« This just in! | Main | Trip to Maine with Sam »

Dogsledding in Quebec

Silly me. For Christmas I gave Laura Lee a dogsledding trip in Quebec. She had been talking about going on some kind of cross-country ski trip and I figured riding a sled had to be easier than cross-country skiing. I assumed that you simply stood on the back of the sled and went for a ride, occassionally giving commands to the dogs who did all the work.

No one mentioned to me that the dogs really cannot pull you up a hill. On a slight hill you must use one leg to help the sled along, kind of like riding a scooter as a child. For a steeper hill, you must get off and run behind the sled. In this instance, you cannot walk because the sled gets lighter and the dogs take off full-speed. You either run with them or get your arms torn off...or both. After a heavy snow, when the path has not been groomed or packed down, the dogs cannot even pull you on level ground or a slight downhill slope. Since we had about 12 inches of snow the night before we started, and another 6 to 8 inches our first day out, most of the trip consisted of running behind the sled having our arms torn off.

But we did have fun, one of my greatest adventures ever. The photos are published in a photo album here to the right. Click the arrow to the right of the word slideshow to see full-size pictures. There are not too many of them because at sub-zero temperatures, it's really not fun to take off your gloves for snapshots very often. I haven't figured out how to add a description to the individual photos but I'm working on it. The first few are around Quebec City while the later ones are at the sledding camp and on the sledding trip. Leave a comment if you can't figure something out.

I'll start at the beginning. We left Birmingham and flew to Quebec City last Monday, February 13. We spent three nights there at the Chateau Frontenac Hotel shown in a couple of the pictures. Quebec City is the only walled town in North America. It was founded by the explorer Champlain in 1608 and fortified to defend against the British. It has all of the flavor of a European village. It is French-speaking and when you are there, it is difficult to believe you are in Canada. It is a great place to spend a couple of days, although it has become somewhat touristy. We took a two hour bus tour on Tuesday and went snow-shoeing for a couple of miles Wednesday. It was snowing hard most of the time we were there with temperatures in the low teens most of the time.

Thursday we drove North about 225 kilometers to the Saguenay area and our base at a place called "Les Chiens et Gites du Grand Nord" which I think translates to "The dogs and Guest House of the Grand North". When we arrived, we quickly learned that this was not the Ritz Carlton. It is a remote outpost set up for serious adventurers.

Our cabin was small and quite simple. It was very cold when we went in but someone came over to help us light the woodstove, which kept it quite warm. Temperatures hovered around zero out first night and it snowed hard. After about 12 to 15 inches of snow that night and the next day, temperatures dropped and were around 25 below when we left Sunday morning.

After a family style dinner with owner Fabienne and a couple of the guides, we retired the first night and awoke Friday to a hearty breakfast and a briefing from our guide Bertrand. Bertrand is 31 years old and came to the camp with his own 28 dogs, making the total number of dogs there over 100. His briefing was thorough and this was our first sign that we were in for something serious. We joined him around 9:30 to help hook up the dogs to our sleds. We each had our own sled with five dogs while Bertrand had six.

The dogs are truly amazing, all huskies of various types. They live outside in temperatures that occasionally drop to under 40 below zero, each chained to a small doghouse which often totally disappears beneath the snow. While some of them burrow their way down to their house, many simply curl up on top of the snow. The dogs love what they do. When Bertrand shows up and starts pulling out sleds, the dogs go wild barking and begging to go on the trip.

The dogs were all hooked up to our sleds which were tied to posts to keep the dogs from taking off. Bertrand was in front with Laura Lee in the middle and me bringing up the rear. Bertrand took off and another guide came and untied each of us. The dogs started off in a rush and we were on our way.

Riding the sled is exhilerating. You stand on the back with one foot on each runner and your hands holding a rail on the back of the sled. The sleds contain a personal bag and all of the food, cookware, etc. It is not too difficult to balance although a little steering by leaning is sometimes necessary to keep from cutting a corner too steeply or to keep the sled in the trail. I only hit one tree. While we learned the commands for our dogs, we rarely had to use them as they simply follow the lead sled down the trail. I never had to use "Gee" (right) or "Haw" (left). When we wanted to stop we would press on a foot brake and yell "whoa". The brake simply pushed a sort-of rake down into the snow and gave resistance to make the dogs stop. To go again, you simply take your foot off the brake and yell "hup hup" and the dogs take off.

Because of the deep snow on the trail, going was tough and Bertrand decided to head for a cabin about 15 kilometers out. Unfortunately, he learned from another guide during the morning that the cabin was occupied by another group heading back from an 11 day trip, so he diverted and we headed for a more remote cabin 35 kilometers away, mostly uphill.

I joke about the difficulty of running behind the sled and helping the dogs along, but the trip was truly beyond my abilities. Toward the end of the day, I questioned how much more I could take. But we made it, and after about seven hours we arrived at a primitive cabin deep somewhere in a national forest.

The cabin was made of plywood with a tar-paper roof and contained a wood stove, six built-in canvas bunks, and a table with a few chairs. There's no power, or water but there is a small outhouse nearby that's delightful in sub-zero temperatures (not exactly a good place to read the morning paper).

Laura Lee had brought a flask with a little bourbon and after downing that and getting the woodstove going, we were downright happy. Bertrand whipped up a good dinner of soup, chicken and rice, and a few slices of bread. He took a giant drill-like device down to a nearby lake and drilled down about three feet to get us some fresh water. I had thoughtfully brought along a bottle of Bordeaux which made the evening complete.

We didn't sleep well. Laura Lee was awake a lot which meant that she heard me snore and kept me awake as well. Bertrand allowed two of the dogs to sleep inside with us since they looked particularly tired. They got warm during the night and discovered our water bucket which they drank gallons from and then of course they had to go out and back in a few times. All in all, it was not a restful evening.

Saturday, we got uparound eight and had a quick breakfast of juice, toast and instant coffee. Then it was time to saddle up again. There was even more new snow on the trail heading back, but it was more downhill and we took a slightly shorter route. While it was not as physically demanding as the first day, it had turned bitterly cold and was about 10 below. My socks and glove liners totally froze and I'm still numb today on the tips of my fingers and toes. I happened to be seeing a dermatologist today for other reasons and he informed me that I have a mild case of frostbite. He said the feeling may or may not come back depending on the degree of nerve damage. I've had to give up sewing but I still seem to be able to type.

We made it back in less than three hours and were thrilled to get back to a warm cabin and a hot shower. Sunday we drove back to Quebec City and by 10 pm we were back home to a real bed and our own non-working dogs. All in all, a great adventure -- much harder than I ever imagined but well-worth the effort.

Laura Lee kept a journal of the trip, and has details such as the names of all our dogs and the background of some of the amazing people who run this operation. I'll encourage her to post her version here. Meanwhile, stay tuned for the next adventure. 

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>