Donning a distinctive tattoo of the word ‘musher’, dog sledding aficionado Dave Daley lovingly strokes one of his dogs, who in return beams with glee and respect.
Musher is the word for the leader of a sled dog pack and, as Dave explains, taking on this role is no easy task.
Getting around 20 rowdy dogs to listen to you and obey your every order takes a lot of patience and know-how.
But 49-year-old Dave, who runs aboriginal dog sled tours at Wapusk Adventures in Churchill – Canada’s arctic north in Manitoba – has a lifetime of experience in this field.
He founded the Hudson Bay Quest in 2004 – a 400km dog sled race from Gillam to Churchill that is designed to celebrate arctic life and the sled dog culture.
Every March, teams from across North America, which includes members from Inuit communities, are invited to take on this challenge.
Dave and his wife Valerie have an aboriginal heritage, descending from the Métis people – a mixed race of First Nations and French.
“We are proud of our Métis heritage and proud of living ‘up north’,” said Dave.
“This extends throughout our work at Wapusk Adventures and is part of the reason we do our best to give visitors a little glimpse of the traditional and the modern trapper lifestyle.”
What does it take to be a musher?
“You have to be a lot of things to be a dog musher,” said Dave.
“These dogs are athletes. I have to be a vet, a dog psychologist. You really have to know your dogs and get inside their heads.
“You need to be a physiotherapist and know how to rehabilitate dogs.”
Dave proceeds to give a striking white, blue-eyed dog a massage.
This allows him to carry out vital regular health checks and this lovely canine is evidently putty in his hands.
As somebody who grew up with cats, that are independent animals, I have always been fascinated by the loyalty dogs can show for their owners.
But what I witnessed was taking things to a different level. These dogs were completely in awe of their leader.
Dave was the ‘big dog’ in the pack and all his dogs desired to do was be picked as one of the five that would get to drive the sled.
Summer dog sledding…
When the time came for each of our group to have a ride, all of the dogs jumped up and barked loudly, longing to be selected.
Each dog has their strengths, with some doing better running on the left side or the right, and a few standing out as the best ones to place as the front runner.
When it was my turn, the dogs were itching to get going before time and when they were finally released they launched forward with a jolt and began running frantically.
It was a thrilling and enjoyable ride experiencing this stereotypical winter activity during the summer.
But, despite it being relatively cool so far north, Dave explained that this was boiling hot weather for the dogs whose thick coats are designed for sub-zero arctic temperatures.
Each dog was checked over throughly after completing a run, to ensure that they were not ailing in the heat.
If there were any small signs of fatigue, a new dog was brought in.
“These dogs would run to the death for me,” Dave explained.
But he evidently goes to great lengths to ensure they are kept in peak health.
“Everything we have goes to the dogs,” he said.
“We work hard to make sure they have a good life and that we offer the best product we can.”
The heartache of losing dogs
He glances over at a poster located on the wall, featuring a picture of himself and a former dog sled team from a decade a go.
“These have all gone now,” he said solemnly.
These dogs clearly hold a place in his heart and he considers them to be members of his family.
“There are times when I feel like giving it all up when I lose a dog,” he added.
The next generation of sled dogs
The next generation of sled dogs are always in the running. The dogs are actually mutts, but are known as northern huskies.
When we visited, several puppies were there to greet us. They were of course absolutely adorable and lapped up all of the extra hugs we gave them.
By the way, the strange top I am wearing in the picture below is actually a bug jacket. Not too fashionable, but it kept the mozzies off me. I tend to react badly to certain insect bites, so kept this on as much as possible and doused any exposed skin with 30 per cent deet insect repellent.
The dog sledding experience with Wapusk Adventures was part of a week-long sponsored trip on Frontier North Adventures’ Big Five Safari in Manitoba. All views are my own.
Have you ever been dog sledding or would you like to?