One Word for a Cool Vacation: Mush!

For a rugged break, try dogsledding

Facedown in a snowbank with a clump of ice wedged under my sunglasses and another fistful melting down my back, I considered that maybe my fantasy vacation had gone awry. Centrifugal force and a poor sense of balance had sent me airborne from a sled pulled by seven harnessed huskies on a tear. A sharp left turn and--bingo--there I was in a state of frozen animation.

I chose to make this trip to Canada in February and subject myself to subzero temperatures and the rugged outdoors. It's probably the last thing most people would think of as an ideal escape from the dead of a New York City winter. But for me, a dream vacation is part adventure, part royal treatment: I would spend my days playing dog musher and my nights relaxing in the comfort of the five-star Manoir Richelieu, a 100-year-old luxury hotel managed by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.

My arctic escapade began with a scenic two-hour drive northeast along the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City, which has the nearest commercial airport, to the city of Les Eboulements (population 1,013). In summer, the river attracts whale watchers and shipwreck divers in search of hundreds of sunken vessels dating back to the 1700s. Others flock to the coastal town of Sainte Anne, where the Virgin Mary's mother is said to have saved sailors from drowning. I was headed to Charlevoix, a 3,700-square-mile region named after a French Jesuit priest who made the same trek 300 years ago. Framed by the Laurentian and other mountain ranges, Charlevoix is said to be the earth's oldest landform. It was formed by a meteor that struck 350 million years ago. Inuit, or Canadian Eskimos, call this home. Dogsledders call it heaven.

Of the many local dogsledding outfitters, I chose Le Chenil du Sportif (table). A family-run operation, it takes about 500 people on such treks during the season that runs from Dec. 15 through Mar. 31. Mushers travel as many as 40 miles a day, moving at an average six miles an hour through boreal fir and cedar forests, though some downhill speeds hit up to 20 mph. Trips range from a few hours to 10-day adventures.

HOWLING DOGS. As a first-time musher, I learned that while only 5 to 15 dogs may be chosen to pull a sled, all 80 of the kennel's dogs want to go. The howling won't stop until you're in the woods and out of sight. In the meantime, we packed the essentials for our day-long trip: a first-aid kit, matches, water, sunscreen, and an ax. The ax would come in handy for clearing the path of logs and branches, as well as to make fire kindling.

Then came the business of partnering huskies two by two, much like matching dance partners. Some dogs will show interest in what's happening behind them, rather than what's ahead, which isn't good. Pairing two rival males doesn't work either, I discovered, especially when the lead dog is in heat, though the guide thought there was some initial logic to the arrangement.

Next, I had to get used to my dog-mushing attire. Since it's akin to a space suit, I thought I'd be lucky just to master the art of walking. In short order, I found out I had to run, too: Dogs don't pull you uphill. That's to preserve the crew's energy for those long-distance treks. So, I would run alongside the 8-foot sled when told, until I'd lose my footing in a thigh-high sinkhole and wind up face-first in the snow--again.

With dog mushers, balance is everything. That's no easy feat when you consider that your size 7 1/2 feet now reside in King Kong-like, size 12 snowboots (the bigger the better when it comes to warmth). With clodhopper feet, I was required to "drive" by planting each foot on a two-inch wooden strip that juts out of the sled's backside. You're trying to execute this balancing act as you're whistling along at top speed through a four-foot-wide trail with little wiggle room on either side. The trick is to alternate lifting one foot or the other so you can use it to hit a "brake" of metal spikes when turning corners. When you're not driving, you're sitting in the front of the sled with a dog's-eye view and a feeling that you're careening down a mountain on a luge.

TURNING ON A DIME. My guide was Jerome Lebreton, 26. A transplant from near Bordeaux, France, he knows this vast forest well after seven years of mushing. He's as tuned in to his dogs' moods as they are to his, and with a single command and a stern voice, he can change the sled's direction on a dime. Norton, a boxerlike, beige mutt, likes to dillydally. Malek, an older dog, pulls uphill but tends to get lazy in a flat-surfaced trot. Jack, if you mistakenly hitch him on the left, will work his way under the center guide rope and nudge the right-side dog into snowbanks. While the command "mush!" is common, you'll undoubtedly start your dog engines with a short whistle until you can speak their language. A typical conversation goes something like this: "Ha! Oui! Bon les chiens!" ("Turn Right! Yes! Good Dogs!").

At some point, after the shock of the cold and hard work subsided, something clicked. It was magic the way the team carried us silently across an untouched wilderness, pure and white. "The dogs are a way to get in the woods," Lebreton said. "You are here to enjoy the landscape." Even a lunch of sloppy joes and Wonder bread seemed glorious.

I'm a city girl born and bred, so at the end of the day, I have to admit, I was ready for the swanky Manoir Richelieu. Frequented by wealthy East Coast types, including descendants of President William H. Taft, who still own a home nearby, the resort and casino offers herbal spa treatments, outdoor heated salt-water pools, sleigh rides, cross-country skiing, and ice skating. I took full advantage of the first-class regional dinner selections, which included grilled lamb and blue potatoes, and took in some ice-fishing. But I passed on most other activities. After a long day of mushing, I was just too dog-tired. k

By Mara Der Hovanesian

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