Thursday, February 4, 2010

Dog Sledding In Ontario

Thursday on January the 28th I left Calgary in the morning. Kim drove me to the airport and helped me on a plane with my big duffel bag. After four hours on the plane I landed in Toronto Airport. I hadn’t been there since I arrived to the country and soon I was thinking about how fast time had gone by. I realized that I’m already halfway through my year as exchange student in Canada and it kind of scared me…

Anyways, in the airport Emily who is working at the YFU office was waiting for me together with a girl named Veronica from Venezuela who had just landed from New Brunswick. She and I were the only students who had flown in from other places than Ontario to go on the dog sled trip. We found Emily’s car and drove away toward the office in Kitchener. Emily had some work to do but soon we left the office and headed towards Emily’s home where we were going to spend the night before driving to Monkton the next morning. After a good night of sleep we were on our way towards Monkton which was a two hour drive north. We arrived and were welcomed by all the other exchange students who live in the area around Monkton and the rest of Ontario. We started the orientation that was the second purpose of my trip. We talked about our exchange so far and what was coming up for about an hour before the bus was ready to leave. We got onboard and made ourselves comfortable before the bus left Monkton heading out for a 5 hour drive north to Algonquin Park.
We arrived at the hotel where we were going to spend the night at 8.30 in the evening. After some pizza we prepared ourselves for the upcoming days in the wilderness and went to bed.

When we woke up next morning it was -32 degrees outside. Not really the temperature we were looking for but it was told that it would get warmer during the day. We ate some breakfast and got onboard the bus for the little drive to the head quarter of the expedition company that was taking care that none of us would die in the wild… After a short instruction we left the head quarter to drive just a little further to the place where all the dogs were. When we arrived the sight that met us was quite extraordinary. About 400 plastic barrels were arranged in rows all over the field and outside, chained to the ground, dogs were walking around. We were arranged with a partner so that there were two persons on each sled. My partner was a Belgian girl and soon we had packed our sled. Now to the next point, we pushed all the sleds on the road and tied them up to trees in the side of the road. Now it was time to get the dogs. One of our guides gave each of us a name of a dog and pointed at which row we would find the dog. And then it was just to go grab them in the collar, come bag, give them a harness on before attaching them to the so called ‘gang line’ in front of the sled. Soon all the sleds were hooked up and ready to go and one after one a guide released the sled from the tree and off we went! Soon we were in a nice line down the road and with a guide in front to show the way it was just to follow the sled in front. After the top of the excitement had worn off we went from ordinary road to some sort of gravel road. I must admit the dog’s strength hadn’t really impressed me that much but as the hours went by and the dogs just kept the same pace I really started to admire them. It would be nice with such stamina in a ski race. Anyways the names of my sleds dogs were: Marge and Myra as lead dogs, Jury and Tansy as point dogs and Fallon and Juno as wheel dogs. After a while I could simply not resist to make the Santa Trick and yell: “Go Myra, go Marge, go Jury, go Tansy, go Fallon and go Juno!”

After about five hours of running we reached the camp and it was time to put the dogs on long chains between the trees and get a fire going. There were stationary tents with stoves so we only had to worry about cutting down something to burn.

Almost everybody was divided into two groups and off we went to cut down a tree. My group ended up cutting down two trees and after about an hour we returned to the camp and started sawing logs out. Another group of people fed the dogs and even another group was preparing the dinner. Fortunately it didn’t take long before the food was ready and we all gathered in the big warm tent for dinner. After a desired meal there was still some wood to cut and we were all quite exhausted when it was time to go to bed that night. After a nice night of sleep we woke up the next morning and got some breakfast going for both ourselves and the dogs. After all the chores were done and the dogs attached to the sleds we took off again. We left in two groups and went in opposite direction on a loop so that we would meet midway. Since we were coming back to the camp to stay over for the night, our bags had been left in the tent and our sleds were empty except for the person who was not standing in the back controlling the sled.

After some sledding on big wide paths the trails narrowed in and I had to be cautious as I was standing in the back. Soon I was surprised by a tree that apparently didn’t intend to move. We hit it and stopped right away. After some dragging and pushing we were free again and could follow the sled in front of us as if nothing had happened. After a couple of hours we met the other group and passed them. A little while after we stopped for lunch. We attached the sleds to trees in the side and tipped the sled. After eating my sandwich I realized that out wheel dog Juno in the back of the group of our dogs also had been chewing on something. The problem was that it was his harness and now he needed a new one. I told one of the guides who fortunately had another harness in his sled. After changing the harness on Juno we were ready to continue. We went on for another couple of hours before the guides in front decided that we needed some extra wood for the fire. We stopped and chopped some trees down and loaded the logs on the sleds. After that little intermission we went on for another hour or so before we were back at the camp. Our dog team had been really strong and I was once again impressed by their strength.

We took the dogs off the ‘gang line’ and attached them to the chain between the trees where there was some hay waiting for them to lie on. We fed the dogs, cut some wood and ate some dinner. After that it was time for a little walk in the moonlight along the creek. When we returned we started up a bonfire and drank some hot apple cider. A pretty nice way to end the day. Even though it was only 9 o’clock we decided to turn out the fire and go to the sleeping bags and get some rest before the last day of dog sledding back to the headquarter. We woke up next morning and got some breakfast. We were even starting to be able to smell the aroma of dog and smoke hanging on us so I guess it was good timing to turn around and go back to civilization. We fed the dogs and packed our stuff before we tied it to our sleds. When we were all ready we started hooking the dogs up to the sleds and soon the first group was off. My group, number two, was ready to leave the camp in Algonquin Park soon after and off we went with six dogs dragging all our stuff and ourselves.
We rode for a couple of hours before we reached the big wide roads again and started a race on the last kilometer of the way. My Belgian partner and I not to mention our powerful dogs reached the head quarter first and thereby won the last honor that was available on the trip. We started releasing the dogs from the sleds and dragged them to their little barrel. I was quite impressed by the fact that the guides can actually remember all 380 dogs’ names… Soon the sleds were free and in their spot. We loaded our stuff on the bus and drove back to the office of our guides where a nice meal of chili con carne was waiting for us. After changing clothes and filling out an evaluation form with the words: “Awesome guys!!!” we said bye to our guys and started the 5 hour drive back to Monkton.

We arrived in Monkton at 8.30 and emptied the bus. Now it was time to say bye to everybody. It feels kind of weird to say: “See you in 5 months!” but that’s how it works. I ended up spending the night at the house of an YFU volunteer with two other exchange students. Next morning Veronica from Venezuela and I were picked up by Emily again who took us on the two hour drive back to Toronto where we were flying from later. When we arrived to the airport Emily got us checked in and soon I had said goodbye to Veronica too and took off from Toronto Airport on my way back to Calgary. After a four hours flight which equals one movie + 3 episodes of Friends + some jazz radio, I landed in Calgary and was welcomed by my dear host mom. After the one hour drive to Bragg Creek I was finally home after 12 hours travelling from Algonquin Park.

It had been an awesome experience and it had been just as nice to see all the other exchange students too. I wonder if I will ever try dog sledding again. If not I will always remember this trip!

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