Dog sledding was one of my ‘bucket list’ must dos for our White Christmas adventure in Canada – Christmas 2016.
I had booked the dog sledding through my travel agent, as she ended up having to try a few different companies, as it is very popular and particularly at Christmas time. Our booking was through Snowy Owl Tours – ‘The Powder Hound Express’.
It was highly recommended to book the ‘guest driven’ option, so even though I was a little apprehensive, that is what we booked. I did the usual research on what to expect etc, however wasn’t fully prepared, so thought I’d share some of our hints and tips etc, which may help you out. The Snowy Owl website has details about what to wear, and what not to wear, which is excellent.
Normally there are three people, either guide plus two guests, or three guests per sled, however we paid extra so that it was only Anthony and I on the one sled. We also had to provide our weights to the company, as I believe different dogs would be used depending on who is in each sled.
Some background –
Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours was formed in Canmore, Alberta in 1983 and operate their tours in the Spray Lakes Provincial Park. They have grown from 1 dog team and 10 sled dogs to 16 dog teams and 180 sled dogs respectfully.
Getting there –
- We were transferred from and back to our hotel in Banff to Canmore, where the company’s office is, for ‘check in’.
- At the Canmore office, our attire was checked. We had our normal ‘cold weather’ outfits of jeans with thermals under (Anthony) and winter weight trousers with thermals under (me), however we were told that we must wear ski pants. We had to pull them on over our other layers, however we were not charged for their hire. We were told that it is because when you stand on the brake there could be water splashing up – however we didn’t have that.
- The office also has a gift shop and toilets – definitely use the toilets here.
- Then back onto the bus, for another half hour or so up into the mountains.
- The road leading to the Spray Lakes staging area is quite windy, so don’t get motion sick.
- When we arrived at Spray Lakes we found there were no buildings, just a large open area, with lots of dogs – so was important to be fully dressed and well rugged up on the bus, as stepping out into the cold.
- I noticed that there were toilets at the staging area, but they are porta-loos and they would be extremely cold. Plus as soon as we hopped off the bus we had to form a circle to start pre-sled training, so no time to visit the toilets.
- Thermals are a must, sunnies or ski goggles, very good gloves, beanie and ski type boots – it is very cold so be well rugged up. Actually, standing around learning all about what to do etc certainly drops the body temperature.
- We had around 30 minutes introduction and instruction on the sleds, dogs, how to drive etc. We were taught some basic commands and actions, being ‘Hia’ to start, ‘woah’ to stop, ‘good dogs’ when starting off, ‘on by’ to keep them straight ahead, ‘easy’ to slow down, and if see tail goes up, must stop for ‘number two’. You have to place two feet firmly on brake to stop properly, one if slowing down, lean into corners and help the dogs when going uphill.
- I admit that listening to all of the instructions I was worried about not remembering them, but really the dogs knew what to do.
- We were loaded into the sled bag and onto the sled to await our turn for departure.
- The sleds are handcrafted with wind and water-resistant sled bags which also include woollen blankets.
- The dogs really start getting excited and wanting to get going. You have to be standing with two feet on the brake while the tether is released, then step off and away you go.
- Our lead dogs were sisters Rebel and Menace – they looked smaller than the other four, but obviously they kept focussed.
- There are photos taken professionally on heading out and heading back in – so if you swap drivers half way you have a photo of each of you – $40.00 for the two photos including the USB stick.
- The first half of the trail is more taxing, i.e. has more uphill sections, so Anthony was the ‘guest driver’ to start.
- You do need some level of fitness when guiding own sled, as you are meant to help your dogs when heading uphill, by either running between the runners, or doing a skating style, one foot on runner, and one foot pushing along. I would not suggest the running, as you could struggle to get feet back on the runners (as I did), and you can’t let go of the bar, as the dogs will just keep going and person in sled bag can’t get out without help.
- I did struggle to help our dogs out, the skating style was difficult for me to master, plus being at a high altitude I became puffed easily.
- Our tour had 13/14 sleds with 6 dogs per sled, we were second last. In order, there was a guide driven sled, then two guest driven sleds, then repeated. The guide regularly stops to check on you, particularly if about to go downhill etc.
- You stop halfway along the tour and the dogs are tethered. This allows time to play with the dogs, take some photos and also swap drivers.
- I found that I had one foot on the brake quite abit, and the dogs will turn around and look at you, as if to say ‘hurry up’ or ‘what are you doing’.
- We had to keep an eye on the sleds in front of us, as passing is not allowed. We would slow down or stop as needed to keep some distance.
- The trail length was around 10 klms and you are on the actual sleds for around an hour.
- Coming into the staging area at the end, we had to slow down considerably, then stop to await our turn. We slowly crept into the area, and allowed staff to grab the dogs and tether them, then we could get off and out of the sled.
- All of our tour then walked down to a camp fire where we were given hot apple cider and a sweet. This is also were our photos were shown and we could buy them, plus give any tip wanted. The camp fire was a maximum of 30 minutes before getting back on the bus.
- I found that even with my ski gloves and liners my fingers were very numb by the end of the tour, so the fire really hurt them thawing out, but within a few minutes I was all good.