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Sola, Nanook, Leon, Agate, Star, Tim, Uno and Coke — I was putting my life in their hands. Well, actually, their paws. These fine fellows and ladies made up my dog sled. In teams of two, they served different roles: Sola and Nanook fronted the sled as the leads, Leon and Agate were the points, Star and Tim were the team and, nearest to me in the back, were my wheels, Uno and Coke. What commenced was a beautiful, albeit cacophonous, symphony of barking and giggles.
I wasn’t sure if I’d love dog mushing. Sled dogs have been around for centuries, with archeological evidence suggesting that the existence of sled dogs in North America and Siberia dates as far back as 4,000 years. These dogs proved to be significant for a variety of uses — from exploring the poles and the Klondike Gold Rush to delivering mail and hauling supplies.
Jack London’s novel “The Call of the Wild,” published in 1903, made famous the role of working sled dogs, while the first iteration of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was held in 1967, with the hope of preserving sled dog culture and encouraging the breeding of Alaskan huskies.
Though snowmobiles and a variety of other innovations have reduced the necessity of sled dogs for survival purposes, the sport has remained popular. I questioned if the activity was at all cruel, if the dogs enjoyed the work and if the combined weight of me, my friend and our guide was overwhelming.
From the beginning, these concerns were put to rest. While I can’t speak for every dog mushing operation this side of Western Canada, Mountain Man Dog Sled Adventures at Sun Peaks Resort in the Thompson Okanagan is nothing short of a love story.
It all began with owners Chris and Taryn Schwanke. Chris had been dog sledding for several years for other companies, getting his start in the winter of 2001-2002 in Canmore, Alberta. Though they originally met in high school, the couple got together in 2007 and, in 2008, Chris started the company as a subcontractor. Taryn left her bank job and began giving tours when the couple established their operation at Sun Peaks in the 2010-2011 season. None of this could have happened, of course, without their love for and growing commitment to their dogs.
“Chris had only two dogs when we got together — Mouse and Kootenay,” said Taryn. “By the end of the first year or so, it was up to nine. We had 25 when we bought the Sun Peaks operation.”
Now, not only have Chris and Taryn gotten married, but the kennel is home to 43 dogs and a social new guardian puppy named Atlas.
The operation continues to expand which means a better life for the dogs and more options for visitors. Since last season, Mountain Man has moved the dogs to a full-time, year-round kennel that is a 10-minute drive from Sun Peaks. Though most of their clients stay at Sun Peaks Resort, Mountain Man has also recently started running a bed-and-breakfast.
Though I didn’t stay at the kennel’s bed-and-breakfast, I was still able to spend quality time with the huskies on my mushing tour and kennel visit. I thought I would arrive, sit in my sled and get slowly escorted along the grounds of the resort.
I was wrong. Dog mushing with Mountain Man is experiential travel at its finest: learning, doing and ditching my comfort zone for a new experience.
Chris and Taryn showed me around the kennel before introducing me to my team. After learning some basic commands and dog-handling skills, I helped escort the dogs from their posts to the sled and even attached harnesses to the squirmy and energetic dogs. All of my doubts about whether the dogs enjoyed the runs disappeared as I observed my team’s eagerness and the whimpering of the dogs who stayed behind.
Their enthusiasm was contagious. Not typically brave with strong, barking creatures with sharp teeth, I was amazed that I was even participating. But I felt comfortable with Taryn and Chris, who were calm, warm and eager to engage me during the entire experience.
“We are a small kennel and we encourage guests to be affectionate and playful with our dogs,” said Taryn.
Guests are also encouraged to drive the sleds, rather than simply be driven. Chris powered our sled at first, while my friend and I were tucked into the two-person sled. Though I was thoroughly enjoying whizzing past the narrow tree-lined, fresh powder-filled trails from the embrace of a wrap-around wool blanket, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to handle the sled myself.
While posing for my requisite pre-run Instagram photo, I accidentally took my foot off the break — the dogs stirred and my heart jumped. This was the real deal.
Luckily, the dogs are well-trained, and Chris and Taryn know each dog’s strengths and weaknesses as well as how they work together as a team.
Guests can also opt out of an active role if they prefer. The tours are customizable in that guests can choose to participate as much as they want.
“We are happy to accommodate people of all activity levels,” said Taryn. “Our tour is good for those who are not skiers or snowboarders, and we can accommodate injuries, pregnancy and disabilities. We are very flexible and are able to cater to whatever our guests are looking for. Often our guests are taking a day off from the slopes. Active people get the thrill that they are seeking.”
Tour length: 1½ hours
Price: $250 per sled
Sled capacity: Two people
Number of sleds that can be booked: Two
Season: Dec. 15 to April 1, subject to weather
Busiest times: Christmas and New Year holidays
Tours per day: Four
Includes: A kennel visit, harnessing and handling dogs, driving the sled and feeding the dogs
How to book: Sun Peaks Adventure Center (www.sunpeaksresort.com)
More dog mushing:www.travelagewest.com/travel/north-america/info/dog-mushing-in-canada