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.
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.
|Muir with the 10-dog racing team.
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
|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
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
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
Maybe that's what they thought about.
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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