Dereck’s take on the tradition that captured his heart
Of all activities that are possible during a winter stay in Quebec, dog sledding is certainly Dereck’s favorite. To be fair, he has guided dog sledding expeditions for nine straight winters and may be slightly biased. Having quit his regular position in the field in order to live in Guatemala for a season, he’s also had significant time to lust and ponder over the activity. Here is his outlook on the endeavor.
Amidst thrill seekers, nature lovers and adventurous souls, dog sledding is a whole other world unto itself. Dog sledding is rooted in the purest tradition of French Canadian fur traders and explorers. It allows a rare communion with nature, and it is a deceptively challenging endeavor. Contrary to Hollywood depictions, dog sledding is a physical activity that is as hard as it gets. Dog sledding involves balance, strength, cold, endurance and emotion, and your very core may be shaken by this canine odyssey.
Winter is something to be lived
Even if you have experienced snow, it may come as a shock just how harsh the surrounding environment is. Quebec is winter. In some regions, expect the first snowfalls as early as September. Thankfully, it generally melts quickly only to settle for real in November. From that point on, winter will last into April and the snow may only be done melting by early July in the most rural areas. Temperature may drop as cold as -40 Celsius or Fahrenheit doesn’t matter at this point: it’s just really cold. Some areas get buried under as much as eight meters of snow. Wind happily blows the snowflakes around you and tests your winter gear to its fullest. Winter is truly an experience to live. Sounds frightening doesn’t it? Rightly so.
Hint: look at our packing guide for tips how to prepare for year-round backpacking
Now that you’re feeling cold
Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you. Really, the cold is part of the experience. Everything about dog sledding is a foreign to most people, and that includes the cold conditions. Dog sledding in a different, extreme climate simply highlights how amazing the tradition is. Just remember, to stay warm you need proper clothing and plenty of food to digest. In the mix, move and exert yourself and you won’t be feeling the cold. Remember, trust your guide’s advice on your equipment. If he says you’re overdressed, shed a few layers. He knows that if you overheat you’ll sweat, and sweat will cool you off much faster than being under-dressed.
Immersing yourself in this new world
People new to the activity often have conflicting emotions about dog sledding. When they first learn that the Siberian Huskies live outside, some are concerned. When later they learn that the dogs prefer staying outside due to their thick coats, things piece together. See a very skinny-looking sled dog? It’s probably what mushers have come to call an Alaskan. Those dogs simply do not get fat, ever. They are athletes and their metabolism treats any food given as rocket fuel.
Huskies, Malamutes and other sled dog breeds evolved at the side of men with a specific purpose. They’ve followed tribal hunters, explorers and traders for thousands of years. They’ve had all time in the world to adapt. These are dogs bred to thrive in the harsh winter conditions, and cannot be compared to more domestic dogs, like poodles. When you’re learning about dog sledding, we suggest you keep an open mind and be willing to learn. Trust your provider.
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Picking the right dog sledding provider
This is tricky. We advocate traveling as cheaply as possible, but when it comes to animal-involved activities, we urge you to look at things differently. We all love dogs, don’t we? Thing is, if we go for the cheapest provider, we may be selecting the one that doesn’t care to pay for the vet when a dog gets injured. We may be giving our money to a provider that cuts down on food when business is low. There are many responsible dog sledding providers, but there are also those that only care about the revenue, and these are the ones you want to avoid.
So how can you tell the difference? Personally, we’d suggest choosing a small provider over an industrial one. When making your reservation, don’t be shy asking how many dogs are on the premises. As a general rule, kennels with fewer than 60 dogs should be favored. What, 60? Yeah! It takes many, many dogs to bring people on a ride. From the guide’s own sled to the clients, including dogs resting that day, puppies and old, you need many more dogs than what you actually bring out. We’re not saying kennels with more than 60 dogs are bad. Just beware of industrious ones with hundreds upon hundreds of dogs.
How long should my ride be?
Many people think that because they are beginners, they should buy the shortest possible ride. This is a common mistake! We strongly advise the opposite. See, if you’re leaving for an hour you barely have time to understand how to drive your sled. If you leave for a day, you’ll get past the learning curve and be able to enjoy the experience much more. As a bonus, dog sledding for longer will allow you to learn about your dogs and really bond with them. Ideally, plan to leave for a few days. It may be pricey, but it’s completely worth it.
Wait, you said drive?
Totally! Most people expect to be sitting in the sled, and most providers will make you pay for that. Sitting, however is not the VIP seat people make it out to be. First, it’s freezing. Remember what we said earlier? Moving keeps you warm. Sitting still… freezes you. Secondly, it’s scary. Really scary. Sleds may go fast, roads are windy and dogs are certainly not as predictable as a car. Look! A squirrel! The third reason for not sitting the ride: the smell! By sitting, you’re right up the dog’s butts. Classy! And you know, there’s a reason we walk dogs when we want them to poop. Your team of six dogs is going to poop a lot during the ride. If at all possible, driving your dog sled is the way to go. It’s more challenging, but also more rewarding.
Driving may just be one of the biggest challenges you’ll face
If you thought sitting was hard, driving is a whole other experience. Driving the sled takes balance, reflexes and an ability to laugh at yourself. Most likely, you’re going to fall. Thankfully, snow is usually puffy and it’s only funny. We prefer not to fall but it’s part of the learning curve. Don’t worry, the longer you’re out dog sledding the better you’ll get. At the end, you’ll barely think about the falls. You’ll be reminiscing about enjoying the ride, bonding with your dogs and appreciating the quietness of the forest.
Once you’re done with the ride, be sure to take the time to thank your dogs and spend time playing with them. This is part of their reward and they’ll enjoy the time you can give them. Notice one thing? You feel exhausted but many of the sled dogs look like they’d gladly go for another ride. Dog sledding is a shared effort. Dogs don’t haul you around. Of course, they provide a lot of the effort but so do you. Each ride is unique and you’ll likely be drained when you get back inside. Fall asleep and you may just be dreaming of their eager barks throughout the night, as Dereck has for years.
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