Dog Sledding in Canada: Fort Chipewyan, Alberta
Dog Sledding in Fort Chipewyan.
Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, Canada.
13 January 2018.
I had an alarm set for 08:05. Neither Julie nor I wanted to get up but time was of the essence in Fort Chipewyan. Of course, there is time to be used wisely when you are on holidays. And even when you have a massive day, it is important to take partake in vacation horizontal bed dancing. The world can wait!
Julie and I packed up, showered up, and headed to Barbara and Robert Grandjambe’s to go dog sledding!
As we entered the house of Barbara and Robert Grandjambe, Robert took note of my rubber winter boots and told me they would not be adequate. It was -31° Celsius and a trapper-man would certainly know better than a washed up Canadian prairie farm-kid. Robert asked me if I wanted to wear a pair of his moccasins that were winterized.
Heck yea I wanted to wear those!
He put the moccasins on me and tied them in the way that reminded me of my father putting on my ice-skates me when I was a kid.
Robert said that moccasins are good for hunters because they feel everything and a hunter can stop mid-step to prevent a twig from breaking under-foot. A moose can hear that twig break from a half of a mile away. He was right about how moccasins feel on feet. When we went outside for our dog sledding date it felt like I was wearing only a pair of socks as I graced the snow. The moccasins were light, comfortable and pleasant to wear. Robert explained that they are also somewhat impractical as they are very slippery, but that was all the natives had to work with in terms of footwear some years back.
Just past Robert’s house is a sign on the garage that reads, “Dogsled parking only. Violators will be peed on.” That made both Julie and I laugh. Further beyond the garage is the area where Robert keeps his dog sledding pooches. There are eleven of them, six of which would be pulling for our dog sledding adventure! Robert has both full grown dogs and a few adolescents. The three small adolescent dogs had come from a batch of puppies from the winner of the last dog sledding races in Fort Chipewyan. He said that when a dog wins a race, the racers themselves will want to breed that dog with everything they can. Robert said, “They would even breed the winning dog with a cat if they could!”
Robert’s beautiful dogs were really excited when we arrived at their holding pen. Robert let six free from their leads that would be harnessed to pull us.
One of the six peed on Julie’s leg! I found that to be pretty funny.
Julie did not even park the car. I had been driving. The dog must have somehow known that it was her car. Very smart hounds!
Robert’s dogs are a Siberian wolf/husky cross. All of the six dogs that would pull our sled had brown eyes save for one that had sky-blue eyes. I was petting them and letting them sniff my gloves to get to know me. It is important to be pals. The dogs were all happy to meet me except for the one with the sky-blue eyes. That husky in particular was very skittish and would not let me get too close to him, even when he was in the dog sledding-harness. Robert said there is more wolf in him than the others and for that reason he was naturally more timid. Sky-Blue was also the only dog that Robert had to call to come to his place in the harness. The rest had arrived at their specific harness places independent of any human coaxing. They were happy for the opportunity to be dragging Robert and his strangers around on a sled.
Robert explained how strong the dogs are and said that the only problem with the breed is that they are naturally wild because of the wolf in them. They are instinctively ‘killing-animals’ as he described them. As he breeds the dogs through generations, the wolfiness reduces. Robert told us about Lucky, a dog he had with a lot of wolf in his blood who was the grandfather of Sky-Blue. Lucky was not good in the harness during the day. He would just run along with the team and would not pull. However, when Lucky was harnessed to the dogsled at night he would really, “Put the power down,” and work. Night time was his natural hunting time and that was when Lucky used the energy he had been conserving. Fascinating! I realized I kind of do the same when I am in bars for the evening. Lucky and I share some traits!
In no time, Robert had everything and everyone ready for dog sledding. The lead-dog is most often a female and Robert is training a young bitch for that role.* He said that lead-dog is a stressful role as five other dogs are following behind while the leader has to make decisions about where to go. So, a young lead-dog must be eased into the role. For our trip, an older dog would lead us out and the young leader would bring us back.
*It is surprisingly fun to use the word bitch legitimately!
I was seated in the sled, Julie was seated right in front of me between my legs and Robert covered us with a blanket to stay warm. Robert then got on the back of the sled. He did not say, “Mush!” as I had been anticipating. He did not need to. As soon as he seemed ready those dogs were full-out! It was truly a fast take-off. We went from being stopped, to moving at dog-running speed in two dog-steps! GONE! The weight of us three full grown adults occupied the sled, but Robert said the six dogs could easily pull 500lbs.
It was a very fun ride as we followed a trail that would take us out onto the ice of Lake Athabasca. Robert continuously whistled and said encouraging words to the dogs for their work. When he wanted the dogs to stop, he yelled so and the six obedient dogs immediately stopped.
For the duration of the ride, Robert saw every track of every animal that had been out in the past few hours. He pointed out Ptarmigan tracks, a rabbit trail, and showed us where a fox had crossed in the night and was obviously dragging something. Robert read the tracks on the snow that told a story like I would read the words from a book… It was amazing to see with his eyes.
Robert is only person in For Chipewayn who works with dogs and a sled. The animals are huge obligation he told us that people are not interested in that much work anymore. He runs his team in a very traditional single-file harness in contrast to most who run the dogs two by two today. He tries to be as authentic as he can and builds the actual sleds himself.
Excited dog sledding canines can not wait to run! They love the work.
We spent an hour dog sledding before we got back to the Grandjambe house. I was still driving and Robert thanked me for the ride, telling me that he does not often gets to relax inside of the sled himself. We unharnessed the dogs and then Robert chopped up some frozen fish that he fed to each happy husky for their work. Job done for the day! Julie, Robert and I went to the house to warm up and shake off the -31°.
It was pretty doggone cold!
Once we got the feeling back in out faces and our limbs, Robert fired up two snow-mobiles that we rode to what he referred to as his ‘tourist ice-fishing net’ on Lake Athabasca. He taught Julie and I how to work a net and we pulled five pike out of the lake to take back to his house! Awesome.
At the house, Barbara was taking fresh baked buns out of the oven and served lunch. It was delightful and people kept on dropping into the house as we chatted together.
It is clear that the Grandjambe house is the busy manor in town where no one is a stranger and there is always a pot of coffee to be shared.
Those two, Barbara and Robert Grandjambe, are wonderful humans that I would love to spend many more days with.