Doggone fun: mushing with huskies in West Quebec

By Katharine and Eric Fletcher

“Alley up, Kayak! Go ha! Alley, alley up! Ah Wow…”

Hey, what language is that? It’s husky lingo, that’s what! What we’ve just heard is “Get going, Kayak! Go left. Go, go! Stop!”

These are the commands — along with “Va gie” which means go right — you’ll learn from James Sisstie of Expeditions Radisson in Wakefield in his “Dogsledding 101” course, a half-day of fun designed to step novices through this exciting, romantic Canadian sport.

Other basics include an overview of the dog’s harness. The main, tug and neck lines are explained, as is the use of the “anchor”. He will inform you how important it is that you watch “the lines” to ensure they don’t become tangled while the dogs are running.

Most critical to Sisstie, however, is that you form a strong bond with the dogs. “The very first thing I do is introduce people to their dogs. All of them! Some people think I’m nuts, but hey, you just have to have a spiritual bond with these animals if you’re going to get the most out of them. Instead of yelling commands at them, you’ll get a better response if you call to them. There is a real difference, you know. People realize this when they ‘meet’ my dogs.”

Just how many dogs will really pull your sled “depends on your weight, primarily,” says Sisstie. “But it also depends on the length of the trip combined with the snow conditions. You can figure on a dog pulling its own body weight: On average, my dogs are 75 pounds, so I figure it out from there. I’ll put seven dogs on a sleigh for a 250 pound man with a 50 pound pack, if we’re heading on an overnight expedition.”

Snow conditions are very important, so it’s best to call Expedition Radisson to find out if the snow is appropriate for sledding. If it is very mild, it’s doubtful that Sisstie will go out because the dogs can flounder in wet snow and sprain their ankles -- or even be hit from behind by the sled. “Dogsledding is best in cold, crisp weather, with deep snow,” advises Sisstie. “If there’s a dump of snow, pick up the phone and give me a call and we’ll head out with the dogs.”

Ideal sledding conditions mean chilly temperatures for mushers, so plan to bundle up for comfort. If you suffer from chronically cold fingers and toes, you’ll want to pay attention to keeping your extremities warm.

This is particularly true of wind chill: your face will require thorough protection from cold. Wear a toque and even a Balaclava or similar wind-barrier (even a scarf so you can protect your cheeks and chill if necessary). And don’t forget good UV sunglasses and sunscreen, too, along with lip balm so your lips will stay moist and protected from wind and sun.

The huskies do most of the work, but you’ll need to keep the sled from tipping, at times... and that takes body coordination, control and the ability to look ahead, to assess the terrain, and to anticipate how to move your body so you are assisting, not hindering, the dogs. Don’t think you cannot do it: we’re sure that after taking Dogsledding 101, you’ll be just fine, so try it. Be forewarned: this is serious fun.

When you shout “Alley up!,” be prepared for instant action: the sled takes off as the eager dogs strain and yelp, pulling at their harness in what Sisstie correctly describes as a “ballistic take-off.”

“I tell people to hold on to their sled with a vice grip!” says Sisstie. “People are shocked with the velocity of take-off.”

Shocked is one word for it. We’d prefer to use the word “exhilarated” to describe this incredible sport that bonds people with animals.

Most of Sisstie’s 30 dogs are purebred Siberian huskies, though some are Malamutes or Malamute crosses. He proudly adds: “I can name all thirty for you if you want! There’s Kayak, and there’s Kaz — named after Kazabazua; Waki, after Maniwaki; Pond, after Pond Inlet… That’s where I first saw dogs working. It was the early eighties…” Off he goes, on another story.

And that’s another delight: the talespinning. Sisstie’s good at it, for there always seems to be a yarn waiting to be spun.

Dogsledding somehow feels like a quintessentially Canadian activity. It’s you, your dogs, and the Gatineau hills, forests and open spaces. It’s a feeling of freedom and the joy of working as a team with your huskies.

Sisstie calls it the ultimate light Canadian adventure... Why not try it and see if you agree?


Travel Bag

Think warmth! Layer your clothing and wear a parka or windbreaker-type of jacket; toque, mittens, cozy boots; sunglasses and sunscreen. Note: Included in the prices, Expedition Radisson will outfit you if you don’t have adequate equipment.

Rates: 1) Dogsledding 101: $150 per person for four hours. This includes any clothing requirements and a hot meal at the Bistro adjacent to Expedition Radisson. 2) The one-day expedition is $250 per person and includes “your hot lunch on the snow.” 3) The 2-night, 3-day WAWATTI expedition is $395 per person. Accommodation is a rustic cabin one night; the second is spent at a B&B.

Contact: James Sisstie, Expeditions Radisson, 170 Chemin de la Riviere, Wakefield, Québec, J0X 3G0 at (819) 459-3860 (local call from Ottawa). Toll-free is 1-888-459-3860. Ask for his brochure called Dogsled Expeditions.

Alternate Outaouais suggestion: The Chateau Montebello

The Chateau Montebello also offers wonderful dogsledding along its 70 kilometres of gentle woodland trails on their picturesque property. The star-shaped Chateau — the largest log cabin in the world — boasts not only great dogsledding but also delectable cuisine, cozy fireplace and adjacent armchairs, as well as romantic rooms overlooking the Ottawa River.

And the Chateau is merely an hour’s drive from Ottawa.

We suggest that you top off your dogsled adventure with a luxurious massage, hot tub and soothing swim in the indoor pool and fitness centre. We return repeatedly to the Chateau Montebello in all seasons (just try the golfing and horseback riding).

The Chateau Montebello, 392 Notre-Dame, Montebello, Québec, J0V 1L0; Tel: (819) 423-6341; Fax: (819)-423-5283. Toll-free number for the entire CP/Fairmount hotel chain is: 1-800-441-1414. Dogsledding is $27.50 for 20 minutes. You will not be mushing your own team, but sitting on the sled. Accommodation costs range according to the packages.