Dog Sledding in Banff National Park
January 15, 2019
“Geez, I thought it was a bad plan but that was… AWESOME.”
You ever agree to participate in an experience all the while thinking it might be a waste of vacation time and money? You ever have every travel buddy in the group secretly thinking the same thing?
Well, for us – that was our dog sledding excursion in Banff National Park.
We are glad we tried it. Not only did we all enjoy it (including our one I-will-never-be-a-dog-person person), but I was left wondering if the Iditarod should be on my goal list.
At the meeting point (Great Divide Parking at Lake Louise), we encounter the prior tour returning. The dogs are running silently at full-speed to the stopping point. As soon as the brake is applied, the barking starts.
Are they bragging to their buddies that they won the race? Are they quibbling at their teammates to pull their own weight next time? Or are they telling their musher to hurry up and fetch the snacks? It’s definitely at full-volume no matter what the meaning is.
Dog Sledding – Logistics
We are preregistered for the Great Divide tour. It is a 1.5 to 2-hour tour that takes you on a round-trip tour to the Continental Divide on the old Trans-Canada Highway.
We sign the liability release forms as the guides begin rotating fresh dogs into their teams. One of the guides pulls us away from the barking packs. After assigning each couple to a specific sled and guide, she explains that we’ll have all the time in the world to ask our guide questions and try to stump them— once the dogs are past the ‘blue marker’. We nod all the while thinking ‘there is no way to ask anything over this racket!’.
Our guide, Jessica, introduces us to each dog on our team and encourages us to pet and greet the dogs. Some dogs wear bandannas to show they are timid and need to be approached slowly. Other dogs are happy to jump on you and nuzzle gently on your hand for attention. Often the so-called timid dogs will join in begging for attention once they see the other dogs getting some loving.
Some, but not all, of the dogs wear protective booties to prevent cracking of their paws or snowballs from developing. The need for the booties depends on whether the dog is prone to paw issues. Similar, I suppose, to some humans needing to wear shoes at all times.
Dog sledding – Let’s go!
After meeting our dogs, our guide instructs us on how to get into the sled. Butt-first, the front person sitting between the back person’s legs. A sleeping bag is tucked around us. A wind-proof outer layer is next in the layering system. Then we are strapped in. The straps are there to keep the wind from flapping the outer layers into our face, not to keep us in the sled. The dogs watch this and ramp up their excitement level– they know their fun time is almost here.
A release of the brake, a softly spoken “Let’s go” command from our guide – and the dogs take off at full speed, still barking. And exactly as promised, we hit the ‘blue marker’ and the dogs go silent and run faster. I guess in terms of perceived exertion, the dogs have reached the “I could still talk but I don’t want to” stage of exercise.
Learning about the dog sledding life
Let the grilling of the guide begin.
How much do the dogs eat? I don’t recall the exact amounts the guide told us but I remember thinking calorie-wise it was on par with a Tour de France cyclist.
Are these her dogs? For the season, pretty much. She works with the same 16 or so dogs for each tour she guides. She handles their before and aftercare. A bond develops between the dogs and the guides. She can read them (Silver is having an off day) and they can read her (do they know when she has an off day?)
When does a dog retire? Whenever it indicates it is done running on a regular basis. The dogs let you know. Some at 3-5 years old, some keep running until they physically can’t.
Do the dogs adjust to house life when they are adopted out after retirement? Some do. Some don’t and come back to the kennel to live out their retirement.
We pestered our guide with questions. We couldn’t stump her.
The Return Trip
The groomed trail on the old Trans-Canada highway leads to the turn around point at the Kicking Horse Pass, about six miles from the starting point. A quietly spoken ‘whoa’ stops the sled and then the guide helps us out. We re-greet the dogs. In return, we get an earful. I assume it is a dog version of “get back in the sled, let’s go!”. We take photos with the team and the Great Continental Divide post. Then we follow the dogs’ commands and hop back in the sled for the return trip.
At the finish point, our guide explains how to feed the dogs their snack. Reaching into a bowl of frozen meat hunks, we point to a dog, say its name, and toss it a chunk. Only the dog we have called out lunges for the treat – all other dogs sit patiently waiting for their turn. My own house dogs would never have tolerated that – flying treats were an opportunity for WWE bouts in my personal pack.
After the feeding, our guide hands us a postcard with the names of ‘our pack’. We thank her, hand her a tip and sneak a few more pats on the head of our favorite dogs.
- Trip Date: early December 2018
- Name: Dog sledding – Kingmik Dog Sled Tours
- Location: Banff National Park, Lake Louise area
- Cost: $$$