Challenge yourself and give it a go
The morning is gloriously sunny, and while there’s a chill in the air on the broad valley floor of La Chapelle d’Abondance, it’s positively balmy compared to the more wooded north-facing side which the winter sun stubbornly refuses to reach. It’s situation normal, though, to the tough dogs whose bloodlines originate from even colder climes like Alaska, and who actually seem to prefer sleeping out while the snow piles up around their thick coats rather than retreating to the shelter of their kennels. Clearly, sled-dogs are a race apart, and as we discovered during our first encounter with their cousins in Quebec, they also like nothing better than to run together through a snowy landscape, although meeting people who melt in the face of their good looks and sunny temperament comes a close second.
“The world looks and feels very different when you’re gliding through a snowy, near-silent world behind a willing team of huskies….”
Meeting the dogs
Combining the two makes meeting the dogs for the first time a pretty high-energy experience. Steel-blue eyes flash, tails wag enthusiastically and the dogs are generally beside themselves at the prospect of taking us out for a run and showing us what they can do. Only six of them will get that particular honour, as we see when Vincent of Chippewa Loisirs Nature begins the process of attaching the chosen ones to the lines attached to a well-staked sled (there’s never a good moment for it to take off without a ‘musher’ to control things). The attachment ritual involves a lot of affectionate petting, calming the dogs and renewing the close bond between them and their handlers, something on which the whole thing is very much dependent. They work for us, so we look after them.
Prepare for lift-off
A position at the head of the harness is assigned to a dog whose intelligence, temperament and other natural abilities makes them a natural leader. With everyone attached (and after some instruction as to what to expect once we’re under way) Vincent’s assistant releases her grip on the leader’s harness and suddenly we’re off in a shower of powder and with a startling surge of power from our six dog-power propulsion unit. The world looks and feels very different when you’re gliding through a snowy, near-silent landscape behind a willing team of huskies, particularly if you’ve ever been snowmobiling. Travelling like this you’re very much aware of every subtle contour of the snow-covered landscape, not least since the sled itself flexes perceptibly.
Into the light
Perhaps the dogs are keen to see a change of surroundings, although we’ve little doubt that for now at least they know every step as we prepare to leave the shade and the tree-cover behind and head out into the relative warmth of the sunlight in response to Vincent’s encouraging commands to our furry friends up front.
The wide, snowy expanse of the valley floor is a cheerful place to be on a fine morning, particularly for the dogs, who are soon bounding along on a trail neatly prepared overnight for cross-country skiers by the piste-grooming teams. For the dogs it’s an envigorating warm-up, while for us it’s effortless; all we have to do for now is to enjoy the scenery and our magical passage through the heart of it all, to a soundtrack of Vincent encouraging each dog by name. No-one is forgotten.
A few minutes later we head towards more trees, among which we glide across a snow-covered bridge over the Dranse river before resuming our journey across the broad valley floor and picking up the pace a notch. It’s hypnotic, and we’re not the only ones who are smiling — walkers and cross-country skiers respond to the entertainment value of our passage with a friendly wave. We like the infectious, warm-hearted spirit of this place, and resolve to return soon to discover the ski terrain, part of the vast Portes du Soleil area, which straddles the Franco-Swiss boder.
Down to the river
The trails available to dog-sledders are also extensive, so much so that they provide the opening stage in the legendary Grande Odyssée, an annual event which attracts many of the world’s top pro mushers and their dogs.
Sadly, though, our time is limited so our session this morning is a much more modest affair, which serves as a taster for the longer sessions which visitors can expect to experience here. A few minutes later, in response to Vincent’s assertive command, the dogs make a graceful turn which takes us from the centre of the broad valley towards another trail beside the river. The trees all around are dusted with snow, creating the kind of winter wonderland setting we’ve come to love in the mountains, so we make the most of the remaining few minutes before our session comes to an end. The dogs can sense it, too, as they must know the trails around here by heart.
Our arrival back at our starting-point creates a stir among the other dogs, who have yet to go out. Their turn will come, of course, but after anchoring the sled securely we climb back onto the snow once again and spend some time with ‘our’ dogs, who now seem remarkably calm, having got the adrenalin of their first run of the morning out of their system. It’s a curious paradox that these tough, powerful creatures whose powers of endurance are the stuff of legend can switch so readily into much the same affectionate behaviour as their domestic cousins, so we give them the hugs and strokes they so obviously enjoy. So do their owners, who obviously care deeply about their furry companions. Now that really is teamwork.