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Dogsled races are a surefire memory trigger to my early childhood.
Growing up in Montreal in the 1960s, my family developed a very close friendship with Roberto & Jovita Gill, Spanish expats originally from the Basque country in northern Spain, who then lived in the Laurentians near Saint Sauveur. That region of the province of Quebec, wasn’t as well connected to Montreal as it is today, and not owning a car, we would often travel by bus to spend weekends or extended visits, be it in summer or winter.
As children seldom are, I wasn’t aware at the time, of just how profoundly the experiences we were introduced to, would shape my outlook on life. Rural Quebec, at that time, was very isolated and in many ways very rustic, but for young children, our connection to La Ferme and surrounding mountains, streams and fields, was an intimate and wonderful playground and education. Free-range children to the core.
When we weren’t exploring the natural world we were helping with chores, tending to the vegetable garden, feeding the livestock, mucking out stalls or collecting eggs from the chicken coop. I’m eternally grateful for the introduction we received, to where our food comes from, the labour involved, and the care and respect for the animals and everything that sustains us all.
Now, while we were running around outside, the woman folk were preparing wonderful meals, indoors, and the men were doing most of the heavy work outdoors. That’s just the way it was. However, we still have Super 8 film of all the men and woman gathering the hay behind a horse-drawn mower and wielding pitch forks as they loaded the golden harvest on to the back of the farm truck.
Lucky for us, the horses weren’t strictly beasts of burden. I learned to ride a horse before I ever rode a bicycle and like so much learned in childhood, it’s like… well falling off a bike. One never forgets how and it feels so natural.
Along with the mixed farm operation that Roberto and Jovita looked after, they also raised dogs. They had a contract with the Montreal Police Department to supply them with German Sheppards, and they also raised and raced Siberian Huskies.
Farm operations may have slowed down as the temperatures dropped, but for us, it simply signalled the beginning of an idyllic winter wonderland. I got my first pair of skiis when I was two, and since the skidoo wasn’t introduced until 1960, snow also meant harnessing the Huskies. Once there was a solid covering of snow on the ground, it wasn’t unusual for Roberto to meet our bus, where the farm-lane met the paved road, with a team of Huskies pulling a long sleigh. He’d load our baggage up, and anyone too short to clear the snow, and head back to the farm house.
All these images are etched in my mind and even the suggestion of a sight, sound or smell will trigger memories so vivid I’m taken right back. All these years later, I still look for any opportunity to attend Dogsled Races, and for anyone that hasn’t experienced a Derby, add it to your bucket list.You will never see a happier gathering of animals. The howling and jumping will put a smile on even the most winter weary spectator.
La Ferme is responsible for my connection to the natural world and my unbridled desire to share the Way I See everything, through my photographs.
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