Quintessentially Canadian: What I Learned from Dog Sledding in Northern Alberta

An attempt at dog sledding in snowy (and windy) Cold Lake, Alta. proved to be both terrifying and life-affirming for the daughter of one Our Canada contributor. Here’s what she learned.

Dog sledding in AlbertaPhoto: Courtesy of Lois Trotter

Canadian Dog Sledding Memories

About 30 years ago, my husband David and I along with our daughter Amy moved from Southern Manitoba to Cold Lake, Alta. Almost immediately, we met some people who were dog mushers. David was always looking for adventure and a challenge, so we were soon the proud owners of three Alaskan huskies and a sled.

After that our dog count continued to expand—to 27! Amy was in her early teens and often joined David in working with the dog teams. One winter, our friends Dave and Micheline invited us to participate in a fun run—a gathering of local mushers with their children, dogs and sleds. These families gathered to try out various local trails. David took a team of our sled dogs for a run, then at sundown, Amy was offered a chance to try the shorter eight-mile trail. The temperature was cold, about -35°C, but the short trail seemed like a good quick run at the end of the day. Years later, Amy wrote about her experience. I would like to share her story in her own words. (These cool Canadian travel destinations put the “win” back in winter.)

My family and I enjoyed running the sled dogs. This particular day of the fun run was a typically cold day in Northern Alberta—a day that would make icicles hang from noses and require many layers of clothing against the chill. The truck ride out to Dave and Micheline’s place was uneventful, but as we drove into their yard all the dogs barked loudly and excitedly! We were told the wind was particularly cold on the frozen ponds that day, but stubborn as I was, I thought nothing of it.

When my turn came, I had full confidence in my dog team knowing they were familiar with the eight-mile trail that we were to take. Little did I realize that by the end of the night, confidence in my team would change into deep respect and a trust that could never be challenged.

My father and I hooked up our three-dog team to the sled while he instructed me to be careful and to keep as warm as possible. After these and other words of encouragement, I was off—my dogs eagerly pulling me towards the sunset. (Check out the story of how an adopted dog changes her adventurous owners’ lives for the better.)

Everyone had been right in saying it was windy, and I’d underestimated how much that wind had blown the snow around during the day. Everything was going smoothly until the team rounded the corner where the 12-mile trail branched off my path. The wind had scattered snow over the trail we were on and my dogs were unsure where to run. Seeing that the 12-mile track was clearer, my team began to wander over there. It was at this point that I began to worry. Sinking my snow brake into the ice and snow as best I could, I quickly grabbed my lead dog, Cody, to show him the correct trail. Unfortunately, the trail was snowed over so badly that he couldn’t see it. Quickly realizing that I wouldn’t be able to lead him farther down the trail, I made the decision that would change everything—we started down the 12-mile trail. It was unfamiliar and with the sun now completely set, I was scared.

My father’s words echoed in my mind, “Stay warm!” I looked around for my warmer pair of gloves and saw them resting safely in the basket of my sled. Before putting my gloves on, however, I thought I’d give turning the dogs around one more try. Once again planting the snow brake into the hard-packed snow, I proceeded to turn my team around. Just as I drew parallel to Cody, another team member jerked the line and the brake broke loose. As the sled whizzed by me I made a frantic grab for it, but missed. It was at that moment I began to pray. So many thoughts went through my mind. I thought of my parents and what they must be thinking as my arrival back at the yard was delayed; would I get back alive?

I consider what happened next to be a miracle. The snow hook (a steel hook that acts as an emergency brake) caught on an exposed tree root and the dogs stopped. Trembling and heavily clothed, I ran as fast as I could, managing to hop onto the sled just as the brake released, and we were off again—I held on for dear life! Not being able to hold back tears, I cried a lot in the next little while, not knowing where I was or if we were even on the trail. My huskies ran on into the night.

What I saw next can only be compared to a parched man in a burning desert who sees an oasis. I didn’t believe it at first, but there it was, a light in the distance. A gleaming light in a yard that beckoned my team and me to safety. I knew I had to try with all my might to get the dog team off this dark, frozen trail and into that yard. As though reading my mind, Cody immediately headed into the ditch, across a road, down the lane and straight to the farmhouse. I saw a burly, bundled-up man coming towards me and my only thought was of getting warm. The big man was kind as he asked me some questions but, realizing that I was too cold to answer him, he sent me into the house and then took care of the dogs and sled.

Soon, the kind stranger returned to the house and immediately put a pot of water on to boil. He asked me where I came from and I finally managed to give him Dave and Micheline’s names. I heard him talking on the phone but could only focus on the steaming teacup that I was gingerly holding with my white-tipped fingers.

I’d come so close to giving up in the dark, freezing night that it almost seemed unreal when I saw Dave and Micheline’s truck pulling into the yard to pick me up. The looks of relief on their kind faces reassured me that everything was going to be all right. I was headed back to my family, friends and a good hot meal.

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Originally Published in Our Canada