Discover the story of Connie Arsenault who founded Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours™ back in 1983 when Canmore was still a sleepy coal mining town. An original Albertan, female entrepreneur, Connie’s father was an Alberta Provincial Parks ranger. Connie’s first husband Charles worked full time with Lafarge Canada until 1996 when he joined her to work at Snowy Owl. Sadly, Charles passed a decade later. Connie retired in 2016 and now lives off-grid in the wilderness near Lumby, BC.
Read on as Connie shares stories about her childhood, what inspired her to start a dog sled tour business, how she came up with the name Snowy Owl, and what she’s up to now. Connie’s legacy brings so much joy to people. We’re excited to celebrate her story with you.
Growing up in Alberta Parks
I grew up in the wilds of Canada. When I was young we lived on an organic farm, back before it was trendy. I was raised learning how to survive with minimal connection to grocery stores. We had cows, horses, ducks, chickens, pigs and big vegetable gardens. It wasn’t a huge farm but we were very self-sufficient. We didn’t get power in our house until I was five, so my mom cooked on a wood-burning stove, we used coal for heat and got our water from a well. In those days I thought we were poor because our relatives lived in town, plus, I grew up with all boys and got all their hand-me-down clothes.
My father’s job with Alberta Parks caused us to move a lot, which I loved. I went to seven different schools. We loved growing up in the provincial parks. We always befriended all the parks’ employees. If we lived at a lake, we hung out with the lifeguards and got our swim badges. If we were in the mountains, we’d hang out with the parks’ naturalists and biologists who would take us on hikes and try to teach us all the Latin names for everything, which we couldn’t imagine ever using.
Back then there wasn’t a lot of winter tourism. There were no cross-country ski trails but my dad did his patrols on cross-country skis, which we all thought was great fun. But, in the summer the parks were heavily promoted for tourism. As little kids, we would befriend all the kids in the park and take them to all of our secret places. Some kids had never seen tadpoles before. We were like little parks interpreters!
When I was in college studying business management and psychology, I was thinking about how much I loved the way I was raised, even though I had all brothers that tried to kill me! Growing up with parks’ naturalists and biologists, and living organically, I learned a lot about responsibility and how to survive. For example, if you walked across a frozen creek or lake and something happens, you could die because there was no one to help. We all learnt to be more aware of the wilderness. I wasn’t afraid of it. I noticed that when people came to visit the parks they came out of their shell and tested their boundaries. They might not know how to survive out there, but that’s how I was raised and it was my responsibility to share my knowledge.
Inspired by an Epic Sled Dog Trek
One summer, I met a man doing a trek from Alaska to Montana by dog team with an ancient dog sled on motorcycle tires. He was staying in William Switzer Provincial Park where my dad was a ranger. We became friends and he took me for a sled dog ride and it changed my life. He had a big team of 14 dogs so I could feel the power coming through the handlebars of the sled. I wondered if I was going to survive all of that power! The vibration of the dogs’ tenacity went straight into my body. It was so powerful it was almost scary. It made me question how someone could manage all that power. I became very enamoured with the whole sport.
Beginning of Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours
I started with three dogs and started to race. Unbelievably, in my first race, I came second after being dragged through the whole trail. I thought, just imagine what I could do if I was standing up. I used my knowledge of psychology when working with dogs. I started bringing friends dog sledding and realized they’d probably like to learn how to drive a sled. I wanted to share this unique experience because it’s so exciting. It’s one thing to go for a ride, but to interact with the dogs is an interdependent working relationship of respect. You can’t ask for more than they can give.
When I started Snowy Owl we did a lot of team enhancement work with big-name corporate clients. That was my forte. My goal was to bring people into my world and share my experiences and my knowledge to help them open their hearts and minds to build the best teams in their respective companies.
First Nations History
I believe in being proud of our Canadian culture and lifestyle, as well as giving credit where credit is due. First Nations people used the sled dogs first. I grew up alongside a lot of indigenous communities. When I was a child, my parents were foster parents and we mostly fostered indigenous children. Everywhere we went indigenous peoples would embrace and include us.
At the last park that my dad was posted in, William Switzer Provincial Park, there were two very respected medicine men who lived across the road. They invited my family to their sacred ceremonies and taught us about their culture. I incorporate, with respect, all the things I’ve been taught around interdependency. I shared this with everybody I knew and all of my guests who came on our tours, it’s also how I trained my staff and the way my kids were raised.
Snowy Owl Vision
There was no doubt in my mind that this dream was part of my path. I dreamt that I was flying through Grotto Canyon, which I found out later was a sacred pilgrimage site for indigenous peoples. In my vision, it was a calm summer evening and the full moon was setting to the west of the canyon. When I flew past the pictographs, they were white, not red, and they were glowing. Next, I was in a cave, it was dark and there was a fire crackling behind me. An indigenous being came out of the darkness beating a drum. I looked into his black eyes but I got nervous, I thought if I continued to look into his eyes, I might go somewhere I didn’t want to. I looked down to his drum and there was a white bird with black flecks, but I wasn’t sure what type of bird it was.
When I woke up, I was rigid as a board and soaking wet with sweat. I thought, what the heck was that?! My husband Charles brought me a cup of coffee and a magazine and said, “I just read this great story about this dog sledder. You’ve got to read it.” I opened the magazine and saw a picture of this dog team running through a blizzard, which I thought was great. On the next page was an advert for a Royal Dolton plate with the white bird with black flecks. I said, “Oh my God.” My husband said, “what?” I told him about my dream and then I looked down at the caption, it said Snowy Owl and it changed my life!
Female Entrepreneur Pioneer
While my husband worked at the Lafarge Cement Plant I realized that if we wanted to live in Canmore I was going to need to work. I thought to myself, what am I going to do? I loved dog sledding and I loved the wilderness. I wanted to share that with other people. I started the difficult process of setting up the business. There was a film company in Canmore called Stereoscope Productions, they wanted to do some filming so that’s how it all took off.
Also, around that time some grandmothers in Canmore asked me to teach their grandkids about dog sledding. The kids’ parents had just split up and they needed something for the kids to do. Two families approached me at the same time so, I started taking these young kids out and teaching them how to race. My whole life went to the dogs!
The Unique Self-Driven Sled Experience
A tour company from Britain called Crystal Holidays approached me wanting to book us exclusively because we were the only company that taught people how to drive dogs. Anyone can go for a ride, and that’s fun but, not everybody has the opportunity to drive a dog team because of the required skill and responsibility of the owners and staff. You train the guests and your dogs differently using this type of tour. Our instructors are not mere guides. They instruct people from around the world how to drive a Canadian dog team.
When our customers started coming out with us, I’d teach them about the wilderness and how it differs from cities. If you’re in New York for example and you walk down a back alley being humble you’ll probably end up dead. In a natural environment, if you’re not humble, you’re dead.
It was such a privilege to give people an immersion into the natural environment and to help them reconnect with the power of nature. What we don’t know we fear. If we fear something, we can destroy it. Growing up in Alberta Parks, I was always taught to preserve and protect, as well as how to behave in the backcountry. Those are the lessons we teach our guests. It’s not just a ride. It’s an immersion into a lifestyle, culture and belief system. I always wanted to help people. I wanted to do something I loved but also contributed to the well-being of people and the planet. It’s about having an open heart and an open mind and being able to connect with the dogs and with people.
I used to tell people, when you go dog sledding it doesn’t matter where you are from, what your title is, how much money you have, or what brand of clothing you’re wearing, the natural environment and the dogs don’t care. Those things have no bearing on survival in the wilderness. If you approach nature with respect, you’re going to do better. People who aren’t respectful on our tours will find their dogs won’t work for them. We humans think we’re so high and mighty, we think we’re smarter or better, we forget who we are. If we’re not going to use these gifts for good, they’re useless.
Life After Retirement
Starting Snowy Owl was one of the most rewarding experiences and adventures I’ve ever been on. I wouldn’t trade it or change anything about it. As my two kids, Jereme and Carlin got older I gradually retired. I made sure they were slowly taking on more responsibility as they matured. I wasn’t going to just give my business to them, they had to earn it. I wanted them to be independent, accountable, and not rely on other people to take care of them. You can only ride on your parents’ coattails for so long. My family was the reason I started Snowy Owl. I wanted them to have something worthwhile if they wanted it. Both of my kids have been coming out dog sledding since they were tiny.
When I first retired, I missed being an active part of the Snowy Owl tours but, I’m pursuing other things. I live off-grid in the wilderness in BC with my husband who works in the film industry. We have solar power and massive organic gardens. Our nearest neighbour is 5 km away. In the winter I’m usually here by myself as my husband is off working on movies. I’m used to it because of the way I was raised.
My husband Alfie had a similar upbringing to me, his father was a backcountry guide and he also worked for Parks Canada. When we met on the film set of ‘Santa Baby’ we quickly realized we knew many of the same people and had much in common. He’s into horses and I’m into dogs. Both of us love this lifestyle, so that’s what we created and carved out for ourselves. We built a beautiful Adobe house here. Everything I do is for my family. To teach my kids and grandkids how I was taught. To survive without a grocery store and to live off the land. It’s a lot more work, but it’s worth it for the freedom and a healthy lifestyle. We love sharing this land with the bears, cougars, wolves, lynx, bobcat and every bird you can imagine. We also have a great German Shepherd rescue called Echo, a cat named Princess and four horses.
I wanted to start a new future, so a few years ago I began looking into natural medicine. I wanted to share that part of my life because it also originally started with the Snowy Owl vision. I’ve now practised with several women and a few years ago partnered with a natural medicine sister to start women’s circles to help people reconnect with nature and themselves.