In Canada, dog sledding has a long, storied past. The Inuit relied on this mode of transportation to trade, fish and hunt in the Arctic. Early European settlers found it so efficient that they later adopted it to transport mail, news and supplies between communities. And, by the 1870s, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were mushing on patrol.
But, according to archaeologists, the working relationship between humans and canines can be traced back even further–in North America and Siberia, as early as 4,000 years ago. So important it’s been throughout history that researchers suggest humans wouldn’t have survived in Northern Canada without the help of their furry companions. They relied on each other to endure the harsh climate and terrain.
Winterdance Dogsled Tours
Today, the rich tradition of dog sledding is alive and well in Ontario’s Highlands, thanks to businesses like Winterdance Dogsled Tours that have made it a recreational sport. Operated by Hank and Tanya, a husband-and-wife team of 15 years, Winterdance loves and takes great care of their star employees: Their 150 purebred Siberian Huskies. They’re treated like family and given a home for life at their spacious and heated kennel (which includes a large yard for play).
After a three-hour drive from Toronto, I arrive with fellow travel bloggers Mary, Sharon and Vanessa at the Winterdance outpost, just a short distance from the kennel. The dogs are asleep on the truck. We keep our voices low.
Mike, our guide for today, moves us away from the truck and explains the sled: Its anatomy, how to operate it, and how to control the pack of huskies that will instinctively run with or without you unless you brake or anchor the snow hook into the ground.
Establish a relationship with the dogs at the beginning by bonding with them, he suggests. Shower them with affection. The more neck rubs and encouragement you offer, the harder they’ll work for you on the trail. And I learn every pooch has its own name and unique personality (and bio on the company website). Respect them: Stop when they need to relieve themselves (this will happen mostly near the beginning), and ease their workload when they haul you uphill by stepping off the sled and walking.
It’s not long before the dogs awake and I hear the whining and squealing–the first signs of restlessness. Then, as they’re carried from the truck and harnessed to the sleds, a canine cacophony ensues. They’re howling, barking and bouncing in every direction. I’m clutching the harnesses of my two lead dogs while Mike adds the three other team members to the gangline. I rub their heads and speak softly but they’re so peppy and powerful, I struggle to hold them in place.
When all four sleds are set up with their five-dog teams, Mike takes his place on the runners of the lead sled and I slip under the warmth of a blanket at the front.
By now, the dogs are in hysterics. They’re frantically yelping in a wild chorus and lunging forward. They can’t contain themselves. They want to run, and they want to run now.
Mike releases his foot from the brake and I feel a slow pull. Then, as if by an act of magic, silence falls. The dogs quietly scud along the path through the forest. Their instant relief and gratification are unmistakeable. Finally, I think I hear them sigh under their breath.
Eventually, my team finds its hushed rhythm. Between my conversations with Mike, all that can be heard is the faint sound of the sled runners under me sliding across the snow.
By now, I know these working dogs are doing exactly what they’re meant to do: Running and pulling. Bring the sled to a halt and they’ll be quick to turn their heads and stare as if to complain, “Hey! C’mon! We’ve just started!” Motion is their zen, and the winter trail their element.
And what a trail it is: Nearly 5,000 acres of trees and snow-covered vastness at the foot of Algonquin Park. It’s just us, the stillness and solitude of the Ontario wilderness, the brisk air, and the huskies.
My friends and I take turns mushing because we each want the full experience, and I discover driving a sled is almost as calming as being a passenger.
When we reach a clearing, we stop to relax. Mike, whose beard by now has grown icicles, offers baked goodies and brews marshmellow-topped hot chocolate for us to enjoy under the blue sky.
The dogs have had a good run so they rest peacefully, but their excitement soon builds once again–they know it’s snack time for them too. Mike feeds them their nibbles, their reward for a job well done, before we continue on with the tour.
Let’s Hear it for Canadian Canines
By the end I realize in the last two hours, I’ve experienced all the emotions of dog sledding through the energy of my husky team: the buzz, the tranquillity, the contentment. I’m sorry the tour is over, but I’m pleased to know the dogs will head to the comforts of their own home with Hank and Tanya for their meals and rest. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to share the beauty of Ontario’s Highlands with my new friends, and participate in a sport so deeply rooted in our country’s heritage.
If, before today, I didn’t know or appreciate the significant contribution sled dogs have made to Canadian culture, I do now.
And I know an Ontario winter simply doesn’t get much better than this.
Pin this to Pinterest