Dog sledding in Algonquin Park

Going dog sledding was one of the major things I wanted to do during our time in Canada and today we fulfilled that goal.

We woke up at 7:15am. I’d slept reasonably well though was awoken out of a dream about organizing elephants in a zoo. Glen didn’t sleep well but there was no time to remedy that. We packed up our stuff, dropped off the key and set off with Tim and Vaughan for breakfast.

It wasn’t snowing, it wasn’t biting cold and the sky was blue. It looked to be a perfect day for dog sledding.

We had breakfast at Antonio’s Grill, a diner attached to a petrol station. I had an omelette and Glen had bacon eggs. The food was filling and then, with our bellies full, we went to the meeting point.

We arrived at Chocpaw Expeditions just before nine and walked into a room full of people waiting for us. One of the guides, Dylan, then went through an hour’s presentation about what we were going to do, the three golden rules of dog sledding (1. Always keep a hand on the handle bar, 2. Hold onto the lead dogs whenever you stop, 3. Keep one foot on the brake – though that was the rule that got ignored the most), what not to do with the dogs, what to say to make them speed up or slow down, and how to harness a dog up.

Dylan brought in a dog, Rachel, to demonstrate putting on and taking off the harness. She looked so nervous the poor thing but it really showed how used to this they really are.

After an hour and a toilet break, we jumped in our cars and followed in convoy to the kennels. There were over 350 dogs there, each with their own plastic blue drum kennel and tied to stake in the ground.

There were only a few dogs that looked really like the typical husky dog while the rest looked like ordinary, very healthy and lean dogs. We were then given a sled for us to put our stuff into the bag at the back, then all ran to sled number two to help get the dogs and harness them up.

360+ dogs
360+ dogs

Once given a name, we went to the kennel master and were directed to the dog’s kennel, then unclipped the dog and took it to the sled. My first dog got away from me. We heard at the beginning that if a dog does run off, call to it but don’t chase it because it’ll think it’s a game. Luckily for me, however, my dog merely ran into another dog’s kennel so all I had to do was reach in and drag it out. I wouldn’t recommend doing it to any other dog because you’re likely to get bitten, but these dogs had such a well mannered temperament.

From there we put the harness on it then hitched it to the sled before running off to get more dogs. After every sled was full with either five or six dogs, we were ready to go.

Glen started off on the back while I sat down, but just because you sit down doesn’t mean you get to take it easy. The person who sits down has to jump out whenever you’re about to go uphill and run alongside the sled. In addition, if the sled comes to a complete stop, you jump out and run to the front of the line and grab the lead between the two front dogs to stop them from turning back and tangling everyone up.

To start, we went along snow covered roads for a while, Glen getting used to controlling the dogs, and then eventually made it into Algonquin Park and along snow trails.

The dogs we had were amazing. We had Babs and Tyrant in the lead, Jury as point, then Tony and Pace in wheel (closest to us). Babs and Tyrant were incredibly boisterous and they didn’t slow up the whole day, subsequently we spent most of the time riding the brake because our dogs were in danger of overtaking the sled in front. I felt so bad for them because they clearly wanted to run and run fast. Tim and Vaughan’s dogs were the same while the ones in front of us were a bit slower which made for a bit of a stop-start kind of day.

There’s also a knack for getting in and out of a dog sled while it’s moving. You think it’s moving faster than it really is (most of the time) so you have to get over the initial fear of jumping out of a moving vehicle. Then when you’re ready to jump back in, you just have to go for it. I soon got over worrying I was going to break the sled and hopped in with ease. Glen, however, was quite adorable with the way he carefully climbed into the sled, facing me rather than the front. Poor love.

We went through some amazing scenery. It didn’t start snowing until later in the afternoon so we had some beautiful runs through corridors of snow covered trees and over bridges with frozen rivers below.

There were some really awesome steep hills that our dogs loved and I laughed going down. No wonder people use the dogs as a means of transport; they go so fast.

Unfortunately, one hill got away from us. Glen was steering and then, before I knew it, the sled was tipping and from a brief moment my head was parallel to the ground. Then we lost it, I came off, Glen lost his grip on the sled and then the dogs had a wonderful time, free of us trying to slow them down.

We ran after them but of course it was hopeless. They could have run forever and we never would have caught up with them. Luckily the sled in front caught hold of them and held them until we arrived at the bottom of the hill, gasping for breath. The dogs then got entangled and in a bit of a fight with the other dog team. But after a little while and some help from the guide, Lucy, we were back on our way, a little embarrassed, a lot exhausted, but not injured.

Stopping for lunch
Stopping for lunch

We stopped after a while for lunch, which consisted of hot soup and a choice of sandwiches. One of us had to sit on the overturned sled and the other sat at the front holding the lead dogs. You’d think they’d take the moment to catch their breath and rest, but our dogs spent the whole time barking and wanting to get on with more running.

After lunch we continued on through the park for another hour or so, which was when the snow really started coming down. It was just magical. We were then led back to the kennels at about 3:30. When we got back, we unhooked the dogs and took them back to their kennels, their mates barking and yapping in excitement at their return. We then jumped in the car and headed out, back to Antonio’s Grill for dinner and to change into clothes that didn’t smell like dog.

Us back at the kennels
Us back at the kennels

We had such a good day. My concerns over being too cold thankfully didn’t come to fruition. I had long johns and ski pants, then a singlet, tshirt, down jacket and ski jacket, plus gloves and a beanie, so I shouldn’t have been cold anyway, but what with the great weather and all the running, I was plenty warm.

If you’re thinking about going, it’s definitely an active day out. You have to run up hills, or even along the flat to grab the lead dogs, and it takes it out of you, especially when you’re running through thigh high snow.

One of the dogs at the kennels
One of the dogs at the kennels

If you don’t like or are frightened/nervous around dogs, I would not recommend going. First, there are lots of dogs. Second, they’re really strong. When you collect them from the kennel and take them to the sled, you lift them up by their collars so only their back legs are on the ground. Even then, they have the strength to knock you over. And third, they bark. A lot. Constantly. While they won’t bite you, the barking can be a bit much.

Having said that, I loved spending the day with them and they’re beautiful, well looked after and fun animals.

If you want a longer experience, you can go camping over night with the dog team in the park. It would be something to come out in winter, though from a length of time perspective, I’m not sure I really needed to go dog sledding for longer. Maybe if you were heading to the South Pole perhaps but just to go through the park, the four or so hours we spent were enough.

I would go again though, and probably will next year, so if anyone wants to go, let us know.

After dinner,Vaughan drove us home along roads that had been completely cleared of snow (amazing the difference a couple of degrees makes) and jumped in a lovely warm shower when we got home.

What a weekend

(I took some video footage as well so I’ll put that together in the next week and post it. Stay tuned.)

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