Welcome to the first installment of ICONS: A series of stories exploring the locals who make Banff National Park exceptional. Read about a life with dogs: Megan Routley, Kingmik Dog Sled Tours.
It starts with a few small barks.
Somewhere in the back of the bunch an Alaskan Huskie with black fur and piercing blue eyes cues the pack.
The sound continues to swell as the other teams join in the symphony of howls.
As we climb into the sled - tucked into a giant puffy sleeping bag - a cacophony of sound and excitement fills the air.
Megan Routley tightens her grip on the handle of her sled, aptly wrapped in hockey tape patterned with Canadian flags.
The she lifts her brake from the snow and her team takes off.
Only the rhythmic breathing of 9 Alaskan Huskies and the beating sound of their paws against the snow echos across the trail.
“Once the dogs take off, it’s very quiet. It’s quite a surprise because they’re yelling their heads off and once you hit the trail it’s beautiful and peaceful. I often have people who don’t even want to talk in the sled, they want to just absorb the silence.” says Megan.
We are dogsledding - A quintessential Canadian activity that, Megan will remind you, was just as crucial to the early days of Banff National Park as our iconic railroads.
A pair of cross-country skiers whizz by when the team, led by Viper, makes a left turn into a small trail tucked into the trees.
“We call this place ‘Narnia’”, says Megan from behind me.
Narnia, you would agree, is a fitting name.
Pillows of powder several feet tall balance delicately on branches, occasionally sliding off and cascading to the ground. There’s a hypnotic feeling as we weave through the trees and it becomes obvious that Megan has an intimacy with her team that only comes through years of exploring these trails.
She ran her first dog team in 1993, under the northern lights of the Northwest Territories on the east end of Great Slave Lake. At the time she was pursuing her Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) certification but quickly realized that her place at the helm of a sled was more than a passing experience.
“I met a juncture and I had to decide if I was going to pursue guiding or if I was going to pursue dogs... so I took that juncture and I abandoned my ACMG quest and now I live a life with dogs.” says Megan, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Her connection with her colleagues is clear. She knows each of the dogs in her team, by both name and temperament.
“It takes me probably 2 or 3 hours to figure out a new dog and what their personality is about. They continue to surprise me, but generally I can tell if a dog is a little shy, interested in other dogs, people oriented, not people oriented. I speak dog better than I speak people.”
With a smile, she describes her team like a high school classroom.
“Wallace in particular stands out as a real character. He’s the guy who has a slingshot in his back pocket and is sneaking off and causing trouble. He’s all of the guests favourite. He’s everyone’s favourite all the time.”
As you watch the dogs roll in the snow or erupt with excitement as they ready to run, it becomes very clear that Megan is not the only one who loves what she does.
Revel in the kiss of cold on your cheek and the quiet patter of paws against snow. It’s these little moments on the trail that will make your day unique.
Then, when your adventure is over, take a second to thank your team and look into their eyes. That is where you’ll really meet Wallace or Audrey or Skoki.
After that you’ll be thanked by Megan Routley - your host, your guide and your window into a world that has, for the most part, long since passed us by. A life with dogs preserved along a stunning stretch of The Great Divide for many years to come.
For more info about how you can join Megan and her team - visit her at http://kingmikdogsledtours.com.