By Jenn Watt
Published Dec. 17 2018
I’m tucked into the basket of my sled under a fleece blanket camera around my neck hands clutching the top rail as a team of Siberian huskies pull me and the driver Scott Dressel through the unseasonably snowy trails owned by Winterdance Dogsled Tours on Dec. 1.
The dogs are pure energy charging ahead with a fervour I recognize from watching Olympic sprinters.
This is the first time I’ve been aboard a dogsled and the prospect is intimidating. Five strong dogs pulling a wooden sled through the trails of the Haliburton Highlands sounds peaceful for the passenger but driving is another story. It means jogging with the sled up hills and on softer inclines pedaling with one foot on the runner and another pushing the sled along.
The guides Murray Lee and Scott are calm and clear when they give directions. Don’t let go of the handlebar. Use your brake. A lot.
I immediately imagine myself careening down a hill letting go of the handlebars. Best to stay tucked in the sled I decide.
Guide Murray Lee carries one of the dogs from the truck to the sleds before the day’s excursion begins.
As Scott and I bounce along the trail we chat about the sled dogs about his ecotourism background about how to instruct the dogs which way to turn down new trails (they know the words for left and right but the guides don’t usually tell newbies since it’s more important to get the message about the handlebars and the brake in).
We come to a stop. Up ahead there’s a runaway sled. The dogs are moving forward but the riders are standing on the trail. Scott sinks the snow hook into the ground to hold the sled in place while he jogs up to see if he can help.
“Stand on the brake for me” he asks.
I think I can probably do that.
All of the guides have Walkie-Talkies and I can hear them problem-solving. They quickly relocate the dogs and their sled and it’s not long until the other rookie mushers are reunited with their dogs.
Logan McCready-DeBruin a guide and a son of Winterdance owners Hank and Tanya has been keeping tabs on the situation from a snowmobile behind us on the trail which he’s using to groom the trails.
He tells me I can go ahead and take the sled up to meet the rest of the group.
My visions of careening down a hill return.
But that doesn’t happen. I hold on the handlebars and ride the brake tentatively allowing the dogs to take me to exactly where they know to go. There’s little sound as the sled hisses along the snow and the wind on my face is pleasant.
I decide I could do this all day. Dogsledding is easy! (I will upgrade the difficulty level in my head from easy to moderate on the ride back.)
María Tamargo drives the dogsled as Laura Vieites seated takes a video on her cellphone during a Winterdance Dogsled Tours excursion on Dec. 1. /JENN WATT Staff
Winterdance has been in business since 1999.
This winter they got a head start on the season thanks to some unseasonably wintry weather with the earliest start they’ve had in 19 years. They guided an Australian group on Nov. 29 and on Saturday Dec. 1 a group of women from Spain – and me.
The Spanish women who said they are from the Madrid area were in Canada visiting their friend a doctor doing her residency in Toronto.
They all speak English but chat among themselves in Spanish so it’s not clear if they’re nervous before we head out on the trails. They nod and look happy to hear information about where the dogs live.
Lorena Fernández enjoys snuggling up with one of her sled dogs during the break.
Winterdance has about 140 huskies who live in a heated 5000-square-foot kennel. The dogs have days off each week with a schedule ensuring none are overworked. They have a special wing of the kennel for retired dogs who live out their golden years along with their pack on-site.
They also take summer vacation. Since they’re Siberian huskies any temperatures over 10°C is too hot to train so they spend their days running around the three enclosed yards on the property.
On the day of my ride it’s clear these dogs have a one-track mind: get out on that trail.
As the guides prepared the sleds before the tour commenced the dogs are added one at a time to the rigging which is affixed to stakes in the ground. The participants are asked to help out by holding onto the dogs’ harnesses and getting acquainted. I try my best to introduce myself but my dogs are literally launching themselves at the trail.
They want to go.
Logan McCready-DeBruin left and Scott Dressel put harnesses on two of the dogs working on Saturday. The Siberian huskies could hardly contain their excitement as they were prepared for the trails.
By the time we reach the halfway point they have calmed down and some of them lounge during the rest stop. Murray and Scott hand out plastic mugs filled with hot chocolate and marshmallows and give treats to the dogs. We’re encouraged to interact with the huskies pet their thick coats and introduce ourselves. I spend most of my time with Jeff and Flash a pair of brothers who have occupied the last two spots on my team.
Jeff decides now would be a good time to be silly and he rolls around on the ground while Flash keeps an eye on Scott. He knows the drill – break time means treat time.
The way back is more fulfilling but also much more work as I’m now the driver and Scott is my (very patient) passenger.
As soon as I’m in charge I immediately forget the instruction about the brakes as we barrel forward along the undulating path. Although they’ve already been running for a while the dogs still have quite a bit of pep.
From the cargo bed of the sled Scott gently suggests I might try using the brake a bit.
On hills I hop off and lumber up. On inclines I do my best to push off with one foot more as a gesture to the dogs that I’m trying than being of any real help.
After five minutes I take off my headband. Ten minutes later is my mitts. When we find ourselves stopped at one point I ditch my winter jacket.
That thing I said about dogsledding being easy? Not quite.
But I surprised myself. I didn’t fall off. My sled didn’t go flying off the path or into a bog.
It was physical in the way going mountain biking is physical. There’s times when you coast and times when you hustle. And in between you get to feel the wind on your face and see the forest sail by.