When I turned into the car park, parked up, and killed the lights, I remembered why I’d brought the torch. Where seconds before my headlights had illuminated many cars, all I could now see was blackness. There was no ambient light, and my torch was in the boot. I had to put my headlights back on just to get the torch. I knew from the number of cars that it was going to be busy, but the night was quiet and still, like before a storm hits. With my torch’s pinpoint beam guiding me past hidden forest dangers, I started the five minute walk to the starting area.
A forest at night is darker than the black heart of Hannibal Lecter. Walking down the muddy, stone-strewn path the only things to punctuate the void were the occasional bobbing lights strapped to people’s heads. When they got really close you’d see a wolf-like creature padding silently along, sometimes two or three, one ocasionally straining to smell something invisible to us. These are Siberian Huskies, one of the most ancient breeds of working dog, as beautiful as they are independently minded, born with a desire to hunt and a need to run. These early encounters were enough to make me catch my breath, but to see them in harness pulling a 3-wheeled rig is like watching Olympic athletes sprinting to glory.
Buoyed by seeing more Huskies than I usually do all year, the sounds started to arrive at my ears, softened by the trees, but unmistakeable: Huskies were howling their intent. You hear them long before you see them, the sound travelling through the night, louder and louder the closer you get. And then, caught in the torch beam you see the lights reflected back at you, the lights from a Husky’s eyes. Staring back at you, silent and still, with their warm breath sometimes vanishing into the coldness of the air. But there isn’t just one, there’s a whole team. As you walk past you realise there are many Huskies staked out on a line, watching the people watching them, quite and patient. Some are startlingly beautiful, with their piercing blue eyes, and others give you no more notice than you would a 360 owner asking for help.
Then you notice that these aren’t the dogs making the noise.
But up ahead, in the light cast by generator-powered lights, you can see many more people and the noise has gone up a notch. This is the start. This is where you see the Husky doing what it was bred to do, doing what’s as natural to it as breathing. And, finally, the full force of their call can be heared. At once magically musical and an assault on the senses, it’s harsh and primitive and absolutely full of a fierce desire to be free to run.
Standing as close to the start as I can without getting in the way, I’m ready to witness – again and again – the most exciting part of Husky racing. The start is where you see the Husky’s athletic power and desire merged into a ten second sight that leaves you awed. It’s the 4-dog class that is up and what dogs they are.
Consisting of a 3-wheeled rig and 4 Huskies, a team is led to the start by at least 5 people. That’s the musher and two people to hold the rig in place, and two more people to hold the dogs in place, before the official start. The dogs are in various stages of hysteria. Some of them jump as high as their harnessing allows, which is several feet off the ground, as the handlers try in vain to stop them. Howling, barking, whirling dervishes they are – they just want to run. Pulling and straining, they are so desperate to go that the 2-minute interval during which they are forced to wait must be tortuous for them. The raw power they exhibit is an eye-opener – 15-stone men struggle to keep these dogs in place.
Then the countdown. 5-4-3 – and the dogs know, they know what this means, they pull even harder – 2 – the musher shouts at them and the dogs look to be almost ripping apart the ropes that hold them – 1 – the increased excitement sets off the team’s still waiting, and the noise is loud and violent and mesmerising – GO!
Sheer power is released and 4 dogs rocket away, pulling a metal rig and a person like they’re nothing, like they’re a feather riding on candyfloss. The dogs turn all that pre-race excitement into a pulling power you can’t fathom, sprinting like Usain Bolt, screaming away into the night, as happy as they can ever be. For fifteen minutes they’ll guide the musher at speed round a darkened forest, lit only by the rig’s spotlight and guided by instructions from the driver. They are dogs, they are athletes, they are inspiring. If we could live as they do, with a joy for life so uncomplicated, wouldn’t we all be as happy?
And for me that’s the magic. That’s why Huskies hold a place in my life that I can’t really explain, but every time I see them I get the same feeling.
I hope from reading this you have too.