Dog Sledding and Outdoor Eduacation

The following article deals with dog sledding and the educational learing experiences provide by Chocpaw Expeditions. Dog-sledding and Outdoor Education

by Paul Strome
There are as many different perceptions of an outdoor activity as there are participants. In the following article I will share with you several of those perceptions that focus on one of Canada’s oldest outdoor activities: dog sledding. One of the largest and best run dog sledding operations in the world is right here in Ontario — South River to be exact. The company is called Chocpaw Expeditions and it is owned and operated by Paul and Margaret Reid and family. I talked with Paul and Margaret and asked them some questions about why they began dog sledding and what drives them to continue doing what they are. Here is what Paul had to say:

‘To me a big part of what I offer is creating dreams and challenging kids to dream.’ ‘Because of the nature of the activity, everyone starts at the same level, whether it is the group star athlete or the intellectual nerd. The physical skills are unique, the physical challenges unique, and therefore everyone starts on a level playing field. It gives an opportunity for everyone to excel and we structure for success. While the experience relies on teamwork there is much opportunity for each person to be all alone in a fantasy world limited only by imagination. We take kids from the concrete jungle and expose them to a natural and magnificent environment. We expose them to animals that give unconditional love. One of the greatest thrills I get is seeing a tough street kid sitting on the trail with his team, lost in the affection, completely oblivious to everyone around, perhaps for the first or even only time. That is a moment that will stay forever with that kid. It is a memory that will inspire dreams. Many times I have had calls from parents telling me of their child calling out commands in their sleep. Seems to me education, even field trips, lack this type of dream making potential. We stir imaginations that have been dulled by a media driven world.’ I couldn’t believe the title of the last Pathway! “Risk Management”…Accountability or what? Well, that’s what society is asking educators to provide in all their activities, but you and I know there are other criteria that are just as significant as accountability when it comes to outdoor education. Most of us know what we have to do from an accountability perspective, but what really drives us, propels us forward, and fuels all those extended hours we put in is the satisfaction we get when we know how profound the experience has been to one of our participants. Even so, educators seem to feel the need to justify everything they’re doing, whether it is an “inside-the-box” or “outside-the-box” teaching style. Why do we do some of the things we do? What makes a particular experience meaningful for us and for our students? Is there a winter activity that we could participate in as a school trip that would fulfill all the Ministry of Education requirements? As outdoor educators we find ourselves asking these and other pertinent questions of ourselves, our students, our procedures and our society. After running with a dog team for many kilometres over a couple of days some people choose to analyze the activity’s component parts: history, geography, physical education, family studies, leadership, physics, language, mathematics, biology, zoology, art and astronomy. These topics are all used in this activity and in various ways. You might even think this has to do with justification, but does it really? There are many ways of “justifying” an adventure like this and you may approach this justification from many different perspectives. History. Dog sledding has been a way of life for thousands of years for First Nations people living in cold climates and it has been a way of life for non-natives for hundreds of years. Why not study Native people’s lives, past and present; the fur trade; different sled designs; different species of dogs; famous people connected with dogs and dog sledding in Canada. Did you know that Inuit sleds were made of frozen fish wrapped in caribou or other skins and then frozen solid with water? Geography. The number of geographic topics that could be covered before, during and after your dog sledding trip is endless. From geology to geomorphology, watershed particulars to topography, you are in the midst of a living library in which you can lose yourself! Physical Education. Running uphill in the snow for a number of kilometres every day is definitely educating your body physically. This is truly an aerobic workout. You also learn about the physical capacities of animals smaller than yourself who are pulling you, your partner, and all you gear. We’re not the only athletes on this trip. These Alaskan huskies are in great shape. These dogs don’t work because they’re forced to; they work because of positive reinforcement, and because they love to run. Affection, and positive words do wonders and that’s what Chocpaw’s philosophy is all about. The dogs are raised with positive reinforcement, not a whip. Leadership and Team Building. One definition of a leader is someone with a compass in her head and a magnet in her heart. Other people know this leader has a plan, a direction and a vision, and they agree with that. Others also know they are attracted to this person because they know what they’re doing and why. Some people may say there is a difference between team building and leadership. Maybe the professional guide fills the leadership role because that’s their role but true team building is an intangible process that develops over time if all the constituent components are there. I profess dog sledding in a group does both of these and a whole lot more. Being in charge of your own dog team develops your leadership and team-building skills in many ways. You have a partner and six dogs that you depend upon and who depend upon you (as a whole team) to get from one place to another. Patience and a positive but firm disposition are admirable qualities any leader must have to be successful, whether with dogs or people. One of our participants once said, “you have to display leadership by taking control of the sled. You have to know when to slow down, stop and go.” I believe that’s the case with every aspect of your life; to have balance in your life you need to know when to be a leader and when to be a follower. Physics. Unhook your dog from the drop chain and, unless you lift your dog up by the collar and hold him or her in a standing position your learn what traction and four-wheel drive are all about. You also learn to balance on the back of those runners while you’re traveling through the woods at a pretty good clip. Why would you want to keep the brakes engaged while going down hill, when it’s so much fun to go fast? Well, it he momentum of the sled is such that it runs into the back legs of your wheel dogs (those dogs right in front of you) it usually damages them, emotionally or physically, for life. The result may be that you learn how to walk the trail slowly rather than be pulled quickly. A dog may never pull again once she has been run over. Language. Farley Mowat, James Raffan, and Pauline Johnson are three famous Canadian writers who have written books and poetry about people in Canada’s wilderness areas. The dog sledding trip offers new fodder for journalling, poetry, and story writing. The metaphor “Life is a dog sledding trip” is appropriate and worth exploring from a language perspective. Oral language skills can also be exercised, because there’s always a story to be told before, during and after these adventures. The story may be of a dog urinating down someone’s boot, the dog team that took the musher for a swim through a hole in the ice, or the dog team that returned to the kennel without their musher or passenger. Then there’s the guide who can recite Robert Service’s famous poem, “Cremation of Sam McGee,” entirely by heart. Whatever the stories, you can be sure they will always be interesting. Family Studies. Cooking healthy meals for a hoard of hungry people is no small feat, but the job gets done. When you are planning your own trip you learn how to arrange balanced, substantial meals for people who burn a lot of calories. You also learn how to co-operate with each other to get those meals prepared and cooked and the dishes done. The luxurious prospector tents have a wood stove at either end (stoked by the guides throughout the night), raised platforms (covered in closed cell foam mats), and propane lanterns and stoves. An extremely important part of camp is the outhouse that comes with a Styrofoam seat, which keeps your body parts warm during those precious few moments of relief. The great part about the Chocpaw philosophy is that your trip is a participatory one. Everyone is expected to help water and feed the dogs; gather and cut up the firewood (the splitting is usually left to the guides); help prepare and cleanup after the meal. The extent to which people work together in a co-operative manner determines how much recreation time they will have after tall the chores are done. Whether “co-operation equals success” is a universal law or just opinion, it is a significant factor in outdoor education settings. It can influence the mood of the group and ultimately how effectively the group works together. Mathematics. Estimating when you might arrive in camp based on environmental conditions and dog speed might be something you ponder to a lesser degree than whether you have calculated enough dog food for the trip. Making sure there is enough food for a group of teenagers on a trip like this could be critical to your survival as a leader, not to mention the good humour of your participants. Biology. You can smell it throughout the trip, in the cedar groves, and the spruce or pine woods through which you travel. We can all prosper from learning more about plant identification, and Native uses of plants and medicinal uses of plants, and this is a great place to do it. First Nations people have been using plants for thousands of years to cure ills like scurvy. Plants have been used to heal, flavour, comfort, or consume as tea. Why don’t we talk with more Native medicine people and find out more? Zoology. Research on sled dogs has produced some inspiring thoughts about such things as nutrition, the necessary food groups, and the combination of them. These sled dogs eat a lot of calories a day during the working season. The right mixture of food is as important for the dogs as it is for the people on the trip. Proteins, carbohydrates, and fats need to be mixed in the proper amounts to enable the dogs to perform their best. Art. While you travel almost silently through the landscapes you can soak up the vista, hold it in your mind and sketch it later. A camera for your eyes may capture that moment, that vision. With video cameras being so small you may even get footage of your pal melting your boots too near the stove or your buddy sliding down the hill on his %$*@. If you are skillful enough to “shoot” some wildlife with your camera you may be able to share those images with others Snow art is a new and upcoming medium you may want to experiment with. Angels and snowmen are just a start. Be creative; add new and interesting appendages. Build a snow hotel and rent out the rooms! Astronomy. Picture it! Algonquin Park on a clear winter night, lying on your back looking skyward. You’ve got someone with you who knows a lot about constellations. Any constellation can be useful if you know what it is and where it is supposed to be in the night sky at a particular time. Polaris, the North Star, is especially useful for navigating. How about a dog sledding trip on a crisp, clear night on the tundra? What star of constellation would you use to guide yourself? OR why not admire the stars just as they appear—gorgeous points of light that carpet the night sky? Then, there’s the practical view of an expedition like this. Turning your team to the right means you need to learn the correct command – “Gee!”. Turning your team tot he left means you need to learn the other correct command – “Haw!” It sounds like you’re having a party, doesn’t it? Well, it can be like a party gone wrong if you don’t remember the correct command. Life should be fun. Learning should be fun. Activities like these can put the two together. I use the word “kids” – that parameter extends each year, as I get older. I remember years ago listening to a 72-year-old man rave on enthusiastically about his dog sledding experience. He had traveled all over the world and done some incredible things. He rushed into the office, grabbed the phone and called his wife. (This was in the days before cell phones.) His exact words were, “ this has been the most incredible experience of my life”. He later wrote me a letter telling me all the things he had done and that this had been a 60-year dream fulfilled. It made me realize the effect we can have and that I want to have – Dream maker. Not a bad occupation. Let’s all strive to have that feeling…Dream maker. I believe we are all teachers and students simultaneously. As teachers, we get to see the fruits of our labours when our students are successful. As students we really come alive when we are learning something that is meaningful, inspiring, and fun too. A dog sledding trip may be considered teaching outside-the-box for all sorts of reasons, but the most important aspect for me is the result. Come and try a dog sledding experience and soak up all the adventure, camaraderie and huge learning that is possible. Paul Strome is a COEO (Council of Outdoor Educators of Ontario) member and wrote this article for a recent Pathways edition. He has been bringing groups of students and adults each winter to Chocpaw for over a decade. For more information on what Paul Strome feels these trips bring to his students, he can be contacted at 905-878-2814 or Contacting Chocpaw Expeditions

P.O. Box 674, I Industrial Park Road, South River, Ontario, P0A 1X0
Phone/Fax – 705 – 386-0344