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God knows after visiting Banff National Park and attending the Dark Sky Festival in Jasper over a month ago, I’ve been holed up in Alberta for way too long. This past weekend though, I got the opportunity to head back to Jasper and to scratch another big item off my bucket list: dog sledding. I was ready to release my inner musher and get my own hands-on lesson at how to drive a team of huskies.
Sled dog teams were and to a degree still are an important transportation method in arctic areas. Before snow mobiles rose to todays popularity, the hardy dogs aided explorers in the Arctic, transported mail and goods to remote communities and helped during the Alaskan Gold Rush, when most camps were only accessible by dogsled. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police used them for a while and during World War II, they patrolled western Alaska. In conditions when most other forms of transportation – from trains to horses – would have long ago given up, the dogs soldiered on. Now, with snow mobiles and planes having taken over their hauling function, dog sledding has turned into a recreational sport and with this shift, the demand changed from the big and heavy load-pulling dogs to fast racing animals with high endurance.
Despite dog sledding being mostly a recreational sport these days, most people still expect to see the big, fluffy Siberian Huskies when they sign up for a dog sledding trip. Quoting a “Need for Speed”, Amanda of Cold Fire Creek Dogsledding sais that her teams are mostly made up of Alaskan Huskies though, a light-weight breed known for its speed that is well suited for the mountainous terrain of the Rockies. They don’t need a dense, warm coat and as sprint dogs, instead have a shorter hair to let the heat escape. About 80 dogs are in her retinue now and their love for running is obvious.
When we pulled up at the start of a dense forest trail near Valemount in BC, the sled dogs were already harnessed and a chorus of barking drowned out most attempts at conversation. We were late. Due to a snow storm the day before and icy overnight temperatures of around -40°C, the trip leading from Jasper through the Yellowhead Pass and past Mt. Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, took a lot longer than expected. Usually, the drive would be around 90 minutes, but icy roads and slow traffic caused us to show up rather late in the afternoon.
Among the excited, jumping and barking dogs straining against the ropes, we quickly huddled close around Amanda for the obligatory rookie introduction to dog sledding. We learned that a loud “Hike!” would get us moving and that the command “Whoa!” is used to stop the animals, how and when to operate the breaks and when to start helping the dogs by pedaling with one foot. Brendan and I were assigned to sled number three and while one of us got tucked into the cozy front part of the sled among a thick blanket, the other one acted as the musher, that is the driver of the sled, at the back of the skids.
Eight dogs are used per sled this early in winter when the snow is deep and the temperatures are low and they leaped into action with all that pent up energy only sled dogs can have. Brendan and I, who took turns as driver, soon learned that dog sledding is actually quite hard work. Participating is necessary and just standing there getting dragged along is not an option. Going downhill, we had to work the metal footbreak to keep the sled from catching up with the dogs and going uphill, we were required to help the animals by doing some pushing ourselves. The exercise luckily kept us warm in the harsh temperatures.
There is nothing quite like racing through the snowy winter wonderland that is Canada’s wilderness to the sound of sled skis and the pitter patter of dogs’ feet. But the exciting mix between action and serene landscapes is not even the best part of the experience, the best part is the teamwork and that you’re not the only one having a good time. The dogs not only love running, are very friendly and have an incredible strenght but they also love beign pet and interacted with.
Some might ask – is this sport fair to the dogs? The answer is absolutely, as I mentioned before, Alaskan Huskies LOVE running. Their desire to pull showed not only in their incredibly speed, but every short stop to switch drivers had them baying and jumping, anxious to get going again. Only the heavy hook-like break stomped into the ground stopped them from leaving us all in the snowy dust. They are not forced to move, are only thethered to the sled via a rope and could stop at any time, but nothing seems to make those Huskies happier than running.
Dog sledding is an incredibly rewarding experience and definitely not your usual winter adventure. Afterwards, we warmed up with steaming hot apple cider and homemade cookies – it is an experience I won’t soon forget.