Hard in the Harness
If you’re feeling closed in by snow and ice, you’re not alone. Many Canadians go into semi-hibernation in winter. They put up with the season and don’t really come alive again until the spring. But some people discover a new wintertime passion that transforms their lives.
By Grace Szucs
“Winter can be a down season for a lot of people,” says Leah Blenkinsop, 35. “I wasn't a real winter person until dogsledding entered my life.”
Blenkinsop has been mushing dogs for 10 years, kicked off by a 10-day long dog expedition taken for her outdoor recreation degree at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. She decided she needed more of that in her life, so when she finished school she looked for jobs as a guide.
After six years working as a guide in Haliburton, she moved to Huntsville where she met her fiancé. Together they run North Ridge Ranch, caring for their 50-strong team of Alaskan and Siberian Huskies and introducing guests to the sport.
“I’m the lucky one, I guess,” says Blenkinsop who gets to race the teams when she’s not offering tours. Recently, she came in second in the Bancroft 25-mile race—that’s about two to three hours on the sled.
Half the fun is being with the dogs, seeing them do what they’ve been bred to do, especially new team members. “You can almost see the switch in their brain go, and they instantly become sled dogs. They're hard in their harness, they're pulling, they're running, they're smiling, they're having a great time. And from that day on they know what their job is and they fit in."
While the musher is ultimately in charge, there’s no dog sledding without dogs. This is a team sport built on a relationship of trust. The musher commands the team entirely with verbal commands. Competitors who lease dog teams for big races such as the Yukon Quest rarely do well.
“There's no connection so the work ethic of the dog and the knowledge of the musher just are not there in order for them to perform at a high level," says Blenkinsop.
Like hockey, dogsledding requires a large investment in time, energy and money. It’s a lifestyle sport. This also means there are a number of outfits, such as North Ridge Ranch, providing tours for the public. Anyone can try dog sledding—whether you’re a dog person or not.
"The dogs are just phenomenal athletes,” says Blenkinsop. “It's a sport but you're watching dogs instead of humans. When they're on their game, it's just the coolest thing."
While you do have the option of riding in the sled, those working with the team won’t just be standing on the runners yelling instructions.
“They are living animals, not machines,” Blenkinsop explains. "When you're going up a hill, you want to be helping the dogs out. So you have one foot on one runner and you're paddling along with the other like you were on a skateboard.” Imagine pulling a child or two in a sled; going uphill gets tough fast. On steep hills, the musher walks behind the team.
The biggest misconception about dogsledding? Cruelty. The idea could have sprung from Jack London’s the harrowing tale Call of the Wild, or, as Blenkinsop suggests, the practise of whipping by some mushers. While still used in some communities, the whip actually comes down on the land beside the dogs, not on the dogs themselves. You can't force dogs to run if they don't want to, as many racers have discovered. “They've got the best gig,” she says. They work hard for four months and rest for eight," she says.
If humans had half the work ethic of a sled dog the world would be a different place, says Blenkinsop. Time to take a little advice from our furrier friends this winter. Embrace the cold and the beauty of the forest.