nina on the go

Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Thursday, January 31, 2019

canmore, alberta...rocky mountains, blue skies, and oh so many dogs

We realize pretty quickly that these dogs are family. They are special. But, that doesn't mean that they're off limits. We are encouraged to get to know our sled dogs. We are cautioned to give dogs space who appear shy or unsure, and be affectionate with those pups who want some. Get to know them like you would get to know a person, we're told. That they were about to drag my ass through the mountains was not lost on me, and to tell you the truth, I was already feeling a bit guilty about all of that Christmas baking.


Even before stepping out onto the snow-covered lakeshore, greeted by the cold, awesome mountain air, I had done quite a bit of reading into this company (Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours) and their family members (the 4-leggeds). I was impressed by their attention to detail, to educating the public (me), and most of all, to making it clear how important their family members are to their business. This was the reason I was here, with these pups, now...

We were going to spend a couple of hours, first in instruction, then each pair would take turns driving the sled (yikes!),  and then at the end, debriefing around a campfire by the lake. Sound perfect? Spoiler alert: it kinda was.

Me and my lead dogs, Rebel and Bowie

Sled dogs are kind of amazing. Going back at least to 2000 BC huskies have been used to haul goods and people in the far north. But, even here in Canmore, giving visitors a ride like no other, these dogs are top winter athletes. And their care, for this exact reason, is a very precise operation.

In the winter months, the dogs are given what is essentially bison kibble soup. Yum. Basically, to ensure that the dogs are drinking their 3+ litres of water a day their food is given with warm water so that they get all of their liquids. They are fed 4 times a day, even on the trail between tours.

So, while our dogs were eating lunch, we were encouraged to walk among them and pet those who wanted to be pet, and to take photos...of course.

Megan, our guide, giving instructions

Then, Megan, our very competent guide, ran us through very thorough instructions. After she was done even I was convinced that I could maybe do this. She taught us the 4 major commands (Hike! Eeeeaaasyyyy! On-by! Whoaaaaa) that the dogs respond to (and they did!) and showed us exactly how to steer the sled. What's the most important thing, you ask? Don't let go of the sled!!

After the instructions we were assigned our sleds, and the passengers for the first half were bundled into the sleds. My brother, who had gone on a tour with Snowy Owl a couple of years before, gave me a great tip: drive the dogs on the second half, when they're a bit more tired, then you won't have to run along as fast on the uphill parts. So, this is me, in the sled for the first half - bf drove first :)


I wish I could describe accurately the noise the dogs were making, in excitement, as they knew we were getting ready to head out onto the trail. There was howling and barking and yelping...and it was awesome. They seriously sounded happy.

One important thing which Snowy Owl makes clear in the emails that come in the days before your tour: dress warmly. But, for those tourists/visitors who might not be quite prepared for winter in the Canadian Rockies, Snowy Owl has a handy rental area where you can load up on Sorels, and mitts, toques and jackets. Personally, I think this is quite the smart service on their part. But, I'm an Alberta girl so I made sure by German bf was dressed appropriately, and we were fine in the -7 C temperature. Only the dogs thought it was too warm!

The scenery as we slid through the forest was glorious. Mountains peaked through the trees as we ran the trails behind Spray Lakes, above Canmore. There was a light wind, joining blue skies and sunshine. We had totally lucked out with the weather!

Megan had prepared us for the looks of incredulity from our hounds when we didn't help them on the uphill parts. Sure enough, if the driver wasn't getting off of the runners to help the sled uphill, the dogs would shoot off a look back as a reminder. Needless to say, my bf and I aren't exactly the smallest people so our dogs were basically giving us the 'look' even when we were standing still.


Snowy Owl's pack is made up of 180 working pets, as they describe on their fascinating website. The dogs' photos are on the site, each with their names, like an online hall of fame. This family-run business is a self-described "dog first" company, and the four-legged employees seem very well cared for. They are Siberian Huskies, Malamutes, and Canadian Eskimo Dogs (the oldest indigenous dog breed in North America - did you know that? I didn't).


Snowy Owl breeds most of their sled dogs, but take care only to 'produce' the number of dogs they actually need, alongwith buying or rescuing 'new' dogs when the situation arises. They also have a very careful and intense adoption program for their beloved retired sled dogs. If I lived in Alberta I would absolutely be signing up to be considered!

The sled dog pairings are thoughfully considered. Partners in the team need to actually like each other...along with being strong and healthy of course. One of our pairings, it was explained to us, had a big intact male who ran better as long as his partner was a motivated him more. Dogs will be dogs, just like boys will be boys.

Photo credit: Boris - bbbphoto (Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours)

Somewhere around the halfway point, we switched and it was my turn to drive. My fears that the sled would be going so insanely fast that I would fly off were not founded. The team was fun to drive! I loved calling out the commands and cheering on the pups, and they were really great. The scenery was also spectacular.

Anna and her buddy taking a well-deserved break

The dogs have a detailed work and play schedule, with time off and daily free-run time so that they can socialize and just be. Once we returned to the trail head some of the pups took a load off and relaxed. As I mentioned, especially for the Malamutes, the temperatures were a bit warm for the dogs, who prefer -10.

Then the two-leggeds were guided to a bonfire beside the lake. Megan handed out steaming apple cider and homemade cookies. It was really a wonderful end to a truly fun experience.

I would highly recommend taking in a sled dog tour with Snowy Owl if you're in the Banff/Canmore/Calgary area. Afterwards, stop in at Half Hitch Brewery for super-delish mac'n cheese or burnt ends brisket...and a pint. Canmore is a cute mountain town - the perfect place to park after some good ol' outdoor activity.

Mac 'n Cheese at Half Hitch, Canmore - on Main Street

And, if you are needing to warm up, unlike a Malamute, my favourite place to steam is in Banff's Upper Hot Springs, which I've been soaking in apres ski or hike ever since I was a kid. On this sled dog day the snow fell in the evening hours as we sat in the hot pool among pines and peaks. Just bliss. I can't wait to go the dogs, the Rockies, and home!

If you go:

Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours - book ahead, dress warm, have fun!
Travel Alberta for things to do -
Banff Upper Hot Springs -

From Calgary International Airport to Canmore - 120 kms, just over an hour west on the #1

Sunday, December 23, 2018

a great reason to party...friends, fantasy, a finite life

This weekend I was again reminded how short life can heartbreakingly sad. I feel a combination of incredible despair for friends of mine, but at the same time a heart full of warmth because my home was filled with wonderful lovely people on Friday night. It was a good reason to party...

advent, the anniversary of my time living in Germany, and the acknowledgement of older and new souls who have enriched, enveloped and energized my time in this new place.

My dad opened the world of travel up for me, but it was my mother who showed me the bliss of a packed kitchen full of friends, a table full of simple, tasty food, and memories made on a cozy (often wine-fueled), laughter-rich evening of just being together.

I love throwing a party...and in the weeks before Christmas is my all-time favourite time for one! The first thing I make sure to have is a pot of mulled wine on the stove. The scent of cloves, cinnamon, oranges blending with red wine and a hint of sugar, wafting through the hallways to greet guests just makes me happy (and them too hopefully).

Now, I am not a great cook, that's for sure. Honestly, I'm quite lazy, but I do love planning what kind of simple, good food I can make, which drinks to have on offer, and how I will decorate so that people feel welcome and cozy. I mean, is there anything more cozy than a basket full of baguette and platters of Italian cheese and salamis?

It doesn't always work out, but I try to make sure that there is more than enough, which is something I also have from my mom. My brother and I loved her parties because there would always be days of leftovers afterwards.

For this year's advent party, I had chosen an Italian theme because....well, why not? There is a wonderful little Italian supermarket close to where I work. On one evening last week I went in to pick up Italian sausages, Salsiccia, along with great big slabs of Pecorino and Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto and Truffle Salami. A bonus of party-throwing in Germany is that food and drink is much less expensive than in Canada.

This is an easy, very tasty fingerfood recipe for the slow cooker...a great contraption for serving warm food over a few hours:

Italian Sausage with Peppers & Onions

Cut sausages in half, brown in oil on all sides, remove from saucepan
Add sliced bell peppers, garlic and onions and cook for a few minutes
Transfer everything to the slow cooker, add a can of diced tomatoes, salt and pepper
Cook on low for 5 hours
Keep in the slow cooker and let guests help themselves

Serve with mini ciabatta buns toasted in the oven, and napkins

Then I basically filled every available surface with dips, crackers, tartellettes, mini quiche, olives, Grissini, and other such simple good things, so that guests can continuously nibble and munch to their hearts content.

One thing I just learned is that drink options are very much appreciated...two types of beer, two kinds of red wine, and of course, non-alcoholic beverages are important. Going with the Italian theme, I bought Italian sodas when I saw them on sale...but mostly I just found them pretty.

There is a great German word, which is wished upon others a lot during the advent weeks...that Christmastime be 'besinnlich'. The best translation is a mashup of 'tranquil' and 'comtemplative'.

I won't be home for Christmas this year, but I incorporated some items from my mother (who passed away 11 years ago) into my decorating plans, to bring the feeling of 'home' home. Pine branches filled her handpainted milkcans, large and small, stuffed into pails and spread out on windowsills. Simple, smelly, sublime.

Sometimes there are special treats that arrive hand delivered, such as homemade desserts made by a friend, or a yummy gin from a special place picked out just for yours truly. 

When the last guests have left, I love to quietly clean up, even in the wee hours. It's peaceful work...having time to reflect on the conversations, the catching up, the stories...and being thankful.

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