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Have you ever wanted to experience dog sledding through the frozen wilds of Canada? Spy travel writer John Scott Lewinski got the chance to live out our Call of the Wild dreams. Keep reading for his full report and photos from the journey.
When I step out of the clubhouse toward the dog sleds for a day of adventure at Aventures Nord-Bec Stoneham, I was glad a February makes nearby Quebec City one of the snowiest cities in the world. The resulting thick coat of white and fluffy snow makes a perfect track for the company’s army of eager canines.
The modern dog sled canine is bred to run. Their generational DNA demands they run. They live to run. Everyone on-site at Aventures Nord-Bec treats the animals like what they are — prized athletes. At the time of my visit, there are 90 dogs living and working at the facility, with 12 puppies waiting to begin training come spring.
Geared up in three layers with a little vaseline around my eyes to fend off windburn, I head outdoors toward the sled. A cacophony of barks rises as huskies and hounds lounge on the snow. I peruse a pack made up of Malamutes, Siberian Huskies and Greyhounds. That last option looks odd amongst the huskies with the hounds’ short hair and leaner lines, but it’s still a breed forged to run for hunting and pursuit.
Sledding the Trail
I climb aboard the sled one-on-one with an experienced guide. The boss drives for the first 30 minutes or so as I sit on the sled and observe his lessons on counterbalancing, braking and pushing. Most importantly, I learn the proper tone for the shout of “Allez!” that will get the team running and the “Whoa!” that brings it to a stop.
The sled is the heart of simplicity. Wooden slats laid across two beams sit atop curved metal runners. Two reins connect to the dogs. While the leather straps should steer the sled, the dogs know the paths and do all the maneuvering needed at speed. My job will be counterbalancing the sled so it doesn’t tumble on turns.
The only other moving part in the snow ship’s design is the foot brake — a steel pedal that the driver must engage on downslopes to slow momentum toward the dogs. On hill rises, the six animals lack the strength and traction to move forward. I must hop off the back and lend my dog pals a push. The physical toll is intense and unexpected.
I immediately discover that the reins are not superfluous. Yes, the dogs know the route and would run it without my input, but I steer to keep the sled in line with their lead. The dogs stay on the straight and narrow, but if I allow the runners to drift too far out of the lane, I’ll skim a snowbank or nick a tree stump.
The entire run lasts about two hours, with me in charge for more than half that time. It was intriguing to find I adapted to the process quickly — with the help of the Aventures Nord-Bec guide. For the last 30 minutes or so, I felt largely in command, even if exhausted by the frequent uphill pushes and downhill brake stomps.
My legs were lead-weight heavy as I disembarked and headed back to the clubhouse, but I loved every minute of my mushing through the snow. The whipped cream on my day’s cup of Canadian hot chocolate turned out to be actual whipped cream on the complimentary cocoa the hosts provide before the day’s visitors head back out to head out without the aid of a dog sled.
A Night in an Ice Hotel
To get in true brass monkeys spirit, I spent the previous night at Hôtel del Glace – accommodations carved out of massive blocks of ice. Once inside its confines, everything from the walls and furniture to the artwork and “glassware” is forged from carved frozen water. The single-digit Fahrenheit temps of a Canadian winter keep everything solid until spring eventually comes along.
The artistry throughout Hôtel del Glace is exceptional. At the time of my visit, an aquatic theme fills the frigid rooms and hallways with reliefs and sculptures of jellyfish, turtles and seahorses carved with precision and dedication.
An overnight stay in the ice hotel is actually a night in two hotels. Every guest of Hôtel del Glace rents an ice suite and a traditional, indoor hotel room for the duration of the stay. My guide instructed me to spend the day and early evening in my standard room. Then, as bedtime approaches, I head for my outdoor space. Getting into the ice bed involves a complex, Scandinavian ritual of robes, hot tubs, saunas and a sleeping bag rated for 206-below zero or some other crazy number.
The next morning, I walked into a stunningly chilled morning under a gray sky. Then, I manage a gradual reverse through the robe and sauna process until once again indoors, dressed and back to bed in my room for a post-breakfast nap. It turns out I didn’t sleep so well outside in 16-degree weather — or perhaps I was just excited for the next day and my visit to Aventures Nord-Bec Stoneham.