As the dog sledding guides love to say: mushing is a sport, not an activity. Unless you are on a guide-driven sled, don’t expect to just sit and enjoy the ride.
Tom and I went on a four-hour tour with Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours this past weekend. We had been told ahead of time that we would be driving our own sled, rather than riding on a sled with a guide. That was fine by us. We prefer it that way, in fact–to be active rather than passive. What we didn’t know was how physically challenging driving a sled would prove to be. Wonderfully so, but still unexpected.
Tom and I were on a sled together (usually there are three to a sled), so one of us had to ride and one had to drive. We had a team of six dogs, with Athos and Benilli as leads. The next two dogs were an orange dog named Attitude (we named him that, for reasons that will become clear, though his real name, Boss–which we discovered at the end of the ride–also suits him) and Lamby, followed by the Twins (one of whom we called Runs, and not because he moved quickly).
All of the passengers with Snowy Owl tours found their own way to the offices in Canmore (though I think some arrangements can be made for pickup at hotels), and then were bused a few miles up toward Three Sisters Hydro Power Station, where we disembark and meet our guides and dog crews. The dogs were so excited to be hitting the trail that were greeted by a fabulous chorus of barks and howls as they told the world that they were soon to be underway.
A guide explained the fundamentals of dog sledding to all of us (yell “Hike” rather than “Mush” when you want them to run, yell “Whoa” and step on the brake with both feet to stop them, lean into turns, praise the dogs, etc.), and demonstrated the basics. Then, we went to our sleds.
We’d been preassigned to our sleds, so it was easy to find our spot and prepare to set off. I’m glad that we’d dressed warmly ((boots and snow coats and snow pants are available for rental at the office, but we had our own), because it was a temperate 9 degree F out there. You stay warm driving the sled, but once you sit, the cold begins to creep in, despite the plastic-tarp shells with Hudson Bay blankets inside for the passenger.
The dogs were beside themselves, eager to take off into the white wilderness. Tom and I were in Sled Two behind the guide and lead team, so once he started, I commanded, “Hike, there, hike!” and Athos launched us into the wilderness. What a rush! I wanted to look around at the beauty were coursed through, but I had to focus on staying on the runners and keeping the sled on course.
It had snowed in the Three Sisters area of Canmore the day before we went (according to one guide, it had “puked” all day), so the trails weren’t packed down; this meant that the six dogs in our team had to work hard to pull the sled. It also meant that on every uphill, however slight, the driver had to hop off the rails and help push the sled up the hill, in ankle-deep snow (sometimes deeper). At first, I just hopped off the sled and ran behind holding onto the handle for dear life, but the dogs gave me such withering looks over their shoulders that I realized I really wasn’t helping them at all. We weren’t supposed to hang on for support, we were supposed to be PUSHING! Well, we did and sucked wind, big time.
Oh, to be wither-looked by a dog! Athos was simple and direct: his look said, “Get off and push, NOW.” Attitude, on the other hand, delighted in mocking us with his looks: “Come on, you slogger. Get your big butt off the rails and push, or … I’m … just … going … to … walk.” And walk he did, slowing down the rest of the team. Knuckle-head!
Gasping for air in the cold, high altitude, Tom and I did our best to run alongside or behind the sled on the uphills and updips to help the dogs along. On the flats, we could ride on the sled rails and “skateboard” to help the dogs along. Halfway through the first leg, I switched out with Tom (who had volunteered me for first driving duty), and he took us to the lunch spot, with one minor tip-over along the way.
I then took us all the way to the end of the trip, driving 2/3 of the time.
Lunch consisted of an outdoor stopover in the woods, where the guides lit a fire and roasted venison sausages and hot dog buns for us, providing hot apple cider as a drink. Tom and I had also carried flasks of rum and whiskey, so we shared some inner-warmth with our much-appreciative fellow sledders. Dessert was beef jerky and maple syrup served with homemade Native Canadian bannock (biscuit). As the sausage cooked, one wag mentioned that the wolves must know that dinner was waiting by the fire. The thought had crossed my mind.
According to our guide, we went about 28 km (17.3 miles) over three hours. I’m not sure how much of that we ran, but it was certainly farther than I have run in years! I even did a face-plant as I tried to help the dogs up to the edge of a dam, made immobile by thigh-deep snow. But the reward was well worth the physicality of the day, and the seemingly-much-earned scorn of the dogs.
We traveled through pristine forest, across a dam, among trees laden with pillows of powdery snow, just waiting to dump on us as we rode beneath. It was our private, gloriously white world.