Dog Sledding Adventures
Chocpaw Expeditions is an extraordinary Canadian outfit that has been providing recreational and educational dog sledding adventures in Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park for over 40 years. This fantastic bunch of dogs can be found along the west side of Algonquin Park which is know to be some of Ontario's most pristine natural habitats. I've made the video below to showcase some of the best parts of a Chocpaw Expedition.
When winter gets you down and you find yourself spending far to much time indoors, sometime you just have to suck it up and decided to do something in the cold. If you are an animal lover why not pair a winter activity with a love of yours and try dogsledding. Going on a dog sledding expedition is by far one of the most interesting winter experiences yo can have while enduring Canada's famous winters. I was lucky enough to go on expedition with Chocpaw and shoot some video for their website while doing so.
Is a cold winter vacation appealing to you?
Some people like to think that smaller outfits are better for they tend to offoer a more personal experience and better customer relations however this is not the case with Chocpaw. Chocpaw has been operating for 40 years and has become he second largest dog sledding outfit in North America. The headquarters is located in the small village of South River which is about halfway between North Bay and Huntsville or a 3.5 hour drive north from Toronto. I recommend going up the night before you expedition and renting a hotel room. The expeditions generally start pretty early in the morning and you don't want to miss the briefing and signing of wavers. Its nice to be able to not have to get up at 4am and drive from the city. Instead we work up at 7am had breakfast then arrived a comfortable 15 minutes early. Also this will gave you time to get fitted for any rental gear you may need. They rent most of the winter gear that the average person wouldn't have lying around the house, like gloves good to -30 or heavy duty winter boots. Below are two products that I personally use because of their superior performance in cold weather.
Just before you make the turn off the highway to go to Chocpaw's main building there is a small restaurant that makes a great breakfast and coffee. We decided to stop he and grab a little food before our big day out in the bush. Apparently this place is known for their personal pizza's so if you decided to go for lunch or dinner try one out. As we drove up on Chocpaw's headquarters the crisp morning air tickled the tips of our noses while the sun was just peaking over the tree line. The dogs are actually kept a a short drive away from the main building which at first I didn't understand why but once I say how many dogs they actually had, 420 to be precise, it became very clear. I was told the on average half the fleet of dogs is out on the trails but even with half the dogs in the dog yard, it gets so loud that it would be hard to do the morning prep with all the commotion.
Chocpaw is more then just a fun ride in the snow with some pups, they pride themselves on their ability to provide an educational yet exhilarating experience. They do this by engaging you the entire trip, keeping you active and making you take part in all the aspects of dog sledding. you will be responsible for everything from harnessing the dogs to feeding them supper. This is why it is super important to arrive for the morning prep on time.
It is in this morning meeting that you will learn the essentials on how to do some of the most basic things while out on expeditions. The guides do a remarkable job making the presentation fun and engaging which is hard to do in a room full of antsy people. One of the most important things I learned in the morning presentation was how to harness the dogs and the commands you will need to steer them. Make sure you have had your morning coffee and you are nice and alert prior to coming to the meeting so you don't miss a thing!
The Dog Yard
its hard to describe the dog yard in words since its such an auditory experience however I will try my best to. Imagine you are at a concert, not just any concert, a teenybopper concert full of screaming fanatics. Now take all those energetic crazed fans and replace them with dogs who have the same mentality. That is how the dog yard sounds and looks. As our vehicles pulled in, hundreds of dogs emerged from their little barrel homes bursting with energy. Some people think that its cruel to keep the dogs in such small confines however most of the time they are actually out doing what the love most, running. I think one of the hardest things to wrap my head around was the fact that these dogs were not like your ordinary domesticated house dog. They are work horses that lover to be outside and run. It didn't take long to be put to work and you will quickly see just how hands on this tips is. One by one you are asked to walk through the yard and grab a specific dog then harness it to your sled. Each dog is given a name, some better then others and some very random like "pig" or other various barn animals. I assume it would be easy to run out of ideas when naming over 400 dogs. Each sled contained a red card on it with the names of the dogs and their positions on the harness, this made the process less complicated. The dogs are so full of energy at this point that you have to actually have to lift their two front paws off the ground forcing them to walk beside you only on their hind two legs. They called this switching from four wheel drive to two. If you don't do this the dogs would literally pull you the entire way. Not to much tie is spent in the yard, for once the dogs are harnessed you have to get them on the trails, they become very impatient.
Tip - "If you are bringing anything breakable in your bag make sure that it is in a hard case so to not get damaged. The second person on each sled will be jumping on and off of all the bags throughout the trip."
One last circle check of the sled signifies that its time to start the expedition. The metal foot break is released, a secondary anchor like hook is lifted and like a bat out of hell, off you go. The first few kilometres are along the roads which eventually lead you to the head of the trail system. It was amazing just how fast those 28 little legs had us going. I was told that they tract some of their fastest speeds on road surfaces. As we winded through the trails I felt as if I were in a movie. The conditions were too perfect thanks to a fresh dumping of snow we had gotten the night before.
Alaskan Sled Dogs
In 2003 Chocpaw began purchasing dogs from Lou Serre, an Ontario racer who has won the most ISDRA medals in the history of the sprint racing. Lou has dominated the sprint racing world for over 14 years now and is showing no signs of slowing down. What makes gives Lou's dogs the advantage is that their lineage traces back to Pluto (not the dog from the Jetsons). In the 1990’s, Charlie Champagne and Roxy Wright produced a "super dog" and named him Pluto. He was out of Gareth Wright’s Aurora Husky line: 1/3 Alaskan village dog, 1/3 English setter and 1/3 arctic wolf. Pluto led his teams to victory in prestigious distances, open class races and sprint races. He was a dual purpose dog which suited the needs of Chocpaw perfectly. Chocpaw's believes that if you take the best distance lines and breed them to the best sprint lines, all with that Pluto link, you will produce exceptional dogs whether for race or for work.
- In a three month season the average dog accumulates up to 2000 miles.
- In the winter season each dog eats up to 6lbs of meat a day. The number is cut in half over the off season.
- Some dogs can run over 30km only hydrating by eating snow while they run.
- The average sled dog runs over 1800km a season.
- Sled dogs can sleep outside in over -30 degree temperatures
Are you a calorie counter? i'll tell you who isn't, sled dogs. These elite athletes eat more then the average olympian. Chocpaw uses a special provider who customizes their food to give them the proper amount of nutrients to suit their athletic life styles. The food comes in frozen bricks making it easy to store and even easier to transport while on expeditions. As we fed the dogs I noticed that some dogs would only eat one or two of the bricks and others would eat all of their food. I asked why this was and was told that like humans, each dog has its own personality traits and funny quirks. For example some dogs are hoarders and stash their food while others eat all of theirs then go after others portions. One dog in particular is notorious for stashing all her food in her barrel and when then when its time to clean them out they always find bricks of food hidden under some hay at the back of her barrel. It blows my mind to think that this dog had been running marathon after marathon while barely eating!
Winter Camping, two words that when put together would make most cringe at the thought. It takes a certain type of person to enjoy camping and a certain type of crazy to enjoy doing it in the winter. Back country camping is special in its own right but be forewarned its no Ritz Carlton. Be prepared for fluctuating temperatures, stiff sleeping, tight quarters and smelling like a campfire. Small canvased shelters that are supported with logs are equipped with small wood stoves and wooden platforms raised off the ground for sleeping on. Thin foam mats are provided however if you want a little more cushioning, I recommend bringing your own Thermarest. I will provide information on what type os sleeping mat I use and where to buy it. I came with my -20 sleeping bag expecting it to be a cold sleep however it was quite the opposite. The little wood stoves heated the tents very well to the point I was sleeping on top of my bag at points of the night. Even though the camp itself was already set up, there was still much work to be done. We were sent out to look for fire wood, water had to be collected from the lake and the dogs had to be fed and watered. It was interesting to find out that Chocpaw has an arrangement with Algonquin park allowing them to set up several of these remote camps in the winter months.
- Hash Browns
- Nanaimo Bar
- Hot Chocolate
Dinner was perfect and surprisingly we all went to bed pretty early. Dog sledding takes a tone of energy and if you are not in the greatest shape it may not be the right activity for you. the morning came quick and as soon as we got up it was back to work. The dogs had to be fed, water boiled and camp paced up. Of course all of this took place after the first cup of coffee was down the hatch. After breakfast we began to pack up and prepare the sleds for the days journey. Everything had its place to go and once everything was snugly tied down we began putting the harnesses on the dogs. It is imperative you bring the proper clothing while on this trip, otherwise you will be far too cold to enjoy your time. Below is a list of the items I brought with me to stay warm.
North Face Mcmurdo Parka
eko Organic Mid Weight Hiking Socks
MEC Rocka Nordic Tights
North Face Point Five Gore-tex Pant
Oakley Polarized Crowbar Snow Goggles
MEC Trek 4 Pants
Black Diamond Mercury Mitts
MEC Watchtower Jacket
MEC Seirus Neofleece Comfort Mask
My exceptional experience with Chocpaw Expeditions was mainly due to the professionalism and friendliness exemplified by their guides Jamie Sands and Steph Ierfino. There are other dog sledding companies up in Algonquin Park and I am sure they are great, but in my mind its the guides that make or break the trip. Jamie and Stephs social skills and combine knowledge were exceptional. This made ever moment of the trip pleasant. Both of hem had been doing this for years which made teaching us second nature to them. If you do choose to go on expedition with Chocpaw I highly recommend these two guides.
My time spent with Chocpaw Expeditions was such an amazing experience I could not have asked for more. Like I tell most people, make a list of things you want to do before you die and start now because it's not just the experience you get, it's the people you meet and the memories you acquire. I had the pleasure of meeting the owners Paul & Marg Reid as well as Keri Buttle who were all such nice and helpful people that it's no wonder Chocpaw is one of the best dog sledding outfits in Canada. So for those looking for a real Canadian outdoors winter experience or those a little hesitant to venture into the wild, I highly recommend booking an expedition through Chocpaw. You will be well taken care of and will be given the time of your life.