It took me 27 years of being an Albertan to finally try dogsledding. For some reason, I always saw it as “touristy” and “clichéd”, like something you would pay a ton of money to do just to say you did it. I don’t know where these negative preconceived notions came from, but I was wrong.
When you consider that dogsledding was invented and refined by Inuit and Northern Indigenous people as the first efficient mode of winter travel, well, it doesn’t get much more authentically Canadian than that. People absolutely still travel by dogsled every day, not just for “touristy” experiences. For those who do it, it is an art and a skill.
My Christmas gift this year from Chris was a trip to Canmore to go dogsledding. Right away, my first concern, like any annoying white girl, is the ethical treatment of animals. I’ve heard too many horror stories of dogs being abused for dogsledding. Chris anticipated this, and did his research before he broached the subject with me.
He chose Snowy Owl Dogsled Tours due to their great reviews and humane treatment of their dogs. They have approximately 180 husky-mix dogs and the staff know every single dogs name. When I was shocked that the owner knew them all, he replied “Think about it. You know more than 180 people. And you probably don’t like most of them. Whereas 180 dogs? I like every single one.” A brother and sister team own the family business now, handed down to them from their parents, they are third generation Mushers.
Our guide was Elsie, a Quebecois lady who was a musher previously in Quebec, but came out to work for Snowy Owl for a change. It was her first season with them and she said she loved it. All the staff were very friendly and professional. They are all absolutely dog people and you can tell they love their jobs.
We had amazing weather, it was around zero degrees, which was perfect for me, but much too warm for the dogs. They operate best around -15 to -20. They are made for the cold, plus all the exercise they do, they were panting very hard that day. It had freshly snowed, which made it even harder for them to pull us through the snow, but they did it effortlessly. I’ve never seen dogs more unfazed by work. They just want to pull endlessly. They would run all day if you let them.
And yes, you get to cuddle the dogs! You’re allowed to snuggle all of them except ones with a grey bandanna, which they wear to symbolize that they’re a shy or nervous dog. Leave those ones be but all the others are fair game for kisses and hugs. Snowy Owl actually budgets time at the beginning and end of your tour for snuggles! They are all loved very much.
The dogs are fed and watered in between runs. The tour runs 4 trips a day, each trip is 10 km. So the dogs are running 40 km a day! Older dogs only do two runs a day and are cycled out for more rest time. The dogs had had a few days off before our tour, it was their first day back and they were so excited to run. They could sense that everyone was ready to go, and when one started barking, they all went crazy.
Anyone who says it’s cruel to make a sled dog run 40 km a day has never seen what a husky-mix can do. It’s what they’re bred for. It’s much more cruel to have a husky-mix as a house dog, only getting a walk or two a day. They need to be working. They are also bred for the cold, the snow and wind does not phase them. They have special fur to keep them warm, even when sleeping outside all night in Northern Canada.
The guides teach you how to drive the sled and give commands, so Chris and I both got a turn steering. It was very easy and the dogs listen so well. In general, they know what they’re doing without your help because they’ve done it so many times before. But at one point, we stopped and when we went go on, the dogs wouldn’t move. All of them just stood there, completely unresponsive as our head sled pulled away from us. We wondered what was wrong, we gave the command again, but nobody moved. Then we remembered what the guide said: “the dogs will not start from a stop if there’s pressure on their harnesses. You have to help them, they don’t appreciate you being lazy, you have to push the sled forward, give them slack, and then they will pull.” As soon as Chris moved the sled a few inches, the dogs took off again. They can feel everything you’re doing through their harnesses. They know when you’re not helping them up a hill, and they will quit if you quit. They’re out there working hard, they expect you to work as well.
The dogs can pull so fast, as the Rockies and snow covered trees zip by you, you barely have time to appreciate the amazingly clear creek that is flowing past you. It’s all too beautiful to handle. That’s the Rockies for you though.
It was an phenomenal experience and I would highly recommend it to everyone! Happy sledding! 🐾