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Dog Power: A Mush through History


One bitterly cold morning I left Jasper in a van headed east. The thermometer had fallen to minus 22 C before wind chill. The others in the back had to scrape away the ice on the inside of the windows so they could see the fantastic sights the driver was telling us about. The van was comfortably warm, too comfortable for the insulated rubber boots the Jasper Adventure Center had provided. Ours was a journey back into the past; back to the days when vans and asphalt roads did not exist, to the days when teams of dogs kept explorers and frontiersmen moving.

 

The Entrance Ranch

Forty dogs howled in anticipation as our van pulled up at the famous Entrance Ranch property. An attractive lady wearing elbow-high bear fur gloves came out to greet us. Her name was Frankie, and she had been recently training for the Iditeron, the most grueling and famous of dogsled races. She, along with a few other hardy souls, was our hosts for the day. All seemed like characters out of a movie, so different from the city folk I had accompanied to the ranch.

Copyright Tyson Brooks.The dogs' excitement spread and soon we, too, were eager to begin. After a quick rundown on the simple operation of a dogsled, the dogs were hooked on, the four sleds were tied to four trees to prevent the dogs from bounding off before we were ready. The sleds were simple contraptions; essentially wooden runners, a foot brake and handlebars. One person sat in the front, legs stretched out on a foam camping mat and wrapped in a warm sleeping bag, the other stood in the back, mushed, and hoped for the best.

Our hosts added six dogs to each sled. It was a far cry from the 18 used in the Iditeron, but more than enough to get the adrenaline flowing in beginners. I was told we would reach initial speeds of 35-miles-per-hour on the first hill. Cautiously, I decided to take a seat in the front as a passenger. I noticed that ice was already beginning to form on the mustache of one of our hosts, so I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag and braced myself for takeoff.

The sled catapulted ahead, racing down the hill and onto a field. The dogs barked, the wind howled and soon we were in the forest. The turns were tight and I had to lean to help make some of the corners. The soft snow slowed us down, but it would break the impact if our sled turned over. The forest was ours. Only the tracks of the first team kept us on course. The dogs never seemed to tire or even want to slow. Soon we stopped to allow the more cautious drivers to catch up. To stop the dogs, the driver would put his full weight on a foot operated lever that pushed two spikes deep into the ice and snow. Seldom did this stop the dogs entirely. If the musher fell off, the dogs would continue until they became too tired or tangled to continue. In the worst case scenario, they would tire in seven or eight hours and several hundred kilometers farther. As we were beginners, our dogsled convoy included two snowmobiles to provide any needed assistance.

 

Copyright Tyson Brooks.It was so cold my feet grew numb, even though they were wrapped up in a sleeping bag and encased in thermal rubber boots. I was enjoying the scenery and the thrill of the speed, but it was small compensation for enduring this extremely chilly day. I wanted to mush. As a passenger I did not have much to do. I would occasionally lean to allow the driver to take the corners even faster, and we chatted as we sped along. On one occasion, I had to fend off a dog who decided that the side of the sled was a good place to relieve himself. He lifted his leg, so I reached over and gave him a good push. He fell over into the soft snow, shook himself off, and did not bother to try again. In fact, he seemed very polite after that little episode.

Mush! Finally, I was in charge.

“Mush,” I yelled, and the dogs leaped to life. Racing to keep up with the leader, I drove them hard. I took corners at full speed, leaning the best I could to keep the sled on course. It was not easy. I fell once trying to keep the dogs on track. I hit the ground hard, bounced back up and broke into a sprint to try to catch up with the dogs. With a bit of luck I hopped back on to the speeding runners ready for the next corner. On uphills I would leap off to lighten the load. On a straightaway, I would duck down to get out of the wind. It was fun, as challenging as you wanted to make it. At other times the lead dogs behind us would be at my feet, the dogs panting with exertion, their breath warming my feet. These dogs were like puppies, energetic and never wanting a break. They loved attention and needed a good lead dog to keep them on track.

After a short 35 kilometers, we were back at the homestead where lunch awaited us. We were invited into one of the nicest homes on the property. Just built, the house was a straw eco-house, heated only by a fireplace. A huge stone below the house absorbed heat from the fire and constantly radiated it evenly throughout the entire dwelling. The simple technology and beauty of the house was impressive. The lunch, catered by a local lady was delicious. It was a simple spread of chili, sandwiches and hot chocolate with an overwhelming array of desserts at the end. It was hard not to sample one of everything they had. After a filling meal, the guests were let loose to play like kids outside. We headed straight to the Scandinavian kick sleds. These sleds are essentially a small self-propelled standup sled with a seat on the front for a passenger. After we managed to get the hang of these standup sleds, they added a couple of dogs to each. They let us do a few laps of the field before sending us on out weary way home. Everyone piled into the van, content yet sorry to leave.

Jasper Adventure Center provides a range of activities year around. Their staff is both helpful and knowledgeable. Their dog sledding trip is reasonably priced and free from that mass tourism feel so common nowadays.

For more information:

Jasper Adventure Centre
604 Connaught Drive
P.O. Box 1064
Jasper, Alberta, Canada
T0E 1E0
Phone: 1-800-565-7547 or (403) 852-5595
Website:
tours@telusplanet.net
Email: www.explorejasper.com/tours.htm