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Mushy about Canadian huskies

by Lyndsay Russell

What’s the difference between a wolf and a husky? Not enough, it occurred to me as we walked up a mountain track towards the snarling pack of dogs.


Doggy trails: the word ‘stop’ isn’t in the husky vocabulary

Here we were in the heart of Ontario’s 2,982 square mile Algonquin Park, about to spend a day’s dog-sledding with tour operators Call Of The Wild.

Close to backing out with Cry Of The Wimp, I was proud to see my Canadian husband Mike approach the beasts courageously, speaking the lingo of a fearless Inuit trapper: “Er, down doggies, nice doggies!”

‘They won’t bite you,’ encouraged Dave Freymond, 48, our guide and the owner of the dogs. ‘Here, let’s separate and harness them up. Those four are yours,’ he said, waving me towards hounds of the Baskerville pedigree.

‘Your lead dog’s called Bread,’ said Dave. I tried to get his paws into a harness – only to receive a baleful eye that rolled ‘amateur’ as I put two legs into the same hole. The dogs were split into four packs and attached to sleds for Dave and fellow guide Maureen, Mike and myself.

‘Quite a few guests think they’re gonna be sitting and driven,’ laughed Dave as he showed us how to balance on the two skinny runners at the back of our sleds. ‘How silly,’ Mike and I laughed back, hollowly. ‘Stand on the footbrake while we’re talking, or the dogs will just go,’ he instructed. I couldn’t find the reins. ‘That’s because there aren’t any,’ said Dave, helpfully.

As the shock sank in he told us to take our feet off the brake. ‘Mush!’ I shouted hopefully. ‘No,’ called back Dave, ‘that’s French for march. They’re not French-Canadian huskies. It’s vital you use their names and the language they know.

‘Pick it up! (go)’ he ordered. While I glanced down to see what I’d dropped, the dogs lunged forward. Thus, with a couple of scary jerks, we took off down a snow carpeted path. The initial strangeness of being pulled by ‘pets’ took a while to wear off. The fact you couldn’t control where they went never did. The sled veered dangerously as my dogs swerved to pee on a tree. This was worrying, as glancing down the forest glade one realised there are a helluva lot of trees in Canada. ‘They’re trying to train you, be strong with your voice.’

‘OK…pick it up Bread, Martin, Ivory, Attla,’ I yelled firmly, using the right terms and names. Then, having showed them exactly who was boss (them), I couldn’t stop the beasts speeding off.

As we turned corners I prayed they wouldn’t swing me over the edges.

‘Easy,’ I shouted, to slow them. By now my breath was coming in short spurts of excitement as the ride alternated between smooth cloud-like glides over soft snow, to bumpy, tree-rutted bounces over ice and sludge.

Swishing down hills at more than 12mph felt uncontrollably fast, until I comforted myself with the thought that if I were on skis the speed would seem normal. It worked. The pace seemed no longer threatening, my tension eased and the whole experience became magical – I’d metamorphosed into Nanook of the North. However, concentration was vital. I had to stop my dogs overtaking Dave’s, and yet brake gently so that Mike’s line of dogs behind wouldn’t concertina into me.

During this initial chaotic period, Mike overtook me by accident. Fortunately, I saw the log at the last minute. Unfortunately, Mike didn’t. His sled lurched wildly, flinging him off. This was when he realised the word ‘stop’ wasn’t in the husky vocabulary.

But then, in a stunt shamelessly copied from Ben Hur, he kept one hand on the sled while being dragged on his back over the entire logging export quota for Canada. He handed himself slowly back up, dogs still going fast, and Dave and Maureen were impressed. ‘Nine out of ten for effort, a six for grace,’ grinned Maureen. ‘You did great,’ cried out Dave. ‘Never ever let go of the sled. The dogs will disappear for miles.’

Miles later came a worrying thought – the scenery looked spookily similar to The Blair Witch Project.

‘Bear spot ahead,’ warned Dave. I clung to the front bar of the sled like an icicle, expecting a grizzly. ‘How dangerous are they, Dave?’ ‘They?’ He chortled at my naivety. ‘I’m talking about the ground; there’s a bare spot ahead. All the bears are in hibernation.’

Stopping later for a campfire lunch, Dave confided that snow had been scarce this winter and our trip was the roughest he’d ever taken anyone out on in 17 years of dog-sledding. Feeling far more butch after this information, and stoked by the hot chocolate, fire-toasted sandwiches and homemade cookies, we cuddled our dogs and discussed the tempting possibility of doing one of Dave’s three-day sledding trips with an overnight stay in his family’s wood stove-heated log cabin.

We also had a chance to drink in the stillness of our surroundings. Algonquin Park, an area half the size of Wales, is a summer haven for campers and canoeists. Winter had given its snowy lakes, rivers and forests a wild, melancholy air with only a sprinkling of cross-country skiers, dog-sledders and snowmobilers breaking the sleepy silence. Some think Canada is ‘America Lite’ – great, but not for the whole weekend. But how can one be bored with a country that offers such beauty only three hours’ drive north from cosmopolitan Toronto?

Setting off again was delightful, until I feared Dave had lost his mind. ‘Gee! Gee!’ he shouted, (Right! Right!) The dogs ignored him. This time you couldn’t blame them, for ‘Right’ was a very, very steep bank, scattered with logs, roots, beavers’ lodges, whatever. But to my horror, Dave’s doggies finally turned, and my team dutifully followed. As we juddered downhill every muscle strained to keep balance, eyes glued to the ground. The next sight was such an awesome, unbelievable shock.

I looked up to find myself gliding onto a vast, frozen lake. As the exultant cries from our dogs split its oppressive silence, I too whooped in elation, for ahead lay miles and miles of virgin powder snow like a wedding cake waiting to be sliced. Four teams raced across the eerie white wasteland in a colossal arc. ‘This is how Canadians water-ski in winter!’ cried out Mike, driving his sled alongside mine. We reached out and joined hands. Romantic? Breath-taking.

HEADING back through the forest, the cold finally started to seep through my ski-wear but, happily, thoughts of the Jacuzzi, king-size bed, and wood fire waiting for us in our room at the Bear Trail Inn warmed me more than the thermals. ‘Pick it up, Bread’ I commanded briskly, uncomfortably aware it sounded like the Call Of The Riled – a suburban mum, nagging her son to tidy up.

By the time we hit base camp I was completely in love with my huskies and hugging them farewell. ‘Bye Martin, bye Ivory. And bye bye Bread, I’ll miss you.’ I said mournfully. ‘Umm, actually, that one’s called Fred,’ corrected Dave, raising my earmuff.

‘Hah! No wonder he ignored your instructions,’ howled Mike, followed by Dave, then Maureen.. and, finally, the entire ‘company of wolves’.

Getting there

Tailor Made Travel (01386 712050) offers a seven-night holiday to Ontario spending four days with Call Of The Wild and two at the Toronto Colony Hotel. It costs £541 including return flights from London, Manchester or Glasgow, full board accommodation on the dog-sledding expedition and transfers. Air Canada (0870 5247226) offers return flights to Toronto from London, Manchester and Glasgow from £349.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd., 12 February 2001

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