Sunday, January 28, 2001
I haven't the vaguest notion where I picked up my mental picture of dog sledders snapping a whip above the backs of straining huskies.
Maybe it was a kiddie cartoon. Maybe I was confusing dog sleds with Santa and his reindeer.
But I'm very happy to report that is a vast misconception, as I recently learned on a first-time ride. The dogs clearly loved running in sync through snowy woods and fields. When forced to stop for a rest, they whined and howled, jumping and straining against the ropes and anchor holding them back.
Ever seen dogs smile? These dogs grinned ear to ear with the pure, unmitigated joy of a small child on Christmas morning. Most of my pleasure on the trip came from seeing the playful, energetic happiness of the dogs.
Two hundred of them were watching as we arrived at Aventure Nord Bec, a commercial outfit in the village of St. Lanbert, about 20 minutes from Quebec City. Dog sledding is more widely available than I had guessed; one Web site (www.dogsledrides.com) offers 130 locations as near as Pennsylvania and New York, and the list is clearly not complete since Quebec is not even mentioned.
At Nord Bec, the 100 huskies maintained a quiet dignity as we arrived. The 100 malamutes, each with individual plastic huts, strained at the end of their chains, unashamedly begging for attention.
The first one I approached lunged toward my neck, landing with his paws on my shoulders. I was grateful to feel his tongue, not his teeth, all over my head and face.
After allowing us time to play with the dogs, our guides summoned us inside a wood-heated cabin to make sure we had warm hats, gloves and coats. We were paired in groups of two, with every other group assigned a third person as a guide.
Outside, the guides began choosing six to eight dogs for each of the 10 sleds being readied for a 15-mile ride over some of the 175 miles of trails. Bedlam broke out as each dog jumped as high as its chain would allow and made as much noise as possible in an effort to stand out, to get picked.
There was no doubt about their desires. Those chosen stopped crying and howling immediately, and ran to the harnesses, dragging the guides behind them.
Snow had fallen overnight and continued that morning. Only huskies, with one exception, were chosen for the morning ride. Our guide, Jacques, had his own malamute with him and wanted to give her a chance to run. Otherwise, the lighter huskies were preferred because their paws wouldn't break through the surface of the trail of newly fallen snow packed by snowmobiles.
The dogs not chosen howled. Meanwhile, Jacques stood on one of the two skis on the back of the sled, my 8-year-old daughter on the other. I sat, legs outstretched, beneath a warm blanket. No need to tell the dogs to go; the minute an anchor was pulled out of the snow, they were off.