Thursday, February 07, 2008

Independent Newspaper - Dog Sledding with My Newfoundland Adventures

The Independent newspaper's, photo editor Paul Daly and managing editor Stephanie Porter spent a day with My Newfoundland Adventures, running a team of huskies through snow-covered Gros Morne and discovering a taste of the adventure tourism the island’s west coast has to offer

Although it’s crisply cold and snow­flakes hang in the early-morning air, the day’s forecast for the west coast of Newfoundland calls for rain later on. “St. John’s weather,” says one man at the Deer Lake airport, wrinkling his nose. “That’s the last thing we want.”

Unlike St. John’s and the rest of the Ava­lon Peninsula, of course, the island’s west coast boasts a definite winter, with constant snow that many — especially those in­volved in the tourism and winter sport busi­ness — count on for both their pastimes and livelihoods.
Martin Hanzalek, operations manager of My Newfoundland Adventures, would fall into this category. Headquartered in a cozy cabin at the base of Marble Mountain, the business offers short and long guided tours in just about any seasonal outdoor activity you can imagine — from a two-hour twi­light snowshoe to multi-day wilderness camping.

Currently in a bit of a post-Christmas lull, the guides and other staff are preparing for the February-March winter rush. A day of rain won’t do too much damage; there’s plenty of snow down, and plenty of fun to be had on it.
Hanzalek, 30, grew up in British Colum­bia, and knows first-hand the worth and at­traction of adventure tourism. An outdoor enthusiast and highly qualified guide, he’s also got formal training in adventure tour­ism management.

Hanzalek has been in this province for seven years and has no plans to leave a place where he can do so many of the things he loves. One of the founders of My New­foundland Adventures, now in its fourth year of operations, Hanzalek’s goal is sim­ple: to work with other skilled guides who can offer new experiences and share every­thing they find irresistible about the prov­ince with others.
“I love all of these programs, a lot of us do,” he says. “Sometimes there’s between 12 and 14 working here between contrac­tors and employees. All of us choose this for a lifestyle as opposed to what’s going to turn us the biggest buck.
“We specialize in non-consumptive, self-propelled, unique programs. We bring na­tionals and internationals that are visiting this province to special places. We take you off the beaten path …”
There are dozens of programs on offer this time of year — including snowshoe­ing, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, ice-climbing, wildlife tracking, snow-kit­ing, ice fishing, wilderness survival, igloo-building and camping.And dog-sledding.
They’re the only company on the island offering dog-drawn tours and the opportu­nity is irresistible for many. As Hanzalek says, “there’s nothing more Canadian and more winter than running your own team of six or eight huskies through the snow-cov­ered forests at Gros Morne.”
The sound of 34 dogs barking is an abrupt first greeting for guests arriving at the loca­tion Elaine Pinard has taken over for the winter (it’s a motorcycle museum and art gallery during the summer).
The Siberian huskies are all tied up on short leashes around their sleeping kennels, except the 14 — a team of six and a team of eight — that are to take part in this morn­ing’s run.
Those dogs, already in position and har­nessed in, are particularly excitable, jump­ing, wagging, whining and eager to hit the trails. This is the second winter Pinard has brought a team of dogs to the province. She and her partner, Richard, are based in Que­bec; he’s back at home this season, running the business from that end and minding the 100 or more other dogs they own.

(The couple connected when she had 40 dogs, he 80 — he’d been told he “had to meet the woman with all the dogs,” and the rest is history.) Pinard says she loves being in Newfound­land, revelling in her access to wide-open spaces, endless trails for her dogs, plenty of snow and eager and curious clients.
She knows all the animals by name, al­ways has, even when she had “a family” of 250. “And the vet asked if I could recog­nize them all from the back … almost,” she laughs.

They’re all Siberian huskies, which she chose over larger breeds like malamute or Eskimo because they’re smaller, efficient, and better around people. Even so, the dogs need about a pound-and-a-half of meat a day — they consume a combination of chicken and seal —along with dry food. (Last year they experiment­ed with more seal meat, Hanzalek says, but it was so high in protein and all the good Omega fats the huskies got too strong and kept breaking their chains.)

Before the mushing lesson, Pinard al­lows a few minutes to suit up and warm up in front of the wood stove in a shed on the property. And to meet Washi, a slightly old­er, and much beloved white husky that has made its way to the status of Pinard’s pet and apparent favourite.

There is some excitement around the possibility Washi may be pregnant; Pinard breeds the huskies as well, selling pups in Quebec for about $500 each. This year, though, she kept all 40-some newborns, to rebuild a strong, youthful team after retiring some older members.
“Gros Morne is absolutely underutilized in the winter,” says Hanzalek, surveying the distant snow-covered hills. There’s at least six feet of snow down, even more than there is in Deer Lake or Corner Brook. Fifty years ago, British Columbia had a completely resource-based economy,” he continues.

“That’s still important, but now tourism is worth even more.”Does he believe that could happen in this province? “Sure, but a lot of people are go­ing to have to change the way they think,” he says. In other words, he’d like to see less focus cutting, excavating, extracting, kill­ing and drilling as the only ways to make money.
“The mill in Corner Brook, that will close some day,” he muses. “And you know what? People will be OK. There are other things to do.”
Hanzalek is full of stories and memories of trips he’s both taken and led, recounting the wide-eyed wonder of tourists as they see their first moose, successfully snow-kite, or catch a fish through the ice. He mentions one 89-year-old woman, a cruise ship pas­senger “sick of bus tours” who went on an easy river rafting trip — her first time on a river. And the delighted participants in the “chicks ’n’ picks” ice-climbing program.

Hanzalek also takes special pleasure in planning trips around a client’s specific wants, whether they are looking for an es­pecially challenging adventure or a multi-day, multi-activity group experience.
“These days, people are looking for something different,” he says. “They don’t always want another beach vacation, or a ski-only vacation.
“People are coming here for the things that are here to do. These experiences re­ally provide enrichment to your life, and are valuable. The climate’s rising, winter’s a rarity, and we still have great conditions here.
“There is a lot, a lot to see and do.”
Mushing, or commanding, a team of well-trained huskies is intimidating at first, but not difficult — not on relatively even ground, at least. Anyone who takes part in a dogsled day with Pinard is offered the op­tion to try. Pinard’s instructions are quick, specific and to the point: lean when you’re going around a turn, let the dogs feel you push­ing a little with your feet when you’re on the level, walk with them going up steep hills. When you need to stop, put both feet on the brake and lean back. And whatever you do, even if your sleigh is going off the track and you’re worried about capsizing, never let go.
The wooden sleigh can hold a passenger and some gear; the musher stands behind, feet on the skis. With a push and an “Allez!” the dogs are off like a shot, heading for the trails, already well marked by snowmobile.
As the initial excitement of being out on a run wears off, the dogs settle into an even, peaceful pace. The winding trail through the woods opens up to a frozen lake and stun­ning views of the Tablelands and the rugged landscape of Gros Morne National Park.
Pinard offers dog day trips between two and seven hours — lunch and a warm-up by a wood stove are included — and is also planning for a week-long expedition. The dogs easily cover 15 or 20 kilometres in two hours; the week’s journey would cover more than 450.

Slipping through the quiet woods, pass­ing caribou, moose and other wildlife tracks, leaning with the movement of the sleigh, it’s hard to imagine a more idyllic way to spend a winter’s day. If two hours is enough to impress Newfoundlanders, it’s hard to imagine the impact the experience would have on travellers unused to large, quiet, open spaces and mountains of snow.
Back at the My Newfoundland Adven­tures base, Hanzalek takes a moment to talk about the basic credentials of all the guides that work for the company — a particular point of pride for him.
“We feel strongly about providing all our clients with an exceptional duty of care, and in saying so, have minimum requirements for all our staff,” he says. “All our guides are experts in their fields, and are profes­sionals in the activities they guide.”

At a very minimum, all staff hold a val­id advanced wilderness first-aid certifica­tion, avalanche awareness training, and ice safety certification; staff working in and around moving water have swiftwater res­cue training; all climbing instructors have rope rescue training and appropriate climb­ing certifications
Hanzalek says his company has imple­mented minimum standards, as there are no legislated basic qualifications for tour guides in this province. (The Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation confirms the province does not regulate adventure tourism operators; the industry and operators are responsible for having enough training, certification and insurance to protect themselves.)
Hanzalek advises any customer, no mat­ter which company they choose for a tour or expedition, to ask about staff training. He mentions his own lead climbing guide, Jesse Terry, who spends 200 days a year climbing rock and ice all over the world; or St. Anthony native Neil Pilgrim who is a kayak instructor, river canoe in­structor, experienced Alpinist, rope rescue team leader, professional level interpreter and more.
They also share a bond that cannot be measured by paper certifications — but which may be the difference in both show­ing off the province and running a business that succeeds.

“All our staff are here because they want to live and work in Newfoundland, do­ing what they love and do best,” Hanzalek says. “They are passionate about what they do … we have some amazing natural wonders right in our backyard, and as Newfound­landers, we are just beginning to recognize their true value and potential.” (Managing Editor - Stephanie Porter)

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