A team of eight Alaskan huskies runs in formation across frozen Spray Lake just south of the Rocky Mountain town of Canmore, Alberta. With steely eyed determination, they pull a sled carrying supplies, two passengers, both sledding novices, as well as a guide who stands on the sled’s wooden runners, gripping its handle bars. Two more dog teams follow. There is a foot of ice between those sled runners and the water of the lake. It feels like the middle of nowhere. All to be seen is the vast, snowy, frozen lake and the mountains around it.
After trekking several kilometres accross the lake, the guide’s sled veers up the bank and into the forest where the teams run on an old, snow-covered service road. A hill lies ahead. This means the humans have work with the dogs and push the sled up the incline in the shin-deep snow. Man and dog become a team. This realization is the goal for Mad Dogs and Englishmen, the company that has organized this half-day journey into Kananaskis country.
“We encourage as much interaction with the dogs as people are comfortable with,” spirited co-owner Russell Donald says with his northern English accent. “If you don’t help push the sled up the hill you’ll get some priceless looks from the dogs.”
His company is one of four sled dog tour operators in Kananaskis Country and Banff National Park. Since Mad Dogs runs routes on the Spray Lakes, the company’s season usually runs from mid-December until the lakes start to thaw in late February or March. Like all outdoor pursuits, it is dependent on the ever-changing weather. Donald and his guides do afternoon runs, full-day outings as well as overnight treks that involve winter camping. His company even does multi-day winter survival trips. The main client for these is the British Army, which makes the adventure part of its soldiers’ winter training programs. Mad Dogs also offers ski-joring, a sport in which skiers are pulled by teams of huskies.
Originally hailing from Manchester, England, inevitably, one has to ask why Donald started running dog sleds in Canada. Though he must have answered the question a thousand times, he affably recounts that he moved to Canmore 20 years ago and volunteered at the (now defunct) Canmore International Sled Dog Classic sprint races. It was his first exposure to Alaskan huskies. Subsequently, he wound up working for two years as a dog trainer for a distance-racing kennel. The owner of the place happened to participate in 500 kilometre sled races.
“Doing the distance races, I really got sucked into it. I love the attitude of the dogs and being in the backcountry on a sled,” he says. “I’ve seen parts of the country that most people don’t get to see. The attitude towards our tours, when we take our clients out, is to try and represent some of the experiences I was fortunate to have had.”
Participants are given real insight into this country’s oldest form of winter transportation. Though some Inuvialuit still travel by dogsled along Canada’s Arctic Ocean shore, signing up with a tour operator such as McDonald is a much more easily accessible way to experience this traditional travel.
The booking office and expedition departure location are at the Mad Dog café & Market in Dead Man’s Flats, just east of Canmore. Take Exit 98 off of the TransCanada Highway and look for the Mad Dog Cafe on 1 Ave, the street parallel to the highway. Small groups and individuals should book at least two weeks in advance, especially if you want a weekend spot. Consult the web site or phone the office. Large groups require special arrangements. Mad Dogs can pick-up clients in Canmore.
Calgary to Canmore:
Banff Airporter offers regular, daily shuttle service from the Calgary International Airport (YYC) to Canmore and Banff. Brewster Travel Canada offers regular deluxe motor coach service to Canadian Rockies destinations including Canmore.
Cars can easily be rented at the Calgary International Airport or from any number of locations around Calgary.
Banff to Canmore
Roam Transit is the Bow Valley Regional Transit Services Commission public transit bus system. Buses depart Banff on the hour and depart Canmore at 24 minutes past each hour.