It was mid-morning when we arrived at Sky High Mountain Ranch, a 30-minute drive from the Yukon capital of Whitehorse, and one of the best places to go dog sledding in Canada. Defined by an ocean of magnificent pines, majestic mountains, and a frozen lake that shown silver in the sunlight, the property was straight out of a fairytale. And all of it glistened under four inches of freshly fallen snow. We were going dog sledding and I was beside myself with anticipation.
Musher’s Camp — Where the sled dogs live
I heard the sled dogs—a cacophony of enthusiastic barks booming through the trees— long before we entered the musher’s camp. It was the kind of bark you hear when a favorite human returns home after a long trip or in this case, before a run.
At the mouth of the 8km trail we would navigate during our excursion, stood our chariots next to dozens of tiny dog houses. Dogs were everywhere, chained to their homes, running in circles, some jumping in the air others on the roofs of their homes with their tongues and tails wagging hoping they’d be going on the ride, though only 16 would actually mush with us.
We were a group of three guests and each of us would drive our own sled—an exciting prospect considering many companies only offer passenger rides. My adorable team consisted of Bully, Jewel, Thunder & Sneezy; four Alaskan huskies I wanted to plop in my pocket and take home with me from the get-go.
Figuring I’d be better off following a pro, I chose the sled behind our guide, Jonathan, a hipster-looking ginger with a broad smile and a “I’m a sporty, nature guy” aura.
After the customary introductions and pleasantries,, we went over the basic rules of the ride.
Rule 1: Once the dogs are harnessed, never let go of the sled.
Why? Because the dogs love to go; they want to go. And they will happily go without you if you’re not careful. A reality Jonathan humbly illustrated when just before we were about to set off, his energetic mutts yanked on his sled pulling it out from under and the were off, leaving him face down (and red-faced) in the snow. Moments later with orders to “Stay there!” I watched Jonathan run after his pups around a bend and out of sight. Twenty minutes later, after a fellow staffer on a snowmobile helped to reunite Jonathan with his team, we were on our way as if nothing had happened.
Rule 2: Use your break. Keep a reasonable distance between your lead sled dogs and the sled in front of you.
When traveling as a group, there has to be some semblance of order. If you’re not careful the dogs will get too close to the driver in front of you, and that’s not a good thing. Hence the brake, a metal bar at the back of the sled the driver steps on to create drag. The more you push down the more difficult it is for the dogs to move forward. If you want the sled to stop, you have to put all of your weight (and I do mean all) on the break and the dogs will stop, albeit begrudgingly. If you ease up, the dogs will lunge forward. Expect a constant game of tug of war when you try to harness their mobility. And boy are they strong!
Rule 3: No picture-taking. Focus on the ride, the dogs and the sled. No distractions.
I was hoping to take video and/or pictures during my ride but once on the sled, I realized that would be impossible. I couldn’t work my DSLR with one hand so that was out of the question, and my phone died within 5 minutes due to the cold. In any case, I needed both hands to drive.
Rule 4: Stand with your knees slightly bent.
When I first thought about dog mushing, for some reason I had it in my head that I would be going over even snow the whole time, not thinking about the ground underneath and how that would affect the ride. Once the sled is moving, you have to be ready for anything, uneven terrain, tight turns, uphill climbs, downhill momentum. There’s a lot of jiggling and movement, and it’s easier to navigate the bumps by absorbing the shock with your knees bent, than not.
Rule 5: Use sign language.
The wind coupled with the distance between dog sleds makes talking, even yelling, impossible, sign language is the only way to communicate. When the leader puts one hand on top his head, he’s asking if you’re ok. If you’re good, you respond in kind. If you’re not OK, you wave, and he’ll stop.
And We’re Off
Reunited with his team, we were off and what I jolt that was! The dogs were NOT playing, they really wanted to go. The second I took my foot off the brake they shot forward as if we were competing in the Iditarod, the greatest dog sled race in the world. Almost immediately, I had to brake again so they wouldn’t run Jonathan over. It was a little disconcerting at first but once I found my rhythm, and the right amount of brake pressure, I could take my mind off the mechanics.
What I didn’t expect was just how physical driving would be. Sure, the Huskies have the lion’s share of the work but even the ranch will tell you that mushing is comparable to cross-country skiing. You need to be in relatively good physical shape.
The physicality came from a number of actions. From being a counter-balance to the sled around tight corners and ducking under tree limbs and helping with the hills by pushing with my foot. Plus, the simple muscle coordination needed to react to the bumps and jostling of the sled.
Balancing properly was also a part of the equation and required effort. My right foot was on a runner half its width and my left foot was riding the break with varying degrees of pressure depending on the trail and how fast the dogs were running. If we were on a straight away and Jonathan was far enough in front of me, I would straddle both runners and let the dogs go but being in a convoy meant most of the time I needed to keep my team in check, and that meant one foot was always on the brake.
Mushing is not a passive experience, and I found playing an integral role in the ride much more exhilarating than I anticipated.
The Best Part
The best part about dog mushing—aside from the obvious novelty and the fact that you get to hang out with four adorable Alaskan Huskies—is the unique take on the scenery the ride affords you. Something about gliding at a clip through a snow-capped fantasy land, wind in your face, the sounds of the dogs breaking through frost, I found utterly sublime. In the future, however, I’d want more time. A half day, or a full day at least.
How you can go dog sledding at Sky High Wilderness Ranch in Whitehorse, Yukon
Sky High Wilderness Ranch offers a variety of dog-mushing options to choose from depending on your time and interest, from hourly and half day excursions to multi-day trips. No experience necessary. Note: Children under 12 are prohibited from driving their own sled.
$97 CAD per hour, per sled
Each driver gets their own team of 3-4 dogs
Coffee, tea, hot chocolate, snacks
Half Day Tours:
$190 for a half day per sled
Each driver gets their own team of 3-5 dogs
Intro lesson on how to hook up a team and basic commands
Coffee, tea, hot chocolate, snacks
For information on multi-day tours click here
What to Wear
Make sure you are extra bundled up. You’re outside a good chunk of time and it can get really cold in the Yukon. I wore multiple layers including thermal underwear and thermal pants, a heavy coat, a balaclava, a hat and a hood, liner gloves and mittens, and a good pair of winter-weather waterproof boots.
I was a guest of Tourism Yukon which neither reviewed or approved this story.
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