Travel: One woman and her dogs

Christine Campbell travelled across the frozen Canadian wilderness by the same means as the first pioneers - with snow-shoes, skis and a team of badly behaved huskies
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The Independent Culture
"WHOA, KAWNIS! Whoa, Pacquin!" Our instructor had said: "Control of the dogs is by voice." My team of four Siberian huskies, however, hurtled along a path of their own, oblivious to every command. We were at the end of a 15km dog-sledding trek, and our guide Chris, in the sled directly ahead of mine, was taking the shortest route diagonally across an open clearing back to the kennels. My dogs were having none of it. With one mind they swerved left, and joyfully proceeded to run the full sweep of the clearing - followed by all the other teams.

The "Footsteps of the Pioneers" trip was designed to give a taste of the Canadian winter outdoors, and this was a moment of full-velocity pleasure at the end of a three-day excursion into the Algonquin wilderness.

Five of us had left a very wet Toronto two days previously for the four- hour drive north. The plan was to follow in the snowy footsteps of northern native peoples, using techniques adopted by early European settlers. In the warmth of the van, Angie, our driver, described the activities planned for each day: snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, and dog-sledding.

We turned off the main road for the last 10km of our journey, driving over snow and ice-covered dirt-tracks to the cabin which would be our base. This was sufficiently off the beaten track to be without electricity, so there was no hot water, all lighting was by kerosene and paraffin lamps, and water was pumped up from the lake through holes in the ice. But wood- burning stoves and the kitchen range made it ideal for defrosting after the activities Angie and her partner in cold, Scott, had in store for us.

The first day we snow-shoed. Made of ash and often laced with moose hide, the shoes allow you to walk on soft snow without sinking; it took a few minutes of awkward shuffling and tripping over to get used to them, but we soon established a rhythm and headed into the woods north of the lodge. A swathe of boreal forest traverses Ontario and is home to an abundance of animals.

At first, our laughter must have warned the wildlife off, but soon we were silenced by the stillness and beauty of the forest, and snow-shoed quietly through the fresh snow - thigh-deep in places - for several miles. Approaching a beaver dam in the evening darkness, we heard the splash of a beaver by the riverbank, and found a six-foot pine tree lying across the path: it had obviously just been gnawed down and was being dragged to the dam. When we skiied past the next morning, the job had been completed.

The third day's dog-sledding was the highlight of the trip. Leaving early, we drove to Raven's Watch, a 70-dog kennel. The noise was deafening. The dogs were already in teams of four, harnessed in ganglines, and desperate to run. These were Siberian huskies, graceful and intelligent dogs with erect ears and a dense, soft coat. One person per sled, four dogs per person, with a guide in front and behind us.

The first few minutes were dizzyingly fast, and in the adrenalin rush I clung on tightly and tried to remember any of what I'd just been taught. At this point, the dogs were merely intent on catching up with the team in front, allowing me time to remember to keep breathing, and find a comfortable position on the runners.

We spent an exhilarating few hours mushing along snow-covered trails, gaining confidence in commanding our teams as we took corners with a cry of "gee" or "haw". Going uphill we jumped off and ran with the sled in order to relieve the weight for the dogs, then a few seconds later we were back on board, hunched down on the brake and trying to slow down so that the same sled wouldn't catch the hind legs of the dogs as we sped downhill.

On the last evening, we took a moonlit trip out to an island near the centre of the frozen lake, some on skis, some on snowshoes. An almost full moon in a cloudless and starry sky reflected off the snow, and I stayed outside long after the others had gone back, listening to the water flowing from the beaver dam a mile or so away, and watching the moon sink below the treeline.

Christine Campbell paid C$395 (pounds 160) for the three-day trip, including food, accommodation and travel from Toronto, through Voyager Quest (001 416 486 3605)

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