The heights around Phibsboro and Glasnevin were reported snowbound so I decided to head down to the Tesco post for my shopping. Bundled up warm and with boots coated in dubbin, I stepped out into snow powder whipped up by the icy wind. I had to close my eyes to slits when it blew against my face.
A whistle woke the dogs and they came out of their snow-holes, shaking themselves and trotting over. Handing out small pieces of meat which they wolfed down, I called Buck to follow me over to the sled, where he sat supervising while I put the other dogs in harness. They were eager to go, skittish, whining, tail-wagging, occasionally growling at a perceived trespass by a team-mate. Buck stared down the most fractious but ignored Bríd altogether. Lately she’d been getting at Buck, undermining him. I didn’t know what to do about it. I couldn’t put her in the lead as, apart from that reversing the problem, the team probably wouldn’t follow a bitch. A dog team is like a wolf pack – there can be a dominant male and a dominant female but in almost all cases the male is the lead, the top dog.
Heaving the sled to left and right a couple of times I broke it free of its ice, took the leads and, with my shouted “Mush!” we were off.
A little later, going down towards the frozen Tolka, I had to apply the brakes a little to ensure the sled didn’t run into the hindmost dogs. They all felt the drag and then the jolt as the left brake hit something hard frozen under the snow, canting the sled momentarily to one side. Buck looked back at me reproachfully. You think dogs can’t look reproachful? Many can … and Buck is a master at it.
“Sorry, Buck, couldn’t help it … couldn’t see it.”
But he was already turned away, his shoulder muscles bunched, pulling along, leading. We crossed the Tolka no trouble despite one of the hindmost dogs slipping for a moment, righting himself some what embarrasedly, continuing. The sled runners hissed from the snow, then a grating tooth-gritting high-pitched scraping and then a low hiss across the ice.
“Up boy, pull away!” I shouted but Buck was already bunching himself for the slope of the far bank, pulling steadily, all dogs in the traces pulling together. As soon as the sled was clear of the ice I jumped off and ran alongside it, one hand on the sled. As it gained the top of the bank, the dogs already over, I jumped back on and mushed them on to the Tesco post, the wind whipping ice powder towards me, sometimes higher than my head but often only at knee height.
There was another sled there, hitched to the rail outside the post, its dogs still in traces, huddled down against the wall. Swinging the team around by pulling on the leads, I got the sled in near the other dogs with my team furthest away. I didn’t want to come out to the aftermath of an argument between that team and mine.
Hitching the sled to the rail, I walked up to the front entrance, scraped the snow off my boot soles on the steel scraper and slapped it off where I could reach on my fleece-lined jacket. Opening the door, I stepped in quickly on to the mat and closed the door behind me.
Arnka Flaherty was on duty at the register and flashed me a smile.
“Fuar go leor duit?” I enquired.
“It is, yes it is cold enough,” she replied, still smiling, the blue eyes and curly hair looking a little out of place on her broad Inuit face. But her smile would light a dance hall.
I saw a few pairs of snowshoes by the door and guessed some customers had hiked it in. Not too bad really at the moment with snow only a foot to two feet deep most places, though in some hollows you might sink up to your waist in drifts.
Bart was there, a big Dutchman from over Santry way, as I already knew. I’d recognised his sled and some of his dogs outside.
“Bart”, I nodded.
“Diarmuid,” he nodded back.
“Looks like getting worse,” I said.
“Yes, says on the Internet.”
“Best get supplies in then, right?”
So saying, we went about our separate business. In that little exchange, we had enquired without the exact words about one another’s mental and physical health, whether we each had enough fuel and food. And said that we cared about one another and would help, were it needed.
Going through the aisles picking up my items I nodded to the other customers, a spry old woman who must have snowshoed in and two young students from the college not far away, a male and a female, perhaps a couple, perhaps not. Their winter clothes looked on the expensive end of the range.
I picked up some tins of fish (though I might catch some fresh later, hole-fishing through the Tolka ice), frozen meat for the dogs, a bag of tatties and a smaller one of rice, a parcel of briquettes, a bag of porridge oats and laid them in front of Arnka. Then I went back for milk powder, beet sugar, frozen butter, olive oil, frozen greens and a butane cylinder.
Arnka raised her eyebrows at the latter. “Where’s the empty?” she queried.
“I forgot and left it at home. I’ll bring it in tomorrow. I promise.”
She said nothing and started to tot up my account. Perhaps she minded, perhaps not. It was hard to tell with Arka. I paid, bid her slán on my second trip outside with the last of my supplies, waving to Bart and to the old lady on the way.
Outside, the wind had died down below but up above the clouds were moving fairly fast, leaving a clear starlit night. Beautiful but cold and soon to get colder. The dogs were already on their feet, shaking themselves, some whining. I loaded up the sled, pulled by scarf across my nose and mouth and we mushed back homeward, the dogs glad of the exercise and knowing they’d be fed soon. We crossed the Tolka ice, now glittering in the starlight or ghostly shining in places and up the opposite bank, the dogs straining, me pushing the heavy sled this time and trying not to slip ….
Then clear and pulling away up the rise into Drumcondra proper and soon to be home. Hot food and warmth for me, defrosted meat for the dogs and their own holes in the snow, curled up inside and soon warm with the snow piling up around them.