By Afton Aikens & Lisa Stephens
Marvel at snow-capped peaks from the cozy comfort of a horse-drawn carriage, hot chocolate in hand. Or strap on snowshoes and venture deep into a valley glistening in winter glory. However you prefer to play, ’tis the season to explore Canada’s Rockies in all their snowy splendour.
This four-week post series will introduce you to dog sledding, snowshoeing, sleigh riding and cross-country skiing. Once essential modes of winter travel, these activities now entice people looking for good old-fashioned mountain fun in the great outdoors.
For the Love of Dogs
Used for thousands of years by Aboriginal Peoples, dog sledding was adopted in the 1880s by the North West Mounted Police as a means of rapid, long distance winter transport. In the 1920s, Englishman Ike Mills was an active local dog musher, transporting mail by dog sled and even organizing a race from Banff to Calgary.
“Dog sledding was Canada’s signature sport before hockey,” says Canmore-based Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours’ Connie Arsenault. Megan Routley of Kingmik Dog Tours in Banff National Park echoes dog sledding’s significance to Canadian heritage. “Canada would not be what it is today if it wasn’t for dog teams in the winter and canoes in the summer.”
The energy and excitement of dog sledding make it a favourite winter activity. Tours allow casual participants insight into the culture and lifestyle of dog sled travel. You can interact with the dogs, oftentimes drive your own sled, or simply relax and drink in the crisp air and stunning mountain views. Pristine backcountry trails offer an enchanting experience where the only noises are the dogs’ paws hitting the soft snow, and the occasional ‘swoosh’ as the sled glides around a corner.
Over the years, sleds have become faster and safer to operate, thanks to Teflon, plastics and different types of wood. “The equipment is evolving. You won’t find whale ribs, antlers or animal hides anymore,” Arsenault says. Sleds are now constructed to accommodate everyone from infants to the elderly. They offer comfort and warmth beneath blankets.
It’s easy to see why winter has gone to the dogs. As for the mushers, “it’s a lifestyle—it gets right under your skin,” Routley says.
North of the Icefields Parkway, Cold Fire Creek Dog Sledding tours whisk through a valley with alternating landscapes of snow-laden timber narrows and wide-open clearings. The dogs are suited to run in the deep snow and mountainous terrain. “The Alaskan husky is much faster than Siberians and Malamutes, and we feel the need for speed,” confesses owner Amanda Sinclair.