(not so) Extreme Travel Adventures with Kids
We just got back from dog-sledding and I decided that I can’t wait to share the experience with all of you. It was AWESOME!!
After our fun trip dog-sledding as a family, I was inspired to add a Siberian Husky paper craft to the website.
As many of you already know… I’m not terribly adventurous. I’m a crafty, bookish mom. My final words before sending the kids out the door are usually things like, “don’t forget your bike helmet” or “make sure to look both ways before crossing the street”. If I haven’t been clear enough yet – putting my children in extreme danger for the sake of an adrenaline rush isn’t something I’m likely to do! If you’re the type who goes skydiving with your baby attached to you in a kangaroo pouch then my thoughts on dog-sledding likely aren’t that relevant for you. But if you share the mantra that “yes, it’s great to have fun… but safety first.” then, you may be intrigued by some of the (not so) Extreme Adventures we’ve had with the kids – including our awesome time dog-sledding.
Our group of about 25 excited people, 12 dog-sleds and about 75 exuberant dogs (mainly huskies) had its fair share of young adults adventuring across the world on a tight budget. But it also included a number of families – so about a fifth of our total group was children. The youngest was a baby… maybe 6 months old (old enough to hold his head up on his own, but still in the baby car seat). There was a little girl about 3 years old, a 9 year old, a 12 year old and a 17 year old.
From the reactions of the group, the 9 and 12 year old girls had the most “life changing” fun. They were thrilled with the dogs, thrilled with the ride, thrilled with their AWESOME dad for driving them so well and wanted nothing more than to come back to “free run” with the dogs during the summer to keep them in shape.
Our daughter Kaitlyn was the 17 year old. She also had a blast but was less “bubbly” about it than the younger girls. Caught somewhere between a child’s exuberance and an eerily “grown-up” calm, she listened carefully to the instructions, drove the sled successfully for the entire trip, and spent lots of time bonding with “her” dogs.
As I mentioned, the dogs were mainly huskies and malamutes which really made it feel like we were “real” dog sledders.
Before the adventure began, we got about 5 minutes to greet the dogs (lots of puppy petting – gosh, their fur is SOFT!) They are beautiful animals and, with this tour company, were well behaved and trained/happy to interact pleasantly with the guests. The dogs who were more nervous wore red bandannas – many of these nervous dogs are rescue animals. For children who are old enough, I suggest that before you come you discuss the idea that a rescue animal might rightly be a bit more nervous than one who’d had fun at this job their whole lives. Anyways, I appreciated having a visual reminder (the red bandanna) as to which dogs were friendlier with strangers. Kaitlyn bonded very well with a dog right off the bat – every time she’d stop petting him, he’d paw her gently and nuzzle her (come on human, keep scratching my ears – that feels good!)
The next 15 minutes of our 2 hour adventure was spent learning how to drive a dog sled – this instruction was very important as many of the guests were driving solo. Fidgety children may struggle with this phase of the trip but the instructor did a good job of keeping it light-hearted and humorous while still covering everything needed (yes, there was a test at the end, so pay attention!). There was lots for bored youngsters to look around at (the dogs are all there waiting for the adventure to start too) so even the fidgety kids should make it through this phase without too much of a struggle.
After that we received our sled assignments, loaded in and were immediately off. Some might feel that the training was a “waste” of a portion of the two hours but we found it to be perfect – we got comfortable with the dogs and the time remaining was more than enough to enjoy the experience. Remember that there are 4 hour and 8 hour adventures available too so you can explore those options if you worry you won’t get enough sledding time. For us, two hours was plenty (As a mom, I always like leaving when the kids would love to do a little bit more rather than when they’re wishing it were over already!)
Who Shouldn’t Go
The number one group of people who shouldn’t go dog sledding, in my opinion, is children who are scared of dogs. Sled dogs are large and powerful (magnificent!) animals. Their bark is large and powerful — and they do bark… sort of like athletes getting ready for the big game the dogs “woof it up!” right before they head down the chute. Once they start running they’re quiet but if you have a little one who’s terrified of dogs the initial noisy take off will likely be enough to ruin your trip. Wait a few years until your child is more comfortable around animals.
The Tour Company
The tour company, Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours is in my opinion, the best option in the Canadian Rockies (just as an aside, I haven’t been nor will I ever be paid for this article nor did I get my trip free for writing it. They had no clue I would be writing about them before, during or after the trip. In this as in all articles I write, I’m giving you my opinion, in all its unbiased glory – take it for what it’s worth!)
What I looked for in a dog sledding company:
– Good safety record.
– Happy, healthy dogs (ethical treatment of their canine athletes).
– Multiple options for different levels of adventure, including tour lengths and the amount of participation you get to put into the adventure.
- We took the two hour tour (most appropriate for families new to the experience, I think). The also offer four hour, eight hour and overnight tours
- You have the option, in order of difficulty from least to most:
1. Riding in a sleigh driven by one of their guides (this is what I did)
2. Riding in a sleigh driven by one of your family members (this is what my husband Darren did)
3. Driving a sleigh in tandem with one of their guides
4. Driving a sleigh completely solo (this is what Kaitlyn did, with Darren riding – please note that there is realistically no way for the rider to escape the sleigh to rescue the driver unless he is (a) an Olympic gymnast or (b) James Bond – Darren is neither)
There are many places other than the Canadian Rockies where you can go dog sledding including Alaska, Nunavut, Iceland, Norway and I’m sure many others. We were looking for a short “family day weekend” trip that we could take. We live in Calgary, Alberta so the Canadian Rockies is a daytrip for us. With just over 1.1 million people, Calgary is the third largest city (fifth largest metropolitan) area in Canada – for the Americans reading this, just to give you an idea of the size, Calgary is just a little smaller than Dallas, Texas. Calgary has an international airport and direct flights from many other cities.
Calgary is only about an 1.5 hour drive from Canmore (where the dog-sledding tour company is located). The drive is easy to do for anyone accustomed to North American highway driving. The drive from the airport through the city is standard, big city driving. We made sure to leave our house as soon as Kaitlyn got home from school in order to avoid rush hour traffic. Though you’re heading towards the Rocky Mountains, you don’t go through them (you just drive up to the “doorstep”) so there’s no freaky mountain cliff edges to worry about – erm, can you tell that I’m not fond of freaky mountain cliff edges hehe. Anyways, it’s all well-maintained, picturesque highway driving.
Driving in Canmore is pretty much like small town driving – the population is about 10,000 people with most of the town involved in the tourist industry. The only thing that makes it a little different is the fact that there are a larger number of tourists than in your typical small town so you need to be a bit more cautious watching for pedestrians (there are many pedestrian crosswalks and traffic lights, but people don’t always follow the rules). It is illegal to jaywalk in Canada (the term “jaywalk” means to cross the street where you aren’t supposed to) and you can get a ticket if you do. Um… there are also elk (lots of tourists, lots of elk) though you see more of both in the summer. Elk don’t get tickets for jaywalking so again drive cautiously, hehe.
The dog-sledding tour company had the option of a hotel pickup or meet up at their gift shop. We chose to meet at the gift shop and had no problem finding parking at the free parking lot about 1/2 a block from the location. All parking in Canmore seems to be free and fairly abundant.
We stayed a couple of nights just to make it a mini-vacation. Canmore has reasonably priced accommodations during February – we paid just under $200 Cdn per night for a two bedroom suite – each room had a king bed and its own bathroom. The suite had a full kitchen and living area between the two bedrooms and views of the mountains from the deck. We also got free parking and Internet (internet access in Canada is great). Not the cheapest we’ve ever stayed but certainly reasonably priced for what we got. We love being able to put together our own breakfasts in the morning rather than eating out – saves us money and always seems to get our day off to a better start.
Canmore is about 5 minutes from the entrance to Banff National Park, Canada’s first national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. There is hiking (summer and winter), skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling in the area – there’s lots of stuff to do, though as I’ve mentioned I’m more of a bookworm than an athlete. There are a number of nice walks (I don’t hike, I walk) for people like me!
Throughout the weekend it was about 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit). This is unusually warm for this time of year. Normally you can expect it to be closer to -10 Celsius (about 10 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day. The dog sledding company has a number of equipment rentals so you don’t have to purchase gear if you don’t already own it – this includes snow boots and snow pants. We owned all of our own though after the fact Kaitlyn said she’d rent the snow boots next time (her own had heels and flat boots would have been easier for driving the sled).
If you’re riding in the sled, they pile on blankets and zip you into a wind breaker. You’ll need a hat for your head (something that covers your ears) and perhaps a scarf (in my opinion, one always needs a scarf in winter as you can wrap the darn things around whatever part of you is cold… plus they’re easy to lend to shivering children, hehe). You should also wear wool socks if you have them (nice warm socks are the first thing to purchase if you’re new to “winter”)
If you’re driving the sled, you’ll likely be hot not cold as there is some exercise involved. Your toes, ears and hands are the parts that are most likely to get chilled so warm socks, warm mittens and a warm toque (hat) are most important. The tour company had a gift shop so you can pick up what you don’t already own before you venture out (I don’t believe they had socks for sale but the boots they had for rent looked extremely warm).
You likely won’t. You are being pulled by a pack of dogs – dogs are predators. A pack of predatory animals pulling a pack of predatory humans who are shouting “Hike!” and “Good puppies!” at the tops of their lungs will scare away even the bravest moose or deer. We did see some mountain goats on the 20 minute drive to the location (a baby and his mom). The people in the van who were from abroad were quite excited to see them.
The scenery is gorgeous and the dogs themselves are exciting enough that, in my opinion, the lack of wildlife is not an issue.
Riding in the Dog Sled
I have some back problems so was a little nervous. Because the temperature had been so warm, there was no soft powdery snow – it’s pretty much all ice. When flying down the hills, the bumps gave us some air time but the seats were comfortably padded and I felt no pain.
By the end, my back was a little tired but not sore (remember, I’m no athlete!). Perhaps on the longer adventures you’d want to get out to stretch your legs but on the two hour trip I had no problem sitting the whole time.
Darren was fine too – his only lament was that he didn’t get to drive. He was betting Kaitlyn would hand over the reins at the halfway point but she was having too much fun and wouldn’t hear of it. Thanks for taking one for the team dad!
Driving the Dog Sled
This part is from Kaitlyn’s perspective as she’s the only one of us who did it.
Driving the dog sled is really fun, and really hard and REALLY fun and a little scary – not necessarily in that order.
The trail this tour company uses for its two hour tour is not straight and flat. They include gentle uphill and downhill sections, some minor turns and one sharp turn. This gives the drivers lots to do and lots of varied experience.
“Woooaaaahhh, dogs” plus two feet on the brake, stopped the sled but the icy conditions that day made the stopping a little harder than it might otherwise be. Kaitlyn struggled a bit with her first stop (which they strategically had her make on a flat straightaway with guides nearby to help if she got in a pickle). After that, she mastered the stop though Darren couldn’t resist adding in a “Woah dogs” from the passenger seat in his deep boomy voice.
There was really no “steering”. The dogs followed a preset trail that left little room for error (mainly there was fairly thick forest to either side of the trail). Rather than steering, you pretty much just had to make sure your sleigh was headed in the same direction as the dogs by leaning in that direction (so if you’re turning right, you lean right).
The first corner was tough, but Darren started to lean with the turn too (from the passenger seat) and that helped make it easier.
There was one hairpin turn where a guide helped by grabbing the “snub rope” so the sled would turn more sharply.
During downhill sections, the driver (and passenger) have to watch to make sure the sled doesn’t overtake the dogs (the dogs run really fast so I suspect this isn’t too much of a concern given the fairly gentle slope). There are bumps at the bottom of the hill that the driver must remember to hang on for.
Before heading down the first hill, the dogs are brought to a halt by the driver (we had learned how to do this during the instruction) – this ensures that only one team is on the hill at a time and gives a nearby guide the chance to briefly remind the driver of what to expect (brake to slow the sled if the lines get loose and bend your knees when the bumps are coming). “Hike, puppies!” and woosh, down the hill we go! The dogs seem to love this part as they get to run full out without having to bear much weight, if any.
On the uphill sections, Kaitlyn had to hop off the treads and run behind the sleigh, helping the dogs to get dad (helplessly trapped inside the seat) up to the top. The dogs are organized to bear the weight you report during your reservation so make sure you’re honest and let them know who will be driving and who will be riding (we were honest and it was still some work for the dogs and Kaitlyn during the uphill portions). Had Kaitlyn not been wearing heeled winter boots, this would have been easier! She’s a practical outdoorsy girl, but she’s short so she likes to wear a chunky heeled boot and it never dawned on us that this might make driving the sled harder.
A bit of good exercise, but nothing overwhelming! None of the uphills was more than a minute of her having to jog (uphill) behind the sleigh. “Peddling” instead of jogging was also an option if you were exhausted though it’s harder on the dogs (one foot on the tread and one foot pushing off).
At the end of it all, Kaitlyn – pink cheeked, hair wind-whipped, eyes shining with excitement — turned to her dad and wistfully shared, “I would love to do this for a living”.