government-dietary-advice goodies.
There’s just time for one more drill on operating the central heating and locking the front door safely before I send the Home Alone child off to school and drag my fellow husky-sledder into the car. ‘He’s got to learn independence,’ I say. ‘and he’s old enough to cope now, isn’t he?’
As we journey on, passing colourful woodlands, the roads are Covidly quiet and the attractions en-route are bereft of tourists. There’s a sense of both autumnal beauty and sadness. But this break is a welcome distraction from the doom and gloom of lockdown life.
Arriving at our destination loud barking greets us. There are eighteen rescue huskies in all. That’s eighteen too many for my liking. But the Nearly-Beloved is in his element, bending down to pat them and get his face licked, whilst I stand trembling, at a virus-friendly distance.
Thankfully, the trainer is both competent and aware and soon puts us at ease. She’s well-informed and conveys her message clearly and concisely. What a refreshing change! By the time she’s finished there is no confusion whatsoever about what we’re expected to do. There’s no ‘mush!’ to get the dogs started. This is just misinformation. Instead the command we need is ‘hike!’ And if we want to slow things down, then it’s just a little squeeze on the brakes and a gentle call of ‘steady,’ whilst an emergency stop calls for a loud ‘whoah!’ and full on pressure.
‘The huskies don’t appreciate it if the instructions aren’t clear,’ the trainer warns us, ‘and if they lose trust in the sledder, it’s hard to win it back. They just do their own thing.’
‘Sounds like my wife’, mutters the Nearly-Beloved, whilst I find myself warming to these intelligent creatures.
She tells us that, like humans, huskies are sociable animals who enjoy company and pine away if left on their own too long. They’re different from other dogs in that they’re creatures of cooperation who will follow orders if they can see the benefits yet are too smart for blind obedience. And usually the lead husky is a female because the whole pack does well when they’re in charge.
I’m starting to like these dogs a lot.
And now it’s time to turn ‘musher’. The Nearly-Beloved, of course, is ‘a natural’ and heads off like a pro into the sunset. He makes it look easy. I reckon I can do this too.
But once the power of the huskies is unleashed, they surprise me with their breakneck speed. I completely forget to steer and find myself careering towards a ditch. In my panic, those oven-ready commands fly out of my head and I shout out an illogical ‘steady-woah-hike-woah-steady’ order that ends in chaos and a near head-dive over the handle-bars.
It seems that being in charge isn’t always as easy as it looks.
And maybe this experience hasn’t been the best for me but there is an end to it and my reward comes later with a relaxing evening in a country hotel.
Returning home, the next day, we find the door unlocked, the central heating on the blink and a smell of burnt toast in the kitchen. We eventually track Grunting Teen down, headphones on, in front of the PS4. The room is littered with discarded biscuit wrappers and coke tins. But, like us, he’s alive and well.
We’ve all survived the experience.