South River, Ontario Ryan Smith is only 13, but he knew he was creating a long-lasting memory when he went dogsledding on the border of Algonquin Provincial Park.
Smith accompanied eight other Boy Scouts from Birmingham (Mich.) Troop 1034 and five fathers on a two-day, 50-mile dogsledding expedition in northern Ontario. The excursion included an overnight stay in two prospector tents with wood-burning stoves, sheltered from steady snowfall and subzero temperatures.
After an hour-long lecture by Chocpaw Expeditions on every aspect of dogsledding, the novice mushers took the dogs from the kennel and harnessed them before mushing through winding, scenic trails in snow-covered woods.
Each wooden sled carried a driver standing on back runners, and a passenger sitting atop gear as six, 40-pound Alaskan dogs pulled twice their weight at an average pace of 10 mph. The rides lasted about four hours each day.
"It reminded me of those Jack London stories," said scoutmaster Bill Grier, 50, of Troy, Mich. "It felt like it could have been 150 years ago. In this age of computers and cell phones, it was great to be outdoors in the middle of nowhere and get away from it all."
When the dogs were harnessed and hooked to the gang line, the constant barking and pulling signaled their eagerness for the sled to be unhooked from a tree for the first leg of the journey.
First-timers were wide-eyed as the sleds took off.
"I wasn't quite sure what was going to happen once it was unhooked because we really went flying," said Christopher Matthes, 13, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
Matthes later was told the dogs were running 20 mph for the first mile before slowing down.
Developed by northern native people and once the main method of winter travel by early European explorers and trappers, dogsledding is drawing more and more people who want to try it for recreation and adventure.
Paul Reid, 57, the owner of Chocpaw Expeditions, started his business 30 years after his husky had puppies.
"I bought a sled to exercise them, began giving rides, and then it just took off from there," Reid said.
Chocpaw now operates expeditions from December through March with 302 specially bred dogs and 16 full-time guides. Reid said it's the largest dogsledding expedition company in the world.
"Our philosophy is that we have a total hands-on experience that can be both physically and emotionally demanding," he said. "Participants work as a team in helping to move the dogs in and out of the yard, harnessing them, hooking them to the team and at night feeding them.
"To really experience it, you have to do more than just go for a ride."