Straining, barking, bouncing up and down, our dogsled team came to a slippery halt. It wasn’t a solid stop, by any means. Even with his full weight on the metal brake – and mine on the sled itself – John was having a heck of a time holding back this strong, eager team of expert sled dogs. Our sled continued to inch forward in the snow. Up ahead, our guide struggled with freeing the lead team from an unexpected tangle of branches splayed across the trail. I shivered.
Established in 1997, Aventure Inukshuk provides beginners with the opportunity to take a dogsled team out for a run. If you’ve dreamed of the Ididarod, this is a great first step to find out if dogsledding is what you thought it would be. I’ll admit I was skeptical about our switch from snowshoeing to dogsledding, especially when I heard the howl and fuss of over a hundred dogs in the distance.
Before we walked from the parking area to the dog pens, our guide, Joe, walked us through the basics of managing a dogsled. The dogs simply want to run. It’s up to you to guide them. When a trail forks, you must lean in the direction you want to go. On a downhill slope, you must stand on the brakes so the sled doesn’t catch up with them and hurt them. Around sharp bends, lean into the bend so the sled stays on track. And on uphills, as much as you might want to, don’t help!
Staying On Track
Once on the trail, your task is to keep the dogs on track. As with the other groups around us, we went out from the dog pens as a set of three teams of two people and five or six dogs per sled, with our guide on the lead sled. We took up the rear. Joe unclipped each team, one by one, from the pens, and it was up to us to hold the teams back until the sleds ahead of us got moving. When you have five strong dogs yipping, barking, and straining to run, this sounds easier than it is!
We whooshed up the hill into the forest, watching a squirrel bound across the snow beneath the fir trees. Thankfully, it didn’t distract the dogs. What did distract them were the spots of yellow snow along the route, which they’d nose around and add to whenever we stopped. As teams ahead would stop – for an obstacle, or a fuss between dogs, or a re-adjustment – John would stand on the brakes and do his best to keep our strong team from tugging us forward. Leaving a gap of at least 25 feet between teams ensured we wouldn’t tangle them up in each others leads.
The trails are well-graded by the passage of sleds over snow, but by no means level. John learned quickly why providing a little uphill help was a poor idea. As soon as the dogs had assistance, they didn’t want to take the lead. When we came to the steepest grade, the dogs simply stopped. We yelled ahead to Joe, who shouted “push!” From their fully stopped position, the tiniest bit of a push was enough to get them racing again.
The Forests of Duchesnay
Duchesnay is known for its school of forestry, a college whose historic location provides the home base for outdoor recreation in the area– Station Touristique Duchesnay, a Quebec Provincial Park. The dogsledding trails lead through the arboretum behind the modern-day college campus, where interpretive signs provide information on the forest. Primarily fir on the steeper slopes, the forest yields to yellow birch, cherry, and maple.
One swale between low ridges cradled a stand of sugar maple fully outfitted, in winter, for tapping the maple water to make maple syrup. Blue tubing connected tree to tree like an outdoor maze. As we whooshed past the maple forest, I saw a man on skis holding a canteen up to one of the tubing connections on the trees. He seemed surprised to see us. The dogs seemed surprised to see him, too.
Once at a trot, the dogs are quiet. Each pulls a little differently, depending on its location in the harness and its own strength. Some bound and leap, others pad softly. But there is an eagerness about them to go, go, go! Gliding beside frozen brooks and beneath tree limbs bent from the weight of ice, I felt a connection with the Voyageurs, knowing this was their primary means of winter travel. Their sleds would be piled high with furs for trade. Trying to keep warm under a blanket, I kept thinking about how nice that pile of furs would be.
Cool Down / Warm Up
After we slid back into the dog pens, Joe clipped the dogs back to the fence so we could step off the sled. En route to the warming hut, he stopped to scoop up one of the nine-month-old puppies from their own enclosure near the larger dogs. The puppy seemed comfortable being held and passed around, with little yipping or squirming. These sled dogs are a mix of breeds, including Labrador, with Husky and Malamute dominating.
We passed an older dog, a retired patriarch with unmatched eyes of blue and brown, at the entrance to the yurt. Inside, a central stove radiated waves of heat. Time to take off the gloves and shoes to warm our frozen hands and feet! One of the guides passed out steaming mugs of hot chocolate – a superior hand warmer – as others in our group took turns visiting with the puppies.
The owner, Mr. Carol Lepine, checked in with us before we left. He’s proud of his guides, all of whom have had formal dogsled and dog handler training. The 150 dogs that make up their teams are managed to professional standards. Once the snow melts, the dogs spend their months off just being dogs. “We’re dog babysitters in summer,” Carol said.
Visiting Station Touristique DuchesnayDogsledding excursions with Aventure Inukshuk run one hour. Two people share a sled and can switch off driving midway. If you don’t feel comfortable driving yourself, inquire in advance if you can share the sled with your guide. Reserve in advance online or by phone at 418-875-0770. Their check-in is just inside the entrance to Station Touristique Duchesnay.
Bundle up! This is a winter activity and your hands, feet, and face will get cold. Wear layers and, if you plan to drive the sled, wear ski or rain pants to deflect the spray of snow that will creep up your legs.
Part of Sepaq (Quebec Provincial Parks), Station Touristique Duchesnay is a busy winter recreation destination. In addition to dogsledding, they offer cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and ice fishing. The complex includes a modern lodge, villas, restaurant, indoor pool, and Nordic-style spa with spa treatments