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Hold On Tight! Dog Sledding In The French Alps

Skiing isn't the only winter sporting activity that can give you snow, speed and the beauty of nature. Follow an amateur in France as he tries to harness the wild icy power of dog sledding.

Dog sledding in Sainte Marie in the French Alps
Dog sledding in Sainte Marie in the French Alps
Martine Picouët

BESSANS — They’re jumping, yapping, barking, rolling around in the fresh snow, pulling on the tow-rope, ready to go: London, Kimi, Expresso and Irka, three Huskies and one Alaskan, hop up and down impatiently on the side of the tracks. At the head of the convoy, London, promoted to lead dog, and Kimi, harnessed to his side, are particularly excited. Behind them, right in front of the sled, Expresso and Irka are attempting to force the vehicle into setting off.

And there is me, standing behind the sled, alone with the four dogs, both feet on the brakes, hands on the handlebar, I wait nervously for the start signal. Will the start look like those first water-skiing attempts of my youth? A few minutes to go, the harnesses and sled still need a final check, and then there is no turning back.

Ready, steady, go

In pole position, the ten-dog team and their two mushers in charge of initiating us to the sport of dog sledding, closely followed by us two beginners, each at the head of a four-dog team. A total of 18 dogs set off onto the Bessans plateau, in the French Alps. They charge along the track, ignoring the cries and inopportune attempts to slow down made by the amateur driver, alone at the reins.

Christophe Caron, founder of Husky Adventure, had warned us: “In general, the dogs do the exact opposite of what we would like them to do. They start fairly quickly and return fairly slowly.”

I quickly try to remember the advice both Christophe and musher Christian Pelwitz had given us before we set off: put your feet into a “v” on the skates, bend your legs when going downhill or around a bend, and hold the handlebar like a car steering-wheel to avoid flying off backwards.

And the brakes? They must be handled gently. “Right before you set off, the dogs will get excited so you’ll need to have both feet on the brakes to prevent them from taking off without us,” Christian explained to us complete beginners, trying to remember every piece of advice. “Then, once we set off, you’ll need to keep one leg on the skate; the other one will operate the brake. So you’ll have to be able to transfer your weight.” A bit like skiing, I tell myself for comfort. That, I can do.

The last recommendation before departure is, in case of a fall, never let go of the sled. “The dogs will not turn back to come and get you,” Christophe says. “First, the dogs will stop for 5 or 10 seconds, until they get excited and set off again. You fall, they leave.”

We were warned! Promise, we’ll hold on tight.

Photo by camdjardins via Instagram

Here comes the first bend and downhill slope — the tow-rope must remain taut or the sled will be impossible to maneuver, Christophe said several times. Sleds move quickly on snow.

Dogs obey their master

My balance is still a bit unstable but, gradually, my stress decreases. The mushers were right, after the first 10 or 15 minutes, the dogs calm down and, little by little, a certain connivance settles in. “The dogs and the driver form a team that will react according to you, whatever the level, even you’re a beginner,” said Christian, before setting off. “So you must remember to communicate with the dogs, say stop, right, left… warn them what you’re going to do. It is important to know that the dog doesn’t obey a simple order; he obeys to please you. There must be a sort of symbiosis between the musher and the dog.”

Slowly, my body loosens up; my grip isn’t so tight on the handlebar anymore. My eyes, which were fixated on the dogs until now, are now looking further away, at the first sled, superb with its 10 dogs, tawny, white and flecked with grey, and then further upwards. Behind the forest of larches surrounding the track, the Albaron and the Ciamarella — both big and small — the summits that surround Bessans, and further away, Bonneval and the Iseran mountain pass.

Snowy surprise

Deserted when we arrived, the snowy area is now livening up. The first snow fell early, at the start of November, but we had to wait until the end of the year to see good snow, suitable for skiing and dog-sledding. Cross-country skiers and athletes on the French biathlon team have reached the plateau and put on their skis to resume training. Their long svelte bodies seem to only brush the snow with their narrow skis. A little further, on the track reserved for pulkas (small, flat sleds harnessed to a skier and towed by dogs), a skier with a dog salutes us.

But the trailer where the dogs are waiting for us is already in sight. The adventure is coming to an end, well, almost. After 7 kilometers on-track, the mushers have a surprise for us: A finish on fresh, unblemished powder snow. The pleasure of making one’s own track in the snow, gently sledding downhill with the dogs, who are happy and eager to cool down in fresh snow, and the muffled silence, is reminiscent of past times spent skiing down untouched slopes. It is the icing on the cake for us.

So when the sled finally stops, there is only one wish in mind: Keep on going, come back tomorrow, discover more trails, try tighter bends, steeper slopes and, one day maybe, set off on a two-day trek around the Mont-Cenis lake and spend a night in a hut.

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