|Winter Adventure 101|
Lifestyle Magazine - September 11, 2009
When five Siberian huskies hear another team of sled dogs off in the distance, they go nuts. (With a heightened sense of hearing, they can sense them before you do.) They’re not huge dogs, but incredibly strong – the weight of two adult humans can bounce along behind them like wedding cans on an old Chevy. And what’s the cause for excitement? To mate? To fight? The sheer joy of meeting another bunch of canines? As our musher Ed Schmidt explains to us, it’s to establish a pecking order. His team of dogs already has leaders and followers. But when they mix up with other teams, it gets confusing.
It’s dogsledding that brought my fellow traveller and me to the great outdoors in the first place. Like many foreigners visiting our native land, the idea of mushing behind a pack of huskies seemed acutely Canadian to my Irish companion — something not to be missed if one was only here for a single (albeit long) Canadian winter. And so I found myself cautiously looking forward to a three-night, three-day stay with Voyageur Quest, a tripping company based 3 ½ hours north of Toronto near the town of South River, on the doorstep of Algonquin Provincial Park.
Though I fretted about the dark cold that awaited us at 10 p.m. in a frigid log cabin with no electricity, my fears were quickly assuaged when we pulled up to a large, cozy retreat, windows glowing in the pitch black thanks to the fire roaring in the cabin’s hefty hearth. The log cabin (perhaps lodge is the better word) served as headquarters for most of our vacation, and as such was absolutely paramount to our enjoyment. We were cheerfully greeted by our fellow trippers — five vacationers from the Netherlands who swiftly handed us each a beer. (They drank Canadian, while we had brought Heineken.) We spent the first couple of days with our Dutch companions, learning (and for me, the lone Canuck, re-learning) favourite Canadian outdoor pastimes.
Chapter 1: Skiing
Day 1 started with breakfast and a quick cross-country ski lesson. One of our two guides, Matt Rothwell, instilled enough basics to get the group through a day’s worth of skiing. For someone who just recently picked up the sport, he had a knack for teaching. “I originally made fun of my mom, dad and sisters whenever they went out. I thought ‘that just looks like work,’ and they’re big, unwieldy skis,” he says. “I definitely learned the err of my ways.”
We followed a quick zip through some woods with a long ski over beautiful lakes in the afternoon, and a trickier, hillier trail ski to finish off the day. Our group was a mix of intermediate and first-time skiers, but sticking together while enjoying a workout proved easy.
“THE MORE YOU UNDERSTAND THE
NATURE THAT'S GOING ON AROUND YOU,
THE MORE YOU CAN APPRECIATE IT”
Chapter 2: Snowshoeing
While our Dutch friends were off dogsledding on Day 2, we traded in our skis for snowshoes. I was impressed by the technological advancements that have been made in this type of footgear since my class trips to the sugar bush in the early ’90s. The awkward hardwood frame and rawhide lacings have been replaced with more compact, metal or plastic shoes.
We hiked up to stunning lookout points and crossed a running river via beaver dam. Later, as we left the log cabin for the privacy of Voyageur Quest’s cottage outpost — our private, spacious, well-furnished modern cottage — we snuck in one last snowshoe on Once-A-Day Trail — an easy and scenic track, not to be skipped.
Chapter 3: Dogsledding
Our day of mushing was finally upon us. Our leader and dog-yard owner, Schmidt, gave a surprisingly brief tutorial. He explained the commands: “gee” to turn right, “haw” for left, “let’s go” or “hike” to get them started (actually you just need to take your foot off the brake), and “whoa” or “easy” for stop (this one, we would find, the dogs take as more suggestion than command). “On by” was the decree of choice when you wanted the pups to ignore something along the road, like other dogs, or a darting squirrel. (There were plenty of both.) In truth, most of our commands would probably have fallen on deaf ears had we not had Schmidt in front of us — he drove the sled with the confident, co-ordinated relaxation that comes with experience.
There are two approaches to two-man dogsledding. In the first, one person sits in the basket, while the other stands behind, with one foot on each runner (the sled’s skis). The second option has both people standing on the runners — either side by side with each driver having his own runner, or one in front of the other. The former one-man-in-basket approach is slightly easier to master, and thus advised for first-timers.
Later, on the trail, as I flailed behind the sled after losing control of my team going downhill — my gloves wrapped in a death grip on the sled’s handlebar as my body bounced along like a bad cartoon — I realized that Schmidt’s brief instruction had purpose. He employed a hands-off teaching style. We learned as we went along, with little instruction when we didn’t need it, but lots of help when we did.
After lunch, with the sunny afternoon peaking at a temperature of 6 C, we were comfortable in our sled, cruising along with little incident. Maybe the March heat and the animals’ fatigue (sled dogs are at their peak at -15 C and below) is what made us feel so expert, prompting us to adopt the second approach to driving. By the time we came to the trailhead and helped corral the dogs, we were feeling a bond with our pooches that made it difficult to say goodbye. •
Three things you need not worry about on your winter retreat
You won’t go hungry on a trip with Voyageur Quest. Hearty and delicious meals are supplemented by surprising snacks at every turn — hot chocolate and cookies on a ski break, apple slices and brie by the fire in the late afternoon and hot apple cider on the trail. Our guides’ philosophy on meal times was also welcome. Instead of rushing out the door to the day’s activities, we were encouraged to “ease out” of breakfast and lunch, allowing time for our grub to settle in before we headed out.
There’s no electricity to heat the log cabin, but a giant, two-storey stone fireplace that shoots up the middle of the lodging keeps the entirety very cozy indeed. Likewise, the sauna building in the backyard will get you downright sweaty.
Not only expert chefs, outdoor enthusiasts and deft at keeping the log cabin perfectly heated and lit at all times, Voyageur Quest’s guides are also expertly versed in nature knowledge. They recognize animal tracks, differentiate betwen tree types, point out moss and lichen and identify their potential uses. “The more you understand the nature that’s going on around you, the more you can appreciate it,” says Rothwell.
For a variety of winter (plus spring, summer and fall) adventures, including multi-day dogsledding trips, visit voyageurquest.com.