DOG DAYS OF WINTER
HEED THE CALL OF THE WILD IN ALGONQUIN PARK
By MEI-YIN TEO — Special to The Sun
Huskies are only too happy to take you for a wild sled ride in Algonquin Park. — Jill Rigby, SUN files
ALGONQUIN PARK — Although we had barely started, it was painfully obvious my first sledding experience was going straight to the dogs. Scaredycat kept a close eye on me, turning around every time I let the rope connecting her to the dogsled go lax. It was clear that she, along with her comrades Faith, Sandy and Bear, was somewhat skeptical about having me at the helm.
“Sorry Scaredycat, it won’t happen again,” I cooed softly and called each by name, “Faith, Sandy, Bear, Scaredycat.” The dogs did not seem amused.
Trying to get on the dogs’ good side was not the way I had imagined things. Weeks before I was to take part in Call Of The Wild’s multi-adventure weekend, I convinced myself I would be able to control every movement of the dogsled with simple voice commands — “ha” to turn left, “gee” to turn right, “easy” to slow down and “whoa” to stop.
The fact was my dogsled simply followed the team in front and all my efforts as an Inuit-in-training were in vain. This was only one of my many preconceptions.
The huskies turned out to be much smaller than I thought; in fact, some were quite skinny. I also assumed that I would be stretched out on the sled as if it were a sleigh ride. No such luck. I had to maintain a death grip on the sled’s wooden handlebars while both feet teetered on narrow runners.
Cross-country skiers ham it up during Call Of The Wild’s multi-adventure weekend. — Mei-Yin Teo photo
A thin rope was all that connected me to four Siberian huskies who made it abundantly clear they couldn’t care less about winter ingenues. All of which I chose to perceive as a challenge.
My strategy was simple: Use the brake as little as possible to make the animals’ lot in life easier. So great was my desire to please that I even ignored warnings to brake liberally in the icy conditions. Bumps in the snow and straight-edged tracks kept causing the sled to shift, which made it extremely difficult to balance. As a result, my left foot went numb as my toes kept straining to grasp the runners.
Unaware of my pain and my attempts to get on their good side, the dogs added insult to injury by taking advantage of my kindness. They had some difficulty trudging up the first steep hill, so I helped push, which turned out to be yet another mistake. Apparently, if you help the dogs up the first hill, they expect your assistance every time thereafter. True enough, at the bottom of each subsequent hill, eight eyes would glance back at me expectantly.
Later in the day, I incorrectly perceived a sharp right turn as an opportunity to practise my balancing and manoeuvering skills. Determined to keep my foot off the brake, I yelled “gee” and braced myself. Keeping my body low in order to maintain some control, I grabbed the handlebars and leaned into the turn, shifting my weight as if I were riding a motorbike.
Just as I rounded the bend, I felt I was about to flip off. Fragments of information whirled in my mind: “If you think you’re going to fall, hold on and run with the sled.” Ignoring time-worn advice, I let go and landed straight on my back, snow filling every inch of my clothing.
I decided this was the last straw. No more Mr. Nice Guy. For the remainder of the trip, my unrestrained foot showed little compassion as it hovered unmercifully over the brake.
With the introduction of tough love, the dogs developed a whole new respect. Though I still felt guilty about using my brake and letting them pull me up hills, I realized that this was what they were bred to do. I continued to call out commands even though it had little result, as the dogs continued to trundle after the team in front. But it did matter to me. I finally felt in control.
Rushing through the snow-laden landscape with the wind whistling through bare trees, I soaked in the surroundings with a new perspective. It was the perspective of a person who had regained some dignity and was now savouring a glide across the unspoiled landscape.
Although I was dog-tired at the end of the journey, sleep was a long way off. Upon arriving at the lodge’s parking lot, a 21/2-km hike stood between us and our resting spot. Dark had descended, so we used head lamps to find our way through the chilly night. Finally, we arrived at the rustic lodge furnished with a welcoming old iron stove, bunk beds and wooden snowshoes hanging on the walls.
Algonquin Nordic Wilderness Lodge is a retreat in the truest sense of the word. There are no roads, hydro lines, telephones or TVs. All supplies, including food and five tanks of propane, must be hauled in each weekend by snowmobile to the large wooden cabin that sits just off Moffat Pond and opens onto 80 km of ski trails, 40 km of which have tracks.
After an exhausting day, I turned in my ski suit for my swimsuit. The thought of easing aching muscles made the open-air hot tub irresistible. As for the dogs, in the end we gained a healthy respect for each other. On second thought, I think they had the upper hand, er, paw.
(First featured: December, 1998)
More info: Contact Call Of The Wild at (905) 471-9453.
The 3-Day Winter Multi-Adventure Trip includes dogsledding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Costs start at $365.00 + GST and include food, accommodation, equipment, guide, park fees and return transportation from Toronto to Algonquin Park. Meet at Finch Subway (Passenger Pick-up exit) on Friday at 8:30 a.m. Return to Finch Subway on Sunday at 7 p.m. Lunch on either travel day and winter clothing are not provided.