Outdoors. Snow. Dogs. Speed. What’s not to like?
After researching several Northern countries for the perfect winter adventure, we picked Inuvik as our next travel destination. A small town located in Canada’s Northwestern Territories, this never-heard-before city seemed to offer all (or almost all) what we were looking for – above the Arctic, within the Northern Lights region for a chance of Aurora sightings, snowmobiling, and more importantly dog mushing our own team. Going to Inuvik end of March had the added advantage of coinciding with local reindeer herd migration. My heart was beating in excitation!
Many companies in many countries offer dog sledding but very few actually let you drive – or mush as it is called – your own team. In some places like Greenland, terrain is rough with hard frozen snow, and requires previous mushing experience. Some companies are very business minded and will have four or five customers per sled, simply touring at a slow pace around nearby buildings, maximizing the sled and dogs usage. Others have less than stellar reputation in the management of their four-legged staff.
As animal lovers, the treatment of the dogs was front and center of our inquiries. And this is how we came across the White Huskies at the Arctic Chalet
Created by Olav and Judi Falsnes, the Arctic Chalet is a small lodging complex with a couple of beautifully crafted and decorated wooden chalets, and hosts a kennel of about 30 to 40 white huskies, including new puppies every year. While not our cheapest trip, the service provided was exceptional. Given how we were treated, most of the expenses are most likely spent towards the lodging, the gear, and the animals – each of us had between four to five dogs for ourselves, for 7 days.
Getting to Inuvik was somewhat of a hop-on hop-off flight experience. First flying from San Franciso to Edmonton, then one plane servicing Yellowknife, Norman Wells and finally Inuvik. After being picked up from the airport by Olav and Judi, and settled our luggage in our warm and cosy chalet, we were ready to meet the dogs and learn on new skills.
Judi has us first properly equipped with true Arctic clothing. We had brought our warmest clothes but since these are mostly backpacking in the Sierras, we needed additional layers against the local conditions and the potential -30 degrees Fahrenheit. Arctic gear landed by Judi included thick insulated snow pant, unique and made-to-order Skookum anoraks with fur-lined hood, incredibly light but warm traditional moosehide-covered Steger Mukluks, and loose oversized beaver mittens. Getting ready was an expedition in itself – you better be sure this is the last thing you go before you go outside, or risk dying of heat and perspiration if you stay inside. Completed with ski goggles, turtle neck and baclava, we headed to the kennel, eager to be trained on handling the sled.
Sleds are quite basic but efficient in their purpose. A light frame, most of them wood, lines to attach the dog and guide them, a footpad, a break bar composed of 2 ice-peak like metal spikes, and an anchor. The trick is to know how to use them, when you are pulled at high speed by a team of five or six highly energized dogs! We also learned the three most important words for guiding our team: Chi (turn right), Cha (turn left) and No (as in No, you can’t play with your side partner, No you can’t stop to pee while we are doing downhill, and No, I really don’t want you to cross this road with a car coming our way). Training and safety details were given by Anna-Sofia Johansson, the Arctic Chalet resident’s musher chief.
My team was composed of Jasper leading Pippa and Jeroon as Swings, Ungava and Umiak as Wheels. On his end, Bruno’s team was made of power girls Jazmin and Snowshoes double-leading Kamik as Swing, Mukluk and Ulu as Wheels.
We quickly moved to meet our dogs in their kennels, fitted them with their harness and attached them up along the tug line, in the respective position. The kennel has several volunteers available to help us securing the dogs, showing us how to handle the dogs and how to keep everyone safe, humans and dogs alike. While the dogs were incredibly friendly towards us, they did not necessarily go along together and we had to pay extra attention to always keep dogs separated until they were hooked to their lines.
We were very impressed with the dogs – healthy, in good shape, well fed, clean and very white coat, amazingly friendly with their new arriving friends, and by all accounts very interested in getting to sled. Their level of barking were definite a sign of demanding attention, as in “don’t you dare leaving me behind, I wanna go too! Me, me, me!”.
And the moment of magic came – the moment when we each stepped on our own sled, talking to our own dog team. And ready to release the power of the white huskies.
As it turned out, I was on the leading sled. With four excited dogs eager to start, I was stepping with all my weight on the break to prevent the sled to take off. Judi at the front and Anna at the back were accompanying us on snowmobile, giving them flexibility and speed to guide us all safely through the tundra. As soon as Judi gave the signal, I slowly let go of the break, stepped slightly on the footpad and started sliding on the trail, Bruno and his own team right behind me.
We were sliding, dog mushing our own team. E X H I L I R A T I N G.
The trail started by crossing the nearby frozen lake, giving us time to get a feel of the sled, how to slow down the dogs, or to keep them going, and practice our Chi & Cha orders. Nearing the end of the lake was the beginning of what Judi calls the Fun Run – windy trails cutting through hills, sliding along trees and rocks. Negotiating some of the curves was somewhat tricky, with the dogs interested in taking the shorter route, regardless of the sled in the back. But as I came to experience first hand, these sleds are flexible and indestructible at the same time – a tree encounter later on in the trip will prove that tenfold. Judi and Anna were highly attentive to our progress, guiding us to provide correction and advice as we went.
My team leader Jasper was all about business – constantly checking where Judi was (for safety purpose, dogs are trained not to move ahead of the snowmobile), pulling his team onward and forward, while keeping some of the playful members like Uhlu or Ungawa on track. The younger dogs are paired with more senior dogs to learn the ropes (not pun intended) of the trade and you can tell the difference right by looking at their behaviors. I was mindful of the pace of the sled, being careful not to bump the back of the wheel dogs – the row that pulls the most weight. As the dogs are easily distracted – think bird flying up, rabbit crossing the trail, pee from other dogs, you name it – the team tends to slow down and if the sled is too fast and you are not watching your speed, you will crash into the back dogs, potentially hurting them badly.
The two-hour run came to an end way to quickly and it was time to head back to the kennel.
But it had been a thrill and we were sold – we loved dog mushing.
Upon arrival at the kennel, we helped (or rather the volunteers helped us) taking the dogs off their lines, and brought them to their respective quarters. Removing their jacket, massaging their back and legs a little, and cuddling a little (a lot) to thank the dogs of their afternoon work. Bruno and I decided to stick around even longer and gave a hand at feeding the dogs. Because of the freezing temperatures, there is no water available so warm water is provided as part of the dog fed morning and evening, together with dry food. Each dog gets its own designed portion – some more, some less, depending on their diet and physical characteristics. To prevent the dogs from jumping at their caregivers, dogs are required to sit and wait a few seconds before being handed over their meals. They know the drill and though they don’t sit patiently, they all obliged fairly well, even with us rookies. Part of the routine also included cleaning the kennel after the meal, to ensure the dogs have a clean area for sleeping.
Heading to our own sleeping quarters, we were over the moon – what a first day it has been!
From happy healthy dogs, homy chalets, to crispy cold sunny temperatures on the tundra, and running full speed with the team, our first day in Inuvik was perfect. We were now ready for our next adventure, an overnight camping dog sledding trip where we also saw the Northern Lights…