After five long months of lockdown in Argentina and a totally unexpected escape to Chile, we suddenly found ourselves in a very different environment. Keeping up the theme of finding interesting workaways to make the best of our seemingly endless restricted mobility, we managed to get in touch with a very friendly German running a husky farm who agreed to give us a place to stay for our mandatory 14 days of quarantine in Chile in exchange for helping him hack a trail through the jungle and helping to take care of his dogs.
We arrived much later than expected after our gauntlet of over the top police checks throughout Argentina, but as soon as the beetle rumbled into the yard and we were greeted by the big barks of an incredibly friendly Bernese Mountain Dog, we knew we had arrived somewhere special. Despite our late hour of arrival, the owner, equally as friendly as the big dog that initially greeted us, showed us to our own private cabin. We were exhausted, and without even bothering to get a fire started to warm the cabin we went straight to bed.
The next day we had a tour of the property (keeping completely distant at all times, of course), including the thick bamboo of the jungle we were meant to build a trail through as well as the kennels with the fifty-some huskies and European hunting hounds. The dogs require near constant attention, and with feeding, poo patrol, summer exercise, and feeding again every day, there is quite a lot to do to take care of that many animals! We were happy to roll up our sleeves and help though, and before we knew it our two weeks were almost up!
The Daily Routine
Each day at the husky farm would start the same. We would wake up early, stoke up our fire that had been burning low throughout the night, and as we enjoyed our tea and breakfast the dogs would inevitably break into a minute-long group howl just about when the sun was starting to rise. They were hungry!
Breakfast for the dogs was a few degrees short of madness. As soon as they heard the first signs of movement they would all join in with a pandemonium of barks, yips, screeches, howls, growls, and other ungodly sounds that you would never believe could come from a husky. Each pen of four dogs would be fed one at a time, ideally with the most dominant dog eating first, and while the dogs wolfed down their meals we would stand watch for sneaky thieves or any other signs of aggression between the dogs. More than once one of the dogs decided to violently move in to steal from another one, and as they battled it out it was our job to intervene by reaching in, grabbing a handful of neck fur, and tearing the fighting dogs apart. Although it seemed daunting at first it was surprising how instinctual it was the first time it happened and we never felt like any of the dogs would ever hurt any humans.
As each pen received its food the noise level decreased appreciably, and by the time the last pen was fed a contented silence once again fell over the kennels as we made our final rounds and offered pets instead of kibbles. Some of the dogs were interested in socializing, some were too busy licking their bowls, and some were so wary of us at first that they wouldn’t get close, but those few minutes after feeding were always a nice time to get to know each dog a little bit better.
Not your average house dogs
“Huskies are different than other dogs” we were told soon after we arrived. With over a decade of experience training and working with dogs, we believed it when our host told us that huskies exist at a more primal level than your average dog, with relationships with humans going back to some of the earliest moments between man and dog. But what does this mean in practice?
Throughout our time on the farm we witnessed a number of scraps between the dogs, usually to try to steal food or to assertWassert dominance over other members of the pack. Most of the fights we witnessed were relatively minor, but we have heard stories that revealwreveal the dogs are capable of if there is nobody to intervene. We didn’t doubt it for a second when the owner reassured us that the huskies would never hurt a human, but it was quite the eye opener of learning what they can do to other dogs.
While one of us was feeding, the other would begin on poo patrol. Fifty huskies generate quite a lot of poo, and the best and most efficient way to deal with it is simply with a bucket and a couple of rubber gloves. Believe it or not, but as we learned all of the dogs’ names we also started to recognize their poos. Some were polite, some were nasty, and some were works of art that might give your average sculptor a run for their money. One dog liked to leave sneaky poos in his house, while another liked to eat all of the poos of his pen mates if we weren’t fast enough to snatch them up before he could gobble up the goodies and subsequently leave super nasty shits of his own. We would offer pets after poo time as well, and since the dogs weren’t distracted by the prospect of extra food they were usually even more interested in coming to say hello.
In the winter the dogs are out almost every day with groups of tourists (who get to drive their own teams unlike most sled dog tours in North America!), but in the summer it’s simply not an option. Yet the dogs still need to stay in shape, and so on most days of the week feeding was followed by running the active dogs to make sure each of them got to be part of a team at least two times per week.
As soon as the dogs realized there was going to be running that day, they broke into a cacophony even greater than before feeding time. It’s hard to describe, but these dogs went absolutely berserk with excitement. We would go to their kennels, grab them one by one, and with everyone nearly tripping over everyone else and dogs tugging on leashes with full force, we would bring them over to the staging, or “stakeout” area. At one point Elliott tried to take two dogs and was literally pulled to the ground. Although the Siberian Huskies weren’t particularly large, some of them could still pack quite a pull!
Once all of the dogs that were going to form the team were chained up at the stakeout we would put harnesses on them one by one. The chaos didn’t end here, and even seemed to amplify as the dogs knew they were one step closer to running. Some of them, especially the more seasoned lead dogs, would try to temper their excitement and even help us slip the harness on and put their little feet through the right places. On the other hand, some of them would totally flip shit and scream and howl and jump in circles and roll on their backs and nip at the harness and do everything in their power to be as difficult as possible.
After the harnesses were on we would take each dog to its place on the line stretched out in front of the “sled” (an ATV with the motor turned off in most cases) snap them into place, and try to keep the calm until it was finally time to run. The barking and excitement would fill the air up until the moment they started running, at which point their barks and yips instantly gave way to silence and acceleration as they pulled as a team with all of their might.
The beginning was always fast, but soon the huskies found a moderate pace at which they could have pulled for who knows how many hours. Sometimes they got a little tangled, sometimes they got a little distracted, and sometimes they would purposefully run through puddles to sneak a quick drink while running, but they always kept pulling until we rounded the corner back home and they finally relaxed, tongues lolling and some even sprawled out on the ground to rest. You could tell they were happy.
While the huskies were strong enough to pull an ATV with a person on it without a problem for several kilometres, the European hunting hounds were a different story. Built for speed rather than endurance, six dogs pulled a custom bicycle-type scooter or even an ATV so fast that it was impossible to keep up on a bicycle. Not only fast, they were also absolutely beautiful dogs, and entirely different to the huskies that one most typically associates with sled dog sports.
Sled dog sports, as we quickly learned, is a lot more than just the traditional dog sled that we all know from stories of resolute old mushers in the arctic. It turns out there is an entire international community of competitive athletes that are passionate about dogs pulling all manner of conveyances, from scooters to trikes to even just a single dog pulling a human runner (with speeds up to 20% faster than a human running alone!). We even got to try out some of the disciplines for ourselves, and drifting around rough corners as two hounds pull a person on a scooter is certainly more adrenaline-filled than one might think before giving it a try!
When we weren’t busy with the dogs we spent some time every day hacking a future dog trail through the jungle. When we first trudged through the thick bamboo and swampy, muddy jungle and listened to our host tell us his vision for the trail, we were skeptical. But once we actually picked up our machetes and started hacking our way through some of the thickest bamboo patches we were surprised at just how quick we were actually making progress. Nonetheless, we have a newfound appreciation for bamboo and how quickly and thickly it can grow. Kudos to our guides who took us through their trails in the Thai jungle so many years ago!
We also had the chance to help with building a small greenhouse. Before we arrived there wasn’t so much as a post in the ground, but after only a few days of work it was ready for planting! There’s a good chance that if we build a greenhouse of our own one day it will look a lot like this one.
Rest and Relaxation
Although we kept busy, not all of our time at the husky farm was spent working. When we had time to ourselves we took the opportunity to chill out and relax a little bit as we allowed ourselves to cautiously enjoy new feelings of hope and optimism. A guitar was put at our disposal (it felt so good to have music in our lives again!), and we spent a couple of rainy afternoons simply sitting beside a roaring wood stove and watching a movie.
With so many dogs around, we also took advantage of getting pets and snuggles of our own. Mystique, an Alaskan Husky who was moved to her own pen in advance of having puppies, needed extra social interaction and cuddles, and we were happy to oblige. Maya, the big Bernese Mountain Dog, strove to reach enlightenment through human pets and attention, and we were usually happy to oblige. It was a bit of a bummer when she wouldn’t even play with a stick for fear of losing out on pets, but you can’t blame a dog for being a big furry bundle of love and joy.
And then, in what seemed like hardly a week, our fourteen days were up! For some of our final days in South America we were grateful to have learned new skills, tried new things, and gotten our fill of dog cuddles to hold us over for a while. It was one of the most unlikely places we could have imagined spending what will hopefully be one of our final quarantines of 2020 (going on 120+ days of isolation already, yikes!), but we would have gladly stayed longer if we could have!
It was also the perfect place for us to prepare ourselves mentally for the road ahead and the journey home. As we said goodbye to our new husky and human friends we knew there were only a few steps between us and finally getting out of South America, and finally getting on with our lives. We were homeward bound!