There’s more than just skiing at Big White
By Amy Whitley
Photo at right: Big White dog sled trip – And, they’re off! Enthusiastic dogs pull a sled through the forest during a Big White Sled Tour. Photo by Amy Whitley
The first thing I did after I arrived at Big White Dog Sled Tours in the heart of the Okanagan range above Kelowna BC was greet 30 plus wagging, yelping, enthusiastic dogs. The second thing I did was toss everything I thought I knew about dog sledding out the window.
Sled dogs need to be big and muscular, I’d thought. Nope. Dog teams are all huskies or malamutes, and they’re aggressive and half-wild. Not in this case.
The lead dog during our sledding tour was a petite, gentle mixed breed named Shiloh. She only came up to about my knee but brought an impressive resume to the table: Shiloh pulled an Iditarod sled across Alaska for years before arriving in what musher and Big White Sled Tours owner Tim Tedford calls “sled-dog heaven.” I’d call it a permanent vacation (and envy Shiloh and her team more than a little).
I also had to check my assumptions about sled-dog mushers. From the moment my mother (my partner for the day) and I met Tim, it was clear that he cared as much about educating guests on sled-dog culture and care as he did about showing us a good time.
He explained the kinesiology of sled dogs, and the science that goes into forming a productive, happy team. Watching him select the eight dogs that would pull our sled for the afternoon was fascinating (even if we couldn’t hear ourselves think over the din of the excited, yelping dogs).
Tim explained everything he was doing as he prepared the team, from dog selection (written on a list he produced from his pocket, setting all the dogs to joyful hysterics) to harnessing, to why he places each dog where it’s situated on the line.
We got into the sled while he harnessed the last two dogs, by which time each animal was straining at the ropes, eager to depart. Their pure joy of doing what they do — pull across the snow — was contagious: as we took off, I was grinning ear-to-ear myself.
On the trail
As loudly as the dogs had been barking pre-departure, once on the trail, they fell silent. (Another assumption corrected.) Focused on their task, their speed was exhilarating, the corners they rounded exciting and the scenery breathtaking as we slid through the 5-kilometer course. I’m pretty sure we were all in dog heaven by this point.
At about the mid-point of the tour, Tim slowed and stopped the dogs to give my mother and I each a turn “at the wheel.”
I won’t lie: at first, it was intimidating. There are no reigns to hold, no brake to press once the team starts out (other than a heavy safety hook stored in the sled to serve as an emergency anchor). Bottom line: there’s no way to stop the dogs from doing what they love to do best… run.
It comes down to trust between man (or woman) and dog, and I believe that’s what makes dog sledding such a beautiful sport. With Tim on the runners next to me, I just held on and braced for departure. I needn’t have worried, as the dogs knew exactly what to do.
We sailed over the snow, the dogs a seamless unit. Even though they were running what sled dogs would consider a short jaunt through the woods, I felt tremendous respect for them.
They all had a story: Sparky was named for a local wildfire that ravaged the region during the summer of his birth (he has three sisters: Smoke, Ash and Blaze), another raced completely blind, harnessed next to his biological brother for security and guidance. Each dog earned his or her praise at the end of our run, and each wasted no time gobbling up the frozen meat snack offered in reward.
What sets the Big White dog sled tour apart from others is the education we received, and the obvious devotion Tim has for his animals. We came away from the experience with a greater respect for this species, this sport and the humane people who give it the heart it has.
Amy Whitley of Medford, Ore., writes about her family adventures in her NW Kids column every edition in OutdoorsNW. Her usual canine companions, a chocolate lab and a shepherd mix, cannot be coaxed to pull her on a sled.
Know before you book
- Each sled has a weight limit of 340 pounds, so depending on your family, you might need more than one sled. Up to two can depart together. (For reference, my mom and I, two average-sized adults, could easily fit in one sled.) If you have a larger group, bear in mind that you may need to stagger your start times, though you could all enjoy the dogs at the kennel together. Kids as young as 3 are welcome (and will have a great time).
- Remember to wear ski gear (snow pants, warm gloves, jacket and googles) as well as a hat and snow boots.
- Costs range from $170-195 per sled for the tour.
- It’s about 350 miles from Seattle to Big White Ski Resort.
More info and a fun video: www.bigwhite.com/events-and-activities/adventure-winter-activities/dog-sled-tours