Dog-Sledding in Quebec’s Outaouais Is Not for Wimps

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“I would love to try driving the sled,” I said before my trip to Quebec’s Outaouais region. But now the dogs are barking, barking, barking in this frenetic symphony and it makes the back of my neck feel all tingly and I look at the sled and wonder what in the world I have gotten myself into. I say, “Maybe I'll just ride.”

Dog-sledding is not for wimps at Chiens-Traineaux Petite-Nation in Quebec's Outaouais

But the sleds are already positioned according to our weight and height. There are four huskies wild with excitement at the prospect of yanking me through the white expanse of the Canadian wilderness.

One of the mushers says, “Really? You’ll be fine. Children do this.”

Another journalist says, “I did this in the Yukon recently. It’s no big deal. The dogs know what they’re doing. You’re just along for the ride.”

I had pictured riding as one of many passengers with an experienced musher. He would teach us all how to maneuver the sled. I would eventually gain confidence and lead the dogs for a minute or two. Then the trainer would take over again. That’s what I meant when I said I would love to try it.

I glance at the howling dogs, at this wooden contraption of a sled and I know dog-sledding is beyond me. “Okay,” I say.

Musher/Trainer Sébastien Ruiz gives me instructions. He has a strong French accent. I listen with all my pores.

“This pad is the soft brake, step on it to slow down. Say, ‘ho,' to stop and ‘ha' to go faster. This is the hard brake. If you want to stop, give a warning with the soft brake first. Don’t step on the hard brake all of a sudden when you are running flat. When riding, keep your feet here on the runners. Help the dogs on the way up the hill. Get off and push with one foot. Put both feet on the hard brake at the top of hills. Keep tension in the ropes. There shouldn't be slack. Watch to make sure your dogs’ legs don’t get tangled in the ropes or they could break a leg. If this happens, yell to me right away. Lean into the turns like you’re Alpine skiing. Do you Alpine ski?”

“I have skied, but I’m not very good.”

“Keep both hands on the bar at all times. Whatever you do — never, ever let go of your sled. Got it?”

“Um, yeah.”

It takes a long time to get our group of six journalists all tacked up and ready to set off. Two opt to sit in sleighs, pulled by teams of nine or 10 dogs. The other four of us are driving our own sleds solo, with somewhere between four to seven dogs each.

The energy and noise of the barking and howling, along with the dogs’ leaping and pulling at harnesses, is intense. It’s a lot of energy to take in.

The first team takes off. Then two more. Then it’s my turn. I put one foot on each runner and my team bursts forth across the snow.

I thought we would run across open expanses of white terrain. Before I know it, though, I am racing through a forest of pine trees. I am terrified and elated at once.

Dog-sledding through a forest in Quebec's Outaouais

Dog-sledding through a forest in Quebec's Outaouais (Photo from Chiens-Traineaux.com)

The journalist in front of me, the one who said it would be easy, is going too slow for my dogs. I have to keep pressing my soft brake to keep the ropes taut. My dogs and I want to go faster.

I am the alpha. At least that is what I tell myself. I need to believe this or my dogs will be in charge.

As a former English-style equestrian, I am reminded of horse shows, jumping giant beautiful beasts over too-tall fences and becoming one with time.

I cannot look around or think about anything else. I am sure the scenery is gorgeous but my stare remains intense on my dogs. My hands tingle from gripping my sled so tightly. My breath is hot on my face, trapped by my scarf. It fogs my sunglasses and I strain to see my pack.

My journalist friend ahead of me turns sharply around the trail’s corner and her body falls. She is lying flat, holding tight to her sled and being dragged uphill. Sébastien appears from the other side of the hill and uprights her sled, straightens her team's ropes. He tells her to wait until he says to go. Then he disappears over the hill.

We wait. And wait. The dogs are crazy with energy to keep running. They bark and howl. I use my deepest voice to yell to the larger female dog at the front of the team, “Artic, no!” I want her to quit biting at the smaller girl dog, Mika.

Artic stops and looks back at me, nonplussed. She jumps into the snow for a quick roll, biting up pieces of the powdery white to quench her thirst. Then she is back to the front jumping and pulling with the rest of my dogs, trying to force free the hard brake, on which both my feet are planted.

I am nervous to round the corner with my huskies in their increasingly frenzied state. “I think you should go,” I shout ahead to my fellow journalist.

“But he said to wait,” she says.

I turn to the trainer behind me, “Can we go?” I ask.

With his approval, finally I set my dogs free. I keep one foot on the soft brake, but my team's excitement is too much for me to hold. The dogs race around the corner and my sled is ripped from under me. I try to hold onto the sled's handle, remembering Sebastien's instructions to never let go, but it slips from my grasp and I fall forward onto the trail.

Like when I used to train “green” horses, I jump up from the ground and start running after my bolting animals. Sébastien appears again from over the hill and quickly corrals my dogs.

There are more hills to go, bigger ones. I jump off my sled, and push with my heavily booted foot up the hill…up the hill. I pant with exhaustion. As soon as I reach the top, I jump with both feet onto the brake and I am sailing down white. I am in love with winter.

I duck my head from branches of trees that whir past my ears as we race.

At the midway point, after her second fall, the woman who convinced me dog-sledding was a leisurely endeavor, begs off. We were promised hot cocoa but there is none. The trainers are too busy rearranging dogs so the journalist can sit the rest of the ride.

We set off once again. I am ecstatic to be in this beautiful spot of the world – tilting my hips into the turns, skimming my foot across the soft brake.

It is heaven. But a heaven too intense for me. And I need to return to earth.

Sled dogs at Chiens-Traineaux Petite Nation, where dog-sledding is not for wimps

Sled dogs at Chiens-Traineaux Petite Nation (Photo from Chiens-Traineaux.com)

It is overwhelming to exist in such a state of adrenaline and hyper-awareness. I am relieved, when, an hour and a half into our run, I can see our starting point with all of the dogs’ dens in the distance.

When we arrive, Sébastien unhooks my team of four. He instructs me to pet my dogs, tell them they’ve done a good job. I speak to them in French, “Bons chiens. Bon travail.”

They eye me nervously, heads down, pulling back slightly, eyes darted upward. They are not pets. I put a hand out to let them sniff and then gently glide my gloved fingers across their thick fur.

Sébastien says, “You are a good musher. You will take my job.”

I beam.

He says, “There is a phrase we mushers use. Au jour chien. Toujours chien.” One day a dog, always a dog. 

I am part of the pack.

Children as young as 12 can drive their own dog-sledding team at Chiens-Traineaux Petite-Nation

Children as young as 12 can drive their own dog-sledding team at Chiens-Traineaux Petite-Nation (Photo from Chiens-Traineaux.com)

How to go dog-sledding in Quebec's Outaouais

If you would like to be a part of the pack, check out Chiens-Traineaux Petite-Nation in the Outaouais region of Quebec in Canada. You can sign up for 1- to 3-hour tours. If visiting with children, they can ride in a sleigh driven by an experienced musher. Kids ages 1 to 5 should sit in an adult rider’s lap, while children 6+ can ride alone. Older kids can even drive their own sleds (age 12 to 14+ depending on size and athleticism). Children are taken on easier, wide-open trails rather than through the forest.

My kids loved summer dog-sledding in Alaska. But I hope someday they get to do the real thing in Quebec. I want them to feel the joy and, yes, the fear of true dog-sledding. It was the most exhilarating experience of my life.

Read more about Chiens-Traineaux Petite-Nation on TripAdvisor. Learn more about things to do in winter in Quebec with kids now!

If you went dog-sledding, would you opt to sit or drive? Why? Let us know in the comments!

A Note from The Travel Mama: I experienced dog-sledding in Quebec's Outaouais as part of a press trip hosted by Tourisme Outaouais and Quebec Tourism. All opinions are mine, as always. This story was originally published in 2012 and was updated in 2017.

About Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of TravelMamas.com. As the author of her book, “The Travel Mamas’ Guide,” she teaches parents not only how to survive a trip with children, but also how to love exploring the world with their offspring. Her stories have appeared online and in print for such outlets as the “Today” show, NBCNews.com, Parenting Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Expedia, San Diego Family Magazine, and more. Colleen gives tips on television, radio, and as a public speaker. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.

Comments

  1. That sounds so exciting! We went for a dog sled ride in Montebello which was absolutely thrilling but I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have felt like to be the driver and not just a passenger! I think you must be an honourary Canadian now!! 🙂

  2. Erin Cole says:

    I would totally drive! I just watched the video with my dogs in the room with me and they went nuts. I think they want to pull a sled too. The first Bassets ever to accomplish such a task. : ) Sounds so fun!

  3. Wow, friend, I am truly impressed! We’ve been dog sledding twice, but never as mushers. You go girl!

  4. Thanks, ladies! It was terrifying and wonderful all at once. I hope you get a chance to mush someday!

  5. Wow, it sounds so much more athletic than I would have thought! But I’d definitely do it. It’s on my list!

  6. What a great post! I was sad when it was over. AWESOME!

  7. Mathew Fink says:

    Awesome! My heart was pounding just reading it!!

  8. I would want to drive and hustle with the dogs up the hills, and I would love to play with the dogs in the snow!! This was a great piece, Colleen. Way to go!!

  9. Amanda – I know, right? For days afterwards I was sore in places I didn’t even know I had muscles!

  10. Phil, Mathew & Edie – Many thanks for your kind words! I hope you will get a chance to try dog-sledding someday! 🙂

  11. How awesome! Would love to do this!

  12. You are an incredible woman and writer! I am so very proud of you! I wish I could shout it from somewhere so all could hear. Your writing is exciting and flows so easily. I wish you would write a book we could all read. Maybe that is down the road sooner than you think. YOU ARE ALSO EITHER VERY BRAVE OR ——————. I am very grateful to know of what you are doing, after the fact. Don’t tell me what’s next. Love ya, your Mother-in-law

  13. Amy Whitley – I hope you get a chance to dog-sled someday! Keep in mind that I have heard from several people who have also tried dog-sledding who said their experience was not nearly as exciting. Often, you are not allowed to drive the sled solo and/or you ride across a big flat surface rather than through a forest & over hills. If you want this experience, I suggest heading to Quebec!

  14. Joan – You are too sweet! Love you too!

  15. I could read this over and over…and I do….

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Thank you. 🙂 I really hope you can experience “real” dog sledding one day too. Such an incredible experience!

  16. I took Phil’s advice and re-read this blog. Just reading it was exhilarating. Your dad and I were pulled in a cart of sorts by a team of about 8 or 10 dogs at Mitch Seavey’s Seward, Alaska property in August, 2010. He and his dogs won the Iditarod this year (2013). There were about 100 dogs at this property and I was told he had about the same number at another location. Holding the puppies was a fun experience, too.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      We got to experience the summer dog cart this summer in Alaska…it was fun but nothing compared to this Quebecois experience of actually driving a sled of dogs in snow. I hope you will get to try this someday; even as a passenger it would be incredible!

  17. How nice. I would love to do this but it does sounds a little scary but very exciting though….

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Victoria – If it’s too exciting for you, you could just opt to sit in the sled and have an expert lead your team instead. But it really was quite the thrill to drive the sled myself!

  18. Great post. You describe the action brilliantly. I went dog sledding in Greenland last year for 2days. I wasn’t doing the work but with huge hills and the dog going on regardless it is tough work getting in and out of the sled all the time. Still though, I would do it again no bother.

  19. I would love to go dog sledding! It looks like so much fun. Talk about an adventure for your next vacation. That is super cool!

  20. I can feel the wind and the excitement from those great photos. I would love to try those sleds and the dogs look like great guides.

  21. I almost feel like I was there! This would be a bucket list thing for us to do for sure! How awesome and the dogs are beautiful!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      You will love it, Reesa! Make sure to go in Quebec, though. I’ve heard the Alaskan dog-sledding excursions are much more tame.

  22. I’ve always wanted to go dog sledding and my daughter was reading this along with me, hoping it meant we were going today! No such luck for today but hope to soon.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Ha! I like your daughter’s style! I hope you both can experience dog-sledding in Quebec someday very soon.

  23. I would LOVE to drive a tram of sled dogs. I think the experience would be amazing! It’s like one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that you just need to try!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      If you ever have the opportunity to try it, I hope you do! Next time I might opt to ride in a sleigh, though. Maybe.

  24. This looks like an incredible time. I have never done anything like this but it would be an adventure for sure.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      If you like downhill skiing and/or horseback riding, I bet you will like dog-sledding, too!

  25. Dog sledding sounds like a lot of fun- but also a lot of work! I’d love to go sometime but I think I’d rather just sit and enjoy the ride 🙂

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      I might opt to ride if I went again, too. Maybe. It depends on who was going with me and how adventurous they are. I can be talked into a lot of things!

  26. Oh I bet it’s not for wimps at all. You gotta be tough for things like this, especially the cold!

  27. Oh my gosh, what an experience. I can see how it would be an adrenaline rush. The experts must have to train endlessly!

  28. Claudia Krusch says:

    I would love to give dog-sledding a try. It sounds like so much fun. I would want to sit for my first run. Once I know what to expect I would try driving.

  29. We had a friend who did this recently and posted their video. It looks like so much fun! Tiring, but fun!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      I wish I’d had a GoPro back when I went on my dog-sledding adventure. Then again, I had enough to worry about, just trying to stay on my sled!

  30. I have never gone dog sledding before but I would really like to try it out. This is really cool.

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