Friday, February 19, 2010

World Cup In Canmore

Kim and I left the house early morning on Friday the 5th of February. I had cancelled school to be able to volunteer at the World Cup but it didn’t really bother me… When we arrived we went to the volunteer center to check in. Here I got a very official nametag to put around my neck. There were also toques and some other free stuff for the volunteers, which I received happily. Next we went to the head quarter of the volunteers. It was also here, behind some sound isolated walls that the television commentators were talking out to audiences all over the world. After eating a couple of muffins there was a little briefing where everybody was told what they had to do. My job was to take off the transponders as soon as the athletes came in from their race. The transponder is the little automatic string that the athletes wear around their ankles and which is measuring the skier’s time.

After the briefing it was time to get ready with the snow pants. It wasn’t freezing out there but since it wasn’t us who were going to be skiing, the snow pants were not a bad idea! I came out and went to the finish line where I would be serving my duty. Kim was the starter and was getting instructions from some guys from Switzerland that was in charge of the timing. Soon the first ladies started to go to the start line to get their transponders on and to do their warm up. I was just watching the whole thing and taking pictures of it all. A couple of minutes later Kim send off the first skier and the long distance races had begun!

While Kim was sending off skiers with 30 seconds interval I was getting ready to receive the first ladies coming in. It happened after about 30 minutes after the first skiers had been send off and soon I was down on my knees taking transponders off the ankles of the skiers. According to the hardness of those skiers’ legs they were pretty fit… Most of them were going to the Olympics in Vancouver too so I guess that’s a useful skill. After taking off about 70 transponders from the ladies ankles it was time for a little break. There was time to go get a bag of lunch before the men started to move closer to the start line. The sun was shining and I was starting to get jealous about the fact that the pro guys were allowed to ski and I wasn’t. But it was exciting to see the athletes showing how to do “real” cross country skiing!

Soon Kim send off the first man on the course and the show was running again. I was catching all the good photos and before I knew of it the first guy came in from his 15 kilometer skate ski. Doing it in about 40 minutes I was stunned! Now I have realized that those guys’ bodies are more machines than actual bodies… Anyways I started the work with taking off the transponders as the guys came in. After a while the last skier had passed me and without really realizing it I had been close to the very best cross country skiers in the world! It was kind of weird to think about since I didn’t know any of the guys I was taking the transponders off. Anyways, soon I had done my job and as the winner was found (it turned out to be some Italian guy) me and Kim went up to the volunteer head quarter to collect our stuff and get going back to Bragg Creek.

After a nice sleep I woke up and got ready for the Saturdays sprints. My job today was not to take care of transponders. Instead I was the “false start controller” which meant that if there was a false start, my job would be to simply jump on the trail in front of all the skiers and wave with a big red flag until they stopped. A quite exciting job on the paper but when we arrived and Kim started shooting off the sprints I realized that professional skiers almost never make a false start… After a ton of sprints that included crashes and Swedish winners my job was complete. We started to pack up our stuff and after a hot chocolate we were on our way to downtown Canmore. Foothills Nordic Ski Club had a trailer on Main Street full of skis so that everybody could come and try cross country skiing. This would have been quite confusing if it hadn’t been for the fact that Main Street was covered with 20 centimeters of snow! A very local snowstorm had covered Main Street and nothing else in snow. The trailer was popular and there were lots of kids that wanted to try out skiing. Together with Vince, Darren and a lot of other skiers in the club, I assisted the kids on snow as well as I was able to considering my 4 months of practice. It went very well and at the end of the day there had been about 100 people at the trailer trying to ski. I spent the rest of the day in Canmore with Darren, Vince and Stephanie (a girl from foothills). I slept over at Darren’s hotel room in Canmore and the next day we went for a ski before Vincent gave me a ride back to Bragg Creek.

It was an awesome weekend and it was quite inspiring to see professional skiers do what they do!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Dog Sledding In Ontario

Thursday on January the 28th I left Calgary in the morning. Kim drove me to the airport and helped me on a plane with my big duffel bag. After four hours on the plane I landed in Toronto Airport. I hadn’t been there since I arrived to the country and soon I was thinking about how fast time had gone by. I realized that I’m already halfway through my year as exchange student in Canada and it kind of scared me…

Anyways, in the airport Emily who is working at the YFU office was waiting for me together with a girl named Veronica from Venezuela who had just landed from New Brunswick. She and I were the only students who had flown in from other places than Ontario to go on the dog sled trip. We found Emily’s car and drove away toward the office in Kitchener. Emily had some work to do but soon we left the office and headed towards Emily’s home where we were going to spend the night before driving to Monkton the next morning. After a good night of sleep we were on our way towards Monkton which was a two hour drive north. We arrived and were welcomed by all the other exchange students who live in the area around Monkton and the rest of Ontario. We started the orientation that was the second purpose of my trip. We talked about our exchange so far and what was coming up for about an hour before the bus was ready to leave. We got onboard and made ourselves comfortable before the bus left Monkton heading out for a 5 hour drive north to Algonquin Park.
We arrived at the hotel where we were going to spend the night at 8.30 in the evening. After some pizza we prepared ourselves for the upcoming days in the wilderness and went to bed.

When we woke up next morning it was -32 degrees outside. Not really the temperature we were looking for but it was told that it would get warmer during the day. We ate some breakfast and got onboard the bus for the little drive to the head quarter of the expedition company that was taking care that none of us would die in the wild… After a short instruction we left the head quarter to drive just a little further to the place where all the dogs were. When we arrived the sight that met us was quite extraordinary. About 400 plastic barrels were arranged in rows all over the field and outside, chained to the ground, dogs were walking around. We were arranged with a partner so that there were two persons on each sled. My partner was a Belgian girl and soon we had packed our sled. Now to the next point, we pushed all the sleds on the road and tied them up to trees in the side of the road. Now it was time to get the dogs. One of our guides gave each of us a name of a dog and pointed at which row we would find the dog. And then it was just to go grab them in the collar, come bag, give them a harness on before attaching them to the so called ‘gang line’ in front of the sled. Soon all the sleds were hooked up and ready to go and one after one a guide released the sled from the tree and off we went! Soon we were in a nice line down the road and with a guide in front to show the way it was just to follow the sled in front. After the top of the excitement had worn off we went from ordinary road to some sort of gravel road. I must admit the dog’s strength hadn’t really impressed me that much but as the hours went by and the dogs just kept the same pace I really started to admire them. It would be nice with such stamina in a ski race. Anyways the names of my sleds dogs were: Marge and Myra as lead dogs, Jury and Tansy as point dogs and Fallon and Juno as wheel dogs. After a while I could simply not resist to make the Santa Trick and yell: “Go Myra, go Marge, go Jury, go Tansy, go Fallon and go Juno!”

After about five hours of running we reached the camp and it was time to put the dogs on long chains between the trees and get a fire going. There were stationary tents with stoves so we only had to worry about cutting down something to burn.

Almost everybody was divided into two groups and off we went to cut down a tree. My group ended up cutting down two trees and after about an hour we returned to the camp and started sawing logs out. Another group of people fed the dogs and even another group was preparing the dinner. Fortunately it didn’t take long before the food was ready and we all gathered in the big warm tent for dinner. After a desired meal there was still some wood to cut and we were all quite exhausted when it was time to go to bed that night. After a nice night of sleep we woke up the next morning and got some breakfast going for both ourselves and the dogs. After all the chores were done and the dogs attached to the sleds we took off again. We left in two groups and went in opposite direction on a loop so that we would meet midway. Since we were coming back to the camp to stay over for the night, our bags had been left in the tent and our sleds were empty except for the person who was not standing in the back controlling the sled.

After some sledding on big wide paths the trails narrowed in and I had to be cautious as I was standing in the back. Soon I was surprised by a tree that apparently didn’t intend to move. We hit it and stopped right away. After some dragging and pushing we were free again and could follow the sled in front of us as if nothing had happened. After a couple of hours we met the other group and passed them. A little while after we stopped for lunch. We attached the sleds to trees in the side and tipped the sled. After eating my sandwich I realized that out wheel dog Juno in the back of the group of our dogs also had been chewing on something. The problem was that it was his harness and now he needed a new one. I told one of the guides who fortunately had another harness in his sled. After changing the harness on Juno we were ready to continue. We went on for another couple of hours before the guides in front decided that we needed some extra wood for the fire. We stopped and chopped some trees down and loaded the logs on the sleds. After that little intermission we went on for another hour or so before we were back at the camp. Our dog team had been really strong and I was once again impressed by their strength.

We took the dogs off the ‘gang line’ and attached them to the chain between the trees where there was some hay waiting for them to lie on. We fed the dogs, cut some wood and ate some dinner. After that it was time for a little walk in the moonlight along the creek. When we returned we started up a bonfire and drank some hot apple cider. A pretty nice way to end the day. Even though it was only 9 o’clock we decided to turn out the fire and go to the sleeping bags and get some rest before the last day of dog sledding back to the headquarter. We woke up next morning and got some breakfast. We were even starting to be able to smell the aroma of dog and smoke hanging on us so I guess it was good timing to turn around and go back to civilization. We fed the dogs and packed our stuff before we tied it to our sleds. When we were all ready we started hooking the dogs up to the sleds and soon the first group was off. My group, number two, was ready to leave the camp in Algonquin Park soon after and off we went with six dogs dragging all our stuff and ourselves.
We rode for a couple of hours before we reached the big wide roads again and started a race on the last kilometer of the way. My Belgian partner and I not to mention our powerful dogs reached the head quarter first and thereby won the last honor that was available on the trip. We started releasing the dogs from the sleds and dragged them to their little barrel. I was quite impressed by the fact that the guides can actually remember all 380 dogs’ names… Soon the sleds were free and in their spot. We loaded our stuff on the bus and drove back to the office of our guides where a nice meal of chili con carne was waiting for us. After changing clothes and filling out an evaluation form with the words: “Awesome guys!!!” we said bye to our guys and started the 5 hour drive back to Monkton.

We arrived in Monkton at 8.30 and emptied the bus. Now it was time to say bye to everybody. It feels kind of weird to say: “See you in 5 months!” but that’s how it works. I ended up spending the night at the house of an YFU volunteer with two other exchange students. Next morning Veronica from Venezuela and I were picked up by Emily again who took us on the two hour drive back to Toronto where we were flying from later. When we arrived to the airport Emily got us checked in and soon I had said goodbye to Veronica too and took off from Toronto Airport on my way back to Calgary. After a four hours flight which equals one movie + 3 episodes of Friends + some jazz radio, I landed in Calgary and was welcomed by my dear host mom. After the one hour drive to Bragg Creek I was finally home after 12 hours travelling from Algonquin Park.

It had been an awesome experience and it had been just as nice to see all the other exchange students too. I wonder if I will ever try dog sledding again. If not I will always remember this trip!