Article and photos by Jonathan Maister, a Markham (Canada) based writer and adventurer.
Poise is useful, but not essential. Denis Rozon, a native Algonquin, is your guide and instructor. He is a multiple award-winning dog sledding champion whose intimate knowledge of the sport will ease even the most novice dogsledder through 10 km of Quebec’s most magnificent scenery.
In the bosom of Quebec’s Pontiac region, 80 km west of Gatineau and Ottawa, is the area known as Bristol. In winter virgin snow blankets the ground beneath magnificent forests. Though much of the tree covering is immature (towering pines they are not) the view is breathtaking, – and the air is crystal pure. In the heart of this region is Timberland tours Dog sledding. A dirt road off Highway 148 west takes you to this peaceful paradise. You can’t miss it! Symphonies of dogs (33 of them to be exact) announce your arrival. Denis is an expert breeder of these magnificent animals and his welcoming smile is as wide as the land the land that spawned him.
Bitter defeat at the hands of the Scandinavians some years ago prompted Denis and others to revisit the breeds they used for dog sledding. Traditionally Canadians raced with Huskies which are as Canadian as the Codfish. Unfortunately, they were not ideal breeds for winning races. Hence Denis bred dogs for this very purpose – a perfect mix of Pointer-Alaskan-Hound. Result, success! Trophies and other accolades that attest to his success crowd his little museum.
On arrival expect an introduction to his animals, in particular the dogs that will be pulling your personal sled. Rozon takes pride in his work. This is not merely a case of “Hop on board, hold tight and thanks, hope you had a nice day”. Denis lives and breaths dog sledding. Certain combinations of dogs are selected and harnessed to the sleds which are tethered (for good reason), to posts alongside the start of the trail. The unabashed enthusiasm of these dogs would otherwise make for an early start to your ride, without you!
As a family of three, 2 adults and an eager 6 year old boy, we were no challenge for our host to accommodate. Denis has hosted anyone from diplomats to 1 year olds through his snowy paradise. Each sled accommodates two adults, one sitting and another standing. My son was an enthusiastic passenger on the sled guided by Denis. The much younger set are positioned securely between the legs of a seated passenger parent.
Dog sledding 101 follows. You are instructed how to dance your way, sled underfoot, through the 10km of groomed trails. While you patiently listen to Denis’s words, the dog teams, four strong per sled, have no such need or inclination. The trails already beckon and they strain at their harnesses as though their very lives depended on it! I had visions of Captain Ahab and the dreaded Nantucket sleigh ride. But notwithstanding the eagerness of the hounds, it is wise to heed the words of the instructor. Dog sledding is not difficult to do and certainly safe and fun, but a sense of balance not unlike skiing and an instinct of how the sled sashays from side to side sure helps. The initial jolt as you release the sled is best experienced rather than described. Suffice to say the dogs, unleashed so to speak, give vent to all the energy they can muster. As the sled races between the trees the pace does eventually slacken, but the initial take off was definitely a-hold-on-to-your-hat moment.
As the musher, you stand and subtly guide the sled; gently shifting your weight does much to enhance the ride and ensures the sled remains upright. With me as the musher my sled fell over once, my concentration lapsing as the panorama of powder snow and timber blurred by and the cool breeze tickled my ears. The snow bank and my wife’s body cushioned by winter clothing made for a soft landing. As instructed I did NOT let go of the side lying sled. To do so would have been folly. The sled, relieved of its cargo, would disappear beyond the horizon amidst a symphony of barking never to be seen again! Halfway through the 20 minute ride my wife and I switched places. Content I sat while my wife steered. She, a consummately finer dancer than I, had no trouble keeping us upright and we glided briskly through the remainder of the route.
As a passenger I would compare the ride to skiing the lazy way. You do little but enjoy the view, feel the wind in your face and dodge the intermittent snow pebbles flicked back by the hind legs of the dogs. I was more than confident that my son was in good hands. Some 10 meters ahead of me at all times, his sled was under helm of one of Canada’s finest dogsledders. His squeals of delight were unfortunately lost in the wind.
Twenty-something minutes of sheer delight come to an end, finally, with a resounding “whoa!” A secured metal frame with a spurred underside served as a break and onto this my good wife thrusted both her feet. The serrations bit into the snow and the dogs, finally, came to rest.
Denis is a consummate host. As you slowly regain your foothold on terra firma, he lights a wood fire for warmth and a non alcoholic hot toddy. The scent of the real wood fire which teases your nostrils is as authentic as the ride you have been on. This was no commercial rollercoaster or corporate canine undertaking with scant real regard of nature. As a perfect family adventure this was a real Canadian experience served by someone who embraces the sheer rugged Canadian beauty that abounds, and who is as Canadian as the land which sustains him.
Article and photos by Jonathan Maister.
(Jonathan is a writer based in the Markham region, Ontario, Canada.)