Have you ever experienced something that makes your heart race, your mind sharpen until your vision is crystal clear, and your thoughts go quiet? It is the feeling of something being right for you--and for me, that is dog sledding.
My name is Dayna. I am still relatively new to the staff here at Haliburton Forest, having started in November of last year, but I definitely feel like I have found a place where I can fit in. My family has been connected to the Haliburton area for years now; my parents came to the area for their honeymoon, and then returned years later with my brother and I for a family vacation to go dog sledding and see the wolves at the Wolf Centre.
It was this trip that sparked my love for dogs and wolves alike. My only memory from visiting the Wolf Centre as a 5 year old child is a fond curiosity of the large canines behind the glass. Dog sledding was a different story. Immediately I was in love with the Siberian husky dogs that loved what they were doing, and the feeling of being part of a team (even though I was sitting in a basket and didn’t help much). There was something very satisfying and natural about dog sledding that resonated with me for years to come--so much so that it inspired me to learn all I can about the sport and try it out myself.
In 2017, I came to Haliburton Forest with a musher from Team Canada for the Winter World Championships of Sled Dog Sports (the Olympics of the dog sledding world). I was her handler and had only known the Forest due to the Wolf Centre that I had visited with my family on that original trip, and then again with my mother in 2012. I had never known that Haliburton Forest also offered dog sledding or snowmobiling/ATVing until that visit for the Worlds in 2017. We were only there for four out of the nine days, as the musher only did the short distance races on the first four days, but that experience was very special to me. During the racing season, even after the Worlds were finished, I had the chance to go out with the musher and her dogs on training runs--and I even entered two races with her.
I got a whisper of a feeling, something that ran deep through me and touched a part of me that I did not know was closed off within me. It was something that pushed me to where I am today, working at Haliburton Forest as an outdoor educational staff and guest services receptionist.
Working with teams of 4 to 6 dogs requires focus, attention to detail and calmness. When I am on a dogsled, I am more focused than I ever am in my everyday life. It is as if a lightning bolt runs through me. My thoughts go quiet, everything sharpens into crystal clarity and all the worries in my life just fade into the background. Being part of a team requires being present, being aware and being alert. When you are out on a sled, it is time to pause, take a look around and immerse yourself in the wilderness around you--you may even make a special memory that will last you a lifetime.
That’s what I love about my job. I love watching people make those special memories and get to know their team by the way they work together. I love seeing how happy and excited the dogs get when it’s time to run; their enthusiasm is deafening.
I love watching how the team grows and changes together with the people who run with them. Like watching Roomba, one of the 6 dogs in his first year of running last year, discover his confidence. Going from a confused and unsure puppy who pranced like a deer down the trail and looked over his shoulder constantly for reassurance, to a proud and determined dog with lots of potential to be a spectacular sled dog as he grows older.
I love watching all the dogs’ unique personalities shine through on the trails and in the yard, and I love watching certain dogs win over clients who have never met them before. One of my favourite questions to ask people after a tour is “Who is your favorite dog?” And watching the answers vary. Niles gives the best hugs, Minna is everyone’s friend and wins them over with a signature move of putting her paw on their leg to prevent them from leaving, Porsche is a pretty girl with a cheeky personality to match, Quest has a way of challenging people to learn more about patience (he does a complete 180 from how he acts on the sled to how he acts in the yard), and the list goes on. There is a dog here for whatever mood you’re in.
Dog sledding is the type of experience you could do one hundred different times and get one hundred different results. Some runs are so quick that you could blink and they will be over. Some runs, it feels like time has stopped and you have been transported to a time and place beyond earthly measures—something that borders on magical. There are no two runs that are ever the same, and each one is unique and will leave a mark on you and your family that you get to share for forever. Just you, your family and a team of Siberian huskies making your way through acres of woods and snow.
As the hit Canadian musical, Come From Away, so eloquently says it:
“Somewhere in the middle of nowhere/In the middle of who knows where/There you’ll find/Something in the middle of nowhere/In the middle of clear blue air/You found your heart but left a part of you behind.”
My name is Dayna, and this is my dog sledding story. What will yours be?