Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Canadian Adventures: Dogsledding and Wolf Encounters in Quebec

Last week I had the fantastic opportunity to travel to Quebec, Canada to experience some of the winter adventures that the province has to offer. More specifically, I visited the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region, which is dominated by numerous lakes and rivers, not the least of which is its namesake body of water, which is a source for endless possibilities for outdoor activities, particularly during the summer. In my case however, I was looking for chances to explore the regions winter offerings, and I didn't come away disappointed.

Flying into Quebec City, I spent my first night in the area enjoying a fantastic meal and wandering through the streets. There is definitely a European vibe to the place, with the vast majority of the inhabitants speaking only French, and obvious inspirations to the local architecture. Coming from the U.S., this makes it feel like you've traveled a lot further than you actually have, which gives Quebec an unexpected allure. It is also why the local tourism board went with the motto " So Europe, So Close."

As much as I enjoyed my visit to Quebec City, my stay was a brief one. The next day I set out with a few other travelers for the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean area to begin my explorations. This area is much more rural and rustic, with English-speaking citizens few and far between. That isn't a bad thing at all of course, but if you're expecting a similar experience as you find in other parts of Canada, you may encounter some unexpected bumps along the way. 

We were headed to a remote area of the Saguenay region, but en route we made a couple of stops along the way. The first was in a quaint little town called Robertville, which has made a name for itself locally by creating an ice village on its frozen lake each year. The village includes a walking trail and skating route, as well as a rink to play hockey of course. This is Canada after all. There are also more than 180 small cabins that range from basic escapes from the cold conditions, to elaborate homes away from homes. The locals see the ice village as a way to socialize with friends and family, and over the years it has become quite the popular place with visitors too.

While the Robertville ice village was a nice distraction, our ultimate destination was a place called Adventuraid. There, we would spend the night in small cabins and yurts located in the forest while we waited to meet the site's most interesting inhabitants - three packs of wolves that are kept in very large enclosures that allow them to run free, while still coming in contact with humans on a regular basis.

The following day, we had the opportunity to get up close and personal with these creatures when the owner of Advenuraid introduced us to one of his packs. The standard gray wolf and arctic wolf packs remain shy and wild around humans, so we didn't enter either of their enclosures. But one of the packs has been imprinted with humans from an early age, and as a result they are comfortable with visitors. 

Inside the pen, we were given the chance to interact with the wolves, which were very friendly, but still had a wild streak in them. Several of the younger wolves followed us around while we explored the interior of their enclosure, which included dense woods for them to retreat to should they feel the need. It was clear they were just as curious about us as we were them, although some of the older members of the pack remained reserved and at a safe distance. 

The imprinted pack was made up of both gray and arctic variety of wolves, and much of the time they behaved like their canine cousins that we keep at home. They were certainly playful – stealing the hat off one of my companions heads, and refusing to give it back – and highly curious too. They also chased one another around with boundless energy, while still displaying the pack mentality that is well established in the wild, complete with a pecking order and a clearly defined alpha member. 

For me, this was a fantastic opportunity to interact with creatures that I had only seen from afar in the past. I never thought that I'd have the chance to see a wolf this close, let alone pet one. For any animal lover, the experience is deeply moving, and will stay with you long after you've left. But be warned, if you go to Adventuraid to meet the wolves yourself, there are no guarantees that you'll have the same experience I had. If the wolves are shy that day, or aren't feeling particularly accommodating, they may not approach visitors at all. In fact, some never even get to go inside the enclosure, as the safety, health, and well-being of the wolves takes priority. 

If you do go however, staying onsite is the best options. The cabins are located near the pens, so you can observe the wolves in their habitats. I woke up on the morning of my visit, essentially rolled over in bed, and was able to watch them right from the window of the cabin. It was a great way to start the day to say the least. 

After our encounter with the wolves was over, we grabbed a hot meal before launching the second stage of our Adventuraid excursion. The company organizes dogsledding tours which can last for just a few hours or extend to four or five days. Sadly, we didn't have time for the longer style of trip, but we did manage to spend the afternoon exploring the thickly wooded backcountry with sled dogs. 

This was my first time dogsledding, so I was eager to give it a go. We used six-dog teams, and had two people to a sled, a drive and a passenger. After helping the Adventuraid staff collect the individual dogs for each of our teams, we harnessed them in, and were soon off and moving. The dogs were incredibly powerful, and knew the route well, so it was easy to soon find a rhythm, but the initial surge when the dogs first take off is a real kick, and it was fun to see just how much they enjoyed the outing too. 

Steering the sled took a bit of getting use to. The dogs pull it along nicely, but the drive still needs to lean into a turn when making a sharp change in direction. After about 15-20 minutes of mushing I started to get the hang of it quickly, but not before burying my sled in a meter of snow after taking a turn too sharply. It was a harsh lesson to try to get the sled out of the deep powder without losing it altogether as the dogs pulled on it to go. But after a couple of minutes of scrambling, we were back on the trail, and off and running once again. 

Our route took us through the forest and down on to a frozen river, which gave us the opportunity to let the dogs open up a bit. They ran with strength and confidence, while my companion on the sled and I simply enjoyed the ride. Soon, we were back in the woods, and heading for home, but not before navigating plenty more backcountry trails, some of which were narrow enough that the sled could barely pass through. 

My all-too-brief dogsledding adventure was over before I wanted it to be. But, it did provide me with some good experience that I'm sure will come in handy if I ever get the chance to do it again. It was definitely a fun, exhilarating experience, and I know have even more respect for top mushers. 

Late in the day we left Adventuraid behind, but my companions and I continued to talk about our experience there long after we had moved on. It was a place that provided some unique experiences to say the least, and I don't think we'll soon forget them. Both the wolves and the sled dogs were wonderful animals, each unique in their own way. If you're looking for a truly great destination to experience some amazing outdoor adventures, than you should put the place on your radar. You won't come away disappointed in any way. 

Next up, snowshoeing in the Valley of the Phantoms

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