Story by Jenn Smith Nelson
PRINCE ALBERT, SASKATCHEWAN — As I pulled up to the Sundogs Excursions camp I was filled with a mix of emotions. Excitement for the adventure to come, fear as it was so cold (and we would be sleeping outdoors), and a sliver of nervousness — which, in retrospect, was a bit silly.
This wasn’t my first time out with Brad Muir and his team. When the Sundogs owner first met me in early 2013, the first words out of his mouth were “Are those the boots you brought?” So this year I tried hard to be better prepared but, alas, failed again. Turns out my “girlie” Sorels were not going to cut it with the extreme weather that had plagued the province, especially up north in Prince Albert National Park. Up until last week, temperatures in Saskatchewan were steady in the minus-30s Celsius range (that’s without the wind chill).
Heavy snowfall and bad weather had pushed Sundogs Excursions winter camping trips a solid month behind schedule. When my trip was rebooked for February, I hoped for better weather than we had in January. No such luck. The morning of the excursion was minus-28 Celsius degrees (minus-18 Fahrenheit). Once Muir outfitted me with some two-pounds-per-foot “real Sorels,” we were ready to go for it.
The trip to camp would be made via dogsled and four of us would be travelling with 14 dogs. Thirty-five squealing, yapping, excited pups vied for attention as two teams of dogs were handpicked for the journey. If you have ever been around a sled-dog camp you will never forget the sound. The saddest part, though, was the sound of heartbreak as dogs left behind wailed with conviction.
As we moved away from Sundogs base, the trail went from a wide path to one less travelled and much narrower. The beauty of the landscape screamed at me to take its picture. So I obliged and shot 300 images or so. (Sorting through hundreds of shots of dog behinds by the way is not fun.) Skies of brilliant blue contrasted against a wealth of pitch white and seemingly untouched snow. Bent and broken birches and snow-laden pines were scattered through the dense boreal forest.
It had indeed been a rough winter but the sight was nothing short of spectacular. In just under an hour we pulled into camp, the anxiety and fear of the cold had diminished. It turned out we were dressed perfectly and thankfully I learned that our tent had a wood stove — a place for reprieve. Learning is a big component of the adventure with Sundogs — winter camping, caring for the dogs and mushing all subjects.
And Muir’s knowledge of the area from fauna to flora and everything in between was impressive. As soon as we arrived, we got to work unharnessing dogs, chipping ice from Beaverdam Lake to access water for boiling, and chopping and collecting wood for the stove. After that point, I was sweating.
How to Stay Hot When It’s Minus-3o in Saskatchewan
It turns out if you keep busy enough and wear the right gear, you actually do stay warm and acclimate to the cold even when it’s minus-30. Inside the tent, Muir fed us a rather unexpectedly delicious tent lunch thoughtfully prepared with rich fats and carbohydrates to keep us fuelled. After some chatting and recharging, it was time for another dog-sledding trip.
Forty-five minutes of peaceful sledding passed when suddenly we saw a creature on the road — a lynx!
Muir explained that wildlife sightings had been much more common this year as animals had taken to the paths and roadways because of the heavy snow. Not even noticing the cold anymore, we returned and I was still lusting for adventure, so I checked out the two quinzhees (a hut of snow) on the lake bed and was surprised by their simplicity, solitude and warmth.
Then, I headed out for a quick hike before losing the light. Not 15 feet from camp I spotted lynx prints — it turns out they apparently are fans of the same area. (I then privately wondered if they ever sleep in the quinzhees?) The only camp visitors we saw were hungry but personable grey jays, or whiskey jacks as they are often referred. I returned to camp fully exhausted yet completely euphoric.
What an amazing day it had been and honestly I did actually forgot about how cold it was. Before hitting the sack, it was time to again take care of the pups. Each dog was provided kibble, a frozen chunk of beef or pork fat, water and a bed of hay — which they each promptly went to town shaping little nests. The tent was cozy and warm even though we were just wearing thermals.
I felt confident the sleeping bags, equipped to insulate us from temperatures as cold as minus-40, would keep us warm enough. And mine did for the most part until much later in the night when the stove needed more wood. I woke up and fed the fire as my three male companions softly snored away.
Upon waking I was worried about the dogs. I knew how cold the night had felt in the tent. I found them frosty but snuggled up in their hay beds, noses buried deep into their fur. Little did I know that we all had survived a night at minus-39, taking the best shot winter could give us and beating it back with a grin.
MORE ABOUT SUNDOGS EXCURSIONS
Website: Visit http://www.sundogs.sk.ca/Home.html for more information.
From puppy camps to learning to mush and half-day to overnight trips, Sundogs offers a good variety of adventures to choose from. Customizing your trip is also an option. Read more about Sundogs programs here.
Location: Sundogs is located off Highway No. 2 (Anglin Lake junction), 65 kilometres (40 miles) north of Prince Albert and is about a 15-20-minute drive from nearby Waskesiu, Saskatchewan.
Places to stay nearby: A partner of Sundogs, Elk Ridge Resort offers the Mush and Stay package: “Dogsled to fine dining” for those not looking to stay outdoors overnight. It includes: a half-day of dog-sledding (3-4 hours), one night’s accommodation, plus a feature evening of dining from a three-course set menu, with wine pairings inspired by the wildlife and flavours of the boreal forest. Prices are $599 for two guests per sled (combined weight limit for two guests approximately 350 pounds) or $839 per guest per sled (extra comfort and twice the driving time).
Contact: Owner-operator Brad Muir has been running Sundogs for 14 years. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 306-960-1654.