Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 19, 2017
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Dog days of winter

A sledding excursion in BC's Cariboos will turn your heart (and your quads) to mush

"A dog? Cats do much better on boats," remarked my partner Jason, who also happens to be the captain

of the yacht we call home. "They keep dock rats away, they don't need to go ashore to do their business. And a cat isn't going to jump overboard to chase a chew toy."

Maybe he was right. But having loved a pooch for many years, I couldn't wait to make room for a dog in my life again. Obviously, it was going to take some work to convince Jason.

At least he's always supported my need for random 'dogma' -- I'll stop to pet mangy strays and manicured purse pups alike. So, when the chance arose to try dogsledding at Siwash Lake Ranch in BC's Cariboo Mountains, he completely backed up my decision.

As soon as we arrived at the ranch, it was clear that I wouldn't have any trouble feeding my habit for creatures on this trip. Our group was greeted at the gate by a multitude of four-legged ambassadors, including three dogs, several curious horses and a cow. I was itching to jump on a sled and let loose the hounds.

The next morning, after fuelling up for the day's adventures, we stepped outside and met Laurie Neidermayer, professional musher, racer, sled-dog trainer and owner of Nikitsilik Outdoor Adventures. She was enthusiastically greeting the few noses poking out of the paw-print-shaped peepholes on the kennel trailer which had been brought to the ranch. "Hi Dorothy! How's it goin' Tin Man!" she said, sticking her hand inside to scratch ears, as the dogs waited their turns to be lifted out.

Closer to Dog
While the dog teams were assembled, Laurie gathered our group for a review of the sled's components and the basics of dog-team management. A metal foot lever that digs deep into the snow is the brake. A piece of snowmobile track hanging from the rear that drops between the sled runners (called the drag mat) is the other brake.

Yell "hike" to go forward, "whoa" to slow or stop, "gee" to turn right and "haw" to turn left. "On by" means "pay no attention to that deer poop," or "disregard the passing snowmobile."

Interestingly, "mush," as a command, is rarely used. Everyone had a different explanation for the word; my favourite involved the mangling of French fur trappers' marche (walk). Dogsled drivers however, are called mushers.

One by one, we practised maneuvering the sled while Laurie towed us behind a snowmobile. It was like riding a shopping cart -- wobbly at first, but fairly easy. Corners were more challenging. On one tight bend, my sled's runners derailed, I lost my grip, and poofed into the snow. Laurie slowed down while I caught up.

"Make sure you transfer your weight onto the uphill runner when the sled gets off the track. Lean way over if you have to. And really, really try not to let go of the sled. The dogs won't stop until they get tangled up, and they could get hurt." No runaway stagecoaches: check.

Jason returned from his practice run zigzagging comfortably at twice my speed. We decided that he should drive first.

Next we helped Nikitsilik's guides attach our team to the sled lines. In all, five sleds with eight dogs each were assembled, and as we neared readiness, the barking and howling reached a deafening roar. In fact, Laurie declines tours with children under 10, as they find the wolf-like Huskies and their pre-departure noise too scary.

I, for one, was enchanted, remembering my own very talkative brown hound, who would have turned 15 that week. All the dogs responded to strangers with waggy tails and slobbery kisses; clearly, however, these dogs were extremely eager to pull.

Guest mushers are matched with dog teams according to height, weight, physical ability and fitness level; we had emailed this information in advance. Within each team, dogs are carefully trained and paired according to personality, aptitude, size and gait.

Matt approached with our pair of lead dogs, the ones who listen for voice commands and steer the whole team. "Meet Dorothy and Tin Man. These two are just great; they're brother and sister, always full of energy and very responsive." Tin Man looked up at me and said, distinctly, "Roooooo raaaw rooo?" My heart melted.

Mushy stuff
One by one, our sleds were untethered. The barking promptly ceased and we rocketed down the driveway, our dogs galloping at full tilt. Now it was the humans' turn to make a silly racket. "Good dogs! Good puppies! All right Dorothy! Hike hike Tin Man! Woo hoo!"

A steep downward slope early on presented no problems, and as the terrain levelled out, the dogs settled into a ground-covering trot. The initial excitement eased, and we finally noticed our gorgeous surroundings. The previous night's fresh snow on the banks and boughs sparkled through wisps of mist from the dogs panting. Around every bend, another postcard scene revealed itself, and we hoped to spot some wildlife -- critter tracks criss-crossed the trail everywhere -- but one of the dogs was loudly warning the forest of our approach.

After some time sitting in the sled, I hopped out to run alongside before jumping onto a runner, while Jason hopped into the sled from the opposite side. We left the wide, groomed road for a narrower, hillier trail, and I practised leaning into the turns, skating on the flats and jogging behind the sled on the uphill grades. I tried sneaking a ride up one hill, but five dogs glanced back with unmistakably dirty looks.

Soon I was panting too, invigorated and uplifted. There were plenty of opportunities to coast, so despite my mid-winter fitness slump, I kept up just fine. I shed a layer and traded driving duties and perma-grins with Jason.

 

We glided past frozen lakes with Wild West names like Black Jack and Dead Wood, through snowy pastures and glades of aspen, douglas fir and ponderosa pine. A light snow drifted down, and the blue lenses of my ski goggles gave the peaceful scene an underwater hue. The dogs chugged along in their own zone, ignoring the occasional fleeing bunny. We practised our "On by" just for fun anyway. The muffled calls of other mushers were barely audible across the hushed landscape.

It may have been too relaxing. Or maybe it was because I had been daydreaming about scuba-trekking with a team of trained seals. Without seeing it coming, I lost my balance on a turn and down I went. Remembering Laurie's words, I held on with all my might. For a few seconds, the sled dragged me while I hauled my body forward and got a knee on a runner. Jason was poised to leap out of the sled and take over, and I heard a snowmobile speed up ready to collect me. But once that knee was planted, I simply stood up. No problem. Jason hooted his congratulations and my grin threatened to wrap around my head.

We took a break in a clearing and tethered the sleds to an old cattle fence. Jason and I made the rounds, scratching ears and rubbing bellies, thanking each dog for a job well done. I tossed snowballs to goofy Tin Man, absorbing as much dogma as I could, rethinking my bad attitude about cats. Any pet would be fine, really.

Jason sat down next to mellow Chilco, the strong, silent dog at the back of our team. Their eyes locked and they shared a few silent moments.

Home on the Range
The next day we settled on comfy chairs next the fireplace and snacked on canapés, while we heard the inspiring story of Allyson Rogers, owner, co-host and executive chef of Siwash Lake Ranch. Rogers transformed her life to follow her own four-legged passion -- horses.

As her father Art Rogers (founder of the Canadian chapter of Outward Bound) explained, their family often travelled to BC's central interior during her youth, where she became an experienced rider. Life took her in many directions -- she was a sailboat charter chef, a personal trainer -- but she always dreamed of a home on the range.

She heard fate calling in 1992 when a rancher friend decided to sell her a 32-hectare parcel of land, a wild bit of property with stands of aspen and pine forest abutting a small lake surrounded by 32,000 hectares of pristine Crown Land on which to roam.

The ranch is located in the southern Cariboo in the heart of cowboy country, 40 minutes on gravel roads from 70 Mile House -- one of many former stagecoach stops named for its distance from Lillooet along the historic Gold Rush Trail to Barkerville. It's a scenic 2.5-hour drive from either Kamloops or Williams Lake airports, or 5.5 hours from Vancouver. When you see tumbleweeds, you know you're getting close.

The following year, Allyson moved up to the Cariboo to work on her dream full time, working at other guest ranches and living in a single-wide trailer 30 minutes from her secluded property. "I shocked everybody," she smiles. With two very young children in tow, Allyson set about grading roads and building fences and stables. One horse became two; now there are 21.

"I was a real greenhorn when I started," she recalls, "In this life, you've got to be experienced to be accomplished. It was, at times, a real struggle, but I loved it."

She enlisted her father, a structural engineer and her biggest cheerleader, to help design the two-storey, 650-square-metre ranch house. It's built of ponderosa, jack and white pine, hand-hewn from local trees and sits on a south-facing knoll overlooking picturesque Siwash Lake.

The great room's nine-metre cathedral ceilings soar above an immense river-rock fireplace, around which overstuffed chairs and comfy couches are arranged to encourage story-sharing after a day in the fresh air.

Six large guest rooms, each with its own ensuite bathroom, can accommodate up to 12 guests, and some feature soaker tubs or private balconies. Country antiques and Persian rugs play off frontier-era riding tack, and wildlife paintings to give the ranch a homey yet sophisticated feel.

Siwash Lake Ranch opened its doors to summer guests in 2001, and will be open for its second winter season this year from Christmas to the end of February 2008. In addition to dogsledding, the ranch can book day-long snowmobile excursions, which, combined with ice fishing, makes for another fantastic day in the wilderness with the bonus of pan-fried trout for breakfast the following morning.

The local terrain and extensive trail network is perfect for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating and tobogganing, and they even offer inner-tube rides behind a snowmobile. Days at Siwash Lake Ranch are spent in pursuit of outdoor adventure and evenings in the lap of comfort.

"We offer a unique combination of rustic and refined," says Allyson.

"Yeah" pipes in Roy Grinder, Allyson's partner and ranch co-host. "I'm rustic, and she's refined!"

Roy is the quintessential gentleman cowboy with a gift for making city slickers feel at ease. An accomplished outdoorsman, he's the self-described brawns of the operation. This allows Allyson to focus on management and marketing. Roy's also a certified angling guide, and he now adds dogsledding to his long list of wilderness pursuits.

Allyson's father Art, who visits often to lend a hand, is a treasure of history, wilderness know-how and tales of his own -- and Allyson's -- adventures. Even her pre-teen kids get involved by leading nature walks, collecting chicken eggs and helping with service at mealtimes.

As if she isn't busy enough, Allyson is also the executive chef, and in the winter months she prepares all the meals personally. Whenever possible, dishes emphasize fresh BC products, many grown or raised at the ranch. The grilled halibut with sun-dried-tomato cream reduction was meltingly tender and silky, and the homemade mocha ice-cream pie with hazelnut-truffle cream, garnished with handmade chocolate-ganache horses made us swoon.

It was in the middle of one such dinner that Jason looked up over a feast of garlic-maple spareribs and said: "Okay. Maybe I could see getting a dog one day. If he were like Chilco."

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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