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$h!t and Run

$h!t and Run

Sled dog teams and their mushers recently crossed the Iditarod finish line in Nome completing a nearly 1000 mile journey across Alaska. Being pulled by running dogs with my hair flying in the breeze has been a dream of mine since the age of 8 when I thought it was a good idea to take our old English sheepdog out for a walk while wearing roller skates. For the record, it was not a good idea. Since that failed attempt to harness the power of a running dog, I thought a less injurious way to get that same sensation would be to try dog sledding. On our trip to Alaska, it was time to make that dream come true.

After researching various options for dog sledding, I quickly came to realize that during the summer, most dog sledding excursions use a wheeled sled. In my own crude way, I had already experienced the “joy” of being pulled along on wheels. I wanted the authentic experience of dog sledding on snow. The only way to do that in August would be to take a helicopter up to a glacier.

As soon as the helicopter cleared the ridge of the mountain, we were instantly transported to winter. The fact that it was foggy, drizzling and cold helped set the mood. During the summer months, the dogs are kept on the glacier so that they can continue their training. With 60 plastic, igloo-shaped dog houses clustered together, the glacier looked like doggy summer camp. Oregano and I expected the auditory assault of collective barking as soon as we landed, but the only sound we heard was from the rotors of the helicopter. Once it flew away, it was eerily quiet. 


Doggy summer camp on the glacier

The mushers introduced themselves then gave us the history of dog sledding in Alaska. They explained the different breeds of dogs used, how the dogs must be fed and cared for during training and during a race.  Because they run such long distances when racing, the mushers must put booties on each dog’s paws to protect them. If you’ve ever tried to put socks on a wriggling toddler you have some appreciation for what these mushers must do. Now imagine trying to accomplish this task on sixteen four-legged, wriggling toddlers while your hands are freezing cold. We had no idea how much was involved in running a dog sled race. It was fascinating.  

As the mushers patiently answered all of our questions, their assistants got the sleds out. Instantly, the calm erupted into a canine cacophony.

“The dogs LOVE to run,“  the musher yelled so we could hear him over the barking. “They know what the sound of the sleds means.”

Some of the dogs were standing on top of their igloos barking and howling. Their behavior reminded me of students in class yelling, “Pick me! Pick me!” Very quickly, the assistants selected the lucky winners who would get to go for a run and hooked them into position.

While the dogs were being harnessed, Mike the musher showed us the sleds. They are very light aluminum. The Flexible Flyer I used to sled down hills on the golf course after a snowstorm seemed a whole lot sturdier than the sleds they use to traverse Alaskan terrain.  At the back of the sled are narrow rails on which the musher must stand to balance himself and control the sled. Between those rails is a  flap of plastic they push down on the snow to cause drag and slow the sled. There is a small metal anchor that acts as a brake.  DSCF0134

Mike got us situated on the sled. I sat on a seat at the front. If I’m being honest, seat is a generous term for what I was actually sitting on. It was more like a butt-sized plank with a tiny bit of cushioning and handles on either side. Oregano stood behind me. The musher got on the rails all the way at the back and the assistant lifted the brake. Without the anchor holding them back, the dogs that had been straining against their harnesses began running. It was like being shot out of a cannon. I had always imagined it would be more of a gentle increase in speed. Not so.

From a distance, the dog sled looks like it glides smoothly. As we bounced and bumped over the uneven snow and ice with the sled sometimes listing to one side,  I was disabused of that romantic notion. I grabbed onto the handles on the sides of my tiny seat and held on tight.


This was soooooo much more fun than being pulled by my dog while wearing roller skates.

Mike mushed us around to the far side of the glacier and threw the brake in the snow. He complimented us for not flying off the sled. Apparently, many dog sledding newbies are easily tossed from the sleds when they first leave the camp. He snapped a few commemorative photos then he told us it was our turn to drive. He showed us the proper stance, how to steer and had us put our feet on the narrow metal runners. Braver than me, Oregano opted to drive first. As we were flying over the snow, I noticed cylindrical brown projectiles hurtling past me to the left and right. I  thought it was another unexpected hazard of dog sledding; rocks being kicked up by the dogs. As I looked around the mountain and the pristine snow of the glacier taking a moment to absorb where I was and what I was doing, it dawned on me that there aren’t rocks on top of the snow on a glacier. It wasn’t until I saw the “rocks” falling out of the business ends of the dogs in front of me that I realized it was flying feces. To my amazement, the dogs were shitting as they ran at full speed. There was no stopping to sniff around to select the perfect location. There was no spinning in place until just the right moment in time. These pups didn’t even break stride to poop. As a member of a species that sits and remains stationary to defecate, I was truly impressed by the dogs’ stamina and agility. The most I’ve ever accomplished while pooping was finishing a chapter of a book.

Oregano was driving at the back of the sled presumably trying not to fall off. I doubt he noticed the miracle of nature I was witnessing from my front row seat. Since the real musher was standing just behind me, I tilted my head back towards him, “Are those dogs really shitting while they’re running?” He could hear the awe in my voice.

“Yep,” the musher laughed at me. “We have 16 dogs on the team. We can’t stop running the race because one of them needs to pee or poop. We’d never get anywhere.”

As I bounced along the glacier with dung being flung past either side of my seat, I had a much deeper understanding of the axiom, “It’s good to be the lead dog.”


The reason it is good to be the lead dog…

Water Under the Bridge

Water Under the Bridge

The difference between bravery and stupidity often lies in the outcome of the undertaking. Ideas that seem good at inception often prove themselves to be significantly less than good in execution. Setting goals for yourself is a laudable endeavor, but when you are only focused on the end result, you often get swept up in the process. Oregano and I proved this theory while vacationing in the Florida Keys.

Neither one of us is particularly athletic, but we have been kayaking off the beach at our hotel for the past few winters. One year, we were kayaking in the warm, shallow water at a pretty good clip and were quite impressed with our paddling prowess.

“We’ve gotten a lot better at this,” I shouted over my shoulder to Oregano.

“Yeah. We are really in the zone. At this rate, I think we could actually make it to Duck Key,” he said pointing at the island directly in front of us.  

We were half way to our goal when common sense seeped into our consciousness. Upon more careful consideration, we determined that the next island looked closer than it actually was so we turned around. It wasn’t until we pointed the bow of the boat towards our island that we realized why we had the feeling of being such powerful paddlers. The strong headwind hit us smack in the face. The kayak was bouncing on the waves and we had to dig deep to make any forward progress. It was exhausting, but if we stopped paddling to rest, we were simply pushed back erasing all the progress our physical labor had produced. After an hour of slogging our way to a shoreline that never seemed to be getting any closer, we beached our kayak and I flopped, exhausted into a hammock.

“Well, I guess we’re not quite the paddlers we thought we were,” I said to Oregano while letting my rubbery arms dangle over the edge over the hammock.

“That paddle back was challenging and we did it, so I prefer to think of us as strong kayakers,” he replied.

“One might argue that strong, experienced kayakers would have realized they were being carried along by the wind and current rather than patting themselves on their backs for being so awesome,” I countered.

“Be that as it may,” Oregano said, “we were strong enough to paddle back safely. That counts for something.”

Chalking up that experience as a lesson learned, each year we’d try to explore a different area around our island. Not too far from our beach is a bridge for the Overseas Highway. More than once we had talked about paddling under the bridge which would take us from the calm Atlantic Ocean to the equally calm waters of Florida Bay.

Sitting on the dock one night, Oregano announced, “I think we should try to go under the bridge this year. We’ve gotten a lot better at paddling and it would be fun to explore the bay.” 


Our lofty goal was reaching the bridge in the distance.

“I don’t know,” I responded. “Just getting to the bridge seems like a long paddle. How much energy will we have left to explore the bay? We’d also still need to have enough umph to make it all the way back.”

“We’re strong enough to do it. We’re in a tandem kayak so we can take turns paddling if we get tired,” he said trying to persuade me.

It was an enticing idea, so we waited for a day when the winds were calm. (See, we had learned not to go on a windy day.) We set off from our beach full of vim and vigor.


a close up picture of the bridge from the kayak

As we approached the bridge, I turned back towards Oregano, “Are you sure we should do this?”  

Before he could respond, we got sucked into a current that pulled us under the concrete arches of the bridge. Our kayak spun around in circles as we got frighteningly close to the low sides of the arches. Instinctively, we put the paddles up to keep our heads from banging into the concrete. As we swirled around uncontrollably, we quickly reviewed our options before we didn’t have any.

“What do we do now?” Oregano asked, his voice echoing off the concrete arch.

“Well, we’ve got 3 options.” I responded. “We can protect our heads until we get dragged out into the bay then paddle to the edge, hoist the kayak out of the water and walk back across the road with it.”

“We’d have to cross the highway carrying the kayak and we’re barefoot. Next idea?” Oregano responded.

“We could abandon the kayak and swim back.” Oregano and I were both on the swim team and knew we were strong enough swimmers to make it back to shore.

“You hate swimming in the ocean with all the critters.” Oregano shot down that option as we continued being tossed around the whirlpool.  “What’s option 3?”

“Paddle like hell and hope we can push our way out of this swirling vortex of near death,” I shouted.

“Start paddling!” His answer reverberated off the bridge.

“Ok. Dig in! This is going to be quite a feat!” I said leaning forward to avoid smacking my head.

We paddled as hard as we could to get the kayak to move forward against the churning water as we laughed at our stupidity. After ten grueling minutes that seemed like an hour, we cleared the vortex. Once we were on flat water, we bobbed peacefully in the ocean to rest and reflected on our experience. 


We only noticed the swirling waters AFTER we got sucked into the current.

“Wow! We made it out of there!” Oregano said celebrating the not so small victory of emerging without concussions. “How did we not think about the current?”

“From the beach, the water looks calm. To be precise, we never really did commit to going under the bridge. We got sucked under it while we were deciding.We may have survived the swirling vortex of near death, but we still have to paddle all the way back to our beach. Let’s save the congratulations for when we are safely on land.”

Forty-five minutes later we arrived on our beach. Our arms and shoulders were a little worse for wear from the intense paddling, but the kayak, paddles and, more importantly, our skulls were still intact.

“See, I told you we could kayak all the way to the bridge and back. We reached the goal we set for ourselves,” Oregano said feeling a sense of accomplishment.

“If our goal was demonstrating our utter lack of understanding of ocean currents, then you are right. Goal achieved!” I gave him the look then dropped onto the nearest lounge chair and took a long nap.


At Least We Can See France from our Toilet

One of the allures of traveling is the chance to break out of the grind of daily life. Without the familiarity of surroundings or language, even the most mundane tasks become exotic and adventurous.

Several years ago Oregano and I wanted to visit friends who live in northern Italy, but the airfare to Italy was prohibitively expensive. After much investigating, we discovered that it was half the price to fly into Zurich then drive over the Alps into Italy. We’d never been to Switzerland so we decided to seize the opportunity, rent a car and explore the country en route to visit our friends. The more planning we did, the more excited we got about the idea of beautiful Alpine villages and cheese. The fact that we didn’t speak any of the four languages spoken in Switzerland was mildly disconcerting, but we’d find a way to manage with the remnants of my high school German, a phrase book and a lot of gesturing.

Our first week was spent in a tiny Alpine village in the German-speaking part of the country. Between the residents’ knowledge of English and my limited German, we managed quite nicely. Our true test would come in the French-speaking city of Lausanne on the shores of Lake Geneva. I can’t speak or read French and Oregano can barely understand someone who speaks English with a French accent. Our 3 days in Lausanne were going to be an interesting experience.

The Alpine village of Murren, Switzerland.

Knowing that this would be the most challenging part of our trip, I selected a hotel that had a central location and an English-speaking staff. Our GPS struggled to help us find our hotel among streets with names that were all “Rue du” something unpronounceable. As a result, we had an unplanned driving tour of the one way streets of Lausanne. When we finally arrived at the hotel, I walked up to the clerk at the front desk and offered a bright, cheerful, “Bon jour!”

The desk clerk gave me a friendly “bon jour” in return then began speaking in French. The majority of my French vocabulary was used up with my greeting, so I had no idea what he was saying. I waited for a pause and then asked in French if he spoke English. He replied with the universally understandable, “No,” and continued to prattle on in French. I smiled, gave him my credit card and waited until he handed me keys and pointed to an elevator.

“I thought you said you picked this hotel because of its central location and English-speaking staff,” Oregano said opening the door to our room. We were immediately distracted from our conversation when we noticed the view of Lake Geneva and across it, France and the French Alps.

“Well, it is centrally located,” I said hustling past him to get to the bathroom. “And, check this out, if you leave the bathroom door open, you can see France from the toilet. That wasn’t in the brochure.”

They didn’t speak English at our hotel in Lausanne, but the view from our toilet was impressive.

Since no one at the front desk could assist us, we were on our own to decipher the twisty streets and hills of Lausanne. We decided on a café and set out to find it. A quick right turn at the end of the street revealed the first of the many steep cobblestone streets we’d need to negotiate. After much huffing, puffing and map consultation, we were both stunned that we had successfully navigated our way to our destination. Truth be told, we were just about to give up and pick another café when we stumbled upon it. We congratulated ourselves for our small victory then walked towards the front door of the café only to discover that it wouldn’t open for another hour. Undeterred by this small obstacle, we sat near a fountain and discussed our options. We decided to wander around, admire the architecture and hope we could find our way back to this café. If not, we’d just choose another one.

After wandering the hills of Lausanne, we finally found the cafe.

I distracted myself from my hunger by shopping using a lot of pointing, gesturing and writing of numbers. After successfully purchasing earrings in a store that only accepted cash, we realized we only had 20 francs left. Fearing the café wouldn’t take credit cards either, we decided to find a cash machine. Surely in a country known for banking, there would be readily available, easily identifiable cash machines.

Thirty minutes more of hiking up and down the hills of Lausanne’s “Vieille Ville” (old town) and we had gotten a great tour of the city, but no more francs. Hot, tired, hungry and low on francs, we decided it was time to employ the assistance of one of the locals. We whipped out the handy-dandy French phrase book, but quickly realized that it has certain limitations. It is a wonderful resource for asking a question, but you are shit out of luck interpreting the answer to that question because you have no way to look up the response in the book.  Nevertheless, Oregano made a valiant attempt to ask the shop owner where a cash machine was. Taking pity on Oregano’s hideous French pronunciations, the man stepped out of his shop and pointed to a cash machine inconspicuously nestled into the architectural detail of a building we had passed no less than 3 times. With a grateful wave and “merci” to the shopkeeper, we dashed across to the cash machine.

Nervously, we stuck our card into the slot while saying a prayer to the Swiss ATM gods that we’d be able to successfully conduct our transaction without our card being swallowed by the machine. Our prayers were answered because we were given the option to conduct the transaction in English! We chose to withdraw 200 francs figuring we’d get a bunch of 20’s or other small bills, like we do at home.

Let me take a moment to explain Swiss paper currency. Unlike the uniformly sized and green U.S. dollar bills, Swiss francs are very colorful. The size of the bill varies by the denomination; the smaller the denomination, the smaller the actual size of the bill. So, when I say we were hoping for small bills, I meant it literally. To our great relief, our card spit back out into our waiting hands, but so too did a single, gigantic 200 franc bill; a bill so large that I needed to fold it into thirds to fit it into my wallet. Very large cash in hand, we headed back to our original dinner destination. Thanks to our unintentional walking tour of this section of Lausanne, we were able to return to the café without making any wrong turns.

Traveling is always a learning experience. Oregano and I learned a few lessons on that trip through Switzerland and Italy.

  1. Learning a few words in French only caused us more trouble. When we opened with “bon jour,” we had nowhere to go from there, but people assumed we could actually carry on a conversation.
  2. Mimes are not performance artists, but rather frustrated, desperate non-French speaking tourists attempting to communicate. Given a wardrobe change and some make-up, we could have easily been confused with mimes.
  3. Packing a sense of humor when traveling in a country where you don’t speak the language is almost as important as packing your passport.



The same view of Lake Geneva and the French Alps from the marina, not the toilet.
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