Ryan Pautsch greets me with a lumberjack shirt and a beard that would make Obi-Wan jealous. As we hike a four-kilometre trail that meanders past pristine lakes and forest thick with maple trees, he sounds far more sage than his 28 years would make you believe. He doesn’t own a cellphone and his bucketlist is a compendium of Canadian rivers he would like to drop a canoe on. Before the night is done, he will chop wood with an axe and light a fire in front of a quartet of pine cabins he helped build beneath the Ontario sky.
The wilderness he works in — and which I arrived to visit for the night — covers 2,100 acres of private property belonging to Pautsch’s employers, Winterdance — an off-the-grid eco-tourism destination that is only a few kilometres from Algonquin Provincial Park.
Pautsch is the guide and has the sensibilities of a naturalist that are as rare these days as the quiet and worry-free serenity of the unpopulated woods he knows so well. When the temperature falls, Winterdance becomes a playground for the most athletic of dogs and their lovers. Until 2021, the operation’s primary focus during its first two decades has been dog-sledding experiences.
Owners Hank DeBruin and Tania McCready, his wife, count 150 huskies among their family. Those huskies are treated as well as VIPs. They live in a 5,000-square-foot indoor kennel with floor heating and are regularly fed human-grade beef sirloin. In total, the Winterdance pack consumes more than 100 pounds of food per day.
De Bruin has raced four times in the Yukon Quest competition that runs between Alaska and the race’s namesake Canadian territory, and twice in the famed Iditarod. When not racing, De Bruin and his dogs join Pautsch in leading tours around the Winterdance property, which includes 30 trails. Guests also have the thrill of running a pack of up to six dogs over frozen water. Hollow Lake, which is a short downhill walk from the cabins, can turn to ice and when it does Winterdance has a treasured experience to offer.
When the dogs and their riders have finished their run, those unmissable maple trees take your attention. De Bruin installed a 7-kilometre (4.3-mile) gravity-fed piping system and tapped about half of Winterdance’s 5,000 maples, producing about 1,400 litres of delicious, organic syrup each year. The practice connects to McCready’s heritage. Her grandfather produced maple syrup in the 1930s when a sugar ration was in place in Canada. At Winterdance, the sap from De Bruin’s engineered piping flows into the company’s sugar shack and visitors can see it operating, as well as savour some of its luscious flavour.
At that moment, in the woods, with maple syrup on the tongue, a barn owl hooting in your ear, the wish of spotting a moose sent from your brain to the universe, and the landscape that has inspired centuries of artists beneath your boots, you might feel you are in the Canada of lore.
So it is in warmer weather, too. The ice above Hollow Lake is transformed to clean, clear, calm water that your oar can splash or wade through as you breathe the air of pine and honeydew, and exhale a pandemicful of worry into the nothingness of silence and the Haliburton Highlands soul. It is good timing, then, that Winterdance launched a summer and fall operation.
“People kept saying, ‘Gosh, you have to show us this property in the summer, too.’ So this is our version of a summer experience and to enjoy the land a little bit more. And to share it with people around the world is very special,” McCready says while standing in front of one of the 10-foot-by-10-foot cabins that she decorates with plaid comforters adorned with images of moose and bear. “There aren’t a lot of places that are this untouched.”
As we canoe, I trail Pautsch as he strokes with precise and powerful paddles. His wiry frame angles and contorts to spin and twist with swan-like grace through the shallow lake. His beard catches the sun’s rays and his smile comes easy. It strikes me that I am observing a man truly at one with nature. In that moment, it occurs that this interaction is what Canada has promised to be: A place where humans quarrel with the water and the wind, but find camaraderie as they navigate the rough and untamed land, getting to understand one another and the place they gather, too.
“It’s all about getting back to nature,” McCready points out about the attraction of the Ontario outdoors. “Losing the buzzes, the rings, the dings of our devices that keep us distracted all the time.”
Distracted and disconnected. At Winterdance, you move to a beat that feels as Canadian as anything could.
MORE ABOUT WINTERDANCE
Location: Hodgson Drive, Eagle Lake, Ontario (see map below)
Getting There: Winterdance is about 290 kilometres (180 miles) from downtown Toronto. Drive north on Highway 400 and connect to Highway 11 before exiting on Highway 118 and travelling east toward Bracebridge. Follow the signs for Winterdance and Hodgson Drive.
Summer Rates: $329 per person for one night for the guided hiking trip and includes two picnic lunches, dinner, and use of canoes. Each cabin has a comfortable, plush bed and a loft with a pull-out couch. There is no private bathroom; guests share an outhouse. Winter Rates: Dog-sled tours begin at $199 per person. Website: www.winterdance.com.
Note: Vacay.ca Editor Adrian Brijbassi’s stay at Winterdance was provided by the company. No one from the organization reviewed the article before it was published.