After many months of agonizing debate, we decided that we had had just about enough of the usual dose of exhaustion, frustration and heartache (not to mention heartburn) that had been intrinsic with our Christmasses of these last 11 years. So we went West. Our lovely friends Laurence* and Manuel had moved from Toulouse to Montreal around the same time we moved to Ireland, and we hadn’t seen them since, so when we were offered a space on their couch, we jumped on it. Not the couch, the offer. So we saved up, grabbed some cheap plane tickets and packed our bags.
As much as we were looking forward to seeing our friends, there was the equally tantalising lure of the idea of a beautiful, crisp, white, 3 foot deep snowy Christmas. Well, what Canada promises, it delivers. Maybe that should be their new motto.
The pretty sidewalks of Montreal crunch underfoot. Although there is a bit of sludge along the edge of the streets where the roads have been salted, this is not the manky pathetic snow we get over this side of the pond. This is dry, powdery, fine white stuff, so fluffy you can’t even make snowballs out of it! With the snow and the -20C temperatures, we were glad to quickly find a good shoe shop and equip our chilly, slippy, poorly-shod feet with nice warm fleece-lined, waterproof, walking boots.
We spent a good few days discovering Montreal and catching up with other friends and meeting new people, but the star event of the trip was our day of dog-sledding out in the frozen wastes north of the city on the 27th. As we had to be at the meeting place early in the morning, we booked a room in the nearest B&B. We drove our ridiculously silly Nissan Something out of Montreal with the help of our slightly clunky-sounding (but admittedly very efficient) satnav lady, and got there just after sunset. The owner was slightly strange, but nice enough and showed us to our room.
The next morning, we went down to breakfast at the agreed time of 7am, only to find a good 50-70cm of snow had fallen over the night. Our tiny car had all but disappeared under the white stuff, and best of all, no sign of life in the breakfast area. So we figured we might as well get to work and started to shovel the snow using the one and only snow shovel available.
Around 7:30-ish, a dishevelled head poked out of the kitchen window and asked if we were managing on our own. I politely replied that no, not really, and that a helping hand would be welcome. The head disappeared. At around 8am, it appeared again to inform us that it had called the people at the dog-sled place and they would like to speak to me. After a rather confused phone conversation about who was calling who and why, it emerged that the owner of the B&B had pretty much told them we weren’t coming. This got the musher annoyed with me for then saying this wasn’t true and me even more annoyed with the madman running the B&B. So he proceded to “help” by standing outside, shouting “advice”, pushing the car one way when we were trying to move it the other and generally being bloody infuriating and no use at all. In the end, I had to insist to pay him, because basically, the man was trying to stall us as much as possible (well, either that or he was genuinely insane or high on something. Or both.). We both wondered if maybe he was somehow hoping we would stay stuck and he would get an extra night’s custom out of us. Quite honestly, by then, I was ready to leave on foot and build myself an igloo somewhere.
Anyhoo, somehow we managed to escape both the snow and the nutter at the B&B, and made it to the slightly elusive rendezvous point only half an hour late. The musher of course found the whole thing hilarious and gave us our snow gear to put on while he parked our cars in a freshly plowed bit of car park. I was quite surprised and relieved to find that I did fit into the ski combi provided, and that it really was quite cosy in there, in spite of my soggy jeans. We travelled by SkiDoo (and trailer/sled with seats) to their HQ, and were introduced to the dogs before being shown how to harness them to the sled. the dogs were all absolutely adorable, excited and happy to be going out for a “ride”.
So after a mini crash course on how to turn left (say left), right (say right), go forward (say forward) and slow down/stop (say stop, say stop again, louder, jump up and down on the snow brake with all your weight, and in the end give up, fall off the sled, land in the snow on your belly and call for help), we were off. The weather was quite “warm”, with the temperature being above 0°C, so the snow was sticky and awkward, and when going uphill, we had to help the dogs by “skating”, taking one foot off the sled to push it along with that foot, like you would a skateboard or a scooter. This was quite obviously a mistake, the first time I tried it, after panicking a bit for a few hundred metres, I lost my balance, shouted stop, shouted stop again, louder, jumped up and down on the snow brake with all my weight, and in the end gave up, fell off the sled, landed in the snow on my belly and called for help.
Of course, our merciless musher** took the piss quite copiously, and as soon as I had struggled to my feet and made it to my sled – that he had deftly caught as the dogs tore away – we went on our way. After a while he stopped and asked if I was ok, and gave me a minute to get my breath back. And then off we went again. The last stretch before arriving at the chalet for lunch was a 1km uphill stretch, followed by just over 1km of twisty downhill track. By the time I reached the top, I was panting more than my dogs from all the skating, and as we went off down the bendy downhill part, I took one foot off the sled to brake a little and stop my sled running into the dogs, and of course picked the wrong foot for that bend, lost my balance, fell off the sled again, head first into the snow, again, and ended up looking like a total idiot. Again.
Reg’s sled was just behind mine, and he came to my rescue, my knight in refective thermal armour, I jumped (read: crawled miserably) into his sled and we were off again, reaching the mid-day stop just after my own team and sled had been caught by Jean Christophe, the merciless musher.
We had a simple but wholesome lunch, hotdogs, soup, pasta and home-made cake. Another couple of clients and another musher were already in the log cabin, where they had spent the night (they were on the 2-day trek), and we all had a pleasant meal and a good chat. After we had all rested and dried off, we prepared for take-off again, and Musherman suggested that I could maybe do the rest of the tour as a passenger in his sled, and combine our 2 teams of dogs. Having tasted the effort of mushing, and the snow, quite enough for one day (and still feeling the effects of my blasted mysterious infection, I have to add, and therefore rather rheumatic all over), I agreed.
Getting the dogs ready to leave was quite an amazing, and tiring experience in itself. Imagine trying to single-handedley prep 30 excited primary school children who dont speak your language, and are all on a complete sugar high and bursting for the toilet and who have been told they are going to personally meet Superman in 5 minutes, and try to get them to sit still, in a line, and stop humping their neighbour. Well, ok, maybe not that last bit. Indeed, one of Reg’s rear pair of dogs, young Inuk, could not stop humping his poor partner, Abbi: every single time the group stopped, he was at it within seconds, not even caring whether he was doing it to her ear, shoulder, hip, front paw, or even if she was there at all, really…
So off we went again, taking a different route back to Doggy HQ, and as a passenger, I must say that it was quite a different experience, I could just relax and chat with Jean-Christophe, instead of panting like a 2 ton huskie lost in the desert and worrying about balance and speed and direction and so-on… Both the morning and the afternoon experiences were quite thrilling and exciting, and the scenery surrounding us was just breathtakingly beautiful, picture postcard after picture postcard. The other 2 people in our small group, and Reg all enjoyed driving (mushing?) their own sled all day, and although it was tough work for a big lump like me, I enjoyed my bit too, and I’m actually quite proud of managing to do as much as I did given my manky condition. In any case, it was certainly a day to remember, and as we drove the 2 and a half hours drive back to Montreal that evening (after another ride on the SkiDoo), we just couldn’t stop talking about it!
Just in case you’re interested, here is their website, and I heartily recommend the experience, it’s just unforgettable!
*Laurence is strictly a girl’s name in French, the male equivalent is Laurent. Now you know.
**I am kidding, he really was a very nice guy and very understanding in the face of such total foolishness.