Calgary Herald Nov. 29, 2014, Lake Louise: Sometimes, the people Megan Routley takes out on her dog sled ask whether her dogs have names, or whether she just assigns them numbers. While clearly not dog-people at the start, they likely end up as such after an-hour-and a-half, 16 kilometre Kingmik dog sled ride from Lake Louise to the Great Divide and back again.
You sit tucked into a sleeping bag, with Routley or one of her guides standing behind you, and eight Alaskan Huskies out front pulling the sled along the thick blanket of white. They run, the guide shouts commands—“Gee” for go right, “Haw” for turn left and “Woah” for stop—and you sit back and enjoy the snow-capped peaks cutting into the blue sky along with a mountain or two of doggy-personality.
We’re only out a minute when Sheila, who is taking up the left wheel or back position starts biting into the snowbanks alongside the track, trying for a quick canine sno-cone along the way. She also takes a few rolls in the snow as the rest of the team keeps running and Routley—more amused than angry—scolds her to quit fooling around. “We put lazy dogs right in front of the sled because if they’re out front and goof off everyone else will goof off too,” the Kingmik owner explains.
Each dog’s temperament is matched to their position. The lead dogs are “just like a CEO of a company, super confident and able to take pressure and responsibility.” Next come a pair of leaders in training—“like being at the front of the class”—followed by point, team and wheel dogs.
Before heading out, they’re all fed “chicken soup,” a mix of cut up meat and liquid to hydrate them—they won’t drink just plain water in the winter. As the guides start hooking up teams, the dogs get excited and start barking like they’re at postal convention. But as soon as the teams set out, the dogs shut up.
Routley keeps a running commentary with the team throughout, but you never hear this musher shout “mush.” That’s just in the movies. “No one says that,” she says. “Musher” likely comes from the French marche, meaning to move, which is what French explorers and fur traders did with dogs hundreds of years ago.
In the Banff area, dog sledding goes back to the 1920s and adventurer Ike Mills who hauled passengers and supplies into Skoki and Assiniboine Lodges. He and his dogs made it into the pages of National Geographic and even onto the big screen in a silent movie.
Routley discovered mushing more than 20 years ago when she was working as a back country ski guide. Her first experience running dogs with friends in Northwest Territories was “like being on the back of a runaway train,” she recalls. “I hung on for dear life on the back of the sled, I had no idea what I was doing.” But she was hooked and has been “feeding the addiction” ever since, entering 300-mile races and buying Kingmik Dog Sled Tours in 2003, the only dog sled company operating inside Banff National Park.
Routley’s kennel has about 110 dogs, 85 “in harness” and the rest are puppies or retired. “Some really smart dogs get bored and retire early, but others stay on until they’re as old as 10,” Routley says. As for coming up with names for all of them—sometimes an entire litter is named for one theme, for example Yorkie, Pudding and Fish and Chips. Other times, dogs name themselves. “One dog came into my kennel and her name never seemed to fit her, so we started calling her Audrey because she’s very odd. She’s one of those dogs whose funny but doesn’t even know it.”
“Good Boy Indy,” Routley shouts at the dog running in front of Shelia. “Indy is like the guy who goofs off in class when he’s not in harness,” she says. “He’s a really hard worker but he’s also got a great sense of humour.” Sheila is a rescue dog that’s awfully cute and maybe a little vapid. “She’s like one of the popular girls in Mean Girls,” Routley says. “We call her ‘a plastic.’”
But all her dogs can run: “They are such amazing athletes.” The day we’re out, it’s a family affair, with Chompsky—“an up and coming superstar leader”—running behind his mom Lily toward the Great Divide. Once we get there, passengers hop out to take pictures as the dogs take a breather. As we head back to Lake Louise, you get a chance to stand at the back of the sled, next to your guide, as the dogs run through the trees for a few minutes, before climbing back into the sleeping bag.
The commands continue, along with more than a few chuckles as the dogs happily pull us along the old TransCanada highway. Routley, meanwhile, says she’d go “to the end of the earth” for her dogs, insisting she’s never had a favourite. “It’s all their different personalities. That’s what’s kept me at it for nearly 25 years,” she says, as Sheila takes another bite of the snow drift and I swear that dog pops a grin as big as mine.