Newbies can be mushers on dog-sled tours

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Guests at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and several other properties in Jasper, Alberta, are just over an hour's drive from the fun and exhilarating wintertime activity of dog sledding.

Located in a rugged and picturesque area with snow-covered forests, frozen lakes and white-tipped mountains, the Sundog Tour Co. offers suburban softies like me the chance to make like a radio hero of yore, Sergeant Preston, and yell, "On King, on you huskies!" to a team of yammering, mixed-breed dogs hell-bent on pulling a sled up and down a twisting, snow-packed trail through a stunningly beautiful wilderness.

More fun than walking your pooch at home or playing Frisbee with Fido in the park, dog sledding is a great winter sport, whether you choose to drive the sled (with an experienced musher and guide at your side) or sightsee as a passenger from the covered bed of the sled. You can switch roles any time during the outing.

The dogs usually are yoked together in packs of six to eight animals, with the alpha dogs up front setting a good example to those following. When the leaders lollygag, as they sometimes do, the mushers quickly unharness them, send them to the back of the pack and ignominiously replace them with eager prospects.

Bred not for size but for strength, an efficient gait and a positive nature, the dogs seldom weigh more than 55 pounds. It takes months of training to equip them to haul a sled over ice and through snow, often in difficult conditions.

But the sleds, which can carry a standing driver and passenger as well as a prone third person in the hold, are ergonomically efficient enough to enable the dogs to pull them up steeply graded trails. Mushers pitch in by pushing off the ground with a strong right foot. The sleds glide effortlessly downhill, necessitating the use of a built-in, foot-operated snow brake to keep a speeding sled from running over the dogs.

The Sundog Tour Co., which also offers helicopter tours, heli-snowshoeing, Maligne Canyon ice walks, snowmobiling, cat-skiing and cross-country skiing, features a three-hour dog-sledding adventure called the Robson Valley plan, which includes mushing the Moonshiners of Whiskey Creek Trail and a trail-side lunch cooked over an open fire. There are two departures, 8 a.m. and 12 p.m., from Jasper hotels for the six-hour roundtrip. The price is $173 for adults and $125 for children under age 12.

The 60-minute Musher program, with an 8 a.m. departure -- four hours roundtrip from Jasper -- offers an hour of mushing and hot beverages. It costs $138 per adult and $93 per child under age 12.

For more information, visit www.sundogtours.com.

To contact reporter Joe Rosen, send e-mail to [email protected].

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