Dog sledding and winter camping in the Arctic Circle? Count us in!
Part of our weeklong Arctic experience with Arctic Chalet was to spend the night in a camp at Jimmy Lake located 50 km (31 miles) north of Inuvik. I am not sure what got me the most excited – the thrill of mushing and leading our own dog teams, the overnight camping on the tundra, or the freezing temperatures of the Arctic winter… Probably all of the above.
That second day of our trip, we were eagerly packing our overnight bags. Warm socks – check. Long john – check. Thick gloves – check. Layer after layer of thermal tops – check, check and check. Our host Judi provided the complete camp setup so for once, we only had to think about our clothes. This was not a small task with the forecasts of -25 to -30° Celcius (-13 to -22° Fahrenheit) for that night. Forget flip-flop and pareo! Because the bags were transported by snowmobile, we had to keep these small and compact. This was however not an issue since we wore most of the heavy gear during the day.
Getting ready for our trip
We headed to the kennel to meet Anna, our musher master, who informed us about the composition of the teams for the trip. The dogs were selected based on the duration and distance of the trail, the weight and physical conditions of each of us musher trainees, and more importantly, the dog character and capacity to work as a team. Bruno and I were glad to have the same dogs from our first dog sled run the day before, as we bonded with them. The dogs could tell from our preparations we were headed for a full day of fun and became more excited than us if that’s possible. Per the previous day, my team led the party. Jasper was one of the top leaders and behaved his usual tempered-self; while the young Jeroon, Ungava and Umiak goofed around, and Pippa had a hard job to enforce the peace and quiet.
Judi joined us on her snowmobile and signaled the departure of our overnight camp trip. I let a soft “Go! Mush!” exit my mouth, the dogs in no need of any encouragement. Off we went, and the five sleds glided down the lake for our two-day adventure. What an exciting moment!
One of my wheel dogs, Umiak, was behaving oddly and stopped several times. At the start of a run, dogs like to pee and poop. A spectacle in itself… I first thought this was the cause, but Umiak was clearly reluctant to pull. I waved to Judi who came to the same conclusion after watching him: no ride for Umiak that day. Anna untied and drove him back to the kennel a short distance away, and returned with a new dog in tow. With the dogs’ compatibility in mind, Umiak had to be replaced with a dog my current team would accept so Judi removed Ulu from Bruno’s team, who would get the new dog. The fact that Judi and Anna did not hesitate one second to let Umiak rest reinforced me in our choice of Arctic Chalet and their White Huskies as a prime dog sled outfitter.
With the dogs now on their lines, we could proceed with our trip. From that moment forward, we did not stop until lunch, almost three hours later. The sleds run through the snowbanks on the Mackenzie River, crossed the Ice Road and headed towards the tundra. We faced a few intimidating moments as we passed a group of chained Huskies along the trail. My team went into a frenzy, jumping around and abruptly dragging the sled towards these dogs. I suddenly lost my balance and fell flat on the snow. As Anna cautioned us to never let the sled go, I seized the break bar with my two hands, first to stop the sled and then to kneel over the break. The metal bar was hurting through the pants, but the picture of a dogfight stood stronger than the pain. Volunteers from the kennel who had come to get us through this section rushed to my rescue. Holding the dogs by the harness, they helped me regain my foothold on the sled. With no time to recover from my emotions, I had to cross the road, gently touching the break to prevent sliding over the icy conditions and mindful of the incoming trucks. The dogs remained so excited from the previous encounter they were difficult to control. Finally reaching the trail, I stopped the team to wait for the other sleds. I had to say this had been a scary moment, as I faced the full strength of the dogs and a potentially dangerous outcome.
We past Inuvik and left the last signs of human presence behind. The vast horizon of tundra stood open ahead of us, rolling hills upon hills, endless white on white. As the front-runner of our convoy, I was privileged to embrace the open spaces first. The next two hours were pure joy. My dogs loved to speed ahead of curves, the sled tiping as it bumped over the frozen snowbanks. I quickly learned to keep my foot low on the pad to control the speed but let the dogs roll past the curves as I wanted them to have fun too! We reached a small carrier where Olav waited for us with his snowmobile and a large sled. It was time for lunch! After we tilted and anchored the sled for our break, Anna handed us each a small portable hook to tether the team leader, in order to keep the main dog line straight and prevent fight. The dogs were fed with treat of frozen chicken, which they wolfed down in seconds. After a quick lunch ourselves, we pushed on towards our camp still a couple of hours away.
On to the tundra
We soon reached a 7-km long (4-mi) frozen lake. This wide expanse represented the ultimate Arctic scenery, at least how I pictured it. Flat, white, endless, cold, fascinating. As the front-runner, I felt lucky to embrace liberty and adventure. A fan of the pioneer history, of Jack London and the Gold Rush, I was transposed in times past, sent to discover new lands as we headed to the unknown…. The dogs were thrilled too. Judi drove at a fair distance, and the dogs suddenly accelerated. Happy to oblige, I lifted my foot from the break pad to let them take off. In a heartbeat, we were running at full speed, the dogs in unison. The lake was long, but I would have gladly done twice the distance given the unique landscape.
Later in the afternoon Judi veered off the trail onto the untouched tundra. The powder was definitely fresh and caused the dogs to struggle and the sled to sink. It was not the time to step out, or I would have sunk with no hard surface to hold onto. Breaking our own trail deepened the impression of being a pioneer. We arrived at Jimmy Lake, our camp for the night, soon after. As much as I had LOVED the day, I was ready for a break.
Camping at Jimmy Lake
Camping with dogs is not like parking your car or taking off your snowshoes. The dogs had to be removed individually and reattached to fixed lines for the night. As such, only one sled could be taken care off at a time. I went first and was grateful to do so. The team was excited again, and I wondered whether I could control them as I happened to be exhausted by the long ride. With the sleds and the dogs tucked away, Anna asked us to distribute hay to each dog for additional warmth while she boiled the water for the dogs’ dinner. Two females who recently had puppies received additional comfort, one sleeping in a portable kennel wrapped in blankets, the another covered with a little red coat. As the dogs rested and waited for the feed, Bruno and I walked to each of them to check on any potential friction point with the harness and lines, and massage their back and legs. Our four-legged team members had been hard at work and it just felt right to give them extra love and care. They hugged back in tenfold. I confessed spending more time with Pippa, the only girl in the team, and Ulu, strong and playful. Two different characters, but both so gentle and sweet.
While waiting on the water to be ready, we explored our shelter for the evening. The camp included four tents, a small camper, an open campfire pit, and a compostable porta-potty canvas. The tents were luxurious, at least coming from our world of backpackers. Camp bed, heavy cot, Arctic-rated sleeping bag, and tada – an oil heater! The equipment needed to be carried by snowmobile and the setup took about two days, so the encampment remained semi-permanent in winter.
It was time to feed the dogs. Mixing the soft chicken pieces together, Anna served healthy portions of the hot mixture. Each dog received the specific amount of food based on his or her individual need. Chaos started with the dogs barking crazy but it soon quietened down as they filled their belly. Our turn came after Judi had prepared huge portions of hot soup, followed by warm and juicy pasta. We enjoyed the tasty food, a welcome after such a long day, nourishing and warming. The lovely evening continued with winter stories, Olaf and Judi sharing their experience on how they built a life in Inuvik and developped their husky enterprise. The tales of true pioneers.
We did not retire to our tent right away, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, and gathered around the hot fire pit as the temperatures dropped with the late hours. We noticed light formations in the sky but the moon was full, too bright for ideal Aurora viewing. But our wishes came true. Around 1 am, as the cold pierced through the thick layers of clothes, faint white stripes appeared across the night sky, like light brush strokes. Minutes passed and the white turned into light and dark shades of green. We were admiring the Northern Lights!
One of the dogs started to wimp softly and Bruno went to sit on the straw pile with her, to cuddle and calmed her down. He stayed for about two hours, keeping each other warm. On my end, I was starting to feel cold, the temperature probably set around -30° Celcius (-22° Fahrenheit). Time to move into the heated tent, to enjoy the provided luxury and the comforter-sized sleeping bag!
Nestled in heavy down, baked in hot temperatures, we slept like babies. The heater worked so well Bruno turned it down in the middle of the night. I should have brought flip-flop and tank-top after all! We only heard the occasional barks from the dogs, but it was so quiet, so peaceful, just your typical night on the Arctic tundra…
The sun rises late over that part of Canada as it is based on Edmonton timezone for economic reasons. That morning, the rays of light appeared around 8 am, with the official sunrise at 8.24 am. The early bird in me stood ready to feed the dogs as I quickly dressed up, put the contact lenses, and had the obligatory porta-potty stop. Speaking of, this required some strategic planning given the several layers involved!
The dogs remained partially asleep but lifted their head slightly when they saw me, eager for more attention. Distributing belly rubs left and right, I in return received a copious amount of flapping tails and cuddles. A win-win situation for everyone. The morning routine required the removal of the soiled hay and bodily production, which I took care of quickly. By the time this was done, Anna had a large bucket on the stove to warm fish soup, to served hot and greasy to the satisfaction of our four-legged friends.
The sun rose slowing across the horizon, illuminating the sky and tundra of yellow and pink hues. Standing around the fire, we were surrounded by the smell of the coffee brewing in a Western kettle, while Anna was reheating a homemade reindeer soup. A perfect morning on the tundra.
For breakfast, Judy regaled us with succulent hot pancakes, homemade preserved strawberries, whipped cream, and Maple syrup of course. As we washed down our breakfast with coffee and tea, Judi walked us through the plan for the day and what we needed to do prior to leaving. Tidying up the tents and the camp, we packed our bags before we hitched the dogs. Since we were the last group of the season, Olaf would dismantle the big tents with the help of two of the kennel staff and bring back the heavy gear on their snowmobiles.
White on white
With 50 km (31 miles) trail ahead of us, we needed to leave on a timely schedule. Our movement around camp signaled a prompt departure to the dogs. On with the sled, on with the dogs. I stepped on my sled and with a last quick glance back, “mush mush” we went. The sky remained overcast that morning, compared with the beautiful blue sky of the day before, and gave a unique character to the ride. Sky and land merged as one giant white horizon, with limited landscape elements to give a grasp to reality. We reached the 7-km long lake after a lengthy ride downhill. It was a tough exercise to let the dogs run full speed and keep the sled on the trail, and not to be thrown out as we gained speed. It was exhilarating if not a little concerning.
The dogs tired faster on that second day. Still very much competitive, they were keen to run on the flat open terrain, grabbing the fresh snow powder by the side of the trail as they went. While the scenery asked for deep introspection, I was careful to pay attention to my surrounding constantly. The beauty of the scenery can’t have you daydream as the dogs have a mind of their own, and can jump into each other or start a fight in a split of a second.
We faced several uphills and part of the job of the musher is to push the sled to help the dogs. Bruno ran and pushed by the side of the sled. I tried to do the same but almost fell as I could not run fast enough. I opted to keep a foot on the sled and pushed with the other. Though not as powerful as Bruno’s method, I knew the dogs appreciated it. Indeed, the dogs would turn their heads the few times I stopped and stared at me with a distinct question in their eyes “come on, Musher Lady, push!”. This was a true workout, my legs full of cramps. I lost count on how many time I shouted “Go, go, go. Good boy Jasper, good girl Pippa” and so on, to thank and encourage them at the same time.
The lunch break was welcome by dogs and mushers alike. While the dogs remained busy with their frozen chicken pieces, we ate our hot reindeer soup. What a treat it was, and we thanked Anna again. We needed this to continue the next three hours, and it did the trick. With renewed energy, we enjoyed several memorable rides. A couple of sleds struggled through the rolling hills so Judi told Bruno and myself to go ahead. It was a gorgeous part of the trail, hilly but not strenuous, so we went for a long and fast ride. we did not have to push the dogs, they just started accelerating, faster and faster. What a fantastic moment it was, from the complicity with the team, the dogs alert and happy, to the wind to my face. I slowed after a mile to check on the other teams, which were further back in the hills.
Too soon, we reached the road and the team of semi-abandoned dogs north of Inuvik. This time I stood better prepared and though the dogs still went frantic, I managed to control and led them past that tricky area. As we crossed the frozen Mackenzie River turned-Ice Road for the winter, we passed the preparations for the Muskrat Jamboree. The event featured snowmobile and dog sled competitions among other activities, racetracks carved in the snow. One last curve and one last small frozen lake later, we rested the sled and dogs at the kennel.
Arctic Adventure to Boot
This overnight dog sled camping trip represented the ultimate Arctic Circle adventure, the highlights of our trip. Of many other trips in fact. A unique experience, a once-in-a-lifetime. We sensed a real connection with the dogs, and as a horse rider, it was a great to bond with the animals, each with their own character. I especially felt close to Ulu and Pippa, one being a young brat keen on playing, and the other a classy lady watching over the youngs. I did not expect to love the Arctic experience so much. It had started because of the thrill of it but it felt like home. Granted, with the whole trip organized and prepared for us, it would be hard not to love it. But as backpacker ourselves, I am confident we would enjoy it by ourselves, with preparation and guidance of course. This was the Arctic after all, and as for any winter trip, or like any outdoor activity, paradise can turn hell quickly, even lethal.
Given the chance, I would do it again in a heartbeat. I could imagine a life in the “Grand Nord” as we say in French, the northern territories across Alaska and Canada if the opportunity arises.