The Great White North...


All images ©Doug McKinlay

First published in The Guardian

It’s cold; somewhere near the -25C mark, but with the wind it feels more like -35C. My eyes keep tearing up, creating small rivers of saline that run down my cheeks and freeze solid; tiny icicles form on my eyelashes threatening to weld my contact lenses to my corneas. This is winter in the Duschesnay region of Quebec, Canada’s largest province, and I am driving a team of sled dogs across a landscape locked in a deep freeze.

“These are perfect conditions for the dogs,” says Nicolas Cliché-Plourde, musher, guide and co-owner of Aventure Inukshuk, located an hour outside of Quebec City. “When the temperature drops below -25C they run at their best; they are stronger and have more stamina.”

Nicolas is a burly, slightly serious fellow, but one who projects a quiet confidence. He knows all 28 of his dogs by name and temperament, and picks the best 14 to pull our sleds from among the barking and howling chaos of the kennel. And even though still only 25-years old he has a lifetime of experience among the province’s forests, lakes and rivers. He is very Canadian that way.

Canada is somewhat rare in the world; a modern tech-savvy country with a well-educated people occupying the planet’s third greatest landmass, while still being one of the least densely populated countries on Earth. With an estimated 75% of Canada’s 34 million souls living within 100 miles of the American border it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the vast emptiness of this country. And as such, it usually only takes an hour or two by car – or 4X4 – to take people out of their interconnected, 24/7 urban lives and drop them in some serious outdoor environments.

For me, dog sledding is something I have been fascinated with since first reading Jack London’s ‘White Fang’ and ‘Call of the Wild’ as a teenager; and I can’t think of a better – or more privileged – way to experience it than being out in the wilds for three days with only the dogs and a guide.


All images ©Doug McKinlay

“Hep, hep, hep,” called Nicolas, his command to get his team of dogs moving.

It’s a biting cold morning, with a clear canopy of blue-sky; a winter sun hangs low in the distance giving only the illusion of warmth. A dense snow-covered forest of silver birch, spruce and sugar maples, the source of Quebec’s most famous export – maple syrup – surrounds us. The air has a slightly metallic smell, an odour most Canadians associate with the coming of snow, but not today. It’s the first morning of a three-day 150km dog sled trek, and despite being clad in a thick snowmobile suit and boots I can feel the cold seeping between the stitching. The only solution, get my team on the trail.

It takes about 90-minutes to get the dogs rounded up and hooked to the sleds; I have six dogs while Nicolas hooks up eight. They are all pure adrenaline, barking and howling, pulling at the harnesses eager to get the show on the road. Once we’re off they fall into an easy gait, mostly quiet with tongues dangling.


All images ©Doug McKinlay

Driving a dog sled is like a cross between skiing and surfing with a little long distance running thrown in for good measure. On the surface it looks easy: stand on runners at the back of the sled and let the dogs do all the work. Simple. The reality though is a little different.

Keeping control of this mob of yapping, loping mutts – likened by Nicolas to managing a classroom of rowdy teenagers – all comes down to gaining the respect of the dogs, timing and the prudent use of the foot brake, arguably the most important skill to master.

Hanging at the back of the sled between the runners, the brake looks a little like the head of a steel rake with the spikes pointed down, ready to dig into the snow anytime the musher stands on it, thus creating drag and slowing down the team.

Easy.

Not quite, especially when trying to navigate tight turns. Hit the brake at the right time – before the turn – and it’s smooth sailing; hit the brake at the wrong time – while in the turn – and it’s almost impossible to control the sled. Add a little ice to the mix and all bets are off.

This was the mistake I made – that and taking my eye off the team. A slight loss of concentration, the brake applied too late and in the bush at the side of the trail I went, with the sled being dragged along the snow without its driver.

What this crash demonstrated though is the almost symbiotic relationship between a musher and his dogs. Here, in modern Canada, getting truly separated from your dogs can be solved simply with a radio call and rescue, but in centuries past it often meant death for both driver and dogs.

The aboriginal peoples of the north have used sled dogs for more than 3,000 years. However it wasn’t until the 19th and early 20th centuries when they became the stuff of legends among Europeans.

Both Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundson used sled dogs on their famous South Pole explorations but it was the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890’s that really put dog sledding on the map. Everything that moved in the Yukon during the frozen season moved by dog team; prospectors, trappers, doctors, mail, commerce, trade; if it needed to move in winter, it was moved by sled dogs.

Watching the dogs work is captivating. They are not as big as I imagined, and they are a lot stronger than they look. Pulling my heavy sled over some very tricky terrain is proof of that.

“It’s all in the breeding,” explained Nicolas over a hot chocolate later that night. “Our dogs are mostly mixed breeds, typically we use an Alaskan or Siberian husky and greyhound mix. The husky genes give the dogs their strength, stamina and ability to stand the cold while the greyhound adds speed.”


All images ©Doug McKinlay

After four exhaustive hours of half-running and half-riding, navigating tight trails, dodging low branches and trying to keep the frostbite at bay we finally reach our home for the next couple of days.

The cabin is set deep in the woods, next to iced-over Lake Maher. It’s rustic, with a simple pitched roof, planks for walls, a plywood floor and wooden pallets for beds. There is only one room, where we cook, eat and sleep – the facilities are outside, a frozen outhouse and the forest the only conveniences. When it’s time to crawl into our sleeping bags the table and benches are stacked up and stowed off to the side. Snow is piled high along the outside of the walls to help insulate us from the freezing temperatures. A wood-burning stove keeps the interior toasty, but with absolutely no mod cons the only illumination comes from candles and headlamps.


All Images ©Doug McKinlay

As dusk falls, the dogs are settled, watered and fed; each gets a frozen block of meat twice a day, topped up with dog soup – a mixture of water and nutritious dog nuggets packed with protein and vitamins. They are mustered outside, tied to a static line among the trees; the occasional yelp reminds us they are out there. As we turn to our dinner – a simple fare of hot thick stew-like soup, crusty bread, salads and lots of hot chocolate – the day’s effort starts to kick in. It’s a little like going to the gym for the first time after months of sitting idle: you’re sore and tired but satisfied.


All images ©Doug McKinlay

We wake to another frozen morning, the temperature nudges the -30C mark, probably the coldest I’ve ever experienced; even Nicolas, for the first time, is forced to put on a heavy coat. The cold slows everything down; it’s like I’ve got molasses in my veins instead of blood. But the dogs, however, are awake and frisky. They know there is more sledding ahead and can’t wait, the barking and howling hits fever pitch before we set off.


All images ©Doug McKinlay

Today is all about exploring our surroundings. There are wolves and moose nearby, but actually getting close enough to spot them is almost impossible. Our pack of noisy dogs makes sure of that. We do find plenty of tracks though, especially from snowshoe hares, their symmetrical side-by-side footprints often the only evidence of wildlife.

After a full day out in the chill it’s time to head back to the cabin, get the dogs settled for the night and hit the sleeping bags early; all the running has worn me out.

My last morning I’m a little melancholy; today I have to go back to the 21st century. But before that though, I still have a full day with the team.

We are joined today by musher and guide Jonathan Goulet. Dropped off earlier by a passing snowmobile he will accompany us back to the main kennels. Good thing too. All that hammering on the brake for two days through snow and ice has made my right foot somewhat useless. Jonathan will take control of my sled while I get the luxury of riding as a passenger.

With the sleds packed and the dogs harnessed it’s time to go.

“Do you want to ride like a tourist or a musher,” shouts Jonathan over the frenzy of the dogs. With little time to respond he has our team flying down a hill more suited to alpine skiing. He and the dogs handle the terrain easily, Jonathan using the footbrake like a master.

Breaking free of the forest and its shadows we emerge onto a large expanse of blinding snow, a frozen lake. Grey, dead trees poke through the white sheet making the scene look like a Dali painting. By now the dogs are running flat out, grabbing mouthfuls of snow to cool down and defecating on the fly. We cover the last 30 kilometres in what feels like record time.


All images ©Doug McKinlay

We arrive at the main kennels late in the afternoon, the sun already casting long shadows. The dogs are worn-out and hot, rolling in the snow to cool off before a well-earned bowl of dog soup. For me it’s a bit of a sad farewell, but even though my adventure in Quebec’s wilderness has come to an end I won’t soon forget my A Team: Whisky at the front, Maikon and Pico – with the blue eyes – in the middle; strong Koho and Kioki at the back and of course Luna, the indefatigable Alpha female as lead dog.

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