OUTAOUAIS, QUEBEC: “Mush or ride?” Bruno hollers over the cacophony of 70 huskies jack-knifing off kennels frantically messaging, ”Take me! Take me!” in the frosty air.
A novice musher armed with a Nikon, a video camera and 11experienced dogs is clearly a recipe for disaster. “Ride!” I holler back. My inner voice sneers, “Wimp”.
Mushing, or not, dog sledding 101 is a pre-requisite at Chiens Traineaux Petite-Nation, one of the many winter activities across the river from Ottawa. The info is basic. Team’s up front. Sled and I are in the middle. Musher and brake bring up the rear. Huskies on the trail respond to stop, go, left, right and straight ahead – in French. No evidence of luxurious white Doctor Zhivago robes and wraps. Only a pair of $8 Value Village snow pants protects my posterior from sled wood…which, I quickly discover, is damn hard doing 30 (feels like 60) over hill and dale in driving snow. But, that’s Canada, eh?
With a command to Gypsy, the lead dog, and her daughter, I cling to sled and cameras as the snowy -10 degree landscape whizzes by. Behind me, Bruno directs the now silent working dogs. Trails are groomed, but driving snow is making things interesting. Racing down a steep incline a novice musher frantically works to hang on to her team but lands face first in a snow drift. “Whoa, Gypsy!” orders Bruno. “Get out. Stand hard on the brake. Don’t let it go!” he orders me. I picture me airborne cartoon-like gripping the sled with the Gypsy and her pals heading for the hills. I obey my order hoping Gypsy does ,too.
By the time everyone is sorted out I’ve managed to let two dogs get into an altercation and get a harness tangled. Bruno, who has been as musher since he was 13, restores order. We take off.
Picturing my legs wrapped about tree trunks on the now narrow trail, I wedge them securely over the First Aid backpack strapped on our sled. Somehow I keep shooting stills and videos. Bruno answers my dog questions in between instructions to our team.
Careening along I learn about the difference in sled dogs. The skilled dogs live to about 12 years old, and fed a balanced diet including fresh cooked meat, chicken, fish prepared onsite daily. Alaskan Huskies are small, fast and intelligent, but not as strong as the powerful Greenland Huskies or Malamutes. Respect and affection between animals and owner is clearly apparent. Bruno – who was passionate about dogs as a child – owns seven. I ask about team training. “All their lives they are learning, they never stop,” he says. Smart, I think.
At the halfway hut in the woods we stop for hot chocolate, and sort out a few more mishaps. Nothing serious, but the weary new mushers note that this job isn’t as easy as it looks. No complaints, though.
“Friends tell a musher when her mascara is running,” someone laughs, scooping snow into a wad of tissues and washing my kol streaked face. My last hope of qualifying for a chorus of Lara’s theme, and an Omar Sharif moment fades. No matter. We all agree the experience is magical and invigorating.
Bruno tells me few Quebecers aren’t interested in dog sledding, but tourists love it. Score one for the tourists. This is a truly northern experience, a step back in time, a spiritual reaffirmation injection. We race from forest to vast snow-blanketed fields bathed in winter sun. Finally, I understand what being Canadian really feels like. Definitely cool.
– Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a writer and photographer who also discovered the charm of snow shoeing in Quebec. For more information: www.tourismeoutaouais.com