Dashing through the snow

Eager sled dogs pull novices through an exhilarating northern trip

Destination: Ontario

January 26, 2003|By Jon Secrest | By Jon Secrest,Special to the Sun

Although I had anticipated that it would happen, it was still with some surprise that I found myself being dragged in the snow behind eight powerful, excited Siberian huskies, one desperate hand on the sled handle and legs flailing behind me in what our guide good-naturedly referred to as "an Indiana Jones."

I managed to pull myself back on the sled and bring it to a halt. As I waited for my wife, Kerry, to limp her way over because she had been knocked off the sled halfway down the hill, I found myself breathing heavily, surrounded by a stunning, snowy landscape. I was utterly exhilarated.

It had been Kerry's idea.

"Dog-sledding in February? In Canada?" I had asked somewhat incredulously, given Kerry's persistent efforts to turn up the thermostat at home. We've hiked and camped extensively, but northern Ontario is bitterly cold in the winter, and we're not really "dog people."

Kerry discovered White Wolf Wilderness Expeditions on the Internet, and booked the trip after speaking with the owner / guide, Jeff Zuchlinski. A number of outfitters run dog-sledding trips in the northern United States, but we found the Ontario outfitter to be much cheaper than American ones. We and four friends flew to Toronto and met Jeff and his assistant, Duncan Quick, four hours north, in Sudbury, Ontario. (They have since moved their headquarters to nearby Temagami.)

We spent the first night at an old hunting and fishing place, Lakeland Lodge, in Skead, Ontario. The lodge is run by Buck and Gail Olivier. They take clients bear and moose hunting, fishing, trapping and snowmobiling, and continue to work a 100-mile-long trapline for local sale, as evidenced by the animal pelts hanging in clusters around the main lodge.

In her spare time, Gail splits the wood by hand every day for all the stoves in the lodge and surrounding cabins, which helps explain the bone-crushing handshake that accompanies her warm and gracious smile.

Spirited dogs

Saturday morning, it was overcast and snowing lightly, and the temperature was in the 20s, which is balmy for Sudbury in February. The dogs are kept overnight on a line of chains in the snow to minimize fighting. But we witnessed the first of what would be many fights during the trip. One of the few instructions Jeff had given us was to stand clear from any brawl, because although the dogs are unfailingly friendly toward people, they could accidentally bite one of us in the melee.

By yelling, tugging and hitting one dog repeatedly on the snout, Jeff finally managed to separate the two animals, leaving the white snow flecked with the bright blood of the losing dog.

It was thus with some trepidation that we took the padded harnesses we were given and began muscling the dogs into them. They willingly let us do this task. Knowing that the time to run with the four sleds was near, the 23 dogs began a cacophony of excited and agitated barking. We could scarcely hear Jeff's urgent, shouted instructions as he directed us to clip the dogs' harnesses into the sled ropes in particular spots.

Each sled was tied to a tree, but the small trees were shaking furiously as the dogs barked and hurled themselves forward in their harnesses in an increasingly frenzied attempt to run with the sleds, which jumped off the snow as the lines on either side came taut.

We finally got all the dogs in place, and Jeff released his sled at the lead, with the others following in line. Kerry and I stood nervously with one foot on a runner and the other on the brake, a metal bar with a hook that we could drive into the snow to slow the sled.

When our turn came, I popped the quick-release hook on the line that held us to the tree. We rocketed forward, even though I was standing on the brake. We hurtled down a small hill and out onto the lake, almost tipping over as one runner went over a snow bank on a turn.

The dogs were unable to pull the loaded sleds with us on them up the numerous hills, so we had to jump off and push, which was fairly strenuous. As we crested the top of each hill, the dogs started gaining speed, and we ran and jumped on the runners.

Duncan explained that it's possible to steer by leaning hard to one side and dragging a foot in the snow to act as a rudder, but our technique was lacking. This was worrisome at times, and going downhill we had several close calls at high speeds with large trees. Most of us were tossed off the sleds at various times, and some sleds tipped over and were dragged by the dogs down the slope.

Descending each steep hill, Kerry and I tried to hang on while standing with all our weight on the brake, but the weight of the sled and the force of the running dogs meant that we could only slow the sled, not stop it. Slowing was critical, because if unbraked, the sled would run down the dogs, or there would be enough slack in the harnesses that the dogs could get tangled up and break a leg, or worse.

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