Marcelo dog trailer

Marcelo Riquelme Rio Gallegos

It was July, the middle of winter. Above 8,000 feet Marcelo Riquelme’s aging Jeep Wagoneer would shudder, balk and buck like a raw horse then stall on any steep upgrade if he had not shifted down to first gear fast enough. There were many such slopes on the roads around Aconcagua, Los Penitentes, Puenta del Inca, Los Colorados, Portillo, and Las Lenas on the border between Chile and Argentina where we were prospecting for mushing terrain on a new continent.

We had the routine established: Marcelo Riquelme, Veterinario Medico and the first musher in Chile in the semi-modern era, stomped on the brake and shifted into neutral while I jumped out to find a rock the right size to block one of the rear wheels. He could then crank the starter and have one foot on the clutch and the other on the accelerator pedal. Without the rock to block the wheel he would have needed a third foot to step on the brake and could not pump the accelerator at the right moment.

I recall my 1941 Chevy pickup, a tarnished beauty but still functioning in many ways better than newer technology. It had a starter button and a pull cable for the throttle, another for the choke. They would have been very useful in 1998 with Marcelo’s Wagoneer.

It required skill and foresight to drive vehicles like those. Park facing downhill to be able to roll, then pop the clutch after any long stop. Pour water on the gas line if the weather was hot and the fuel system vapor locked. If syncromesh was shot or did not exist into low gear, it required the venerable double clutch maneuver to shift gears. No antifreeze and at high altitude the radiator lost a lot of water so we needed to cautiously and frequently add more before the engine fried.

That reminds me of my own experience twenty years before that of having a similar toolbox of tricks for winter driving with old vehicles. No electricity for an engine block heater meant that I would drain most of the antifreeze coolant mix into jugs and bring them into the house overnight to warm up on the wood stove in the morning. Failing that I would shovel coals from the wood stove into a metal pan then slide that under the motor to preheat the engine. But that was much slower than draining, heating the water/antifreeze mix, and refilling the radiator.

Gas line antifreeze and windshield scrapers were apparently unknown in those regions of South America, an unfortunate deficit especially a few weeks later and a thousand miles farther south in the year of the Terremoto Blanco, the white earthquake as they called it when they had unexpected record snowfall and devastating cold in Patagonia. (100,000 sheep died in the disaster.) Until I brought my own scrapers on other trips the best substitute I had was a credit card. The cost of ethanol without the extra taxes we pay in the Northern Hemisphere would have made that a good gas line antifreeze except for the low proof. What good to add vodka that is already half water?

The dogs were in sky kennels in the back of the Wagoneer and a few more in the funky little trailer. How many dogs? A dozen I think it was… enough for two teams, one for each of us to race in Ushuaia, Puerto Natales and the other projected stages in the new event, Integracion Patagonica.

Despite the conditions in the far south, some of the ski areas in the cordillera, the Andes to the east of Santiago had too little or no snow. Global climate change was already showing its ugly head. At Portillo, the first ski resort in South America existing since the 1950s was not very active when we were there. Across the road there was enough snow to keep the Chilean mountain troops busy in their training and drilling beside the main highway between Santiago and Buenos Aires. We had made initial contact with them on the way over to explore in Argentina, so when we came back we spent a day demonstrating dog mushing to the troops.

Marcelo’s degree and title, and our combined oddity gave us officer equivalent status, but some of the low ranking soldiers were the most fascinated by the sled dogs. When we did anything with the dogs outside the formal organized demonstration periods we were surrounded by GIs in their olive green uniforms chatting with us and among themselves, asking questions about the dogs, offering to help in any way. It was not the usual system but for everyones benefit I got out a few leashes to let the dogs be escorted by soldiers on short walks around the parking lot.  They were astonished but delighted how the dogs tried to pull them off their feet. The enthusiasm and curiosity of the young enlisted men was no different from school children not embarrassed to show it.

One of the soldiers picked up a dog turd nugget in his bare hand and said to me, muy bueno. La mierda, I said, wondering if he knew what he was holding. (The Eukanuba regional sales chief had staked us food for the trip.) Of course! The soldier explained that he was a farm boy accustomed to judging the quality of feed and the health of animals by their shit.

This has been traditional wisdom for centuries. Three simple and obvious criteria for judging an animal’s health: appetite, coat, shit.

Another trip to Chile, the newspaper headlines were about the disaster in the mountains near Portillo. During an Outward Bound type survival exercise the weather had turned deadly. Rain followed by wind and extreme cold overnight had killed a dozen Andino mountain troop trainees dug into separate snow trench shelters.

The newspapers carried criticism of the officers that they had abandoned the trainees in dangerous conditions. The purpose of the training to prepare them for such a test; was it the training and more likely the clothing and equipment that played a large part in the disaster?


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