Through the old-growth pine forest we slide under a glittering blue sky, six Alaskan racing huskies in harness pulling the sled through the snow. Sam, the musher (driver), stands at the back, reins in hand, talking in tongues as far as I know, as the dogs respond to his words by racing ever-faster downhill. Fearful, I am wrapped in a big blanket, sitting in the centre of the sled, wondering whether I should lean, like a motorbike passenger, into the rapidly approaching bend. Instead, I close my eyes and marvel at the silence that now fills the 1000-year-old cedar forest.
Our adventure is with Whistler Dogsledding in the Soo Valley, a 30-minute drive from the British Columbia ski resort. It’s a spectacular alpine landscape: a deep river valley, surrounded by majestic peaks. In the local Indian language, Soo translates as Beautiful Gift, and the valley is a true beauty. Today, every branch and pine cone has been dusted with powder snow.
Minutes earlier when we arrived at the dog-sled base, I could barely hear myself think amid the tumultuous barking. As soon as the huskies were harnessed to the sled, they began hurling themselves into the air, straining at their leashes in what looked like demonic fury.
“They don’t look happy, do they?” shouted Sam, before our hour-long adventure began. “But they are. They just can’t wait to go. Sledding is in their blood.”
I look around at the flat stretch of land raised above the river bend, where 10 other sleds, six dogs a piece, now stand. The decibel levels are shattering, but the six children — some sitting two-a-sled with Mum and Dad — don’t seem to notice. Perhaps it’s only grumpy old men, who wish they had brought earplugs.
With all the sleds lined up and ready to go, the lessons begin. I’ve decided to stay in the sled, so there’s no pep talk for me — except to hang on tight. Others, it seems, have volunteered to take the reins and “mush”.
I strain to hear what the trainee musher in the next sled is being told … something about braking. Step on it too hard and you’ll be catapulted into a tree. Tread too lightly and centrifugal force will have you sliding off at the next bend.
“The golden rule is never let go,” says the instructor. “The dogs will carry on running and they can reach speeds of 35kph. It could be a long, bruising walk home.”
This no-nonsense introduction seems a little cursory and not entirely reassuring, but it soon ends when the number-one sled disappears in a whoosh of powder snow like a dog-propelled missile, followed by the rest, one by one, plunging down the hill.
Dogsledding was once the lifeblood of the frozen north. All the countries bordering the Arctic Circle depended on dog teams as they were the only reliable, all-weather means of getting people and goods from place to place.
With the arrival of the snowmobile in 1959, dogsledding could have disappeared, but instead it continued to flourish as a spectator sport.
Every February, the world’s toughest race — the 1600km Yukon Quest — is run between Whitehorse, Canada, and Fairbanks in Alaska. It can take 20 days to complete. On March 1, another great race, the Iditarod, is run between Alaska’s capital, Anchorage, and the Bering Sea coast.
Ten minutes have flown by since our tour began and I’m feeling relaxed, even exhilarated. The dogs are the real heroes, they’re doing all the work, and the eight sleds are serenely gliding ever deeper into this forest of towering redwoods, hemlocks and cedars.
First, the sleds pass Cougar Mountain, where Sam says mountain lions still prowl, but are rarely seen. Then we glide past Rainbow Mountain, the area’s ultimate heli-skiing peak, but there isn’t a chopper in sight.
As the sled glides around another bend, I spot a moose on the river bank standing as still as a statue in the shade of a giant cedar. Perched on the tree’s highest branches are several bald eagles, the national emblem of the US, where they became almost extinct before Canada helped to introduce them by sending breeding birds over the border.
Occasionally, a dog turns its head to snatch a quick mouthful of snow from the bank — not for refreshment, but to cool down. Sled dogs don’t sweat, it seems, they swallow snow instead.
Thanks to Sam, I know all the dogs by name. On my arrival, the 24-year-old musher from Echuca, Victoria, introduced me to the team.
Snow White is matched with Cher. Then come the two “swing dogs”, Jekyll and Hyde. Usually one is older and wiser and teaches his younger companion how to run. At the back are the “wheel” dogs — the big boys with all the brawn. There’s Rocky, a dog with one blue eye, the colour of a cornflower, and one brown eye. He’s matched with Moose.
“Anyone can drive a sled,” says Sam. “So long as they are over the age of 12.” First of all, they must learn how to talk the talk. To start the team, you say “hike up” (go). To go left is “ha”; to the right “gee”. To stop, you say, “whoa”, and gently step on the brake.
Sam, who’s taken off a year to travel around the world, says he’s always loved dogs, but only decided to become a trainee musher, when he saw an advert in the local paper.
“Later in the year when the snow begins to melt, this valley is home to black bears,” says Sam. “That’s when the dog-sled operation moves up the mountain and continues until mid-July. Last year, the dogs were taken up Blackcomb Mountain in the main ski gondola. Now that was a sight worth seeing.”
When we arrive back at the dog-sled base after our seven-kilometre run, a little girl is cradling a bundle of fur in her arms. “Mummy, can I have a husky puppy to take home?” she begs.
Alaskan husky pups make challenging pets. Having been bred to pull sleds for more than 2000 years (originally by the Inuit people of Northern Canada), this breed has huge reserves of energy.
Without an arduous daily quota of exercise, they develop destructive behaviour, such as tearing apart soft toys and, when mature, all the household furnishings to boot.
Keep them exercised and they make loyal and focused pets, but this requires jogging with them for several hours a day.
One of the great moments in sled-dog history was in 1925, when a deadly diphtheria outbreak threatened the Alaskan town of Nome. To stave off an epidemic, a relay of 22 dog-sled teams forged 1085km into the interior to deliver vital serum that, saved hundreds of lives.
In New York’s Central Park, there’s a statue that commemorates this feat. The inscription reads: “Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed the antitoxin over rough ice, treacherous waters; through Arctic blizzards … to the relief of Nome ... Endurance. Fidelity. Intelligence.”
It took the relay teams, five days to reach the stricken town. In comparison, our hour-long dog-sled tour was little more than a ride around the park, but it’s a ride I’ll never forget.
Air Canada flies non-stop from Sydney to Vancouver.
The Canadian Tourism Commission for information on visiting Canada.
Dogsledding at Whistler, Canada: how to experience it.