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The Winter Wonderland Of BanffOn a crisp winter day, our coldest day so far, with a brilliant blue sky, I got going early at about 7:15 am and drove about 20 minutes from Banff to the tourist town of Canmore. This mountain town is located about an hour from Calgary, just 5 minutes outside the gates to the Banff National Park and is part of Kananaskis County , one of the main recreational areas just outside of Calgary. The Nakiska Ski area is not far from Canmore and it played host to the alpine events during the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.
Canmore is nestled deep inside the Bow Valley beneath the Front Ranges of the Canadian Rockies. Due to the beauty of the surrounding wilderness areas, several Hollywood movies have been filmed here, including movies such as Legends of the Fall and Dances with Wolves.
The development of this area really took off when the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) constructed its railway line through the mountains in 1888, providing convenient access to mining companies looking to tap into the area's rich coal deposits. Canmore was founded shortly after and attracted prospectors which were soon followed by hotels, restaurants and shops. The North West Mounted Police had an outpost here with a "two man and two horse barrack" and at some point Canmore even had an opera house.
Mining came to an end in 1979, but today Canmore has developed into a major recreational centre that attracts athletes, artists, nature lovers and adventure seekers. That was the category that I fell into today, as I was seeking out a truly unusual adventure: Dog sledding!
Punctually at 8:15 am I arrived at the retail outlet of Snowy Owl Adventures to be included in their 2-hour "Power Hound Express" tour that was to start at 9 am. The retail outlet itself features a variety of clothing, souvenirs, pictures and books with a dog sledding theme. I also rented big insulated boots to make sure my feet wouldn't get cold on this very brisk winter day.
A group of about 9 or 10 people were ready to get out on the trails, to be pulled by a group of enthusiastic canine athletes. Our group had travelers from various parts of Canada, Texas, England and Holland and everybody was excited to get out there. Chris, our driver, packed us into a van and up we went into the mountains. We drove by several extremely scenic drinking water reservoirs and about 20 minutes later we arrived in the Spray Lakes area of Kananaskis County, very close to the Three Sisters Hydroelectric Generating Station.
The first thing we saw was the trailer with the transport kennels for the sled dogs and five teams of enthusiastic canines were already waiting for us. Jereme, one of our dog sledding guides, gave us a half hour safety presentation and instructions on how to ride the sled. That's where my first big surprise came in: I didn't realize that we ourselves would get a chance to drive the sled, I had assumed that we'd simply be packed into the sled and the guides would be driving us.
But no, there are actually 3 options for dogsledding adventurers: you can sit comfortably inside the sled and be driven by a guide; you can drive the dog team one-on-one together with one of the instructors; or you can actually drive the sled dog team yourself with the company of family and friends, following one of the instructors. So for all the real adventurers out there: this is an opportunity to get behind the sled and drive the dog sled team yourself!
To get started I actually decided to play it safe and elected to sit down and let my instructor Natalie handle the driving. Since I was here to document this experience that would allow me to actually take photos and video clips of this unique experience. Three of the dog sled teams this morning had signed up for the 2-hour program and 2 of those sleds were going to be driven by the participants themselves rather than the instructors. Two other teams were scheduled for the 4-hour "Sunfeather Winterlude" program, this half-day excursion is Snowy Owl's most popular ride.
The safety instruction introduced us to the essential commands to get the dogs going ("Hike!", or as Natalie would say "Hike up, puppies!") and to get them to stop ("Whoa" - in a deep voice) while stepping on the sled's brake. In between it's a great idea to cheer on the dogs with enthusiastic comments. Jereme also explained that the dogs are Alaskan Huskies, and most of them are a mixture of huskies or malamutes with other breeds like border collies which makes for a very enthusiastic, cooperative and smart breed of dog.
Jereme mentioned that it's very important to step on the brake while riding downhill to slow the sled down, and to lean right when heading into a right-hand turn, and to lean to the left when heading into a left-hand turn. The key thing is never to let go of the sled or step off the brake when standing since the dogs can be a bit mischievous and may take off on you. On uphill runs it is recommended that the sled driver get off and run beside the sled so the dogs have to pull less weight.
Well, now that our briefing was coming to an end, the excitement was building, both among the human passengers/drivers as well as among the dogs. 5 teams of Alaskan huskies were raring to go and towards the end of the safety presentation there was lots of barking, yelping, howling and commotion, indicating that the dogs were indeed ready to take us out on our big adventure.
So I sat down inside the comfortably cushioned sled and Natalie zipped me into a sleeping bag to keep me warm. All the teams were now ready to go and Natalie issued the key command "Hike up, puppies!" and off we went through a beautiful narrow forest trail that opened up into a clearing from where you had a gorgeous view of the imposing mountain range behind. Then we went down a series of hills and I got bounced a bit in the sled, fortunately the sled's and my own built-in cushioning protected my rear end from most of the impact. There were a few spills in the amateur-driven sleds behind us, I guess first-time dog-sledding is similar to any adventure sport in that it takes a bit of time to get the hang of it. But none of the spills were serious and once the initial challenges were overcome it was a smooth ride for everyone and we continued our beautiful journey through the forests above Canmore.
After about half an hour our three teams on the 2-hour program had reached the turnaround point and we arrived at a picturesque mountain lake called Goat Pond that was completely surrounded by mountains. Now it was picture time and Natalie kindly offered to take photos of all the sled teams.
After a brief rest we were ready to continue on and Natalie asked me if I actually wanted to drive the sled myself. By this time I was thoroughly comfortable with the experience, so of course I jumped at the idea. One of the passengers from another sled took my cozy spot inside the sleeping bag, and Natalie and I each balanced ourselves on one of the rails of the sled, while our eager sled dogs were pulling us onto the home stretch. Natalie told me a little about herself, that she is a dog sledding instructor in the winter and a construction worker in her brother's company in Northern Alberta in the summer. She seems like a thoroughly outdoorsy and adventurous woman who really enjoys what she is doing.
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