When the email landed in my inbox asking if I wanted to ride or drive the dog sled, I was adamant. “I want to DRIVE, NOT RIDE” I wrote. That was my first mistake.
I felt confident and excited about driving a dog sled again. After all, just a year ago I’d driven one in the Yukon and it had been one of those life-altering, Zen moments. As I glided across a frozen lakebed, my team mushing ahead of me, with only the shooshing sound of the runners, I‘d felt at one with the dogs and the universe. I’d written a story about it and was eager to re-experience the wonders of dog sledding.
When we pulled up to Chiens-Traîneaux Petite-Nation in the Outaouais region of Quebec just 30 minutes from Ottawa, we were greeted by a chorus of barking, whining, and howling from several dozen dogs chained to their tiny hut-homes. Our guides quickly sorted us into two groups and I was assigned to Sebastian, a tall, swarthy Frenchman with a thick accent.
Sebastian gathered us around and gave us the basics of sled dogging, including the importance of leaning into turns and how to slow the dogs by standing on the drag brake, a small mat with teeth that floats between the runners at the back of the sled. Want the dogs to slow down? Step on the brake. Simple. I’d heard it all before.
“When you go uphill run behind or alongside the sled to help the dogs,” he said.
I hadn’t heard that before. Surely he was kidding.
As our guide wrapped up his talk, I asked, “What about the ‘gee’ and ‘haw’ commands for turning?” I felt good being able to show I knew something about this sport.
“You won’t need those,” he said dismissively. “The dogs will follow me.”
Okay, I thought, the slightest bit of doubt creeping into my psyche.
“Zee most important thing,” Sebastian said, his face serious and his black eyes burning into our’s, “is never let go of your sled. When you fall off, hang onto your sled.”
When we fall off?
He grasped the sled’s curved handle and demonstrated holding it in the cook of his arm.
“Only let go if you’re going to hit a tree,” he said.
A buzzing started in my ears. Hit a tree?
I looked at my wooden sled with its silicon runners and the five sturdy huskies the men had attached to it and I felt my confidence wavering. The sleds here were different than the ones we’d used in the Yukon and the dogs were much bigger and stronger. When I watched the first sled streak out of the dog yard, its driver hanging on for dear life, I knew this was going to be a very different ride.
Sebastian motioned for me to follow him as he flew out of the yard. He was around the trees and out-of-sight before I had the chance to release my claw-like parking brake. The minute I did, the dogs tore off at a heart-stopping velocity and went screaming around the corner.
Up ahead, Sebastian had stopped his team and stood waiting. He signaled for me to stop my sled. I stood on the drag brake with one foot. The dogs slowed a little, but we were still heading straight for Sebastian’s team. I put both feet on the brake, the teeth biting the snow hard, sending buzzing sensations up my leg. “Whoa, whoa,” I called to my dogs.
The dogs slowed a bit more, but still nearly ran over Sebastian.
“Stop ‘em,” he commanded looking irritated.
Hey, I’m trying I thought.
We waited for the others in our group to catch up. “There’s a big curve, then a steep hill,” Sebastian said. “Don’t be afraid to brake. At the bottom of the hill, there’s a turn to the right. Brake and lean in.”
Sebastian’s team took off with my team following behind. The trail wound up and down and around spindly stands of pine. The route was nothing like the pancake flat frozen lake of my Yukon sled trip.
The dogs ran at a breakneck speed. It didn’t seem to matter that I rode with my right heel on the drag brake, trying to keep the sled at a pace that didn’t feel totally out of control. I concentrated on slowing my breathing, shifting my weight and leaning into the turns. I was struggling to get my sled legs.
The sled behind me pushed up against me like a big SUV on my bumper. I signaled for the rear sled to back off, but the driver ignored me. Each time we slowed, her dogs came up right next to my legs and sometimes even alongside. Damn, get off my rear!
Suddenly, the trail veered sharply to the right and down an impossibly steep hill. My dogs negotiated the turn and streaked downward. I stomped on the brake, but the dogs flew, ignoring my pathetic, “Whoa, whoa, boys.”
At the hill’s bottom, the trail doglegged sharply left. The dogs turned, but my sled, like the last kid in the game of crack-the-whip, careened wildly off the trail and flipped over onto its side. I heard Sebastian’s voice in my head, “Don’t let go of the sled.”
As I crashed into the snow bank, I managed to hold onto the sled. The dogs, of course, kept running, dragging the overturned sled and me. But the corner and the combined weight of the sideways sled and me slowed them and I muscled the sled onto its runners. My feet barely caught the skids as the dogs sped off even faster than before.
My snow pant had pushed up during the crash and I felt the icy snow against my ankle at the top of my boot. My gloves – fleece and not waterproof – were already soaked from the spill.
I came around another corner and found Sebastian waiting. This time, I was determined my team wasn’t going to run him over and I pushed hard on the drag brake bringing them to a stop.
“Okay?” he asked, giving me a thumbs up.
Oh sure, I thought, sticking my wet thumb up.
Miss SUV-on-my-bumper pulled her dogs up just inches behind me. Why the heck didn’t she just pass me?
“There’s a big uphill. You’re gonna run and help the dogs.”
Run uphill. He wasn’t kidding.
Off we went again only to come to a steep, heavily treed hill that went up and up some more. Ahead of me, Sebastian ran full tilt to one side of his sled. I stayed on my runners as long as I could, even pushing with one foot scooter style until the dogs slowed and I had to jump off. As soon as I did, they sped up and I ran behind the sled, my arms out stretched until I thought they’d pop out of the sockets. The dogs moved fast as I trudged uphill in my 10-pound snow boots. My lungs burned and my breath came in big gulps. It was all I could do to hang on to the sled handle.
At the top, the dogs shot off and I leapt back onto the runners. The trail continued as before, up, down, around, another panting uphill, then a plunge down. My gloves were soaking wet and I was breathing hard from all the running uphill, but I was starting to feel pretty good. Okay, this was a lot more challenging than the Yukon, but I’d only fallen once and I was getting the hang of it.
I definitely spoke too soon.
Sebastian stopped us. My rear-end gal pal pulled her dogs right up to my butt again. Since my fall, she’d backed off a bit, but when I asked her to give a little space between our teams, she’d complained, “You’re going too slow.”
Who was she kidding? I was Flash Gordon. My team was so streaking fast we must have been a blur on the trail.
“Okay, there’s another hill going down,” Sebastian said ominously. “This one is big.”
And the others were what, molehills?
“Brake a lot.”
With those comforting words, Sebastian’s team disappeared over the hill. One second he was there; the next he was gone like he’d taken an elevator down.
My team crested the hill and I immediately understood the elevator image. Oh crap. This wasn’t steep; this was straight down. My dogs, charging at their usual top-speed, plunged down. I stood on the brake, but they paid no attention. We hit a mogul, which tipped the sled wildly. Then suddenly, I was flying, but I wasn’t on the sled. I was horizontal, feet straight out behind me, hanging on to the sled for all I was worth.
“Don’t let go of the sled,” Sebastian’s words haunted me, as we flew down the slope.
I was a tin can being kicked down the road; a ragdoll tossed asunder; a piece of trash blown by the wind. Holding the sled handle with all my might, my body banged against the ice as we streaked down the hill. Pain radiated up my left leg, but the dogs never slowed. It didn’t matter to them that I was a passenger on their runaway train.
After what felt like a year, I spotted Sebastian at the bottom of the hill. I knew if I let go, he was close enough to catch my sled. I released the handle and stopped face down with a thud. When I looked up from my face-plant position, I saw Sebastian easily leap aboard my sled and bring my dogs under control.
I crawled to my knees, the muscles of my left leg screaming. Now both my boots were filled with snow and my worthless gloves felt heavy on my cold hands. Sweat dripped from my face.
“Okay?” Sebastian called out, flashing that infernal thumbs up.
“Yea, okay,” I said breathlessly, rising and staggering back a few feet to retrieve my hat.
“We’ll take a break in about 10 minutes. Get some cocoa”
When I climbed aboard my sled, my hands shook slightly. My trip down the hill had been brutal and my body felt like it had been run over by a steamroller.
The trip to the rest stop proved uneventful. When we parked the sleds, the others excitedly took pictures of the dogs and one another.
I was done, spent, finished, caput.
I went to Sebastian and said, “I’d like to ride back like some of the others so I can take photos.”
He stared at me unsmiling.
“I’d really like to take photos. Would that be okay?”
“Sure,” he mumbled, obviously unhappy with me.
The next 15 minutes, the guides un-tethered my team and re-distributed the dogs amongst the other sleds. There was no one to drive my sled so they tied it to a tree.
No cocoa was served. It was my fault.
Sebastian pointed to the last sled where Bruno, another guide, was readying a thin pad in the sled’s basket for me. It would be a less-than comfortable ride home.
Feeling exhausted and self-conscious, I made my way back to Bruno’s sled. I passed, apparently too closely to the lead dog on one of the other teams and the beefy red-headed husky reached out and bit me smartly on the hip. Later I’d find the bruise and a neat hole in my new jacket.
I piled into Bruno’s sled stretching my legs straight out on the thin silicone that was the bottom of the sled basket. As we mushed off, the sled felt slow, much slower than my sled and my butt registered the trail’s every icy bump and ripple through the thin cushion. Despite the lack of comfort, I felt grateful to be riding rather than driving.
“Allez, allez,” Bruno called out to the dogs and they pulled harder and faster. “Allez, allez.”
Then it hit me. Everything made sense. My dogs didn’t hate me. Yes, they had ignored me. Of course, they had ignored me.
After all, they spoke only French.
— Story and photos by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor
Check out Bobbie’s Yukon sled dog story.