FOR THOSE OF US WHO READ JACK LONDON’S CALL OF THE WILD AS children, the idea of racing through the snow-covered wilderness behind a team of powerful sled dogs is likely an early fantasy we long ago tucked away in the belief that it would never be realized. In recent years, however, an increasing number of winter travel destinations have begun offering dogsledding vacation packages that can transform that old dream into fresh reality.
Of course, a hard-core wilderness outing is not everyone’s idea of the perfect vacation, so most sledding operations offer trips tailored to meet a variety of tastes, from the wild to the mild. Hearty types looking for a challenging adventure can choose from among many competent outfitters who will teach them to drive their own team and take them on multi-day trips into remote wilderness areas, while those who would prefer to briefly sample the thrill of dog sledding and then return to a cozy luxury resort and a gourmet meal will also find much available to them.
If you are thinking about a vacation involving dog sledding, a good place to start is www.dogsledrides.com, an international directory of touring kennels. This website has listings for over 130 kennels in the U.S., as well as many in Canada and other countries such as Finland, Great Britain, and Germany. One of the most exotic listings is an outfitter in Sweden who offers a package that includes dog sledding, igloo building, and an overnight stay in the world famous Ice Hotel—a mind-boggling structure rebuilt every year in the old village of Jukkasjärvi in Swedish Lapland (see www.icehotel.com). If you would prefer something a little closer to home, just click on your state or province to find outfitters located in your area.
What should you look for in an outfitter, and how much should you expect to pay for your husky-powered holiday? The answer to the latter question is that costs vary widely depending on the length of the trip, the type of accommodation offered, and whether or not the outfitter supplies meals, clothing, or transportation to and from the sledding area. As for choosing an outfitter, the musher’s experience is the key component to ensuring that you have a safe and enjoyable outing. “There is no officially recognized body for dog-sled guide certification,” explains Jeninne Cathers of Cathers Wilderness Adventures, based in Whitehorse, Yukon, “but you want to feel that the guide has the experience to know and care for their dogs well, and to be capable of dealing with situations that may arise on the trail such as bad weather, a broken sled, or even injuries should they occur. In the Yukon, all guides must have first aid and CPR training, and each business must have a valid wilderness tourism license.” Cathers stresses that you should feel free to ask any questions you might have, and suggests contacting a tourism industry association or chamber of commerce in the area you plan to visit if you want to further check out an operator.
Billy Snodgrass, of Continental Divide Dog Sled Adventures in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, embodies all the qualities you would want to find in a dog sled outfitter. A third-generation Wyoming native, Billy has been mushing for over 23 years. He is a serious distance racer and competed with his Alaskan Huskies in the grueling Iditarod in 1998. In the course of his racing career, he has won awards for both sportsmanship and “best cared-for team”—which gives an idea of how he treats his 230 canine athletes. A true dog lover, Billy explains that one of the things he enjoys most about his line of work is simply being around the dogs, especially the puppies. “We have about 30 puppies right now,” he says. “They are soft and they have puppy breath— and they grunt when you squeeze them.” Just what you expect to hear from a tough-as-nails veteran outdoorsman, right?
Most outfitters do care deeply for their dogs and take the welfare of their animals very seriously, but what many people want to know is whether or not the dogs actually enjoy their physically demanding work. According to Jeninne Cathers, who has been racing, training, guiding with, and breeding sled dogs for some 20 years, “Huskies are bred to pull, the same as retrievers are bred to retrieve and herding dogs to herd. Most huskies have a very strong pulling instinct and a natural love of running, in the same way that most retrievers love to chase a ball or go swimming. As a trainer, it is your role to introduce young dogs to pulling in a positive way that brings out their natural instinct. We start the young dogs in a small team so that they feel comfortable and are not overpowered by the speed, and then we let them progress at their own rate to running in bigger teams and eventually perhaps to training as a leader. With dogs, as with people, everyone is different, so every dog will progress at a different rate and have its own strengths and weaknesses which must be taken into consideration.”
Jeninne and her family apply similar principles to their clients, who come to Cathers Wilderness Adventures from all over the world with widely varying expectations and levels of experience. For this reason, the Catherses offer a number of different packages, as well as customized trips tailored to their guests’ specifications. “Some guests like to base their whole trip out of our home cabins,” explains Jeninne, “and some like to spend a few days learning the basics out of home and then progress to an expedition to another cabin. Some guests come back over the years doing customized expeditions along the Yukon Quest race trail or extended camping expeditions into other parts of the Yukon. We like to be able to offer something for the real adventurers and also to have something for those who like to have something easier.”
When asked to describe a typical first trip for a sledding newbie at Cathers Wilderness Adventures, Jeninne says, “Most guests stay for one week the first time they come to us. On the first day, we show them how to put a harness on and how to hook the dogs into the team. Then we go for a short run. For the first run, we feel it is important to start guests with small teams so they are not overpowered. During the first day’s driving, the guests get the feel of the motion of the team and learn how to watch the dogs and the lines to make sure none of the dogs get tangled, and they learn how to safely stop and anchor the sled. The next day, we move on to some of the basics of steering on hills and forest trails. Over the next few days, guests progress to driving slightly larger teams as their skills and confidence increase. Guests also get a sense of their responsibility to their dogs, that they need to watch the lines and control the sled to do their part as a member of the team. They also come to understand the different personalities of the dogs in their team and how they work together.” The great variety in the personalities of the dogs surprises many people, and for Jeninne it is one of the most enjoyable aspects of her job. “Each dog is completely different. I learn so much from them all the time, no matter how long I have been doing it. They are partners, friends, and family.”
Billy Snodgrass’s Continental Divide Dog Sled Adventures also offers a variety of packages, from brief excursions to multi-day and customized trips. Guests have a wide choice of accommodations, from snow camping to deluxe resorts like the historic Brooks Lake Lodge (www.brookslake.com). They even have a remote mountain yurt—a traditional nomadic dwelling native to Mongolia—where adventurous souls can spend the night in surprising warmth and comfort. Guests who sign on for multi-day trips with this popular Jackson Hole outfitter learn how to harness, hook up, drive, and care for a team—and most importantly, quips Billy, “We show them how to use the brake!”
Whether they learn to sled in Jackson Hole or Jukkasjärvi, New Hampshire or Nunavut, newcomers typically find that once they have mastered the basics (brake included) there is nothing in the world to match the dog-sledding experience. Says Jeninne, “Once you get the feel of travelling with your team along snowy trails with only the sound of your dogs’ breathing and the sled runners swishing over the snow… it is an indescribable feeling.” Billy adds that for many guests, the rapport they gain with the dogs is the most meaningful part of the adventure. “Virtually every person who mushes with us is so impressed with the dogs’ abilities. They just can’t believe the power of these little Alaskan Huskies, and they just love the sport. Last year we had over 1500 guests, with 100% satisfaction. Except the one gal who ran into a tree... Oops.”
Jeninne Cathers also finds that people marvel at the dogs, departing with a deep appreciation of not only their physical abilities, but of their rich and varied personalities as well. Asked what else she thinks people take away from a sledding vacation with her outfit, she says, “I think our guests leave with a feeling of having seen and been part of a wilderness lifestyle and of having received a warm welcome from our family. We hope they discovered that they can be comfortable in the wilderness in winter, whether they were on a camping expedition or staying in one of our cabins. And they have personally gained some skills in driving a dog sled and have learned something about caring for sled dogs.” Many people, in fact, find that dog sledding is addictive, and some become so enamoured of the sport that they end up with teams and sleds of their own. However, even if you are an apartment-dwelling city slicker with a no-dog clause in your rental agreement, rest assured that there are plenty of spectacular vacation destinations where you can experience the wild and woolly thrill of dog sledding first-hand. Huskies… MUSH!
To contact Cathers Wilderness Adventures, see www.cathersadventures.com or call (867) 333-2186. To contact Continental Divide Dog Sled Adventures, see www.dogsledadventures.com or call (800) 531-MUSH (6874).
Susan Kauffmann is a freelance writer who lives in Langley, B.C. Her Alaskan Malamute, Kuma, has never seen a sled, but would likely enjoy riding on one.
Photos by Ed Vos. More of Ed’s photos can be viewed online at www.edvos.com