LAKE LOUISE, Alberta — It had snowed an inch the night before, laying a fresh white carpet in the woods and frosting the alpine firs like so many pointy-topped sugar cookies. But now sunshine glints off craggy, 9,085-foot Mount Bosworth, dead ahead through a tunnel of trees, and I’m on a dogsled high-tailing it for the Continental Divide.
And these dogs just love to run.
“Going to the Canadian Rockies? In winter?” was the incredulous question back home from people who knew how cold and snowy it could get.
It was a gamble, but this was the big payoff: a dogsled adventure on a pristine January day through one of the prettiest landscapes on the planet. Every opening in the firs reveals another raked, snow-dappled peak of caramel-colored stone.
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“Alright, dogs,” is all it takes from musher Kylie Attkins, a transplanted Australian, to set the seven hounds flying along this narrow, old stretch of the former Trans-Canada Highway, now the winter realm of sled dogs and cross-country skiers.
Not show dogs
All lolling tongues and wagging tails, these dogs bear little resemblance to the handsome purebred mascot of the University of Washington Huskies.
“Naw, those are Hollywood dogs,” Attkins scoffs. “These are Alaskan huskies.”
So they’re a little rangy, with maybe a floppy ear here and an overlong snout there, in every color dogs come in. Bred for vigor and good nature.
“We don’t care, really, what they look like, though they’re pretty cute anyway. These guys can average around 100 miles in one go.”
And each has a personality, like Josie, the little blond with one blue eye and one brown. “Josie is a little princess, and also a little leader!” Attkins confides. She leads our pack this day, with another female named Trixie.
In line behind them is Fernie — “part of a litter named for B.C. ski areas,” Attkins explains with a smile — and then Growler, Dani, Sheila and Havoc.
Three two-passenger sleds go out this noon from the trailhead about a half-mile downhill from frozen Lake Louise. Attkins had warned everyone that as soon as we started tucking ourselves into the canvas-wrapped sleds (with a down sleeping bag inside to keep feet warm) “organized chaos” would erupt.
Sure enough, every dog started jumping and barking in excitement, ready to go. The dogs staying behind at the trailhead to rest, closed into vented compartments on the outfitter’s truck, set up mournful howling like their world was ending.
But once under way, the dogs were quiet. They put all their energy into pulling.
“Once you’re out there it’s so nice and quiet and you’re really into nature, it’s not like a snowmobile where it’s so noisy,” said another passenger, Alex Oelofse, a visitor from Namibia who runs safaris in his home country.
Prepping the dogs before the run, Attkins had kept up a constant friendly patter and, occasionally, baby talk, to these tough canines.
She checked each dog’s feet, one by one, like a farrier would check a horse’s shoes, to see if they needed soothing cream on their pads. She fitted some with canvas booties for the next dash through the snow.
“Some have hairier feet and get more snow sticking to their feet,” which is one reason for the booties, explained another musher, Tina Langassve.
While I watched the prep, a black dog named Wonka, with a long nose and beseeching, baby-doll eyes, came over to poke my leg with his snout. Scratching his ears, I suddenly had a friend who didn’t want to leave my ankles.
“Wonka is a veteran, he’s run the Iditarod four or five times, and now he’s semiretired,” Attkins told me.
For other dogs who just returned from a sled run, Langassve ladled out bowls of warm chicken broth mixed with kibble and chunks of salmon and beef. The goodies mixed in are mostly an incentive to get the dogs to finish off the broth and stay hydrated, she explained.
“They have their big meal at the end of the day,” she said. For these dogs, which typically weigh 35 to 65 pounds, it’s part of a daily diet of 8,000 to 10,000 calories, as much as four times what a 30-year-old, 6-foot man might require. (Did I mention that these dogs love to run?)
Dogs being dogs …
One part of dogsledding that doesn’t get a lot of press: Dogs, being dogs, go when they need to go. While the musher might harp that they “should have gone before we left home,” these dogs have refined the technique of relieving themselves on the run. (You’ve been warned.)
Mostly, however, the view from the sled is idyllic.
We slide and bump five miles along the snow-covered old highway until we cross under a giant, weathered-timber marker carved long ago with the words “Great Divide,” marking the ridge from which water flows either east or west on the continent. It’s Kicking Horse Pass, elevation 5,332 feet, on the boundary between Alberta and British Columbia. We continue a few dozen yards into British Columbia, crossing from Alberta’s Banff National Park into B.C.’s Yoho National Park, before turning back.
On the return, passengers who so desire get a chance to co-pilot their sled. Attkins shows me how to stand with one foot straight on a runner and the other crossed behind, careful not to get my toe under the brake pedal — a spring-loaded bar that pushes a ridged grid, fashioned from a snowmobile tread, down into the snow.
She stands on the other runner. My part in driving mostly consists of keeping my balance to stay on, and joining in occasional calls of “Good dogs!” To go right or left, Attkins instructs to shout “gee” or “haw.” At one point I spontaneously shout “yee-haw,” which I think just confuses the dogs.
As we schuss along, I notice that in one hand Attkins holds a long rope at the end of which is tied a wicked-sharp metal hook, akin to a small boat anchor. I ask what it’s for.
“Oh, that’s in case you, like, accidentally push me off the sled,” she explains. In other words, it’s the emergency brake.
On the route back we leave the old road and follow a winding path through the woods, where underbrush skitters against the side of the sled and the calm of the snowy wilderness really takes hold. It’s a magical interlude.
Back at the truck, passengers get to pat the dogs and toss them chunks of semi-frozen chicken meat — to keep the dogs’ calorie count up, reward them for their service, and help cool them down after the workout.
It was a fun outing that shattered some preconceptions:
• These dogs looked and acted a lot more like somebody’s pets than like anything from a Jack London novel.
• The climb to the Continental Divide can be much more gradual than you might think.
• And not once did I hear anyone holler “mush.”
Brian J. Cantwell: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blogging at blogs.seattletimes.com/northwesttraveler. On Twitter: @NWTravelers