“Was this photo taken in Banff?” A reader asked us this when we posted a photo on Twitter about our dogsledding adventure in Ontario. Many people think that they have to go to Alberta, The Yukon or even Quebec for dogsledding, but in Ontario’s Haliburton Highlands, there is an amazing tour that anyone can take, where they can drive their own dog sleds and have the adventure of a lifetime.
Winterdance Dogsled Tours is run by Hank DeBruin and Tanya McCready. They have been running tours for 15 years and have 150 dogs in their beautiful kennels on their property sitting high on a hill in the middle of the forest. The first year they were married, they bought a husky named Colt from the pet store. While doing research on how to care for the dog, they came across the story of Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Iditarod – a 1000 mile dogsled race across Alaska. And the rest as they say… is History.
Hank, along with the unconditional support Tanya, her brother Ward as well as their loyal staff and friends has now finished both an Iditarod and a Yukon Quest with his all Siberian Husky team. They are about to head off for another Yukon Quest adventure at the end of the month and we had the opportunity to spend the week getting to know them and their dogs.
Regular folks like us may not have the skill or guts to compete in a thousand mile dog race ourselves, but by taking the 3-hour drive from Toronto to Haliburton Highlands, we can get a taste of what it’s like to spend some time on the sled.
Half Day Dogsledding Tour
Our first tour of the week was the half-day tour, and it is a great introduction to dogsledding. If you’ve never been on a dogsled before or are a little unsure if you will enjoy it, this is the tour for you. It lasts about 3 hours and it takes you through a varied trails and gorgeous scenery. Haliburton Highlands is connected to Algonquin Park and it is simply one of the most beautiful locations in Ontario. When a fresh snowfall comes down, you feel as if you’re in a Winter Wonderland. I can’t think of a more perfect spot to be out with the dogs soaking up the beauty of Mother Nature in Winter.
We arrived at the trail head at a little after 1:00 for our 1:30 tour. Give yourself plenty of time to get there, as road conditions can be sketchy during the winter months and make sure to check your map beforehand. There is limited cell coverage here, so if you are relying on Google Maps, you'll be in trouble. The amenities are basic at the trail head. This is a wilderness experience after all, so what were you expecting? There's a small hut to sign in and there's an outhouse for your use. Once you are on the trail, there are plenty of trees to do your business too.
Hands on Experience
After a quick lesson on how to drive and control your sleigh, the staff brings out the dogs from their cozy kennels and begins to hook them on to the sleds. This is where the frenzy begins. When dogsledding, you are an active participant. You want to get to know your dogs and interact with them. The more comfortable they are with you, the more they'll work for you.
As the dogs come out, one of your two-man team has to hold on to the lead dog to keep it from running over to see what all the other dogs are doing. We had four teams today, plus our guide's team. With five dogs on a team, that's 25 highly energized huskies who can't wait to start their run! It's tougher than you think to keep them still. They want to run around, sniff other dogs, fight with each other, pee and pooh and eat some snow. It's a high octane experience and you haven't even started yet!
These dogs are very friendly and if you give them lots of love and belly rubs, they'll get distracted from the other guys easily and settle down in your grip. They'll also like you a lot more! That's not to say they'll quiet down though. The closer you get to beginning the run, the louder the dogs get! Soon they're all whining and barking and they are so excited they can't contain themselves. Some dogs are pulling on the line to get going, some are running around in circles and others are picking a fight with each other just because they have so much pent up energy. Don't worry though, the fights are more of a brotherly fight of growling and posturing to show each other whose boss.
It's important to pay close attention to your instructions so that when the dogs do take off you are ready. One person gets on the back of the sled to drive, while the other slips under a blanket and relaxes in front. With one foot on the brake, you can feel the dogs itching to go and you have to be ready because once everyone is hooked up, the guides lift your snow hook (the only thing keeping the dogs from not taking off with out you) and off you go.
It's a frenzy at first. One minute the dogs are barking uncontrollably with excitement and then the minute they start to run, they settle down and relax. They are now in their element and the happiest little pooches they could possibly be. It's like they are running with big grins on their faces. Their tails are wagging and they scamper along with glee.
The first hill is all about warming up, getting their bearings and clearing their bowels. Dogs like humans need a little warm up and to clear everything out after a good nap. It's funny how fast they take off and then how distracted they get going up the first hill. They sniff everything, take a pee, eat some snow and take it easy. But once you are up at the top of that hill, it's all serious business.
The dogs are now in ‘The Zone' and wanting to run. They'll try to pass the team ahead of them, because hey, they're competitive and want to win! But you have to control the sled with your break. Going downhills you need to make sure that you don't go too fast or else you could run in to the dogs with your sled so you need to keep pressure on the brake. It takes a bit of work, but it's the most amazing feeling. As you glide along and watch the scenery, you feed off the dogs energy. There is no way on earth you can't be happy here. You're surrounded by 25 of the most content and cheerful beings you will ever come across. They're happiness is contagious and as you run along, you simply start to feel completely at ease.
Dave and I switched off regularly to give each other a chance at the wheel. Dogsledding takes a bit of work and a bit of physical conditioning is required. While going up hill, you have to help the dogs. There's only 5-6 of them and there are two of you. If you don't lend a helping hand, they'll turn around and give you a look of, “come on, do you really think we are going to do this ourselves??” So be prepared to sweat a bit. Some of the hills are a bit of a hike, but once you get to the top, the payoff is worth it. Once the dogs feel the pressure of the sled ease at the top, they start running again with gusto.
The half day trail takes everyone out to a clearing where we take a break and enjoy some hot chocolate. The dogs get a rest and this is a good time to give them all a big rub and tell them how great they are. We went down our team giving them all equal rubs and you could tell they appreciated it. Dogs are smart and they like being praised as much as the rest of us. The stop ended with our guide Mike giving all the dogs a chunk of a hotdog and then we were off! We went back the way we came feeling more confident with our skills. We now knew our dogs and how to control the sled. We went downhill with confidence and around bends with ease. After a couple of hours of driving, we felt like we knew what we were doing. This was awesome!
The tour comes to an end where it began and everyone lends a helping hand. We grab a dish of water for the dogs to re-hydrate, give them some more love and pats on the back and then say goodbye to our terrific guides. You can tell that the guides at Winterdance love their jobs as much as the dogs!
It's an amazing way to spend an afternoon.
I remember when Dave and I lived and worked full time in Ontario. We always looked for something to do each weekend and had we known about this, we definitely would have given dogsledding a try. It's an awesome weekend getaway to come up to Haliburton and get outside to enjoy the snow. You don't have to rush back to Toronto either, there's lodging just a half hour drive away at Sir Sam's where we stayed all week. It's an awesome resort and spa, but we'll tell you all about that next time!
For more information on Booking your own dogsledding trip visit the Northern Ontario Travel Website
Discover Ontario: Follow us for 2014 #DiscoverOntario
Follow Hank of Winterdance as he competes in the Yukon Quest at the end of the month. You can get up to date information on the Winterdance Facebook Page and watch in real time!
For the year of 2014 we'll be taking part in Epic Ontario Adventures and we couldn't be more excited to show off our home province. We hope you follow along at #DiscoverOntario on Twitter and Instagram. And on Facebook too!
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