• This 20km ride dragged by four Huskies was the most interesting activity we tried in Hokkaido. There are a handful of kiddie-style 1 km rides available but this was the only half-day, full-on dog sled education opportunity we found.
The organisers were well-intentioned but slightly unclear about some aspects, such as how to find them! The sled handling training was also minimal since the three other participants had a train to catch (most visitors come by train and are collected by the school).
Still, it was a fascinating time. After a brief run-around with the sled, learning how to stand on the sled runners, how to brake (between the runners), and how to anchor the sled so the dogs don’t run off with it if you step away, we met the dogs.
About 45 dogs live in individual pits in a snowy, wooded area behind an old school house, each attached to a chain so they can’t fight with each other and a little wooden hutch for cold protection. We were introduced to our teams, especially the leader of the pack. My leader was Brit.
Our first job was to unclip our dogs and lead them (or more precisely be dragged by them) to a kennel-truck that would take them to the start of the trail.
This is what hot dogs look like in Hokkaido.
On arrival at the trail head we led our dogs to our sleds and clipped them into position, not particularly easy as the dogs are excited and powerful.
Husky voice commands in Hokkaido are Hike! (go); Up! (uphill, more power needed) Woah! (slow or stop)
And they’re off! A good sense of balance is useful as the sleds are light, slim and not very stable, especially since one hand is controlling the dog leads.
Experience on either skis/snowboards or motorcycles plus having taken powerful dogs for walks is an asset so neither Ikuko nor I fell off/crashed out during the three hour trip but a couple of the other tourists fell off on a regular basis, stopping the whole canine train.
We followed a beautiful trail curving through light forest and up to a high viewpoint where we took a 10 minute rest.
The trickiest aspect of sled control was going downhill as the sled begins to go faster than the dogs so braking is necessary to avoid running them over, effectively meaning you have to stand on one foot, brake gently with the other, guide the sled with one hand and control the dogs with the other. Then add to the mix cornering downhill at speed (15 kph/10 mph) and as the dogs go round a bend the sled takes the shortest path (the hypotenuse) across soft – possibly sloping – virgin snow and it all becomes quite exciting.