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)

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