Winter in Canada
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa  (Feb 2012)

         When Mid-Atlantic people complain about winter, I get snooty. P-shaw. I spent my formative years near Cleveland. “Talk to me when you get some real snow,” I say as I toss my cape and walk away to superior music. But I have now seen the winter of Canada. I'm only now thawing out.

        I spent Christmas break traveling through Quebec with a Frenchman we'll call Craig since my great nation is generally unfamiliar with his name.

        Starbucks guy: “Your name please?”

        Ludo: “Ludo.”

        SG: “Nuto?”

        Ludo: “No, Ludo.”

        SG: (Pauses, squints.)

        Ludo: (Pleasantly) “Nevermind. Just write down Craig.”

        Craig and I decided to spend two days in Montreal and two in Quebec City for a French-speaking, North American holiday. We were flipping through travel books when he pointed at a page and said, “Hey. Dog sledding. Maybe we could try that.”

        And that was how I found myself running through the snow behind a pack of dogs, a reclining Frenchman, and a driverless sled. But I'll get to that later.

        Old Montreal, the Parc du Mont Royal, and all of Quebec City were one big Winter Wonderland to me, covered with snow, holiday lights, and a heavy coating of HOLY $*&! IT'S FREEZING OUT HERE. The natives pull their toddlers around in sleds rather than push them in strollers, and several people cross country ski through the park.

        A short drive north of Quebec City took us to what would be the highlight of our trip: the dogsled ride. We'd signed up for a one hour tour (sing it with me: “a one hour tour”), and I was intrigued that there was no waiver to sign upon our arrival. I don’t think we’re in the U.S. anymore, Toto. Now mush! The instructor told us – first in French, then in English – that the dogs were excited because they knew they were about to go on a ride, so we shouldn't distract them by petting them or taking photos with them just yet. You mean don’t get in the face of an excited, barking dog? 10-4, buddy. About halfway through the route we would take a break, and that would be rest and photo time. It was also when we could switch drivers if we liked. Craig and I looked at each other and smiled. Oh yeah.

        Next we learned the commands which, to my profound disappointment, did not include “Mush.” Instead, we were taught to yell, “Allez les chiens! En avant!” a.k.a. “Go, the dogs! Forward!” To emphasize this, or to encourage them to run faster at any point, we should yell, “Hop hop!” This sounds like “Up up!” and pretty much just means, “I said en avant!” Side note: I just found out that the English “Alley oop” comes from the French “Allez hop.” And that's one to grow on.

        Soon we were off to pick our sleds. As this adventure was Craig's idea, I thought he should drive first, so I sat on the little recliner they've got set up on the sled and got my first of many extended views of dog butt. The Quebecois dogs had no trouble with Craig's French accent; he gave the command, they took off and, immediately, started peeing. Everywhere. On the trees, on the snow, on each other. While running. Until that moment I hadn't been appropriately grateful for the distance between the sled and the dogs. After The Dog Pee Show was over, I noticed that the woods in winter were breathtaking. The ride was quite enjoyable as a passenger in snowpants, hat, earband, gloves, mittens, hiking boots, and fluffy winter coat. Many twists, turns and trees later, it was time for the break.

        The instructor was at the front of the line of teams, and took this moment to double back on foot and check in with everyone. Craig asked whether we might go faster, but was told that it wasn't cold enough for the dogs, who could get too hot under all their fur. I'm sorry, did he just say it's not cold enough? Welcome to Canada. My one concern had been whether the dogs were happy and well-treated. When we got this chance to sort of say hello and thank you to them, they were bouncy and friendly, wagging their tails, clearly having a great time. I guess dogs everywhere like to run outside. A few even gave us the impression that they were peeved about the break and were ready to go again already.

        Break time over! My turn to drive! For the first time, I would take a close look at the sled from the back. There is no platform to stand on, but rather two rail-like projections where you are expected to place your feet. Each is slippery, covered with snow and ice, and about the width of a ruler. Sweet. But, OK, LET'S DO THIS!

        To give a verbal command – in another language – and see the team respond, to feel the wind pick up riding downhill, to get the sled to turn properly and stay on course, to bring it to a stop, to laugh when the dogs ignore your command for a few minutes to look around and pee on each other – all of it was an extraordinary experience that I would recommend to anyone willing to give it an allez. In case you'd like to try this on your next trip across our northern border, I shall recap the instructions. Pay careful attention to the last one.

        How to drive a dogsled

        Uphill: help the dogs – get off and run. Thoughtful! I like it.

        Downhill: help the dogs – the sled goes faster than they do, so gently step on the brake. Literally, step on it. It’s in between those slippery rails where you will attempt to place your feet.

        Turning: lean hard left to turn right, and lean hard right to turn left. Awesome. Totally intuitive.

        What they left out: be sure to stay on the brake while you're stopped just in case your dogs hear another driver's “go” command and take off running with your sled, forcing you to run after it – the sled being pulled by a team of dogs bred to run through snow – while your passenger reaches back to press the brake with his hand to try to slow down enough for you to catch up, grab the handles, and jump onto the icy, snow-covered foot rails of a moving dogsled. But it's all good. I figured out this rule all by myself.

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