Food. Life. Travel

Winter Wonderland: Dog Sledding in Canmore (Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours)

I had the most amazing time of my life yesterday. As an early birthday present, my brother and sister took me to accomplish the ultimate bucket list experience – dog sledding! We went with Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours based in Canmore, Alberta.

The entire experience was a surprise. Over the weekend my sister told me she found a Groupon to go snowshoeing. I was excited because I had never been snowshoeing. In fact, I had no idea what was going even when I saw the dog sleds at the start site. There were so many signs that pointed to the fact that we were actually going dog sledding. For one, we pulled up to the  Snowy Owl tour company, but my sister casually explained that the snowshoeing tour group operated from within. I didn’t question it. At one point, a lady walked into the store and asked us if we were going dog sledding as well, and I thought to myself “one day we will.” And finally, when we got off the bus at the start site our guide said: “Alright folks you can go ahead and pet the dogs, and we will start getting on the sleds soon.” Yet all I was thinking was “Yay I get to pet some dogs!”

I still had no idea what was going on. Even when I saw the dog sleds. In my head, I reasoned that the dog sleds were there to guide us along the snowshoe tour (yes, I was still convinced we were snowshoeing). At no point did it occur to me that we were the ones who would be dog sledding until my sister pointed it out. I almost burst into tears. This surprise was so unexpected. Dog sledding has been something I have wanted to do for years and the entire trip up I kept telling my brother and sister that one day we should do it. And all the while I was none the wiser.

I cannot explain the feeling of euphoria, awe, and freedom you get from dog sledding. The entire experience was everything I could imagine and more. Dog sledding is one of my Top 50 Amazing Life Experiences I have had the privilege of witnessing. I say Top 50 because I think everyone should have at least 50 amazing lifetime experiences – and dog sledding is certainly one of them.

“Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours was formed in Canmore, Alberta in 1983… by Connie Arsenault. Her passion for dog sledding ultimately turned into an experience so special that… Snowy Owl has grown from 1 dog team and 10 sled dogs to 16 dog teams and 180 sled dogs respectfully! They have taken their time in growth, always ensuring that any increase in sleds would under no circumstances compromise the ethical treatment of their Husky family!”

 

 

SOUNDS COOL, BUT ALL I KNOW ABOUT DOG SLEDDING IS “MUSH”

First rule of dog sledding (according to Hollywood) is to yell out “Mush!” right? Wrong! Don’t worry I was under the same impression. In fact, I am here to clear the air about a few misconceptions about dog sledding.

Dog sledding is considered a sport. However, prior to this, dog sledding was a cultural livelihood practice of the Northern Aboriginal People of Canada (The Inuit). In order to traverse the wild arctic land, dog sled teams were employed to haul people and goods across the terrain. Interestingly enough, archaeological evidence points to the beginnings of dog sledding at around 800 AD.

So where does our concept of “Mush” come from? Once French colonizers came to the Arctic, they too began to use dog sleds as transportation. They spurred the dogs to move faster by saying “marche” (move/walk). This eventually got appropriated (by the English) to the term mush, and subsequently, dog sled drivers were known as mushers.

The Canadian Encyclopedia does a great job of explaining the history of dog sledding here. If you want to know more about the importance of dog sledding to the Inuit people, check out the Nunuvat Tourism’s post on dog sledding!

THE 411:

  • The Powder Hound Express Tour (3 people self-driven sled)
  • 2-hour experience, with approximately 1 hour of dog sledding (you traverse 10 km of terrain around Spray Lake)
  • Available from November 1 to April 30 (weather permitting)

I think that one hour of dog sledding is perfect, especially if it is your first time. If you’re feeling more adventurous you can venture into even wilder territory with 4 hour, 8 hour and even an overnight trip!

FIRST IMPRESSIONS:

Initially, I was under the impression that we were going snowshoeing. So naturally my first impression was misguided 😉 After the initial shock of realizing we would be going dog sledding, I began to focus my attention on the dogs. They are incredibly adorable, and my mind turned to mush seeing them.

Once you arrive at the departure site, you have about 3 minutes to pet the dogs and snap a few photos. Afterward, there is a brief 30-minute introduction to dog sledding. The introduction goes over the proper commands (hike, woah, easy and good dogs). Our guide talked about proper stance, employing the breaks, how to take the turns appropriately and what to do when we approach a hill.

I must warn you- you will have to run up those hills, pushing the sled ahead of you to help ease the pressure off the dogs. In theory, it doesn’t sound too bad. In reality, pushing 300 pounds, up hilly terrain in minus 26-degree weather, whilst bundled up takes a lot of leg, butt and lung stamina even with the help of these strong dogs.

As our one guide pointed out, he dropped his gym membership after getting this job. And I don’t blame him! Dog sledding is exhilarating but also requires immense stamina. I got a great workout! In addition, the mountain air leaves you with the most pleasant feeling of exhaustion and relaxation. I also think that I gave our guide a good laugh, once he saw me after the first few hills. I was so out of breath, I couldn’t even say woah, to stop the dogs. My brother and sister had to say it, while I tried to catch my breath!

Overall, 1 hour goes by fast but at the same time, it is a perfect amount of time to experience dog sledding. This is attributed to the fact that it gets super cold out there. I felt the cold the most on my feet. Despite having the appropriate pair of winter boots, my lower extremities were freezing. I felt like I was going to get frostbite and lose my toes. The only thing that kept me going was me telling myself I couldn’t look like a fool in front of these (pretty good looking) guides and dog sledding is an experience worth losing your toes over (just kidding…. but I won’t lie I was sorta thinking that lol). 

THE EXPERIENCE:

Initially, I was hesitant about being the driver. Upon first glance, it seems daunting and intimidating. After the first hundred feet, I began to get the hang of it. Dog sledding is really more about doing than listening, in the sense that once you’re actually doing it, the pre-sledding introduction makes more sense. Once you start dog sledding, you really begin to feel the terrain, understand the movements of the dogs, and you can begin to anticipate what to expect. Do I sound like a professional musher? That’s because I felt like one!

As for the dogs, they really are well behaved and extremely well trained. Snowy Owl Sled understands that not everyone can be professional mushers (unlike me), and the dogs know this as well. They are extremely good listeners (better than most humans I know), and these dogs have been running the trails for years so they know what to expect.

I do, however, have a few pointers for you, should you decide to experience this amazing adventure!

  • Dress warmly. Do not take this lightly. Mountain air and temperature is much different from the city. I wore my yoga pants, sweatpants and snow pants! For my top half, I wore a sweatshirt, hoodie, and good winter (ski) coat. I also recommend wearing 3 pairs of socks or at least getting those heat packs for your toes. That is where I felt the cold the most.
  • Designate your partners to take photos (most likely with their phones). As the driver, you will not (and should not) be taking selfies. Instead, I had my brother and sister take photos (with their phones), while I was driving. I brought my DSLR camera but I never used it. Stick to your phones!
  • Be in relatively good physical standing. The first 6 km are the toughest primarily due to the number of hills there are. I consider myself physically fit and I still felt the burn. The second half isn’t as strenuous, so alternatively you can switch at that break.
  • Don’t bring a backpack – you won’t have it with you in the sled. Everything you need should fit in your pockets. The extra weight isn’t allowed (think of the dogs!!).
  • Switch at the halfway point. When you are driving the sled you focus more on the dogs (for good reason) and less on the landscape. I suggest switching at the halfway point so that you can take in the vistas and experience sitting in the sled!

Overall, I truly did have an amazing time dog sledding. I only have a few recommendations that perhaps Snowy Owl could consider it for future tours:

  • More time to pet the dogs and take photos. I do understand the tours need to start and end on time, but I wish we had more time to pet the dogs and take photos with them. I felt (at least on my tour), we had 3 minutes before the tour began, 4 minutes at the break on the lake, and less than 5 minutes at the end when we disembarked, to take photos with the dogs. For an experience this amazing, at least 5 minutes at each “stop” would have been nice to take advantage of for photos.
  • Introduction of the dogs. When you are dog sledding you have to yell out “good dogs” to encourage the puppers. It would have been nice to know the names of the two lead dogs so that we could have yelled out some encouragement and switch up our phrases a bit! I felt the dogs were getting tired of me saying good dogs over and over again LOL.
  • Hot chocolate > apple cider. This is just a personal preference because I am not a big fan of apple cider. By no means did it detract from the tour but I mean… hot chocolate is hundred times better than apple cider!!

THE CONSENSUS: 5 GOOD DOGGIES/ 5 

I HIGHLY SUGGEST DOING THIS AT LEAST ONCE IN YOUR LIFE. Especially if you’re from around Calgary. Seriously, there is an amazing experience right in our backyard that people from around the country and world, come to experience.

I understand that the price point can be limiting for some people. This isn’t an inexpensive adventure, and I was very lucky that I received this as a present from my brother and sister. However, I do think that there are some things that should just be experienced, even if it requires biting the bullet when it comes to the cost. To put it into perspective, you could save enough to go, if you stopped buying$5.00 lattes every day for a month. Good doggies > lattes (and this is coming from a latte addict).

I had the most amazing time, and honestly, I want to do it again! Dog sledding is something you have to do, and I certainly hope that this post and the photos encourage you to go and do it! If that isn’t incentive enough, did you know that you can adopt these cuties too? And no, I am not talking about the tour guides, although that would have been nice too!

***

So there you have it. My experience dog sledding in the Great Wild North. I had an amazing time, and honestly, I would do it again. Dog sledding is the type of experience that exposes you to a different world. I cannot think of a better way to experience the fresh mountain terrain.

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2 responses to “Winter Wonderland: Dog Sledding in Canmore (Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours)”

  1. Eric says:

    Wow a lot of great information. Great blog you have

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