Learning to mush: Tales from a Canadian dogsled trail

Throughout our years of travel and adventure, my family has ridden elephants, camels, and even giraffes. So, on a recent winter trip to Quebec, getting a first-hand feel for what dogsledding is all about seemed like a natural idea. Among the benefits: spending some time outdoors in the beautiful winter wonderland right outside the city of Quebec, learning a bit about this traditional mode of transportation (which scientists believe has thrived for thousands of years), and perhaps most importantly for a dog-lover like me, meeting the dogs!

We had splurged on lodgings in Quebec's famous Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac and the concierge there was happy to set us up with a dogsledding outfit. Making plans on your own? There are a whole host of companies that are ready to take you dogsledding, whether for a couple of hours or a couple of days, including Chenil La Poursuite and Aventure Plein-Air Inukshuk.

What was it like? In a single word: awesome! But there were some surprises along the way. Here are the key things that I learned on the dogsled trail:

Our lead sled dogs
photo credit: Victoria Otto Franzese

Size Doesn't Matter
I had expected that all the sled dogs would be huge, like Alaskan Malamutes. In fact, though, the team pulling our sled was, on average, no bigger than our mini-Goldendoodle back at home. That's because mushers look for speed and endurance rather than size. As a result, a variety of different breeds are chosen as sled dogs, including the aforementioned Malamutes, of course, but also Alaskan and Siberian Huskies (both of which are considerably smaller than Malamutes), plus a huge array of mixed breeds, including strains of Greyhound. The most important thing is that the dogs be well-trained and work together. The lead dog is usually the smartest but rarely the largest, since the strongest dogs on each team are placed closest to the sled since that's where the most work is required.

Getting the dogs ready to harness
photo credit: Victoria Otto Franzese

Stopping Is Harder Than Starting
As our dogs were harnessed to the sled, the head musher had us practice saying "Allons-y" – since this was a French Canadian team. But we quickly discovered that getting the dogs to go was never a problem: this team was eager to run and I have no doubt that they easily reached the advertised running rate of 28 mph, especially on the home stretch when we approached their kennels and they sensed that dinner was almost ready. Getting them to slow down around some of the steeper curves on the trail was a different matter altogether. But the most challenging part of steering the dogsled was going downhill, when we had to make sure that gravity didn't cause the sled to run into the dogs.

A snow-filled view of our dog sled team
photo credit: Victoria Otto Franzese

Boy, Can These Dogs Eat!
Sled dogs are serious athletes. And like Michael Phelps, whose diet is the stuff of legend, sled dogs need to ingest plenty of calories, primarily in the form of protein and fats, to be able to do what they do every day. They are typically fed twice a day, with each meal consisting of about 2 pounds of chicken, plus lard and specially-formulated dog chow. Pound for pound, that's a lot of calories for dogs who each weigh only about 50 pounds!

Even sled dogs like belly rubs!
photo credit: Victoria Otto Franzese

Victoria Otto Franzese owned, operated, and wrote for a successful online travel guide for 15 years. Now, thankfully, all of her travel is purely for fun. Check out her recommendations for winter adventures closer to her home base of New York City and see where she's going next at @VOFranzese.