Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Dog Sledding with Kids: An adventure the whole family can share

Mack with his team
There's something about mushing a team of dogs that makes adults feel like kids and kids feel like adults.

Both of my boys are dog people, so dog sledding has been on our to-do list for quite a while. Sue and I had skijored years ago, but we'd never gone dog sledding. This was a first for all four of us, and it was an amazing experience to share as a family.

We selected Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours in Canmore for our adventure on the third day of a long ski weekend in Banff. After two days on the slopes we were all tired but excited when we showed up a half hour early for our 11 a.m. tour. Unfortunately, avalanche control on the East Side of Rundle had been too successful, and crews were taking longer than expected to clear the Smith-Dorien / Spray Trail of debris. With Snowy Owl's base at the north end of the Spray Lakes temporarily cut off, we were told to come back at noon. Luckily, there were two friendly sled dogs in the office to take the edge off our disappointment. It's hard to be too disappointed when a happy husky is intent on licking your face.
When we came back at noon, everything was a go. A 20-minute drive brought us to the base, where we were greeted by 50 howling hounds. After a short orientation in which we learned that real mushers say "Hike!" not "Mush" to keep the dogs running, we were introduced to our dog teams. Sue, Michael and I would be on one sled, and Mack would be on another with the guide. When I asked who would be driving our sled, I couldn't believe the answer: We would. Excited at the opportunity to drive, I was also more than a little nervous. I'd barely been able to control two huskies when we went skijoring. Granted, they'd been attached to my waist and I was on skinny cross-country skiis, but now there were eight of them. Had the guide said to lean hard into the turns, or not hard? Suddenly, I had visions of falling off the back of the sled and watching the dogs pull Sue and Michael down the trail.
It didn't help that as soon as the dogs were harnessed they started pulling against the tether, yelping in anticipation of dumping me in the snow. Then the guide pulled the tether and we were off. It I was a kid again. Soon I was yelling "Hike!", leaning into the turns, and jumping off and running beside the sled on uphills. I could see myself mushing a team on the Iditarod, days away from the nearest civilization in the wildest wilds of Alaska. Then we were at the halfway point and I was brought back to reality. Rather we were almost at the halfway point. First, we had to negotiate a sharp corner the guide had warned us about. Here, I was 100% certain he said to lean hard into the turn to keep the sled from tipping. The closer we got to the turn the deeper my realization became that I had no idea how hard "hard" was. Before I knew it we were into the turn. The sled became an extension of my Sorels, and I sensed the centrifugal force pulling the sled over to the left. I leaned to the right--hard, but not too hard--and we glided gracefully through the turn. (Okay, it probably didn't look that graceful to the trained eye, but at least the sled didn't tip over. Whether it was my leaning or because the dogs took it easy on me doesn't matter.)

The halfway point was in the middle of Goat Pond, where we tethered the dogs to ice screws set in the frozen surface. After a 10 minute break, I climbed into the sled, while Michael and Sue each stood on one runner at the back. Mack similarly shared the back of his sled with the guide. Then we were off again, and I could just sit back and enjoy the ride. Ahead of us, Mack handled his dog team like a pro. Behind me, I could hear the excitement in Michael's voice as he yelled, "Hike! Hike!" It was one of those moments I think back to often. Pure, unadulterated adventure shared as a family.

All too soon, we were back at the base, drinking hot chocolate and warming ourselves beside a campfire. Then in the car and driving home to Calgary, where I would have to explain to Abby why we smelled like other dogs.

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