With restrictions beginning to lift and new safety procedures being set in place, my cousin Anya and I decided to head to Banff for the weekend to get a few nights of camping and a few quick hikes in. We were careful to follow all of the safety protocols, and wore masks whenever necessary as well as packed most of our food to eat at our camp site instead of in restaurants all weekend.
Unfortunately I was sporting a few nasty blisters from a earlier trip and mentioned to Anya that I would be taking it easy hiking-wise. We decided on a trail in the Kananaskis area and set out in the morning. ‘Taking it easy’ turned in to a 22km adventure, which was a lot of fun but maybe not the best foot care I have ever practiced.
We decided to hike Jewell Pass via the Prairie View Trail. This is a moderate 16km trail that turned out to be much longer than expected when we were turned away from the parking lot. The Barrier Lake parking lot fills up quickly, and we were waved on by the parking attendant immediately, so we decided to park a few kilometres up the road and hike to the trail head along the lake side. We found our way back to the parking lot rather easily, and counted nearly ten empty parking spots on our way (sigh!). We were glad to be there and get started though. The lake is lovely for day use, and has picnic tables and washrooms. You begin on a gravel road crossing the Barrier Lake Dam and travel up a small hill to a bench, then continue following until you see a posted trail sign at an intersection.
I packed my day pack with plenty of water and snacks, a light jacket because the clouds were looking a little grey and the wind was beginning to pick up, and most importantly my trekking poles. I found poles to be most helpful on the second half of the trail when we were heading down over loose rocks and uneven terrain. I also brought my regular day pack essentials such as my first aid kit and bear spray.
As suggested on AllTrails, we decided to travel counter clockwise, which turned out to be the best route. The first half of the trail is a steady incline with switchbacks, but it’s also very wide and well maintained. We stopped for a few short breaks, but found it quite easy to make our way up to the lookout point. The first half of the hike was busy, but we only ran in to a few other hikers and mountain bikers for the Jewell pass section. The entire trail is well marked with plenty of signs posted along the way to help navigate the many trails that overlap.
The second half was a lot quieter and a little more technical, but still well maintained. We crossed a few beautiful little bridges and enjoyed walking through the trees. There was some evidence of bear activity as the berries are in season now, but we kept talking as we hiked and didn’t run in to any furry friends.
Eventually the trail meets back up with the ‘Stony Trail’ portion that seems to also be used for horseback riding. My puddle loving dog pranced through all of the water on this trail and spent the rest of the weekend smelling like a barn (sorry we had to share a tent Anya 🙂 ). The last bit is out of the trees so be aware that you’ll be in the sun for a while if it’s a warm day.
We made it back to the car with a few more kms than expected, but happy as can be. I would absolutely recommend this hike to a beginner who is looking to try longer trails, and also suggest that hikers try to get to the parking lot earlier in the morning before it fills up.
What goes in to being a musher? Getting paid to pet dogs all day? Here is a snap shot of an average day of a dog sled guide, working one of my favourite jobs but also by far the most difficult!
Every morning I would scramble and gather all of my gear and quickly eat before heading out the door. The funny thing about seeing dog food all day when you’re hungry is that it starts to look kind of… appetizing? I found myself buying chocolate cereal that looked suspiciously familiar to the kibble I was scooping out for the dogs. Every day I brought a 48 litre pack of gear and a smaller 20 litre pack to work with me, the smaller bag to sit on the sled with me with extra mitts/gear for guests, and then a larger bag for extra layers of clothing and another pair of boots. We would all arrive at the dog kennel and throw our bags in a pile on the deck to start the morning chores.
While it’s easy to see the fun part of the tours, a lot of work goes in behind the scenes to keep the dogs happy and the tours running smoothly. The first tasks of the day are regular chores before we load up the dogs and drive to the dog sledding trail. Morning chores included feeding, poop cleanup, giving medications to dogs who needed them, loading hot water canisters and other supplies into the trailers, and getting the trucks running and warmed up. Winter in the mountains also means that morning chores were done in the dark, so a good head lamp was a must! Each of the 150+ dogs received a portion of food specific to their dietary needs, and we followed a written food board to make sure this was correct. As guides, we were expected to learn each and every dogs name and which house they lived in (their names were not written on their houses or collars).
My favourite chore in the morning was preparing the feed. My least favourite was loading the trailers, because I wasn’t tall enough to lift the hot water canisters into the trailer and often spilled them all over myself in the process. It is rather uncomfortable to start a 12 hour day outside in the winter soaking wet. After those tasks were done, we were all given a list of what the teams would look like for the day. Then we would run to collect the dogs and put them in the appropriate boxes in the trailers so they could be unloaded according to team. This was a workout, because we would be running with two dogs at a time and lifting them into boxes. I often struggled to get the bigger dogs in the boxes up over my head, and was thankful when they would cooperate by putting their front paws up on the trailer. After everyone was packed up, we grabbed our radios and set off.
The driving time was our ‘quiet’ time for the day, as the trails we ran our teams on were about 30 minutes from the kennel. As soon as the trucks pulled up to site, we were on the ground running to get everything ready. A drop line was set up between posts to clip the dogs in to get their harnesses put on before the team was hooked up to their sled. Then we would take the sleds down from the trailers, set up the lines and sled bags, then get the dogs hooked up, and drive them to the starting chutes to park until guests arrived. We typically would bring 120 dogs up to site with us every day. Any pups that weren’t heading out on the first tour would then be taken out to pee and given some warm soup while they waited for their turn. In addition to the set teams, we would bring up spare dogs to put in place of older dogs half way through the day or if any dogs were too tired or feeling unwell.
As the guests arrived and the tours set off, some guides would stay back to prepare a campfire for the cold returning guests, look after the dogs staying at the trailers, and prepare any dogs who would be running the next tour. Another two guides would set off on a snowmobile behind the running tour to clean up dog poop along the trail. Guests were often surprised to hear that clean up is done after every single run, but it was important to keep things as pristine as possible.
It is truly a magical feeling to be driving a dog sled across a frozen lake, and I tried to pause often to appreciate exactly where I was in that moment. What a privilege to live and work in the mountains, and be a part of a an experience of a lifetime for so many people.
As a guide I was responsible for three sleds, mine in the lead, and two guest driven sleds behind me. I had to ensure that the guests were driving safely and confidently, and that the dogs were doing well. If one sled was moving slower than the others, I could stop and rearrange my teams to even out the speeds. Sled dogs have best friends who they prefer to run with, and dogs that they do not get along with. It’s important to learn their personalities and understand those relationships to keep your sled moving and your pups happy. Happy dogs also need encouragement, so we asked guests to try and remember the names of the dogs on their teams and cheer them on.
Between tours, the dogs get a well deserved rest and a warm soup filled with tasty treats. This was also when it was important to check in on all of the dogs on your teams and give them some love. On very cold days, shorter haired dogs would get jackets, and those with sensitive feet would have booties put on right before the tour went out. Any other down time was spent snuggling, petting, and brushing the dogs.
At the end of the day, after four tours, we would drive all of the teams back in to the chutes to park and take the dogs off of the lines. They would be attached directly to the drop line again where we could remove their harnesses and give them a final bowl of soup before returning for dinner at the kennel. We would them take apart the sleds and wrap up the lines, then begin loading the dogs back into the truck after their stomachs had some time to settle after eating. We became so familiar with the dogs that we could have one guide wait at the trailer and one at the drop line, and then release dogs to run to them and be lifted into the boxes. There were also dogs who thought it was a fun game to run circles around us instead of going to the trailer, so we had to choose wisely.
Once we returned back to the kennel in the evening, the work was still not over. The first thing we would do is change out our wet socks/boots and uniform to dry kennel clothes. Then our first priority was getting the dogs out of the trailers and back to their homes where their food and fresh water was waiting. We always took two dogs at a time, and tried to choose two that live in a similar area in the kennel. A piece of gear that we all used was a climbing quick draw that we attached to our belt loops. This made it easier for us to clip one dog to us while we used both hands to lift the next dog down. After that we completed nightly clean ups, meds, and then some dogs would get jackets or blanket put in their houses if they needed them. Finally after everyone was fed and cozy in their dog houses, our day was over.
One night a week I would sleep at the kennel, as each staff member took turns spending the night in to make sure everything was okay with the dogs and the yard. Kennel nights had their perks, you could bring dogs in with you for sleepovers (I would often have 3-4 pups sleeping beside me), but it also meant that I would wake up whenever the kennel started barking or howling, or when the logs in the wood stove had burned down. It was a great feeling to snuggle up beside a fire with a cabin full of happy dogs.
The next morning I would be up early filling thermoses with hot water and ready to start the process all over again. I was often so exhausted from my week of work that I didn’t even think about doing anything on my weekends, it was a full time commitment for a season and I would even dream about dogs all night, but I loved my experience working as a sled dog tour guide and every challenge I faced along the way.
I am now lucky to have a little piece of the kennel close to my heart since adopting my retired sled dog Piper from the company.
Living in the mountains in Alberta is what grew my interest in hiking, and as any new thing you learn, mistakes are bound to happen. I had started with a few smaller hikes around the Columbia Icefield, and my friend Jared mentioned that we try a more difficult hike when I visited Canmore.
One sunny, hot weekend, I was in Canmore for a few days and Jared suggested we hike EEOR (East End of Rundle). I was eager to do something, and I had never tried hiking up a mountain before, so I was game. As we packed up our bags to leave the apartment, Jared’s roommate mentioned that we should bring his dog Diesel along with us, to which we shrugged and agreed. We packed the dog up with us in the vehicle and drove about fifteen minutes to the trail head and set off on our journey. EEOR is not quite as well travelled as the mountain beside it, Ha Ling, and the trail wasn’t quite as obvious. We weaved our way up through the rocks and trees, the dog happily bounding ahead of us. The heat and exhaustion were beginning to get to me and I stopped a few times to sit in the shade and drink some water. I was so tired that I considered turning around, but with words of encouragement from my friend and a happier than hell dog running ahead of us we continued on.
As we got above the tree line there were almost no opportunities for shade, and I was really feeling the heat. In hindsight, I could have packed far better than I did, maybe a hat and much more water, but at that time I had no idea. The day was beautiful. We didn’t see another soul on the trail, but we heard some voices further up the mountain, so we weren’t quite alone. After making our way up to a lookout point we took some awesome pictures, then decided to turn around. This is when everything started to go downhill.
Diesel was still excited and leading the pack, but I noticed a spot of blood on one of the rocks he ran over. I immediately stopped him and inspected his feet. The EEOR hike is noted on the AllTrails App to be safe for dogs, so I hadn’t thought much about him coming along. However, mixing the grit of the mountain rock with soft paws that didn’t get walked very often, proved to be a disaster. His sensitive paw pads were worn raw. Horrified, because I felt terrible that we had allowed him to get hurt, and also that we were still 3/4 of the way up the mountain, I dug through my first aid kid to find some bandages.
After trying unsuccessfully to wrap his feet without him promptly biting the bandages off, we decided our only option was to try to convince him to walk slowly down the mountain. We cheered and coaxed him on, but at this point the pain had set in and he was becoming unwilling to walk. At this point I also stopped taking photos because I was panicking about what we would do. Jared finally decided that our best bet would be to carry him down. I took the bags, and he began to fireman-carry and 80 lb dog down a treacherous mountain. We made it about 3/4 of the way down when Jared couldn’t fight the exhaustion any more.
We sat down with the sun beginning to set, and pondered our options. We tried calling friends with the bit of cell service we had on our phones, but to no avail. Do we leave the dog and come back with more help in the dark? We worried he would likely wander and become even more lost, and we couldn’t bear the thought of leaving him behind. Do we spend the night on the mountain, ill-prepared with no more than a spare granola bar and some sunscreen on our packs? Also, not a great idea. We sat feeling hopeless and drained.
Then, as if on cue, we heard rustling and talking through the trees. I suddenly remembered the voices we had heard on the mountain earlier. Two men on the tail-end of their hike emerged from the trees and greeted us with an Aussie hello. We explained our situation to them and they enthusiastically agreed to help us carry the dog the rest of the way down the mountain.
We thanked them profusely the rest of the way down the trail. “No worries, any day you get to hang out with a dog is a great day” they laughed back.
Eventually we made it back to the car, exhausted and grateful. We returned back to the house and I carefully cleaned the pup’s feet after calling a veterinarian for advice. He was healed and happy within the week.
I use this adventure as a reminder to pack smart, be prepared, and be thankful for other people I meet on the trail. There is always something to be learned!