Mark and April Hilland were surprised when Mark was transferred to Fort St. James with the RCMP, but they approached it as an adventure.
In May of 2012, Mark moved north, and in July, after finishing the teaching year, April joined him with their two and a half-year-old daughter Piper.
The young family was from Maple Ridge, and it was the first northern place they had lived, which she said gave them opportunities they would never have had in the Lower Mainland, or which would have been much more expensive.
“It wasn’t really a question of whether or not to make the most of those,” she said. “And a bit of it to prove to our friends back home it really is just as fun up here as it is back in the Lower Mainland – maybe even more so.”
So on Jan. 6, April and Piper got a real taste of the north and a somewhat unique northern experience.
On the suggestion of Mel Chesnutt, whose daughter Maya had received a dog sled tour as a gift from her family in Ontario for Christmas, April and Piper decided to join Mel and Maya, and book a sled dog tour of their own for the same day.
While she had heard about the Caledonia Classic Sled Dog Races in February, Hilland had not known it was possible to hire a local musher to take a sled dog tour.
“I knew I wanted to see the dog sledding, I didn’t know we’d be afforded the opportunity to go on a dog sled ride,” she said.
The ride, which started out in Cottonwood Park, began with a full introduction to the dog team, and mushers Craig Houghton and Jerry Joinson talked about the teams as extended parts of their families and some of the training they do.
“The dogs were just beautiful,” said Hilland, who had expected the more traditional husky sled dog look, and was surprised by how small and slim the dogs looked, but how strong they were.
HIlland said she heard stories from Houghton and Joinson about races and one in which Joinson had gotten lost in the fog, turning what should have been a seven-hour race into a 14-hour race instead.
The sleds themselves had just enough room for an adult and a toddler, and the two mothers and their young daughters were wrapped in blankets before they set out onto Stuart Lake.
The tour went along the lake, as far out as Big Bay and onto land there for part of it, past islands on the lake, an experience which made an impression on Hilland.
“It was awesome because in the summer we didn’t get out on the lake at all,” she said. “It was beautiful.”
While the lake was fogged in when they left, the fog had lifted not long after they set out, giving a better view of the scenery.
With the temperature around minus seven for the day, the conditions were pretty good, if perhaps a bit warm for the dogs, which are used to even colder and they are working hard for the two and a half hours the group was out. Hilland said she was impressed by the exuberance of the dogs.
“It really is just as much fun for the dogs as us I think,” she said. “It’s obvious these animals were bred for it and they love it.”
Another surprise with the dogs, according to Hilland, is as they run, their digestive systems get working, and clear themselves out, which meant there was also a lot of doggy doo, but it did not detract from things a whole bunch, as she said they could not smell it much in their sled and the dogs in their team generally did not ski a beat from it, and just kept on running.
She said it was impressive how the dogs would open their mouths and scoop snow as they ran too.
And while the long ride got a bit cold after awhile, and Piper did shed a few tears on the trip, she also enjoyed the bumpy parts, and Hilland said the sled even caught a little air in some places.
Piper even fell asleep on the smooth part on the way back.
“This is a girl that doesn’t fall asleep easily,” said Hilland about her daughter. “Something about the fresh air.”
Afterwards, Piper and Maya were exchanging stories about the dogs, and kept talking about the experience.
Hilland said she has been telling her friends and family in the Lower Mainland about the trip, and would recommend it, with the one caveat being to dress very warmly and for parents to ask for a shorter trip for younger children “because two hours is a long time for wee ones to sit still.”
The sled dog trips are done by local mushers as a fundraiser for the Caledonia Classic Sled Dog Races. For information contact Craig