Hairy power in a white Wyoming

togwotee dogs 1

Photo: Continental Divide Dogsled Adventures

The dogs are howling like demented wolves. They are tethered to iron stakes driven into the frozen earth and seem as cursed a bunch of critters as ever was sired. Their howling shatters the morning peace in upcountry Togwotee in the state of Wyoming. 

Yet despite this tumult and their wild-eyed, scrawny appearance these noisy mutts are as happy and as fit as can be. Each dog is capable of running 150 kilometres a day, for days on end, in temperatures low enough to freeze bone marrow. The only thing they abhor is being left out of the team, missing the action. Hence their anguished lament, which translates as “Me! Me! Me!” 

The dogs have names like Junkyard, Sweetheart, Vodka and Six-pack. Many have odd-coloured eyes; one blue, the other brown, or maybe yellow or possibly green. Each dog is formed of compact muscle and tight sinew. None carry an excess gram of fat. All are pure-bred “Springsteens”, literally born to run.


Photo: The Mountain

Amid all this noise, dog-driver Billy Snodgrass and his two handlers Dave and Esty select their sled teams. “You won’t be able to hear me talk for a while, not until we’re well under way,” says Billy.

“They’ll make such havoc you won’t believe, and they won’t stop ’til we’re some distance gawn. And I dunno quite where that’ll be … because they’ll just run like mad.” 

With a yell of Awright! he tugs the sled anchor from the ground and with a snatch-and-jerk we leap forward and begin bolting across white fields of snow. The dogs left behind in the kennels are howling their dismay. Those in front of me, pumping iron to pull us along, are baying with glee.

What Billy has failed to tell me is I may not be able to breathe for a while. As we gather speed the dogs burns up calories …. and begin expunging gas. For the first minutes of our headlong dash I ride a slipstream of noxious odours powerful enough to melt the frost off my balaclava. Meanwhile Billy is steering, standing behind me on the rear of the sled and laughing out loud.


Riding the exhaust plume – Photo: Blair Waller

We power along a trail cut through the white wilderness, cracking a screaming pace downhill then dropping back to a working trot on inclines. Occasionally Billy brings us to a halt  “so the dogs can cool off.” It’s dire cold sitting in the sled so I ask to try my hand at steering, or mushing as it’s called.

Now this ain’t easy. Mushing is an art learned over time. When when going uphill I must balance one foot on a runner and drive my other foot into the snow to assist the dogs. I must lean correctly into turns and sharply shift my weight as we slide into bends.

Soon I’m left lying in the snow while the sled hurtles into the distance. Billy stops his dogs and waits for me to catch up. As I approach all the dogs turn their heads in unison and flash me wicked grins, their red tongues hanging loose. It’s a look of glee that says ‘Gotcha!’

 #  Togwotee (pronounced Tog-R-Tee) is north of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It’s a snowbound playground in winter with 13 metres or more of the finest powder snow falling annually on the Togwotee Pass. 

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A lament for Timbuktu

Who hasn’t dreamed of going to Timbuktu? When I was young this name alone stood for somewhere exotic and far, far away. For me certainly, and I would guess for many others, Timbuktu was the last word in adventurous travel. But these days Timbuktu is on my mind for all the wrong reasons, ever since 2012 when Tuareg rebels occupied this ancient town in central Mali and set about destroying many of its ancient shrines and mausoleums.

This cultural ransacking was reportedly renewed with even greater fervour as a reaction to subsequent French military support for the besieged Mali government. Right now things remain in limbo.

Read this latest report:  Timbuktu slowly turning to dust

All the above paints a dire future for what was once a fabled caravanserai and, for centuries, a centre of Islamic learning. It’s now highly unlikely I’ll ever go to Timbuktu. But in compensation Mali came to me in the form of enchanting Malian singer-guitarist Rokia Traoré.

She and her fellow musicians weave sinuous, soulful music. Such was the magical ambience of this graceful artist’s performance, I was transported to distant lands, mesmerised by the urgent, complicated, ever-shifting rhythms of Africa.

I’ve long been a fan of Malian music and admirer of Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keita, Toumani Diabaté, Oumou Sangaré and others. But being able to see, hear and and be deeply moved by Rokia Traoré in my home town was a special experience made all the more poignant by the situation existing in her own country.

Nothing brings people together as effectively as fine music. Nothing unites people more than travel, in both the physical and mental sense

Listen to this wonderful artist.

More about Rokia Traoré