Monday, December 22, 2014

What do paddlers do when water freezes? Go mushing, of course!

Mushing down the trail in K-Country. (Snowy Owl photo)
Unless you're lucky enough to live in an area where you can paddle year-round, there always comes a time when a paddler has to hang up his paddle for the winter and wait for the spring, hoping to avoid cabin fever.

Although Vancouver does provide some opportunity for year-round paddling, it can be uncomfortable for many (and a bit more risky, since spilling out of a kayak into the open ocean during winter poses the serious threat of hypothermia.)

Sometimes you can get around cabin fever by flying south. But that's not always possible in terms of time or money.

But, you're itching to get outdoors, and enjoy the woods and mountains in a similar fashion to what you do in a canoe or kayak during the warmer months.

The solution?

Trade in your canoe for a dog-sled.

Now, while many of us own watercraft, running dogs with a dogsled is an entirely different type of animal (pun intended). If you're not committed to working with, and looking after, a team of dogs 12 months of the year, your best bet is to hook up with a dogsled touring company.

I was lucky enough to do that when I lived in Calgary.

And herein lies the tale of how I made like Jack London in the wilds of K-Country...

Once you glide along the snow, the wind whipping your face and snow flying behind you, you get the distinct feeling that mushing is the only way to travel in winter. If you’re passing through the Spray Valley, one of the Rocky Mountains’ most pristine and beautiful areas, you'll be convinced even more.

I was able to enjoy just such an experience, during a short day trip with Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours, a Canmore-based company whose tours run anywhere from a few hours to a few days.

Thanks to the dogs, any dog sledding trip always begins with a high level of excitement, whether it’s just an hour-long jaunt or a two-day excursion. The animals are bred and trained to run, and they love nothing more than hitting the trail to burn off their energy.

Before they hit the trail, they’re worse than a group of kids at Christmas, waiting to be given the go-ahead to rush out to the tree and start opening their presents. They strain at their harnesses, yipping and yapping, as if the only thing in the entire world worth doing involves running down a winter trail.

The dogs are not the only ones that have to be prepared. Snowy Owl clients receive a half-hour of instruction about the dogs and driving sleds. Once the dogs and the people are ready, then the fun begins.

Hmmm...that mushing looks ...
Clients have two options for any trip: a more relaxed mode, riding on the sled comfortably wrapped up in a blanket while a guide drives; or, they drive the sled, for whatever distance with which they are comfortable.

“We like to include people in the driving,” says owner Connie Arsenault, “so they get what we get from the experience of mushing through the back country.”

You don’t have to be a fitness fanatic to try your hand at driving. Although a certain level of fitness helps, even couch potatoes can experience the thrill of driving a dog team, as Snowy Owl will adjust their tours based on people’s fitness levels. Of course, the guides can always spell clients when they tire.

Driving sled dog team can be an exhilarating - and humbling - experience. You may not realize just how fast you’re going until you actually fall off a sled moving at full speed, and sit helplessly in the snow, watching your team continue down the trail without you.

On this particular trip, I avoided that pitfall, choosing to ride rather than drive, so I could absorb the scenery and snap some photos as we slipped down the trail.

No other winter sport compares to the feeling of mushing. Cross-country skiing is invigorating fun, but because of the amount of energy you have to spend just skiing, you may not always enjoy the full beauty of your surroundings unless you stop. Snowmobiling lies at the other end of the spectrum. Everything whips by too fast from the back of a gas-powered vehicle, and the noise is distracting. And while I really enjoy snowshoeing, it's much more contemplative, there is less adrenalin, and you just can't cover as much ground as a dogsled can.

Mushing combines the best of both worlds: enough speed, (but not too much), combined with the silence of winter wilderness, broken only by the swish of the sled runners along the trail and the panting of the dogs. It also offers the unique joy of interacting with the dogs.

Snowy Owl offers two-hour, half-day, full day and evening or moonlight tours as well as an overnight trip. On all the tours, the guides try to impart a love and respect for the wilderness setting in which the tours take place.

"Wilderness teaches lessons," says Connie. "It treats us all as equals. If we are arrogant, we need to be humbled, and the wilderness can do that. It's our teacher, reaching out to the natural element in all of us to teach us what we need to learn."

That philosophy parallels Native North American philosophy and spirituality. Snowy Owl builds many aspects of traditional Native culture into its tours.

All tours start off with an introduction that credits Native culture with the origin of dog sledding. The educational aspect goes beyond simply hearing about how Native cultures lived day-to-day. Depending on what tour you sign up for, you may get to meet all the dogs at the Snowy Owl kennel, helping to clean and feed them, load them into the truck and eventually harness them to the sleds.

One program - an evening affair, "Legend of the Snow Moon," - educates guests about the way the Native and Inuit cultures viewed the winter sky.

On the overnight trips, entitled "The Ghost of Fortune Mountain," guests sleep in Sioux-style tipis, and experience Native story telling around the campfire. The "ghost" in that tour's title stems from the fact guests often hear - but don't see - wolves on these trips. Natives referred to wolves as ghosts, because while their howling lets you know they are there, you very rarely see them.

Even the food contains a Native flavour. On the longer day trips, guests enjoy a traditional Canadian Native campfire lunch that includes foods like Native bannock and deli smoked beef (a modern compromise, since they don't have time to catch and smoke wild game meat) toasted over an open campfire. Buffalo stew is available on some trips.

On our shorter trip, though, we finished off our day with hot chocolate and home-baked cookies around a campfire on the snow clad shore of Spray Lake. As I glanced out across the snow, I’m already thinking about returning to do one of the longer trips, so I can perhaps hear the howl of the “ghosts” reverberate throughout the winter night … .

Mushing through the mountains (video by Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours)

(a slightly different version of this story was originally published in the March 2003 issue of Westjet Airlines magazine)

Monday, December 1, 2014

Where eagles fly, we can see their view with Sea-to-Sky Gondolas

Howe Sound, as seen from Sea to Sky's Summit Lodge.
As someone who best loves to experience the outdoors via paddling, it can be a bit of challenge to get out and about on adventures when the cold weather comes calling. 

Mind you, in B.C.'s Lower Mainland, that's later than it is in most of the rest of Canada.

One can always head south to paddle in warmer climes, but that requires booking flights and organized planning, not to mention at least a week's worth of time.

But there are plenty of other non-paddling adventures to be had in and around Vancouver, day-trips that provide adventures in the outdoors.

One of those outings is fairly new to the area. The Sea-to-Sky Gondola in Squamish, B.C., just opened to the public last summer. 

I had a chance to experience it myself for the first time last week.

I'm not fond of heights, so there was a little trepidation on my part before climbing into the gondola that would take us up the side of Habrich Mountain to Summit Lodge. Watching the car in front of us zoom up suddenly reminded me of my first trip in a helicopter - no wings, just a quick vertical rise into the air.

Less than a minute into the ride, though, I was too busy enjoying the view and trying to take photos to think about that nagging fear of heights.

And then came the eagles.

I spotted the first one as it swooped past us, overhead, from the mountain peak to our left. It was huge, and my first thought was, "Golden eagle!" It was that big. Then I realized it was probably a juvenile bald eagle - they are larger than adults, and lack the white head feathers that characterize the species.

Up, up, and away!

Looking skyward, I spotted two more, then another, as they soared back and forth across the mountain paths.

This, of course, is the time of year when bald eagles gather in the thousands along the valley near Brackendale to feast on the salmon as they continue their spawning run upstream in the Squamish River. 

We quickly climbed past them on our way up the side of the mountain, watching other gondolas slide past us on their journey down the mountain.

When we got to the top following our 10-minute ascent, another treat awaited us: the Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge. And no, the bridge is not named after the beer - rather, the beer is named after one of the main mountain peaks in this area that you can view once you cross the bridge from the lodge. (Although they do have Sky Pilot on tap in the lodge).

A quick trek across the bridge takes you to a platform that provides a beautiful view of Howe Sound (and Watts Point, where George Vancouver first encountered members of the Squamish Nation)

The spot also serves as the start of the Spirit Trail, one of many trails the public can walk from the lodge. This particular trail they plan to leave just for walking; other trails will be used for snowshoeing, once they get enough of the white stuff down.

We enjoyed two different views of Sky Pilot and its neighbour, Co-pilot Mountain, then it was back to the lodge for lunch.

Trudging across the suspension bridge - to a wonderful view.

The plan was to stay a little longer, but because of an incoming weather front that was going to sock everything in and force the closure of the gondola, we had to pack up and head down the mountain.

But there are plenty of Christmas programs planned for the next month at the lodge, so if you go up there, don't be surprised if you bump into me, taking in the festivities.

Want to see some more images from my trip up the mountain? Check out my Facebook photo album.