Silent Running

Outside it’s struggling to make -15ºC and there’s an added wind-chill factor we don’t even want to think about, but our rented 4×4 is pushing purposefully through the whiter-than-white landscape of a typical Quèbecois winter, taking us to see a man about a dog.

Dog-sledding, Quebec, Canada

Or rather a whole pack of them; we’ve decided to take the adventure activity option while we’re here and go dog-sledding. It felt like a good idea at the time, but as another flurry of needle-like snowflakes crackles against the windscreen, I’m having doubts. Seconds later I know it’s too late to back out, as we pass a sign marking the turn-off to our destination: ‘Aventure Nord-Bec – Traineau à Chiens…’.

After a sharp right turn we roll in near-silence along a snow-rutted track which leads to a timeless picture of frontier life: a cluster of cheerful, match-boarded cabins (some sporting long racks of traditional snowshoes) and a curious collection of miniature shacks spread across a large clearing. No sooner have we parked than a succession of furry outlines begins to rise from the snow surrounding each little refuge. The unmistakable signal of maybe a hundred wagging tails tells us that we’ve not only found the dogs, but they’re also well aware of our arrival. Killing the engine produces a momentary silence, before an extraordinary chorus of howling strikes at something deep inside which we never knew was there. Until now. The effect is both startling and somehow deeply moving, and I know immediately that this is going to be an experience like no other. I’m glad we came.

Husky dogGo and say Hi!’ says our host. ‘They’re all totally friendly, I promise you…’. ‘Friendly’ turns out to be something of an understatement; the dogs are just desperate to make contact, and are straining at their chains, thick tails wagging like demented windshield wipers. We move among them one by one, returning the compliment and noting the names daubed on kennels which they seldom use, apparently preferring instead to curl up outside in a furry ball whatever the temperature (as the snow builds around them it creates all the shelter they need against the bitter winds).

Playtime finally stops when we’re directed towards a line of large ethnic-looking craft sculptures which turn out to be our dog-sleds. After admiring the authentic construction – a time-honoured combination of lightweight ash framework held together with thick twine bindings – my next thought is ‘Are we really going to drive this thing?’ It seems that this is indeed the general idea, although before anyone climbs aboard we’re given a brief crash course in the rudiments of dog-sled driving technique. I hang on the instructor’s every word, particularly the bit about ‘braking’, achieved by pressing on a large pedal to drive a mean-looking pair of spikes downwards into the snow. Simple, but effective.

Suitably briefed, we rejoin our respective sleds. ‘You’ll be driving’, says the instructor, pointing at me. My companion gets off lightly: hearing ‘You can make yourself comfortable here’ she loses no time in doing just that, in the relative security of the low-slung passenger seat. The dogs, meanwhile, are old hands at this kind of thing, and know exactly what comes next. The howling and barking begin all over again as the staff fan out to release the ecstatic animals from their chains, before securing them in their allotted positions in the long harnesses of the sleds. Each sled gets five dogs – two at the front, one in the middle and two more behind – chosen for their strength and ability to coexist happily as a working team. By the time we’re ready to get moving their impatience to be off is conveyed in a series of powerful yanks on the sled, straining the thick rope by which we’re lashed to a nearby tree.

This security is short-lived, however, as a member of staff yells at me to stand on the brake pedal – then releases the rope. It takes all my strength to hold the whole show on the spot, and the guy who slipped the tethering rope now shows me another line, this time with a sturdy ground-anchor (‘in case you ever need it…’) attached to the end.

As the howling rises to a manic, wailing shriek, it’s obvious that ‘walkies’ must now be happening any second, or all hell is going to break loose.

Ahead of me the lead sled is streaking away, and I know that this is it. Gulp. ‘Hang on…’ I yell to my willing victim in the cold seat. As I release the brake we’re suddenly off, and accelerating hard. Then something strange and unexpected happens: a sudden silence, broken only by the basket-like creak of the sled as it skids along in the snow-tracks of the sled in front, and the distant panting of the dogs. Sensing that we’re in imminent danger of catching up with the team ahead, I touch the brakes, and glance down in disbelief as a plume of snow billows rapidly around my legs. This provokes the brief surprise appearance of a panting dog’s head between my legs, suggesting that the following sled is perhaps less well-braked than we are.

Sled dogs runningSoon we’re gliding smoothly over fresh white powder on a wide, specially-created track in the otherwise densely-wooded landscape, and I begin to get to grips with the handling of the sled. As we settle into a steady rhythm we finally get a chance to look around at our surroundings and appreciate the world in a way which is simply not possible on, say, a snowmobile. Progress is now more serene than frenetic, but we’re covering some ground and the bond between us and ‘our’ dogs is tangible and growing. Forget all the stuff you hear about wild creatures, one step removed from wolves; these guys might be working for us, but as far as they’re concerned, they’re having a ball and need little encouragement on our part to keep things moving along nicely. The only disruption occurs when a dog shows signs of needing to stop to, well, answer its own call of nature – a wish which must be respected, in accordance with sledding etiquette.

We live the dream for a little longer, mesmerised by the mystical process of travelling like authentic fur-trappers, until finally we hear the unmistakable howls which announce our imminent return to the clearing we’d left a couple of hours before. The warmest of welcomes is impossible to ignore, and as our team members are led away back to their respective kennels, we abandon the intrepid pioneer role-playing and are reduced in minutes to a couple of softies, cuddling and stroking the appreciative bundles of fur competing for our attention. The final degeneration into shameless, cuddly-toy behaviour comes right on cue, when my companion is handed an eight week-old malamute puppy.

Malamute husky and Denis MontminyLater, over welcome a cup of coffee in the cocooning warmth of the reception cabin, I meet founder Denis Montminy, who has run his activity operation since 1990. I can now understand how his beloved animals (he currently has 130 working Alaskan Malamutes and Siberian Huskies) have taken over his life. As a child Denis never had a dog, but when he was nine years old he did some work for a neighbour, who rewarded his efforts by giving him a pair of puppies to rear. From that moment his life changed forever and he’s now been breeding sled dogs for over thirty years.

Denis’ total dedication to improving the qualities of the breeds has earned him a growing reputation throughout Canada and Europe for his dogs’ exceptional size, endurance and dependable, playful nature. Opening his centre (which employs 110 km of dedicated trails) has also enabled him to share his love for these wonderful animals with visitors from all over the world.

As we say our reluctant farewells and leave Denis to attend to another group of eager, first-time visitors, we can’t resist casting a final glance back to the dogs before trudging to the waiting 4×4. Once again heads are shaking snow from thick fur, and twenty or so tails begin to wag, an unmistakable invitation to us to stay a little longer and begin the exchange of affection all over again. These friendly giants made the sledding part of our unforgettable visit really easy – and the final parting so hard…

©Roger Moss, Editor

Find out more: Aventure Nord-Bec

See  La Grande Odyssée, Savoie Mont Blanc, January 7th-18th, 2012