Last December I was lucky enough to have one of the most exhilarating travel experiences of my life: five days learning how to mush my own pack of huskies in the near perpetual darkness of a Norwegian winter. You can read a snapshot of the trip here, but I can’t let the story go without mentioning one of the dogs that seems to have left an indelible impression on me.
My sledding teacher Stian has 23 dogs, all of which are precious to him, both as working dogs and as canine companions, but he has one dog that he treats differently.
Varg is the king of dogs. Part wolf, part husky, part Alsatian he towers above the other dogs, lupine eyes watching as the females flutter around him and the other male dogs practically bow in deference.
There’s something almost ghostly about him, although his relationship with Stian is purely human in nature.
Varg was Stian’s lead dog on his sled but one day, during a heavy snow storm he got injured. His back is now twisted and he can no longer run for miles without limping. Instead of racing at the head of the sled he stays behind when Stian takes the other dogs running. He is one of the only dogs allowed into Stian’s cabin at night where he sits, regal and proud, deigning to let you stroke his impossibly soft fur, resting his head or paw against Stian and gazing up with a curiously haughty mixture of respect, dominance and adoration.
He is, without doubt, Stian’s favourite dog. They have that unique relationship of old friends, of one man and his dog:
Old eyes, blue on blue.
One glassy, black-ringed and bright like a winter sky
One twitching and hooded, swollen with the cold
One is a lion, sphinx, a ghost
One is a wall of muscle, a beast
Their love forged in snow and sinew. In the rushing wind and the whine and the whimper.
The growl and the thunder that rasps across the frozen air, torn from throats, red raw and heaving.
Respect born on the run, on flashing feet and the thud of heavy boots in the pulse of flesh and fur
Of wool and rope of ice and metal, of broken bone of split skin, flayed and yawning
Young hands on old paws.
Stubby, dirt-covered and worn, searching along the silk of a back that’s twisted and used.
Old friends, old wounds, old blood, deep and alive. One man and his dog.