The last three days of my much-needed winter break was a far cry from the gourmet weekend in Elora. This time I was with my parents celebrating my mother's birthday.
My mother is the world's easiest going person. She takes so much pleasure from everything in life that she doesn't have need for a bucket list or some such. Except for one particular dream.
However... a little back story first...
My mother's father was born in Italy but spent several years in the States as a young man, working in Alaska among other places. This was during Prohibition. When he headed back to Italy he met my grandmother and started his family. He brought back with him not only a New York-accented English, but also a love of Robert Service poems and the novels of Jack London, including Zanna Bianca (known in English as White Fang).
So my mother grew up with these influences and developed a love for and fascination with husky dogs. Dog sledding was something she dreamed of doing, and so this year, for her birthday, we surprised her with a trip to Haliburton. Now, when I say we surprised her, we gave her three weeks notice... because a girl needs to know she's properly outfitted!
Winterdance provides a fantastic dogsledding experience. They have 150 Siberian huskies and they love their dogs. The safety and well being of their dogs is paramount and this is evident in all they do and how happy and vigorous the dogs are. Haliburton is three hours north of Toronto, and Winterdance's trail is about half an hour further north. The guides could not have been more helpful and professional. Their very obvious love of the dogs and the care they took of us, the novice clients, was so impressive. Kevin, our fantastic main guide for the day, is also an artist, and you can see his remarkable work in wood here.
My dad rode with Kevin, and my mother rode in another sled with me as driver (she's a brave woman!). Seven more sleds of visitors and two more guide sleds made up the party. Nothing could have prepared me for how special this would be. I suppose I had a more dreamy idea of dog sledding, when in fact it was a vigorous and exciting activity. The sudden pull of the dogs took some getting used to, as they bounded forward excitedly every time we took off. Finding my feet on the narrow runners and learning how to use the all-important brake was a bit of a learning curve too. And for the driver, dog sledding is a work out. As we rode, Kevin told us that in the first month alone of sledding this winter, he lost 15 pounds, and it's not like he needs to. I found myself doffing layers. However the passengers got quite cold. If you plan to dogsled and just ride in the sled, you cannot wrap yourself up too warmly!
We had booked the half-day trip (by far the most popular) and it was perfect. The trails are stunning, sometimes dipping up into Algonquin Park. The land is totally remote, untouched, beautiful, haunting... we crossed a frozen lake, and drove through tree-covered ravines that soared up beside us. The snow had started to fall as we took off, and then began to fall in earnest in great, fat flakes. It was like something out of a film in my imagination - just a little more visceral.
When you drive a sled, you are part of the team, and it makes sense that when you come to inclines, you get off to walk with the dogs, and sometimes help push the sled up. It's invigorating to say the least! When the slope goes downwards, you must use the brake, to make the dogs pull the sled down, ensuring that the sled doesn't run forwards and risk hurting the team.
The dogs are remarkable. They love to pull. When they were getting into harness, one dog named Lily, identified as the queen of the kennel, began to howl. Within moments all 55 dogs were howling, the sound reverberating around the clearing and ringning in my ears. As soon as they had started the run, all was silence. We just heard the slight jingle of harness, the soft rush of the sled, and all else was silence.
Our lead dog was Willow, a small female. She was patient with me, just occasionally looking back as if to say, "Do you have any idea what you're doing?" Kevin warned us that if we didn't do our bit for the team, like getting off to push when the going got tough, they would just stop, sit down and look over their shoulders at you with the Stare of Death. Each dog was such an individual character. Willow's running mate was Albus, a big boy, unfixed, so I was warned to push him off her if he got amorous, but this was unexpected as she wasn't in heat. No kidding - he acted like she wasn't even there. Rainy, the middle dog, is Willow's sister, and apparently they're mortal enemies. They seem to harbour a powerful hate for each other but all the dogs are gentle and patient with people. After the first burst of energy was out of their system and we'd reached the halfway point, they took interest in us and wanted cuddles. I never learned the names of our two wheel dogs at the back. As they were being harnessed, such was the racket of howling, I couldn't hear what the guides said. But they did tell us that once we were on the trail, we only had to speak to the dogs in a conversational tone, as their ears were pointed back to pick up our sounds.
Here's handsome Albus, the big male dog who ran with our lead dog, Willow. Such a beautiful face... two beautiful faces (the other being my mum's). Secret surprise: I got a print made of this picture of her and Albus today and framed it so she'll open it on her actual birthday (tomorrow).
Pausing on the trail. The scenery took my breath away. My mother's lower legs are there, covered in a blanket.
The privy, tipi, and sign-in hut at the trailhead. In the picture beside it, you can almost make out Willow looking back to check on me!
Sisters and enemies: beautiful, blue-eyed Rainy, and Willow, our lead dog, with the softest fur ever. Look at her wonderful ears!
The sun started to fade, it got colder, but no less beautiful.
We stayed two nights at a nearby resort, with the world's most comfortable beds. They were needed. I was zonked by about 8:30 on the evening after the dog sledding. A beautiful experience, and one that I wouldn't have wanted to miss.