Dog Sledding and a bit of Algonquin Culture

6 Mar

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Rolled up in buffalo skins I listen to the coyotes sing, their voices echoing between mountains in the crisp night air. This is not the Ritz-Carlton and the only amenity is a homemade stove and an ample supply of split maple to keep me warm.  The wigwam is carpeted in fresh-cut spruce boughs and my bed nothing more than two bison hides, but it’s an authentic Algonquin experience and one of the reasons I came to Centre Kanatha-Aki.

The morning dawns crisp and clear, animal tracks in the new fallen snow read of the night’s activities like a newspaper on your doorstep.  Today I’ll be learning to drive a dog sled and I can hear canines yelping as I walk down the hill from the wigwam.

The main room of the center doubles as a reception area and dining hall.  Hanging from the plank walls are an array of animal skins used to explain the different types of Algonquin medicine associated with each creature.  The white buffalo is depicted on a bison skin– appropriate since one of these sacred animals is part of the Kanatha-Aki bison reserve.  A traditional breakfast is served on blue enamelware at huge pine-slab tables with bench seating while the fire in the black-and-chrome wood cook stove makes the room warm and cozy. There’s nothing pretentious or contrived about this setting, but I can’t help feeling like a voyageur in another era.

After breakfast I’m introduced to Rosie, one of the center’s professional “mushers” who will be my instructor.  She selects our six dogs and shows me how to harness them.  A few of the dogs in the yard are blue-eyed huskies, but most are different sled-dog breeds.  Their playful temperaments are another surprise. These are working dogs, yet I wouldn’t hesitate to bring a child here.  How they are trained and treated makes all the difference, and this is especially evident as I learn how to fit the harnesses while enduring wet dog kisses.

The dogs are eager to run and I have to stand on the brake until my instructor is ready.  Usually a passenger rides in the sled wrapped in warm blankets, their driver commanding the dogs and controlling the sled.  Today the front end is light. We each ride a rear runner, counterbalancing in tight corners only to hop off and run alongside the sled on the steep uphill grades.  Mushers don’t get a free ride except on flat, straight sections of the trails.  The fresh snow sparkles and the dogs are running fast.  Eventually I do get to ride in the sled, but only because this particular woodland trail is exceptionally narrow and there’s only room for one person on the rear runners.  Riding does have an appeal. I’m able to sightsee while enjoying this race through the woods, the only sounds being runners on snow, the creaking of the oak sled, and the heavy breathing of dogs.  After a couple of hours of practice we’re working as a team: deep knee bends and counterbalanced weight sliding the big sled smoothly around corners, controlled breaking on the downhill slopes to maintain a tight lead for the dogs, then the release for a charge up the next hill.

It’s over far too quickly, but my knees and thigh muscles tell me that it was long enough.  Rides can be arranged for one, two, three, or five hours. The two-day trek into the wilderness, which includes an overnight stay in a beautiful mountain chalet, is another option that I’ve put on my things to do next year.  You also can accompany a trapper, visit the bison reserve, spend the night in a tipi, go ice fishing, or learn about Algonquin culture.

There are surprises here.  I spent the previous day with Dominique Rankin, a hereditary Algonquin chief and former Grand Chief, who introduced me to their herd of wood bison and the young white buffalo calf.  I’ve taken an immediately liking to this medicine man.  We sit and smoke a pipe and talk.  He’s a man that straddles two worlds, the traditional nomadic tribal one and the modern era. That’s his karma, but as a medicine man he has gone through trials that have given him vision and channeled his healing abilities.  He’s spent time with the Dali Lama and other world leaders so he has an awareness that extends beyond his own culture.  There’s much that lies here beneath the surface and this visit only raises questions about my own path.

The other partner in this enterprise is Stéphane Denis, who came to Quebec eight years ago to establish a herd of North American wood bison, the slightly smaller, and much more rare, cousins of the plains buffalo.  I discovered that his father brought the first one to France and now his brother owns Rêve de Bisons, a Native American cultural center in Normandy that’s dedicated to the preservation of this bison species.  The reality is that the land has to provide enough income to support the bison and this comes from the dog sledding and other activities that are for hire.

Dog sledding is addictive and an expedition into the mountains something of a dream.  Winter has not ended its grip, but the smell of spring is in the air.  Next year I’ll be driving a team, but between now and then lies a trail waiting to be explored.

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