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Run Long

by Dave Yanko

We slice through the boreal forest on the edge of Prince Albert National Park, 10 top racing dogs effortlessly towing a sled carrying several hundred pounds of human cargo.
Muir with the 10-dog racing team.
And what's striking is the quiet. Minutes earlier, these friendly animals were yelping and pawing at the snow as they waited for us to harness them up and hitch them to the sled. Now they run silently, their attention riveted on their sole reason to be.

This tranquillity of the trail is the biggest surprise in the early going of my first dog-sledding experience, but not the first one. That came when musher Brad Muir released the snub line and snow hook mooring us into place and launched our sled with a "Ready - Let's Go!" The mighty tug sent me firmly into the back of the sled.

Once we cleared our staging area at Anglin Lake Provincial Recreation Site, we accelerated quickly to 25 kilometres per hour (16 mph), a speed we maintained for 10 to 15 minutes before the dogs settled in to a comfortable 20 kph. From my passenger's view just a few inches above trail, the snow-laden boughs of jack pine seemed to be flying past as we set off under clear skies and light breezes into a Christmas-card setting. The temperature was about -12C (10F).

Not long into the run one of our lead dogs, a tawny Alaskan husky named Shadow, began pacing. It's a peculiar stride in which the left legs move together, followed by the right ones. The movement produces an amusing hip wobble similar to what's seen in human race walkers. Muir says pacing is thought to be a highly-efficient stride. As it is, canine distance athletes - and that's what these dogs are - have phenomenal stamina. For perspective, Muir compares them to our species.

"How many human marathoners can run one marathon, stop for 15 minutes, and then turn around and run another marathon - for a total of over 50 miles - and then take a four- or five-hour sleep and get up and do it all over again?"

Muir and his wife, Susan Carr, operate Sundogs Sled Excursions, the only company in Saskatchewan that specializes in dog-sledding packages. Muir works summers at Parks Canada, where he was employed full-time as an interpreter before applying his outdoor knowledge and experience to the tourism business. He concentrates on Sundogs through the remainder of the year. Carr, meanwhile, is a park administrator who devotes her spare time to Sundogs and dog-sled racing.

Friendly and anxious to please.

They keep more than two dozen huskies in the kennels adjacent to their home, located just inside the forest about 20 minutes east of the million-acre park. Normally, six dogs are used for Sundogs excursions. However, with the approach of the annual Canadian Challenge Sled Dog Race for the Cameco Cup - a 500-km marathon from Prince Albert to La Ronge and back again - we're running Carr's racing team. The dogs are in training. Muir gives them "baited" water, water boiled with fish scraps and then cooled, to encourage them to drink before their workout.

On the trail, the dogs seem anxious to please. When we reach a fork in the path, Muir uses a firm "Gee!" or "Haw!" to command them right or left. They appear buoyed when he congratulates them on a well-executed task.

On steep inclines he helps out the huskies by pedaling, like a skateboarder, with one foot on the sled and the other pushing snow. Down hills, around tight curves, or through bumpy sections of the trail, he slows the sled by stepping on the heavy rubber mat slung between the runners he stands upon. If he must stop quickly, he'll stomp on the metal-spiked brake situated in front of the mat.

The quiet ride allows for easy conversation and much of our time is spent chatting. But sledding quietly, with only the soft hissing of runners on snow, can bring benefits beyond the visceral appreciation of the forest in winter. Muir tells me that a few weeks earlier, while sledding just north of his home, he and his team rode right through a group of five wolves travelling in a loose pack.

What you won't gain by silent running, however, is access to Muir's knowledge and love of this land. He and Carr offer their guests a tourism experience much broader than an adventurous ride through the forest in a dog sled (and sailing down the steep side of an esker in a dog sled is definitely an adventure). They know and understand this place. Together, they have 35 years of experience as nature interpreters with Parks Canada and each has a bachelor-of-science degree. They've lived here for years.

Muir says Sundogs likes to give guests an opportunity to learn first-hand about dog sledding. From harnessing and hitching dogs, to scooping poop, to setting up camp in the forest: participation is key. Mind and body fully engaged in an authentic outdoor experience is the goal.

"There's this Ziggy comic strip," Muir recalled, "where Ziggy's sitting on a hillside looking at a sunset. And the caption reads: 'Let's enjoy the here while we're here, because there's no here there'.

Taking a break at the edge of a lake in the boreal forest.

"That's the kind of thing I want to give people the opportunity to do when they're dog sledding.''

And so it was that I found myself standing on the back of the sled and hurtling through Saskatchewan's boreal forest, piloting a pack of 50-lb huskies and completely unencumbered by knowledge of what to do should the whole thing go sideways. And it was wonderful.

It was a simple section of the trail with no sharp turns, wild dips or narrow passages. But during my 15 to 20 minutes at the helm, I manoeuvred the sled to the centre of the path by shifting my weight to the appropriate runner. When I noticed slack developing in the main line on downhill sections of the trail, I used the mat to slow the sled. I even pedaled uphill a couple of times, although I suspect these latter efforts left Muir musing about how best to roll a large body onto a sled.

My mind was focused on the dogs and the trail as we glided into a fresh breeze and bright sunshine - I flexed my knees for the occasional bump. When all ahead was clear into the distance, though, I "stood back" and simply enjoyed the commanding view from a standing position. I couldn't help but think I was sharing it with mushers from long ago. I wondered what they saw, what they thought about.

Enjoying the warm sun at the camp site.

I returned to the passenger's seat invigorated. With Muir back in the musher's position, we proceeded to Sundogs' overnight camp, a sturdy "trapper's" tent in a beautiful setting on the shore of Beaver Dam Lake. We left the dogs in harness and fastened the snow-hook line to a tree. Then we sat down on a couple of stumps, sipped tea and ate snacks, and luxuriated with the dogs in the warm sun.

Muir says as many as six people have slept in the tent on overnight excursions. The raised wooden floor and small wood stove help protect guests against the cold - there's a roof flap for the stove pipe. But even with the fire stoked a couple of times during the night, the temperature inside will slip below freezing. Still, a good sleeping bag is all that's needed for a warm and comfortable rest.

After a half-hour break, we set off on our return trip, this time travelling across breezy, frozen lakes. When we arrived back at the staging area the dogs received pork-fat balls for treats. Together, we unhitched them, removed their harnesses and loaded them into their trailer.

In all, we covered about 50 kilometres (30 miles), and it was clear to me that the dogs were capable of much more. I and my middle-aged body, on the other hand, would have required more than a few minutes of rest before hitting the trail again. And I don't mean a fat ball.

Later, as Muir and I prepared to part company, we shook hands and he said to me, "Long may you run.''

Maybe that's what they thought about.

Sundogs offers excursions ranging from hour-long orientations at $35 Cdn (minimum of two people), to a half-day, backcountry experience at $85 per person (two people), up to multiple-day excursions. In concert with Land of the Loon Resort at Anglin Lake, Sundogs offers a range of packages that can include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, skijoring (skiing with the assistance of a dog), as well as dog sledding. You could stay at the resort in your own log chalet, use its log lodge as a meeting place and interpretive centre, and spend perhaps one night at the camp. Bring your own gear, including outer clothing, or rent it through Sundogs.

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