No Snow, No Problem – Sled Dogs Meet the Dog Days of Summer
Explore Snowy Owl Tours new dryland Summer Dog Cart Tours in this interview with owner, Jereme Arsenault.
How did you get the idea to start the dry land cart tours?
When we first secured our kennel lease 20 years ago, my dad knew all the other leaseholders in the area. They were buds who played fastball together. They let us run our dogs across their leases on the network of old fire roads. We started offering clients who were on a kennel tour in the summer a chance to participate. Back in the day, we used quads and motorized mules. It was very popular, but as time went on my dad’s buds retired and the new leaseholders were not keen to allow us to do tours, due to potential liability. The last summer dog cart tour we did was 15 years ago. I’ve been looking for a place to run these tours since then.
What were some of the challenges you faced in finding the right location for the new summer dog cart tours?
Finding the right location was really important because space is very limited here in the Bow Valley. There are lots of private leaseholders, provincial parks and national parks. In the winter, wildlife is not a problem due to hibernation, but in the summer the grizzly bears are awake and there are more people using the trails.
We’re also limited by areas that fit our criteria of fairly flat terrain that isn’t too bumpy and shade. Our dog’s well-being is always our number one priority, so the maximum temperature for tours will be 25c. We’re running two morning tours daily, at 9am and 11am, so the dogs won’t get too hot. After applying for every permit possible within a 30-minute radius of Canmore, I wasn’t able to secure anything until this year. It’s been a long time coming and we’re so thrilled to add this experience for guests.
Who is your new location partner for the summer dog cart tours?
We’re excited and proud to partner with Boundary Ranch as a location for our new dog cart tours. It’s an honour to collaborate with another local, family-run business. The Guinn family are true Bow Valley pioneers, they originally founded Rafter 6 Ranch. Just wait until you see their newly renovated Wildlife Wonders Museum (entrance is included with our dog cart tours).
How did dryland dog carting start? What’s the history?
I don’t think anyone set out with a tour in mind. Dryland dog carting is part of running a dog sled team. Whether it’s for competition, recreation or tours the dogs need to be exercised year-round. Most sled dog teams use ATVs to train in the summer because they can mimic the winter sled. When going up a hill, they use the throttle and the disk brakes to help the dogs. And they can run big teams of 20 dogs at a time instead of doing multiple smaller trips. This way big kennels can get all the dogs exercised in a day.
How unique is your new summer dog cart tour?
We’re proud to bring this new tourism experience to Alberta, and a new activity that helps make the Bow Valley even more special. Now people looking to do something different and cool to do can go on a dog cart tour.
Our summer dog cart tour is one of the only ones of its type in Canada! The dryland tours available in the Yukon and Manitoba use motorized carts. People still get to see the dogs, but it’s a bit like being on a horseback ride with a tractor. It’s a different experience.
Snowy Owl is known for offering the best sled dog tours in the Bow Valley so the quality of our new summer product is really important to us. We didn’t want people to hear a motor, silence feels rare these days. Actually silence is one of the things people love about dog sledding in the winter, people always comment about how nice and quiet it is on their tour.
We didn’t want to do our tours like anyone else. Summer dog cart tours are available in the Yukon, Manitoba and the USA but all of those use 4-wheel drive, motorized carts which conflicted with my dream to develop an ecotourism product. It was critical to find a local Alberta company to custom build the carts so they’re safe, durable, fun and cool looking.
It was difficult to find a company to build the carts but we were lucky to find one and we’ve been working closely with them to ensure the carts are perfect. It would have been easier to buy motorized mules and pull the engines out, but we wanted a similar experience to winter dog sledding where the musher can jump off the cart and run with the dogs, for an authentic experience unlike any other. This way it’s not just a ride, it’s a real experience! The carts are being built locally in Calgary, Alberta by Aaron Machine Shop!
How similar is summer dog carting to winter dog sledding?
The summer carts will have rear, independent suspension. We opted not to use front suspension so the musher can stand on the back, as well as jump off and run alongside the cart. The steering linkage goes under the cart to the front tires. We used retrofitted ATV parts including 4-wheel disk brakes and quad tires. We’ll leave a little air out of the tires to add some cushion, although it’s probably going to be cushier than winter sleds.
What else is different about the dry land tours compared to your winter sled dog tours?
There will be more people on a summer cart than a winter sled, so there’ll also be more dogs. The summer cart tours max out at 5 adults including the driver, so we’ll need bigger dog teams of 10-12 dogs. We had to figure out how many dogs we needed, to run at a speed that’s fun and controllable, but not too fast for the dogs. We also have to be mindful of the temperatures, that’s why our tours run so early in the morning, and why we don’t offer tours in the afternoon during summer.
“Our summer guests will get to feel the energy and excitement of the dogs”
Another difference is that when guests arrive on-site in the winter the dog teams are all ready to go. For our summer tours, guests will start at the Boundary Ranch Wildlife Wonders Museum where they’ll get to meet the dogs on the dropline and watch the dogs get harnessed up and ready to go. They’ll experience the energy of the dogs getting ready which is something our winter guests don’t get to see. The anticipation of the dogs preparing for the tour departure is going to be pretty exciting for our guests.
Why is Kananaskis, Alberta such a great location for the dog cart tours?
The Canadian Rockies is such a special area. It’s part of what makes dog sledding, rafting and horseback riding so cool. You can do these activities all over the world, but what makes it super special here in Canmore and Kananaskis is the mountain environment.
One of the most difficult things for the Alberta tourism industry is drawing people to the area during the off-seasons. We wanted to create a new product that would bring more attention to the area and help attract visitors during downtimes in the spring and fall.
Why does ecotourism matter to your family and Snowy Owl?
The Bow Valley and Kananaskis pride themselves on being an environmentally sensitive area. Yet the region gets a lot of people and traffic visiting, which is great, but we also want to preserve the natural environment. My grandfather was Alberta’s second provincial park ranger so conservation is part of my family legacy. It’s always in the back of our minds. We want to keep doing this forever, so while we’re always aware of our visitors’ experience, we’re also aware of our carbon footprint too.
We want our tours to be authentic and eco-friendly. It’s important to me because I’m trying to build a legacy for my kids, the same way my parents did. We’re all trying to do the best we can for our planet by constantly finding ways to improve.
A lot of the design for the carts is based on my experience working on the Disney movie Togo. For that movie, it was more important how the cart looked than how it performed.
The dogs love to run, that’s not a problem. The difference is that in the winter the sleds have much more control with brakes. That’s why we had to use heavy duty equipment for Togo, with the brakes and the steering linkages. Our concern was that if the dogs didn’t stop there’d be nothing we could do about it. But for Togo they used motorcycle tires so when you applied the brakes the dogs could almost pull you faster.
What did the dogs make of the dryland cart scenes in Togo?
The carts used in the filming of Togo were so heavy. There were a few scenarios where we had catastrophic equipment failure and the dogs all broke loose. The dogs are funny though, as soon as they notice they’re loose, they run back to the truck. They think, “ok we’re done, let’s go back to the truck then.” By the time we catch up with them, 7 km later, they’re laying in the shade wondering what took us so long.
How will you be able to use the new space at Boundary Ranch to train puppies?
Being able to train our new yearling puppies on private land, where we don’t need to worry about encountering members of the public, is such an asset. Training the puppies is much more than learning to run in teams, it’s also getting used to being loaded into the truck, motion sickness, wearing a harness, being around the enthusiasm, and learning how to handle themselves around guests.
Anything else you’d like to add about your new summer dog cart tours?
We’re super excited! This is a project I’ve been working on personally for eight years so I’m really happy it’s coming to fruition. For Snowy Owl it’s a tremendous achievement. After 38 years in business, we’re now a legitimate year-round company. Not one decision we make is based on financial gain, but we’re looking forward to the additional revenue to pay back losses from COVID, and to reinvest money back into the company. We’re constantly looking for ways to improve the quality of life of our dogs, and asking ourselves, how can we make it better, cleaner, safer and more fun. Although, I think we’ve finally achieved dog welfare Zen. It can’t get any better than this.