Nothing says Canadiana like dogsledding with an Englishman and an Australian camel wrangler! Wanting to explore Canada’s diversity on its sesquicentennial celebrations I was going dogsledding with Russell Donald, the Englishman in Mad Dogs and Englishman Sled Dog Expeditions in Kananaskis Country. Raised in England, Donald moved to Western Canada and took up dogsledding, competing in long distance racing and training the British army on winter activities.
A mid-winter melt has reduced Alberta’s snow cover but there is enough for dogsleds and the sun dancing over the Rocky Mountains promises a warm day of winter adventure a few kilometers from Banff National Park.
As Donald and his guides hoist four sleds off a truck stuffed with sled dogs kennels, each with a porthole to the outside, Jack, a rusty-colored Alaskan Husky, sticks his head out and barks like a mad dog.
Donald explains that dogs have been used as Canadian winter transport for centuries, “dogs were cheaper and easier to get than horses for Metis explorers. The earliest people used dogs to transport goods, probably with poles tied over the dog’s shoulders.”
But today we are the cargo and Donald and his team of mushers are attaching modern towlines to sleds. A black, wiry dog is wrestled into a red harness and carried to its starting position before being clipped to the tug line. I wonder if a dog that wouldn’t walk, can run? “Molly is just a shy dog and doesn’t want to walk past the other dogs that might be more dominant. Once she’s in her place, she is fine,” laughs Donald.
As dogs bark and jump in their eagerness to run, Donald delivers our safety briefing.
“Keep your hands in the basket if you are riding inside,” Donald admonishes, “And if you are riding on back with the guide, never let go of the sled.” I will manage to accomplish one of these feats.
I sit in the sled’s basket, the canvas adding warmth as my husband stands on the sled runners with Sam Damiano, an Australian camel wrangler turned dog-sled guide. “Let’s go,” she yells and the dogs go silent as they lunge against the towline. The sled bounds forward, snow crunching under the runners and I feel like a pioneer exploring northern forests. My daydream halts suddenly when we meet Jack – a lead dog – coming back down the trail.
Suffering a lapse in concentration, Jack sniffs bushes beside the trail and causes mayhem in the team. “Let’s go Jack!” extorts Damiano. Jack trots for a few steps before stopping to pee. “He’s testing me,” concludes Damiano. Showing Jack who is the leader of this pack, Damiano demotes him to a spot in the middle of the team where he will be dragged if he dawdles.
With all five dogs now running the same direction, we slide down the trail, the dogs settling into a steady jog and sunshine poking through snow-fringed spruce trees. We stop at a large teepee with smoke circling from the top for hot chocolate and to warm our feet next to the fire.
Back on the trail, my husband and I change positions. He climbs into the sled basket while I stand on the sled runners with Damiano. I feel like I am balancing on a hockey stick while sharing a space no wider than a dinner chair.
Headed downhill and with ice under the snow Damiano worries our brake won’t slow us down. As we steer into the steepest corner I feel centrifugal force pulling me off the sled. I fight to hold on but my fingers aren’t up to the job. I tumble to the ground and watch the sled gain air before Damiano steadies the ship.
My husband blissfully unaware of my struggles jumps when Damiano yells into his ear, “We lost your woman!” Swiveling his head, he watches me jog back to the sled and suggests I ride in the basket for the rest of the trip. Like Jack I do better in my new position.
If you go:
Check out Mad Dog s &Englishmen Sled Expeditions Husky Dreamcatcher Tour. At 1.5 hours it’s great for families, those new to Dogsledding or uncomfortable driving in mountains (the staging area is just across from Kananaskis Village) http://maddogsexpeditions.com
Plan to visit Mad Dog Cafe &Market in Dead Man’s Flats for breakfast or lunch. Donald’s grandmother was Burmese and he lived in India; his curries are some of the best you’ll find outside of India. http://www.themaddogcafe.ca
Stay at the Stoney Nakoda Resort where you can book a helicopter flight with a short wilderness hike or snowshoe. www.stoneynakodaresort.com
Carol Patterson inspires everyday explorers to look for wildlife and cool creatures. When she isn’t travelling for work, Carol is travelling for fun. More of her adventures can be found at www.carolpatterson.ca