The sun shines so brightly in Banff National Park in the winter that it’s easy to forget how cold it is. With the sunlight bouncing right into your eyes off the expanse of snowy ground, it’s more vividly white than any other place you’ve seen. Rangy dogs — huskies and husky mixes – loll about, stretch, bark, nip, and tussle. This is what you’ve been waiting for; a dog sledding experience in Banff National Park. And the dogs are as eager to go as you.
Some people worry about animal abuse in terms of dog sledding. Once you see these dogs gearing up for a run, though, it’s obvious; these animals are made for it. Their excitement is palpable, and contagious. The dogs practically put their own gear on, lifting their feet to get the harnesses on as quickly as possible. And, as you get a lesson regarding how to steer the sled, the dogs strain at their harnesses. A few on the lead may look back at you as if to say, “Come on, get with the program!” Your guide stands on the back of the sled, you stand next to him, and – whoosh - you’re off.
That bright sun might fool you into taking off your gloves, so as to hold onto the steering bar more tightly. This will catch up with you later, but for now, you feel amazingly connected. The dogs respond to your squeezing the handle, tugging the rigging — they veer to the left and the right, speed up and slow down in response to the tension in the tow lines. The Canada winter is a spectacle, glittering in its expanse, and the wind is in your face. “Mush,” you say, at first self-consciously but later with a sense of authority. This is what you, and the dogs ahead of you, have been waiting for. Your dog sledding group speeds along the ground.
The snow kicks up as fine as dust, sparkling in your hair and dotting your face with cold kisses. Your cheeks flush. This is exhilarating! Speeding along, you guide the dogs in front of you. They are alive with the moment, running at their steady pace and occasionally bumping up against each other. Banff and Canmore get further behind you as you and your dog sledding team head to the Spray Lakes area.
The dogs slow down, seemingly reluctantly, before coming to a stop near a frozen lake. They are taken off their harnesses and some rub their faces in the snow. Others roll in it. Before you get off the dog sled, you have to peel your frozen fingers off the steering bar; that bright sun didn’t stop your hands from freezing to the bar! You fish your gloves out of your pockets for the return trip.
Warming hot cocoa does the trick for the humans, while the dogs are rehydrated by slop water. A short hike onto the frozen lake leads to another unforgettable moment; the almost unbroken vista of Canadian winter mountains and sky surrounds you and leaves you breathless. The world is writ larger here, in the north, and we humans and dogs are mere specks amid the expanse. The mountain ranges of Alberta have stood like this for millennia, as winter warms to spring, summer cools to fall, and people arrive for a moment in time, to leave again and have their footprints covered by fresh snow.
We are small and our time is short, us humans and dogs. Spray Lakes, Banff National Park and the Canadian North in its entirety barely registers our presence. How lucky we are, then, to be able to stay here, for just a little while. And how lucky our children’s children will be to someday, hopefully, be able to do the same. The dog sled ride back to base camp finds you quieter and thoughtful, as the wind goes through your hair. What a gift this place is, you think as your dog sledding adventure comes to an end. What a gift it would be for our next generations to be able to appreciate it this same way.
Thank you to Travel Alberta and Howling Dog Tours for hosting this dog sledding travel adventure.