After arriving into Villarrica I was met by Konrad, the owner of Aurora Austral, the dog sledding company I would be volunteering for until early September. After a quick stop to buy me some rubber boots (wellies) we headed back to the house where I expected to meet the dogs and get started.
First though Germany were playing Portugal in the World Cup so after meeting Inge, Konrad’s girlfriend who helps manage the business and Alex, the other volunteer from Switzerland, we sat down to watch the game in front of a huge projector screen. Needless to say this was a very good first impression! Germany thrashed Portugal and after this Konrad took me around the property, as well as the house, there are also three cabins to let out to tourists, several acres of land including an adventure trail through a forest and of course, the kennels where all of the dogs were. There are 50 dogs in total, the majority of these are Siberian Huskies which is the typical husky dog people imagine. There are also 4 Alaskan Huskies, 2 Eurohounds and Kara, a Bermese Mountain Dog who roams free and guards the property. I set to learning how they should be fed, cleaning the kennels and also feeding the rest of the animals which are made up of 5 ducks, 2 chickens, 4 sheep (now plus a little lamb) and 3 cats! I hadn’t even seen snow, a sled or a husky running in action but I was already excited at the prospect of the next two and a half months. I don’t have the time or internet to load a photo of every dog but here are a few from when they were in the kennels at the house (Thanks to Alex for the photos so I didn’t have to take them all again!).
There had apparently been heavy snow the past week, not at the house but higher up towards the volcano, Volcan Villarrica, where we would do the sledding. The volcano is South America’s most active and normally has smoke coming out of the top. While the dogs are at the house it is important that the dogs stay fit and healthy during the off season. They do this by setting up a line in front of the Land Rover where we then attach the dogs. Although they can actually pull the land rover that isn’t the idea so we drive along at somewhere close to 10kph and the dogs run in front. We were mainly looking out for other animals on the road. Although they are beautiful dogs and very friendly they are pack animals and if the opportunity of another meal comes up, they won’t turn it down, whether it’s a sheep, pig or even a cow!
The next week or so was mainly feeding, cleaning and training the dogs while watching football whenever the opportunity arose or it was deemed an important enough match. On one afternoon I took the adventure trail which runs through the property and has a tree terrace view point of the volcano, I ran most of it in time to get there for the sunset. Later that week it was time to head up to the cabin. For the first day we would go without the dogs as we had to clear the way and get the cabin set up. Konrad and Inge were both amazed by the amount of snow up there, it was far lower down the mountain than they had ever seen it that early in the season. We had to park the Land Rover far lower down than expected and hike the last few kilometres. As we made our way up with axes, shovels, chainsaws etc. I was totally awestruck. There were lakes and mountains in one direction and the volcano towering above us in the other. After a couple of hours we arrived at the cabin which was just as surreal, miles from anything, this would become our home from home over the next few months. We set to work collecting fire wood, digging out the dog houses from the snow and preparing the cabin for the season. After a tough day we returned and would be ready to start moving the dogs the following week.
Early next week we packed up the first 20 dogs into the trailer and also took the new snowmobile in tow behind the other 4×4, a Suzuki Vitara. We made it as far as we could before the snow became too deep and then it was time for our first dog sledding experience. Inge, Alex and I set off with eight dogs for Inge and six dogs each for Alex and I, Konrad followed on the snowmobile. We had to ascend several hundred metres which meant a lot of pushing or walking with the sled to help the dogs, there were also some rocky parts where we had to run across so not to damage the sled. Although very tiring, it was a good introduction to handling the sled, or mushing as it is referred to. Now there were dogs at the cabin, it meant we would have to start taking it in turns to stay there. Inge would start for the first two nights so we left her up there. That meant I would be driving the Vitara back home. I hadn’t driven a car in about nine months so a 4×4 with trailer on a bumpy track plus the steering wheel on the opposite side was definitely a case of jumping back in at the deep end! Luckily I returned with both the car and I in one piece. The following day the next 20 dogs were taken up and the next few days were spent practising dog sledding and carrying more things up to the mountain. One of the advantages of having the snowmobile is to transport heavy items such as bags of dog food up the mountain. The problem is the rocky parts damage the track so for the majority of the time we have been restricted to taking them up in rucksacks. Each bag is 20kg and it’s a few kilometres all uphill, very good exercise is definitely the positive way to look at it…
Eventually it was my turn to stay at the cabin which I was both excited and nervous about. Excited about cooking on the stove, the possibilities of a beautiful sunset and perhaps a clear night to enjoy the stars and I was excited about being in the mountains miles from anything with just the dogs for company. But that also meant any problems that arose were down to you to sort out. There had been a couple of ‘escapees’ in the first few nights, nothing major but something I was aware of. The other dogs will always let you know if one of the dogs has escaped with endless barking so there was no real worry there. Luckily the first night passed with no real drama. The following day was a day of rain so none of the others came up. There was only so much to do as it was wet all day so apart from feeding the dogs and cleaning up crap I collected some fire wood and then settled in for an early night. Not long after I had gone to sleep the barking began and I went outside to find one of the dogs loose. Luckily they came to me and I put them back on their chain. I managed to get back to sleep but awoke at 1am to more barking. I went outside and the rain had turned to heavy snow. This time Mikka was loose which I was confused by as she was in one of the outbuildings with Inga (the dog, not the person) rather than with the other dogs outside. I assumed it was a mistake of mine, put her back and tried to get some sleep. At 2am I heard more barking, I was a little surprised and thought they were perhaps just restless but decided to check anyway. As I went outside the first thing I saw was Wolverine on top of Athena about to do the deed. Luckily he stopped as he saw me and came to say hello, I secured him but realised at least one other dog was still loose. As my headlight assessed the drama I saw that Mikka was loose again and this time Inga had followed her and was also loose. As I got Inga back into the building Mikka started to fight with Cheyenne, another dog who had somehow escaped from her chain. I did have to take a moment to reflect on what I was doing. I was in the Andes of Chile, on the side of a volcano at 2am in the morning. I was wearing long johns and a bright yellow waterproof in the middle of a snow storm and was separating two huskies from fighting. They stopped after only a few seconds but I could see that Cheyenne had a cut around her eye. Cheyenne is the most scared dog we have in general so she was a little traumatised but let me clean her up a little. By 4am things had settled down and I managed to get a couple of hours sleep before it started to get light, at which point the dogs start to awake and let you know they’re getting hungry.
Somehow, the drama continued as I stepped outside in the morning only to find Rhea was now loose. She is also shy and wouldn’t come close enough to me to let me put her back on the chain. I think she enjoyed the game we were playing as after half an hour or so she walked into one of the kennels in the out house and allowed herself to be put back…only minutes later she was off again but now she had grown in confidence and quickly came back allowing me to put her back once again. Finally, the last escapee of the 12 hours was Mania. Mania is extremely shy and tends to bark at me if I come close before quickly hiding in her little house. Now she was loose she wasn’t going to let me get within a few metres. If I went one way then she would go the other, unfortunately there wasn’t much I could do and after trying to tempt her with food and the warmth of the cabin I just had to allow her to be loose. She is a well behaved dog so there was no danger of any fighting or anything. It was an interesting conversation as I explained to Konrad and Inge what had happened. Luckily, they were very understanding as none of it was my fault and none of it was preventable. Later that day they came up and, of course, Mania ran straight to them. Anyway, it was definitely an interesting introduction to working for a dog sledding business! I could write so much more but will save it for my next post where I will talk more about sledding, some of the tours we have done and more dog fights and dog bites…