Piancavallo: Dogsled experience awaits in northern Italy
Stars and Stripes March 4, 2008
Jack London's "The Call of the Wild," a tale of dog sledding in Alaska, was mandatory reading for many U.S. schoolchildren.
But airmen don't need to be stationed someplace such as Elmendorf Air Force Base to experience getting whisked across snowy ground by a pack of eager canines. It's also possible — as long as the snow lasts — just a few minutes from Aviano Air Base in Italy.
The Antartika association has been offering rides to tourists in Piancavallo since 2002. This winter, the agency hooked up with the base's outdoor recreation center, allowing those stationed on base to schedule and pay for a session ahead of time.
Stephen Foster, Jillian Foster and Andrei Mills, all senior airmen on base, and McCamy Mills did just that recently.
"I didn't think dog sledding would be an option (in Italy)," McCamy Mills said. "It's like something you see in a movie."
Or read in a book.
"It was one of my favorite books when I was younger," Jillian Foster said of London's classic story of Buck and his transformation from a pet in California to a lead dog in Canada.
Dog sledding in Piancavallo is a bit tamer than the sometimes grisly business depicted in the book. The dogs generally seem to get along with each
other and their guests and visitors are more likely to see the "call of nature" during a run on the course.
In spite of a dog or two who clearly felt that urge while guiding his sled along, Stephen Foster said he had a good time.
"I thought it was going to be longer," he said. "I'll probably come back and do a longer one. I enjoyed it."
The four Americans went on the short course. And they almost didn't get a chance for that. Eda Pizzolon, the association director, held off running the dogs because the sun was making the snow too soft. The dogs didn't seem to share her concern. Once the personnel started unpacking the sleds, dozens of dogs began running around in circles, barking a chorus of "pick me."
"It's their life," Pizzolon said through a translator. "It's what they're born for: running."
The association has 52 dogs in its kennels. Most are Alaskan Malamutes, huskies from Alaska or Siberia or cross breeds.
The dogs live in the kennels year-round. They pull sleds only for a few months during the year when there's enough snow on the ground. At other times, they're teamed up with visitors in dog trekking - where an individual dog pulls an individual human around mountain trails.
Pizzolon said the association is trying to organize a dog sled race this month, but more snow is needed to prolong the season through Easter.
On the QT ...Directions: Piancavallo is about 20 minutes from Aviano Air Base via a narrow road (that's currently being widened) into the Dolomites. The Antartika building is near the ice skating rink in town. Take a right after entering the rink's parking lot and walk about a block.
During the winter, the association offers rides daily except on Mondays, depending on weather conditions. If temperatures are too warm, the snow gets mushy and the sleds don't work properly. Rides can be booked for specific times at the outdoor recreation office on base. It's also possible to show up and ask to book a ride if you have the patience to wait and the necessary Italian language skills.
Costs: Through outdoor recreation, a short ride on the 1.5-kilometer course costs 13 euros a person (about $20). The dogs move quickly, so a run around the course will take about 5 minutes. Depending on weather (and dog) conditions, longer options might be available on a given day, with costs at about 23 auras for a 2.5-kilometer course and 45 euros for a 6-kilometer course (book in advance). It's a few euros cheaper if you don't go through the base, but none of those involved in running the program speak much English.
Information: The easiest way to get details and book a trip is to call outdoor recreation on base (DSN 632-8623). For those who speak Italian (or Spanish), Eda Pizzolon can be reached at 329-007-78989 or via e-mail: email@example.com. Its Web site is: www.antartikaclub.com.
For those interested in learning how to operate their own dog sled, the association offers a five-day course. For 400 euros, students will get about 20 hours of individual instruction. Also featured is a 50-kilometer trip that includes an overnight stay with the dogs. Those completing the course get a certificate that's recognized internationally.
— Kent Harris