Did you know that dog sledding is one of the oldest forms of transportation? Recent archaeological evidence shows that humans living in the arctic region have been using huskies to get around as far back as 4,000 years ago. Not much has changed in the design of dog sledding throughout that time either, with dogs tethered to a main line, which is attached to a wooden sled. The driver stands on the back of the sled, helping to steer and brake as needed. An additional rider or gear can be placed in the sled.
The good news is you don’t have to travel to the arctic region to go dog sledding. In fact, wherever you can find a fair amount of snow, a dog sledding company is usually nearby. Just the other week I was invited to give it a try with Winterdance Dog Sled Tours and I was very excited at the opportunity. Tristan and I took a mini road trip from Toronto to Haliburton, about a 3-hour drive from the city, to see what it was all about.
Owners Hank and Tanya have been running Winterdance for 15 years. It all started in Guelph, Ontario when they bought their first husky as a pet. Then they helped buy one for a friend, welcomed a couple more into their home, saw a movie about dog sledding, welcomed a few more, had inquiries from people about where to take their families dog sledding, and the rest as they say is history.
Hank and Tanya’s family has now grown to 4 children and 150 Purebred Siberian Huskies. The dogs are considered part of the family, staying in a heated kennel when they’re not out running along the trails. Hank and Tanya don’t sell puppies or dogs and when one comes to them, they have a home for life.
When we arrived, the huskies were resting in their crates and our guide Nathan was prepping the sleds. He took us through a quick demonstration about how to ride, steer, and use the brake on the sleds. A normal dogsled racing team consists of 16 huskies, but for our tour, each sled would only have 5. While Nathan was finishing up the instructions some of the dogs were getting restless, howling as if to say, “I want to run!” And as Nathan and the other guides began connecting the dogs to the sleds, it was a frenzy of pent-up energy as all the dogs were trying to make it be known that they wanted to be selected.
Siberian Huskies are the perfect running dog. With their piercing blue eyes, and monochromatic coats, it’s in their genetics to run and explore. Tanya explained that they can run 100 miles a day and get up the next day and do it all over again. While most of the dogs run the trails on the property, some of them train for dog sled races. Hank has successfully completed both Alaska’s 1000 mile Iditarod and the 1000-mile Yukon Quest races. No easy feat. We would be completing a much more manageable 15-mile trail today.
With the dogs connected, we were ready to go! Nathan led the way and our dogs followed in hot pursuit. Located in the Haliburton Highlands, right on the southern doorstep of Algonquin Park, Winterdance sits on 2,000 acres of private property. We snaked through the towering trees and popped out onto a couple of frozen lakes. We couldn’t have asked for better weather. It was a clear blue sky and the sun peaked through the trees. It was exceptionally peaceful and serene with only the sounds of the dogs breathing and the snow crunching below our sleds.
Now I should say that it was a lot more physically demanding than I thought it would be. The terrain isn’t completely flat throughout the trails. When the dogs reached a hill, the driver would have to help push the sled up (with rider onboard). Some hills even required whoever was sitting in the sled to hop off to make things easier. And what goes up must come down. It was important to brake heavily when we came down a hill, mainly so we wouldn’t run into the backs of the dogs but also to maintain stability of the sled. It wasn’t difficult to drive the sleds. As Nathan pointed out, it’s just like driving a car. Hopefully you’re a good driver!
I was really blown away by the Huskies. Through their excitement and liveliness is a very gentle and beautiful creature. We took a break at one point to warm up with some hot chocolate and to take the time to thank the dogs. We gave each of them a good petting and they couldn’t get enough! But no sooner had we finished our hot chocolate were the Huskies howling away again telling us it was time to get running.
Our half-day tour was an experience I won’t soon forget. The huskies, the scenery, and simply enjoying winter outdoors. It’s very apparent the love Tanya and Hank have for the dogs and it was a real joy for them to share their passion for dog sledding with us.
More Information: Winterdance runs 2 hour, ½ day, full day, moonlight or multi-day dog sledding tours. The weekends are their busiest times, so book early to secure a spot. Make sure to dress very warmly as the temperatures can be much colder than in the city.
Disclosure: Our half-day tour was provided by Winterdance Dogsled Tours.