Dog-sled adventure thrills ... and spills
By Doug Struck
By Doug Struck
The dark night swallows the sky as the dog team dashes along the mountain trail, pulling our sled. Snow floats magically from unseen clouds, brushing cold kisses on our cheeks. The dogs run silent and strong on the path that flashes only occasionally in the swinging headlamp of our guide, Alex LeClerc.
The air in Val-des-Lacs, Quebec, a dozen degrees below freezing, is sharp. The snow has painted white strokes on the dark palette of fir and spruce. The only sound is the crunch of the sled runners and the gentle pad of dog feet. The six huskies and three humans — LeClerc, my son, Jack, and I — say little on the late-night run down the mountain, both species honoring the spell.
LeClerc's directions — "ha" for left, "gee" for right — are delivered in a low whisper for the dogs' keen ears. They respond in a tight column of fur.
Even Jack, worldwise in the manner of a 10-year-old boy, is captivated.
"This," he says, "is what adventure is about."
To usher in the new year, our family embarked on a two-day excursion in Quebec's Laurentian Mountains, 65 miles north of Montreal, on the tail end of dog teams. The trip — dog sledding, ice fishing for our dinner, snowshoeing for firewood and snuggling into sleeping bags in a rough shelter — was the quintessential Canadian experience we had sought.
While others head to warm climes in the winter, Canada's grand outdoors beckons with the sparkle of new snow. With warm clothing, a little planning and a sense of adventure, you can trump the ho-hum beach stories of more mundane vacations.
We wanted to do so with dog teams, the legendary form of transport that had opened the Yukon. We signed on to mush with the dogs, to see in them what Jack London called "that nameless, incomprehensible pride of the trail and trace."
But we found out quickly that mushing is not just a dog's show. A sharp turn loomed at the icy bottom of the first big hill we met. LeClerc whispered "ha," and the galloping dogs veered left. Clutching the handle of the racing sled, I tilted to balance the turn. The sled flexed, leaned and wrenched from my grip. I flew into the fresh snow as the dogs sped on.
"Whoa," LeClerc said, stomping the hooked metal brake into the snow and pulling the dogs to a reluctant halt a few dozen meters up the trail. He grinned. Jack poked his head out from the basket of the sled, with a quizzical look. The dogs grumbled at the delay. Ahead of us in their sled, my wife and daughter raced on with their team.
This was not going to be an easy ride, I figured, rising covered in white.
Dog sledding is offered in many parts of Canada. Quebec, the country's largest province at more than 1,100 miles north-to-south, has dozens of dog-sledding operators and tour companies that can arrange trips. We selected a mushing company, CasAventures, run by a former trapper and current dog-sled racer, Normand Casavant, 42. He has 120 dogs and more than a dozen guides, and offers an array of dog-sledding experiences ranging from the shorter few-hour trips to the two-day camping foray we chose.
Casavant set us up with two teams of six dogs each, led by veteran lead dogs Popeye and Sureau, with a guide for each sled.
The dogs look like a haphazard bunch. They are Alaskan huskies, an unregistered breed with bloodlines that dabble in anything from setters and greyhounds to the famed Siberian huskies. Some have the distinctive husky's long fur and blue eyes; others have shorter hair and lean flanks, evidence of breeders' efforts to bring out strength, stamina and endurance.
By breeding or by upbringing, Casavant's dogs rarely display the gruff behavior one might expect of working dogs. Instead, they revel in affection. My daughter, Julianna, 8, methodically works the lines of both teams to pet and hug the animals, who clearly enjoy it.
Mushers like Casavant roll their eyes at the contention of animal rights activists that sled dogs are mistreated by the hard work and rough conditions. The dogs love the trail, they insist.
"Just look at them. They can't wait to get going," says LeClerc as we hook the dogs to the gang lines that tow the sleds. They yelp and tug in enthusiasm. In the harness, the dogs quickly obey three of the four basic commands — "ha," "gee" and "OK" or "mush" to start off. But the "whoa" of stopping a team in their tracks is always difficult. The dogs want to keep running.
DOG AS YOUR CO-PILOT
What distinguishes Casavant's trips is the mountain course. Instead of a flat lake, his dogs challenge the hills and plunge into the forests, providing both the scenic setting and the physically demanding sport of real dog sledding.
These trips are joint work between dog and human. The dogs are attached by a single line to an eight-foot sled made of wood and canvas. A passenger can sit down behind the supplies being hauled in the sled in a canvas seat called the basket. Two others can "drive," standing side by side on the extended runners at the back of the sled.
That is where the human work is done. Grasping the curved handle, the drivers must wrestle the heavy wooden sled around corners, up hills, over rough spots and past treacherous ice. Often, they each push with one foot to the side, like a scooter. In harder terrain, they walk or run behind the sled to help push it up hills. I learn that "mush" comes from the French verb marcher, "to walk." It is aching, tiring work, rewarded by too-brief rides on the runners when the dogs gallop downhill and the sled glides effortlessly behind.
Jack and I take turns driving, sharing the back of the sled with LeClerc as the other takes a breather in the basket. We sweat under our layers of clothing. Many of Casavant's guides are young outdoorsmen who revel in the work.
We stop occasionally to give the dogs a rest. LeClerc, 30, whose wanderlust has taken him to far corners of the world and wilderness, points out the tracks of hare and deer. The occasional black bears in this part of Quebec are slumbering soundly in the winter.
FISH ON ICE
Casavant has thrown in some extras to break up the sledding. At a frozen pond, we drill a hole in the ice and drop a line for speckled trout.
Ice fishing can be a Zenlike experience. You are existentially connected by a thin string that travels from your earthly space, down through an eight-inch hole slowly healing itself with new ice, down into an unseen world of the green-cold watery depths.
We also examine a herd of wood buffalo being raised on a preserve. The huge beasts are unexpectedly frisky, and with the clatter of horns, two of the males butt heads, bulldozing each other in a test of strength. Despite their size and slow-eyed guise, they are incredibly agile as they feint and lock, engage and retreat. The rest of the herd clears aside for their tussle.
But the focus of our day remains on the dogs, and we are there to help handle them. As we harness and unharness them, the animals prove why they are so good at pulling. They are not large, ranging from about 30 to 50 pounds. But with feet planted, they tug with tremendous force, dragging 63-pound Jack as he hangs resolutely onto a collar.
In the evening, Julianna scours the forests for evergreen branches to make each dog a bed in the snow. They curl up and sleep snugly. Later at night, as we burrow into sleeping bags in our shelter, the dogs raise their muzzles to the sky and howl, sending a wolfly message across the mountains.
Were the temperature a bit more moderate, we would have slept in a tepee in the woods. But with an eye — or nose, perhaps — toward frostbite, we've stopped at the top of the mountain at what could pass for a trapper's cabin. It's a rough shelter, but with lots of wooden pegs to dry out our snowy coats and hats, a loft for our bedrolls and a wood stove for heat and cooking.
The stoked stove soon makes the place shirt-sleeve hot. Our guides, LeClerc and Julien, slap bread on the side of the stove to make toast, steam our fish (and a few extra) in foil on the coals and produce from their backpack some cheese and a nice bottle of French red wine to go with it.
After the day of toil, we are too beat even to finish it off. Julianna, usually a late partier, crawls straight into her bedroll and is immediately asleep. The rest of us soon follow. The guides sleep close to the fire, feeding it occasionally in the night and checking the dogs to ensure all is well.
In a late-night visit to the nearest tree, I gaze over the edge of the mountain. Far away, a scattered twinkling of lights indicates houses. But between, it is dark, empty and quiet save for the sigh of wind and murmured reply of swaying branches.