Getting a handle on Ontario dogsledding
Story by Ilona Kauremszky
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
HALIBURTON, ONTARIO — Confession: Up until now dogsledding’s never been on my radar.
But it was deep in Ontario’s cottage country, the Haliburton Highlands on the doorstep of Algonquin Park, where that all changed.
A day before Toronto got walloped with the heaviest snow action to hit these soggy city streets this year, a sled dog team of Siberian huskies was chopping at the bit to race me into old-fashioned Canadian winter.
Winterdance Dogsled Tours operates with a make-no-bones-about-it approach to mushing.
The Canadian Tourism Commission has lauded this special brand of dog-sled tour in its Signature Experiences Collection, which spotlights unique one-of-a-kind encounters throughout the nation.
So I figured learning the age-old sport from a veteran musher who runs a seasonal family business featuring Canada’s only Siberian husky kennel to ever run in the Iditarod and Yukon Quest was a good choice.
Besides, clearly Tanya McCready-DeBruin knew what she was getting into when her hubby Hank DeBruin ventured into the far north with his 10-dog team of raring-to-go-canines.
Living the Dream of Dogsledding in Canada
For DeBruin, to race in the Iditarod was to actualize a dream.
Now it was my turn to make a dream into a reality; to travel by dog sled into the white blanket of the hinterland to view Mother Nature at her wintry best.
Away from the stresses of urban life (no cellphone, laptop or any other distracting digital device except for my camera), there I was in the middle of nowhere: me, five happy go-lucky dogs, guide Mike Rieger, plus a few other likeminded adventure rookies seeking a quick sled-dog fix.
We huddled in a circle, some of us stomping our boots into the fresh powder to keep our tingling toes alive. The temperature shot down to minus-18 Celsius degrees but the glorious sun was out, and frankly that’s all that mattered.
Rieger started the patois on his instructions. Basically shout “Hike” to move and “Whoa” to brake.
As the lead team in this journey, Mike assured us everyone would take turns at the reins.
Why Dogsledding Is Harder Than It Looks
For my first stint, I nestled inside the sled basket — one person drives the sled standing up, while a passenger sits a few feet behind the last pair of huskies — ready to watch a team of dogs hit the groomed snow trail.
“Hike,” Rieger barely whispered, and with that command, a fast, quick jolt nearly bolstered me out of my sled. The dogs’ acceleration practically sent me over the edge. I frantically bolted my grip on the sled’s sides to maintain my sense of security.
“WOW — these dogs leapt as soon as you said ‘Hike’ and to top it off you said it so softly,” I told Rieger, marvelling as we cruised past groves of paper birch with hemlock and pine blanketed in fresh fallen snow on either side.
It doesn’t take much to get these dogs moving so when it was my turn to drive, both my feet were sturdily planted on the sled’s runners with the dogs all standing quietly, barely ready to move — or so I thought.
“Okay, take one foot off the footboard and get ready to pedal,” Mike said matter-of-factly. (Pedalling is a fancy term for removing your foot from a ski-thin board and pushing it into the snow to build up speed.)
I swear my foot was barely off when all of a sudden all the dogs in unison leaned forward and pushed ahead. “Wow, I didn’t see that coming,” I said, laughing nervously before managing to regain my balance.
But boy did it sure feel good.
The trip lasts a full day, covers 30 kilometres of wilderness and is nicely paced for beginners. It makes a great day of winter fun for couples and families. For hungry patrons, there’s a hearty hungry-man lunch, too. Prepare for plenty of carbs, which are welcomed as you’ll need this sustenance to keep your inner body core elevated.
Trust me, I’m glad I dug in.
More About Visiting Haliburton, Ontario
Winterdance Dogsled Tours: The tour www.winterdance.com is a Canadian Tourism Signatures Experience, offering a choice of two-hour, half-day and full-day tours. For more winter outdoor info, visit Ontario Tourism.
Location: 6577 Haliburton Lake Road Haliburton, ON (see map below)
Where to Stay: Sir Sam’s Inn is offering a Highland Dogsled Adventure package from now until March 28. Midweek is from $680 per couple and on weekends from $810 per couple. The package includes two nights’ accommodations, candle light lakeside dining, daily breakfast, a two-hour dogsled tour and full use of the acclaimed WaterSpa.
Directions from Toronto: From Hwy 400 North, connect to Hwy 11 heading northeast. Exit onto Hwy 118 (heading east to Haliburton), then turn east on Highway 14 (Haliburton Lake Road) and follow for 20 km to Fort Irwin. At the stop sign turn left and go over the bridge, continue on for an additional 9 km until you see the Winterdance sign and tipi on the left.
More Dogsledding Coverage in Vacay.ca
- Katie Marti discovers Dogsledding in Revelstoke, British Columbia.
- See this VIDEO from the Quebec Carnival about how Adrian Brijbassi learns dogsledding the hard way.