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Monday, March 19, 2018

Dogsledding in Banff with Kingmik

We all have that bucket list sitting somewhere in the back of our brains, or on that scrap of paper tucked into their desk. Mine is sort of a mixture of these, stored on a drafted blog post, written down on that piece of paper tucked into my desk drawer, and always growing in the back of my brain. On that list you'll see experiences like - dive the barrier reef- go on a hot air balloon ride - and - dogsled. I rang in my 30th birthday knocking one of those items off my list, dogsledding through a snowy white tundra. And if you are going to dogsled anywhere, you might as well do it in Canada, through Banff National Park. And heck, why not the day you turn 30. 

Once I had my heart set on sledding into 30, I didn't want to just go anywhere or with any company.   I wanted amazing scenery, history, and a company known for their reputation and care of their dogs.  I did a lot of research which led me to three main companies in the Banff area: Snowy Owl, Howling Dog, and Kingmik. 

Snowy Owl advertised being the most reasonably priced and Howling Dog seemed fine but really sold the experience outside of the dogs (snacks at the half way point, romantic vs adventurer, etc etc).   Their reviews were good but I wanted a company that had amazing reviews, really focused on their dogs, followed a scenic route, and I didn't need frills.  Kingmik was the only company operating in Banff National Park, and the dogs took us down the old Canada Highway to the Continental Divide where we rode into the next Province, British Columbia.  What really sold me were the reviews I read but more importantly, the responses made by the company to various comments and complaints. The owner took the time to respond to nearly every negative review on why things they way they were.  Your tour was cut short because you showed up late?  Thats because the company had to use  different shorter route as you can't turn around a dog sled team on narrow trails.  And so on.  They were also the most expensive company  of the three and I really liked everything I read from raving reviews to see great website. I committed and booked my tour a month in advance  and I was excited to join them on my dog sledding adventure. 

Kingmik has 90 dogs and 11 full time dog mushers. Every sled is guided with no more than 2 (3 if there is a small child) people which amounts to a guest to guide ratio of 2:1, and Kingmik runs no more than 5 sleds per tour time. 

The guide on my tour, Marc, is a professional guide, guiding dog sled tours in Banff, polar bear tours in Churchill Manitoba, or leading expeditions in Svalbard and Greenland.  This guy must really love the cold.  His love for the dogs, for the outdoors, and for Canada was apparent and I really enjoyed asking him 6 million questions about dog sledding in Canada.  We watched him in action, guiding our team, and even got a chance to stand on the back of the sled to see the "Gee" and "Ha" in action (secret musher words for left or right for the dogs). 

What do these pups do when the snow melts and the grass grows?  From end of April to end of November they return to their summer kennel, a 25 acre piece of land in central BC loaded with trails and lakes. I loved the photos of the dogs enjoying the summer off on their oasis. 

The dogs on the team were all insanely excited, and no two looked exactly alike.  According to their website, some have completed the 1000 mile Yukon Quest or Iditarod, and some are rescue dogs who have been given a second chance.  Best yet, some of the dogs are both. When dogs do leave Kingmik, it is into an adoptable home when they decide to retire. The older dogs that do not get adopted live out their lives at the summer compound or wind up in a well suited home. Yes you read that right, you can adopt these beauties when they decide they no longer want to get in their harness.  You can believe I was already scheming. 

An Alaskan Husky is technically a mutt, as they are not recognized by any kennel club as an established breed of dog.  They are not bred for looks but instead are bred for that athleticism.   The Alaksan Husky is a product of cross-breeding of multiple other breeds to create the best working dog possible.  Huskies resemble Siberian Huskies in appearance but alaskan huskies are generally larger and leaner than the similar looking Siberian. 

Video of my trip with Kingmik

I booked the Great Divide Tour, their most popular tour offered.  It travels a full 16 km (10 miles) from Banff National Park to Yoho National Park through the Kicking Horse Pass at the Continental Divide.  On the return journey your guide will teach you the basics and encourage you to mush your team home.  The tour runs about 1.5 hours and the costs depends on when you book.  My trip cost $345 for two people on a holiday weekend in February.  

I pulled up to the meeting point by Lake Louise 20 minutes early to check in and spend some time watching the whole operation.  The team from the last tour was being fed and watered, and put back in the truck for their nap while the second team went out to play.   It was insanely adorable to see the happy dogs who just ran gulping down their dinner and eager to jump into their section of the truck to nap.  

Note: This is also a popular trailhead for cross country skiers and snowshoers and there was a large parking lot and bathroom. 

We had a chance to pet and play with the dogs who were very social and loved the attention and pets.  We watched the dogs getting in and out of harness, getting their boots on, and getting hooked up to the sled.  The moment they all got hooked up to the sled was when the real "chorus" began.  The yelping, the howling, and the excitement from these dogs was hard not to smile about.  Their job was pulling that sled and it was very clear they loved their job.  Everyone was hooked up, everyone started howling, and we were packed into our burrito sled and sleeping bag, nice and warm.  With a quick command and a release of the brake (yep, these sleds have a brake), we were off.  The chaos instantly dissipated and it was completely quiet, the only sound being the runners of the sled across the snow. 

There is something so hard to describe about this experience. There is something magical about being in the woods of Banff, so quiet with so much snow behind a dog sled team.  We sled off down the groomed trail, with our trail of dogs pulling the sled with what appeared to look  like ease.  Itas a winter wonderland down the old Canadian Highway, sledding along until we reached the Continental Divide, and across the border from one province into the next, leaving Alberta to take our sled into British Columbia. Seven dogs pulling three humans and one sled through the most beautiful winter scenery.

After turning around in a wide section of the trail after the Great Divide, we stopped to take turns jumping on the back of the sled with the musher.  Be warned, it is much colder back here but the view and the experience on the back of the sled is worth it.  After getting back into the sled, we took the dogs through a section of woods where the scenery changed again, on a narrow trail through the beautiful woods of Banff.  

Back at the trailhead, we gave the dogs some extra love, and some raw meat snacks before they were taken out of their harness and were loaded back onto the truck for the drive home. We said farewell for the dogs and heated to the Fairmont to warm up inside with a coffee and a brownie.   I feel incredibly lucky that I could spend my 30th birthday in somewhere as beautiful as Banff, doing something as unique and dog sledding through one of the most beautiful National Parks I have ever seen.  

I highly recommend the experience of Dogsledding but urge you to do your research. We had a great experience with Kingmik and I would highly recommend this operation if you find yourself in Banff on a snowy winter day. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Johnston Canyon Winter Hike - Banff, Canada

Hiking in winter takes a little more prep and planning - but with the right gear and the right attitude, it is worth the extra layers and (in this case) sub zero temperatures.  Not only is this canyon worth the scenic drive, but you get to enjoy one of Banff's most famous hikes without the crowds of summer.  More gear, less people, and a whole different perspective of Canada - a winter hike to Johnston Canyon is a must do when visiting Banff. 

Johnston Canyon takes winter travelers down a snowy trail with iced canyon walls and frozen waterfalls.  A 20-minute walk (1/2 mile) will take you to the lower falls and if you have the time, another 25 minutes  (for a 45 minute total with a one way trek of 1.5 miles from the start) to the upper falls (elevation gain of 120 meters) one way.   The trail is well maintained and marked, and follows a steel catwalk and raised trail through the canyon.  There are several lookout areas, benches, and various signage along the trail with information about the canyon and this unique environment.  You will follow Johnston Canyon Creek which runs its course through the canyon, mostly frozen, and exposed in certain spots.  

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Winter Summit of Mount Moosilauke via Beaver Brook - New Hampshire (guest post)

I am almost done posting about Banff.  I have a few posts left including an ice walk through Johnston Canyon and my birthday dog sledding.  While I finish off those post, I have a special winter treat for all you lovely readers.  We are in the middle of March and the snow keeps coming.  So today's post is a guest post, inspiring you all to get out there to those snowy summits.  Today's guest post is someone who is out there tackling real winter hikes in New Hampshire's 4,000 footers.  Let's let Chris take it from here.  

My alarm went off at 3am. If this January morning were a Tuesday, and work was on the other end of getting out of bed and into the car, then the scenario would have been about 5-6 hits of the snooze button. But today was a Saturday, and an unchecked summit on my list of New Hampshire’s 4,000ft peaks was calling my name (eleven down). After a final gear check, reheat of the breakfast I pre-made the night before, and a pot of coffee brewed for the road, I was in the car by 3:45am and off. Four hours of driving later and I was at Beaver Brook Trailhead where I had chosen to start my hike up Mount Moosilauke. There was no overwhelming reason I landed on Moosilauke for that day other than it’s a single peak with no others around I would feel guilty not bagging, it’s not a technical peak to bag in winter, and on this day with wind predicted to be 55mph at elevation, it had less time exposed above treeline than others.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Winter on Lake Louise - Banff, Canada

Are you sick of me talking about Lake Louise yet?  You could say I am a little obsessed with this part of the world, tucked away in Alberta.  So far I've talked about Lake Louise Ski Resort and even a hike/snowshoe which starts at the Chateau and takes you above the lake to smaller Mirror Lake with the Big Beehive looming behind.   This post is just going to be a general overview of the lake because a) I am so smitten with this area and b) I have so many gorgeous pictures I want to share with you all.  

Lake Louise is located just off the Trans Canada Highway (Highway 1).  You've probably seen this famous lake on your favorite travel channel or have seen the stunning photos of this turquoise lake on Instagram.  As amazing as these photos are, a trip to Lake Louise is something to experience for yourself.  It sort of stands alone in a secluded area, with the luxury hotel the only thing on the lake's shore.  The charm of Lake Louise in the winter time is hard to entirely capture as you need to see the detailed ice castle, figure skaters, open fires, ice bar, horse-drawn sleigh rides and snowshoe trails for yourself - all while the opera plays on the speakers heard across the lake of course.   Visit after Januarys Ice Magic Festival and you get to enjoy all the amazing ice carvings in front of the lake as well.  

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Snowshoe Lake Louise - Lake Agnes Trail to Mirror Lake - Banff, Canada

Frozen Mirror Lake with Big Beehive in the background

Want to snowshoe to a beautiful frozen lake with a beautiful beehive shaped mountain looming in the background?  Do you enjoy a quiet trail where you will see no one - just the sound of your snowshoes traversing through the snow, deep in the woods, on a well marked trail?   I know just the trail for you.  A winter hike to the Big Beehive and Mirror Lake will take you through the woods high above the lake, granting you a great workout, solitude, and in February in Banff, plenty of snow.