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The North By Dogsled

The North By Dogsled

From brisk runs to epic expeditions, here's our guide to dogsledding outfitters around the North
By Tim Edwards
Jan 01
2015

Many Northerners grow up with a fond nostalgia for the deep rumble of snowmobiles and the scent of the oil-gasoline mixture, but once upon a time things were different. Since time immemorial, the Inuit and First Nations used dogs for travel across the sea ice and through the boreal forest. It was kept alive despite the arrival of Europeans, until snowmobiles and gasoline became cheaper and more common in the 1970s and ‘80s, but it’s not quite stamped out. There are still many places throughout the North where you can speed across the frozen landscape hearing nothing but the panting of the dogs and the runners scraping across the snow and ice—travelling with a team of hardy dog companions, the way the North has been travelled for thousands of years.

 

Nunavut

The Inuit have a unique way of dogsledding. Rather than having two parallel lines of dogs pulling the sled in tandem, the dogs in the Eastern Arctic fan out in front of the sled—which works great in the open tundra and sea ice of Nunavut, but less so in the tight trails of the boreal forest to the south. Many tourist operations in Nunavut are informal, so if you’re travelling to a community not listed below, call the local hamlet office or Hunter and Trapper Organization, and they might be able to point you in the right direction.
 

Sit back and enjoy the ride

Inukpak Outfitting Inc. - Iqaluit

Does the thought of sledding across tundra and sea ice in the Arctic make you shiver? Inukpak owner Louis-Philip Pothier says not to worry—if you head out with him and his dogs, you’re in for a relaxing and eye-opening ride. “Lots of people think that any trip, any activity in the Arctic is really for the outdoorsy, hardcore people, but ... it’s really adjustable to anyone,” says Pothier. Guests can either take a half-day ride or custom-plan a multiday adventure, and they sit with Pothier in the qamutiq, and he explains the history and culture of Arctic dogsledding while you head out together across the Arctic terrain. "Then we stop on the land for a quick snack, hot chocolate or tea, and we turn around and come back [on a half-day ride]."

Dogs: Canadian Eskimo Dog
Level: Beginner-Intermediate


A hidden gem

Arctic Circle Paws and Paddles - Repulse Bay

Winters are long and cold in Repulse Bay, so Bill Kennedy picked up dogsledding to keep him busy through the season; and after a couple years of being asked by visitors for rides around the tundra and ice, he decided to try making the hobby pay for itself. "A lot of our clients just happen to be in town for work, short term," says Bill. He and his wife Carol are teachers and also operate a bed and breakfast, and Bill offers trips out to see the abundant wildlife—hares, caribou, whales, seals and polar bears (from a distance). “Usually I’ll build an iglu out on the land,” says Bill, “and we’ll sled out to it, crawl into it and sit on caribou skins, have tea, then come back.”

Dogs: Canadian Eskimo Dog/Great pyrenees
 Level: Beginner


 

The full gamut

Arctic Kingdom - Nunavut

Arctic Kingdom is a go-to operator for Arctic tourism—from diving and cruises to wildlife-tours and dogsledding. It offers half-day dogsled trips around Iqaluit, and also eight-day journeys from Pond Inlet, on the northern edge of Baffin Island, with an Inuit guide taking you along the ancient route. “We offer basically everything from a two-hour experience for one person or two people, all the way through to corporate events and large expeditions,” says founder Graham Dickson. He says the company has also run trips in Greenland, where dogsled use is much more ubiquitous.

Dogs: Canadian Eskimo Dog
Level: Beginner-advanced

 

Dogsledding on a frozen lake with Yukon Winter Adventures

 

Yukon

Of the three territories, dogsledding remains the strongest in the Yukon. The territory’s already-vibrant tourism industry and the fame the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest dogsled race bear some of the responsibility, but so do the operators who’ve kept it alive through love of the sport and love of the animals.

Anyone aged 12 and older takes the reins of a sled behind four to six dogs, and the lodge has had mushers as old as 86

 

For the purists

Sky High Wilderness Ranch - Whitehorse

No electricity, no phone—for a truly rugged Northern dogsledding experience, Sky High Wilderness Ranch has its bases covered. “People are actually living that authentic mushing experience,” says Trudy Burdess, marketing and office manager for the ranch. So unless visitors want to light up a lamp and read one of the lodge’s many books and magazines on mushing and dogsled races, they’ll have to keep themselves busy on the trails; luckily, there’s no shortage of options for that. Sky High offers everything from one-hour dogsled jaunts to 15-day tours, with many multi-day options in between. Anyone aged 12 and older takes the reins of a sled behind four to six dogs, and the lodge has had mushers as old as 86. “It depends on your fitness level and how comfortable you are around dogs,” says Burdess, but you can really do it at any age.” 

Dogs: alaskan huskies
Level: advanced


 

Join a legendary mushing family

Muktuk Adventures - Whitehorse

Though Yukon Quest champion Frank Turner and his wife Anne Taylor have retired, they’re still on hand at the dogsledding adventure outfit they founded, Muktuk Adventures, and ready to welcome any visitor. “We’re not really their kids taking over, but it is still that family feel,” says Manuela Albicker, the new owner of the operation. Turner, Taylor, the guests and crew all dine together, and everyone—including the guests—take care of the dogs together.

The packages range from half-day to multi-day trips, but prospective mushers aren’t rushed out onto the trails. “You get to know the teams, go out for half day, then full day, then pack out for the camping, go out [for two nights on] on the trail,” says Albicker.

Dogs: alaskan huskies
Level: Beginner-advanced

 

If dogsledding’s a secondary goal

Northern Tales Travel Services - Whitehorse

For those coming north but hoping for a little relaxation, Northern Tales hosts Northern lights viewing tours 20 minutes north of Whitehorse, with heated viewing facilities, hot drinks and snacks and a campfire nearby. “We have an unobstructed view due North,” says founder Torsten Eder, “so even if they’re low on the horizon we can see them—there’s no mountains or trees blocking the view.”

Northern Tales has teamed up with Sky High and Muktuk to offer dogsledding options with its winter tour and aurora viewing packages.

Dogs: alaskan huskies
Level: beginner

 

Ride with athletes

Yukon Winter Adventures/Tagish Dog Kennels - Tagish

This is another all-star pair-up: Yukon Quest competitor Michelle Phillips has teamed up the tourism side of her dogsledding operation with Tagish Wilderness Lodge in an effort to deliver the full package a tourist might be looking for.

“The pillars of the Yukon are the Northern Lights and the dogsledding,” says Sarah Stuecker, co-owner of Tagish Wilderness Lodge. “They’re looking for that first, and a place to stay. That’s why we came up with this.” She says it’s the best of both worlds, and starts rather cinematically at the lodge: Guests wait at the dock, on the edge of Tagish Lake, and Phillips arrives from the distance, crossing the snow expanse to the mushers-in-waiting. She introduces them to the art of mushing and shares her stories and expertise before they take the reins themselves. “What we offer is our dogs are high-end athletes—Olympic-caliber athletes,” says Phillips. “They’re extremely well trained and very driven.” The packages range from half- and full-day jaunts to weekend or week-long adventures.

Dogs: alaskan huskies
Level: Beginner-Advanced

 

Traîneaux à chiens

Terre BorÉale Whitehorse

Catering to a mainly French clientele, Terre Boreale is a new venture, just entering its first winter after a successful summer season. Among many summer and winter packages encompasses different northern activities, like hiking and aurora viewing, is a three-day dogsledding package that has guests camping in comfort for two nights. The idea is to take out small groups for high-quality adventure tours, says co-owner Max Gouyou-Beauchamps, with good food and warm tents to bookend each day. “We want to have some comfort, even though we want it to be quite rustic.” The dogsledding guide is Yukon Quest competitor Luc Tweddel.

Dogs: alaskan huskies
Level: beginner–intermediate

 

Ride with the stars

Cathers Wilderness Adventures Whitehorse

In the pilot episode of Due South, a Mountie braves one of the fiercest blizzards in recent memory to apprehend a man using dynamite to fish for salmon—and the dogs he used were contracted from Cathers Wilderness Adventures. Though the dogs have gone on to star in commercials for Sorel, Tommy Hilfiger and Molson, and a German movie called Nicht heulen, huskey, their main line of work is taking adventurers out on tours of the Yukon.

Cathers offers half-day to seven-day trips, starting out with some trips around Lake Laberge, working up to the forest trail routes. (And in the summertime, the dogs hike along with guests on backpacking trips, carrying gear.)

Dogs: alaskan huskies
Level: Beginner-advanced

 

Northern lights hang over Northern Tales’ trading post, near Whitehorse

 

NWT

While aurora tourism is the NWT’s darling, dogsledding has as strong a history in the NWT as it does in the neighbouring territories. Still used by trappers in isolated communities, the dogsledding is also bolstered by the Yellowknife Dog Derby, which pits racing teams against each other over 150 km across Great Slave Lake every March, and the fact that you can dogsled under the aurora.

If a young couple travels a long way to get to Yellowknife for an aurora-viewing tour by dogsled, there’s probably going to be a bent knee and a ring.

Love and milestones

Beck’s Kennels - Yellowknife

If a young couple travels a long way to get to Yellowknife for an aurora-viewing tour by dogsled, there’s probably going to be a bent knee and a ring. Grant Beck’s been dogsledding for more than 35 years, he’s got five generations of mushers in his family, he’s dominated at world mushing championships, practically invented aurora tourism by dogsled 25 years ago, and witnessed enough proposals under the Northern Lights to know the signs.

“We have a lot of them actually,” he says—wedding parties and honeymooners too. It’s not all romance: ice fishing on Great Slave Lake is another popular tour, and in the future, Beck’s Kennels might offer special dogsledding packages for those who want to try mushing with racing dogs.

But Beck’s pride and joy is the annual school trip. For decades, he’s led school kids on expeditions to and from the communities of Whatì, Gamètì, Fort Resolution, Fort Simpson and Behchokò¸, helping keep the mushing tradition alive. “We had an 80-year-old man that used to travel from Whatì and hunt all through here,” Beck recalls. “His dream was to come back here and do that.” Four years ago, when his great granddaughter was old enough to go on a school trip, the old musher joined in. 

“He took his great granddaughter and eight dogs, and was part of a group that went from Whatì to [Yellowknife],” says Beck. “We had a big celebration here. It was nice to see because he could fulfill his dream of teaching her what he did for many years.” 

Dogs: alaskan huskies
Level: beginner

 

For the hardcore

Hoarfrost River Huskies - The Barrenlands, NWT

There’s a certain look people get when they’re on the verge of bailing. It’s usually after a couple of days of expedition prep at the cozy guest cabin on the east arm of Great Slave Lake, right before heading out into the Barrenlands by dogteam for two weeks in mid-winter. 

“By then they’re thinking, it might be nice to stay at the guest cabin the whole time,” says Dave Olesen, who’s been running Hoarfrost River Huskies with his wife, Kristen, and now their daughters, Annika and Liv, for nearly 30 years. The expeditioners, he says, start to ease into it halfway through the trip, “once they know they can create a warm spot at any time.” That’s because Olesen teaches them how to set up camp, get their canvas tents to room temperature, even when it’s 50-below out, and thaw out blocks of frozen caribou stew for dinner, all within half an hour. “We’re not going from established camp to established camp on a strict schedule. If people’s conditions say it’s time to camp, you can pull over.”

They learn to let go of expectations—there’s no guarantee, for instance, that they’ll see any wildlife in the Barrenlands. What they will see, says Olesen, is miles and miles of white. “It can be intimidating for navigation. You can’t always tell lakes from land. When I first travelled the Barrens 30 years ago, it was intimidating to me that way. Then I let go of that notion of needing to know where I was all the time.” If you’re up for the challenge, you might learn that too.

Dogs: alaskan huskies
Level: advanced

 

For a varied adventure

Arctic Adventure Tours - Inuvik

Your itinerary might go something like this: meet your hosts, Judi and Olav Falsnes, in Inuvik, fall in love with your dog team, take an hour-long ride to learn the ropes. The next afternoon, you drive your own dogsled on a three-hour-long trip out to the Arctic Loon Chalet, take a snowshoeing stroll after dinner, then soak in the outdoor cedarwood hot tub. In the morning, it’s back to Inuvik, where you might want to try driving the ice road to the Arctic Ocean. The day after that, you’re back on the trails for a dogsledding jaunt into the tundra, where you’ll hang out with a reindeer herd and overnight in heated canvas tents. And that’s just one of six options—which is why you’ll probably find yourself back the following winter for more. And if you really get attached? Ask Judi and Olav about adopting one of their retirees.

Dogs: Siberian malamutes
Level: Beginner-intermediate

 

Short and sweet

Aurora VillageYellowknife

It’s been compared to a rollercoaster ride: there are hills, curves, and beautiful scenery, and at 15 minutes long, it’s just thrilling enough to give you a taste of what mushing can be like. “When it’s -40C, -50C with windchill—people don’t want a long ride,” says Hideo Nagatani, co-owner of Aurora Village. “For first-timers, I think it’s quite tourist-friendly.” The dogteams take you around Aurora Village’s property and back to the main lodge, where a fire and roasted marshmallows await. But if you want to go for a second round of dogsledding, you can opt to drive the team yourself. And sometimes, says Nagatani, there’s a bonus: “when the nights are right, you get the aurora above you,” he says. “The only bad thing is, you can’t take a picture from the dogsled.”

Dogs: alaskan huskies
Level: Beginner

Huskies on the line