Putting her cup of hot chocolate down in the snow with a curious calm, our eight-year-old daughter Edie dragged her thrice-wrapped feet and legs laboriously through the snow up to where I stood, looked up at me and said: “I would like to…” – and this is where the tears made their debut – “…go home nowwwwwww…”
As the last word turned into a sad howl, I turned to catch my husband’s eye. He was busy trying to detangle a matted swath of frozen hair from between our older daughter Ava’s face and jacket zipper – and it wasn’t going well.
We were exactly half-way through our first day of an overnight dog sledding adventure that Ava had coveted in lieu of a tenth birthday present.
As Edie’s face fell into cheek-threatening tears, my mind raced to how confidently I had received our outfitter’s cautionary call earlier this week.
“Well thank you for this…” I had told our contact, Paul, from the warmth of my living room when he offered to let us rebook for more favourable temperatures than 30-below (before windchill). “But I think our kids will be able to handle it. We’ve dragged them through many tough adventures and they’ve always been okay…”
I rambled on about the camping trip where the overnight temperature took a nosedive and the sleeping bags had gotten wet; the May paddle into Algonquin when non-stop rain forced us to bundle them in a tarp; the summer whitewater adventure where unseasonable weather meant that the frequent spills into the Dumoine River felt nothing short of a polar bear swim; and the cross-country ski marathon where frequent snacks meant that a two-hour ski was stretched over a whole day.
Our girls had made it through all of those without fuss or complaint, so I was reasonably certain the weather wouldn’t be an issue. And yet, here I was.
“…because I am frozen….”, the plea continued, “…and this is no fun,” she glanced at our two guides accusingly, “…and I never want to do this again…”
In less than a minute, we had gone from the steady resolve that we were accustomed to (and indeed counting on) to complete hysterics. Our wool socks, hand and foot warmers, face masks, ski goggles, base layers, lined boots, pep talks – and even our adventure street cred – didn’t matter much now that Edie was completely consumed by cold toes and tears.
Our guide, Jeremy, gently reminded us what his recommendation had been from the beginning, for Edie to get the blood pumping by moving around a bit instead of simply sitting still on the sled.
But we were beyond rational arguments now. She was no more interested in moving around than she was in my rational assertion that at the end of the day, despite her current difficulties and lack of confidence, she would find some pride in having taken on yet another daunting task and seeing it through to completion. (No, we weren’t entertaining any of that…)
Instead, I bundled her whole into a sleeping bag along with some hot water bottles and periodically managed to distract her with discussions about having our own sled dog team (and how Snowflake and Marshmallow would be great names for our lead dogs).
After another regret-filled hour and a half, we arrived at our camp for the evening. Our guide’s assistant, Bridget, made a fire inside the tent and Edie was quick company. When Edie emerged from the tent 20 minutes later, I’m not so sure that it was her toes that thawed so much as her resolve to declare this adventure a mistake.
For the balance of the day, she was still well-bundled amid the arctic temperatures, but now she was busy. She helped feed the sled dogs, and asked no less than 15 times when she might be able to go outside and help them bed down for the night.
When it was her turn to go to sleep, she tucked in eagerly next to Bridget whose job it was to stoke one of the two stoves in our tent over the course of the evening, and said good night to everyone in the tent in turn before quickly falling asleep.
The next morning, I awoke to some aggressive shoulder-tapping care of the sleeping bag next to me.
“I need to get dressed”, came the insistent whisper as Edie poked her head out from her down cocoon. “They’re feeding the dogs and they said I could help.”
She flailed impatiently in the early morning darkness for the many items of vital clothing that spent the night hanging to dry from the tent ceiling.
We worked quickly to get her into enough layers to survive the 10-minute outdoor engagement with the dogs. I followed her out of the tent to validate my caution. It was indeed a crisp, face-stunning 31 degrees below zero as the light slowly crept back over the camp.
For the balance of the morning, Edie put herself to work. She helped to cooked breakfast, cleared the dishes and packed up our sleeping gear in the preparation for the return trip home. We added another layer of socks – ensuring that Edie had a say in which socks those were and highlighting what a difference these would make.
We swapped mittens and lit a fresh round of hot pockets. But most importantly, Edie wouldn’t be a passenger today. Today, she was riding shotgun on the back of sled with her dad.
“Edie” he began, earnestly, “I’ll need your help to get up the hill, you know? We’ll have to hop off the sled to help the dogs. Okay?”
“Kay…” came the answer from a little face bundled today in a loosely-wrapped fleece scarf, and not a frozen face-hugging balaclava.
The three hours we spent sledding away from Algonquin Park were just as cold, but way more fun. Our two daughters helped their dad manoeuver the sled, manage the dogs and make fun of me as I was now the sole full-time passenger on this voyage.
As Edie and her dad and called ‘gee!’ (right) and ‘haw!’ (left) to lead dogs Mojo and Eva, I breathed in the deep-winter air and the pastel landscapes. The girls laughed at my frozen eyelashes and eyebrows, and I guffawed each time they nearly missed their hop back onto the sled after a hard, long push. And everyone was plenty warm.
Getting there: We booked through wildernessadventures.ca, who runs this particular dogsledding trip with partners Choc Paw Expeditions in South River ON, at the NW edge of Algonquin Park.
The outfitters have seen some little ones do trips like this without problem, but they had a three-year-old cause the truncation of another trip because they were too cold. Our girls, 8 and 10, were fantastic ages for this. So long as kids are accustomed to different weather I think you could go a few years younger. That said, older kids may have been able to be more engaged. Our guide recommended one sled for us as a family instead of two. There is a bit of hands-on pulling/heaving/dog-wrangling to do that’s usually done in partners, but he didn’t think our girls were big enough for it. Older kids would likely enjoy having to manage the dogs, hold and steer the sleds a bit more than ours were given the chance to do.
Layering:I spent the week ahead of the trip fretting over the packing of layers, liners and as much wool as I could muster. In the end, this was time well spent. We had all of the gear we needed and more.
Hand and foot warmers:You can never have too many hand/foot warmers. These were handy for all extremities, and provided much mental comfort as well!
Keep it moving: We heard this advice, but didn’t truly take it to heart. On the second day, we kept all toes tapping and warmth was not an issue.
Hands and head: Despite adding heat to frigid fingers, it proved more or less impossible to get Edie’s mind back on board with our cold-weather mission once the idea of being too cold had set in. On day two, the kids had jobs to do and less time to get – and to think about – cold. Smiles all the way!
Boots and mitts: Boots were inspected for rating (-30), a removable liner (for drying overnight) and enough space to add hot pockets. Three of us borrowed heavy-duty Baffins from family, but one of us rented hard-core Sorels with the specs noted here from the outfitter.
Nature doesn’t play: We were a bit stubborn in our resolve to continue on with our trip. But the threat of cold was real and immense and not a feeling I’ll forget any time soon. Next time I likely won’t proceed as confidently.
(But then, if we made it through this as a family, surely we can make it through anything…)