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Dogsledding in Gatineau attracts winter-loving adventurers from around world

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OTTAWA - In an age of snowmobiles and four-wheelers, mushing a sled team of pooches across a snow-covered forest is a rarity, but dogsledders all over the Ottawa region have visitors flocking from as far away as Europe to try out this uniquely Canadian sport.

"When people come from other countries, it's something they want to do," says Sylvain Drapeau, 37, owner and dogsled guide of Escapade Eskimo, a winter resort in Otter Lake, Que.

"They associate Canada with dogsledding in the winter," says Drapeau, who has had visitors from Germany, France and England.

Deep in the boreal forests of the Outaouais woodland region only 75 minutes from Ottawa, Drapeau runs the dogsledding experience with wife Caroline Desrosiers, 35, and 22 Siberian huskies.

He says dogsledding is a great way to enjoy winter days in nature outside the city.

"It's really an outdoor activity. People can enjoy the winter too and most of the people who come here all love animals and they pet the dogs."

After breeding one of his male dogs with a female from another kennel, Drapeau has two new puppies arriving from the litter for visitors to gush over, but as many of his female dogs run in teams he tries to keep his dogs from breeding during the sled season.

"They're really happy to see people," says Drapeau about his friendly dogs which run up to 50 kilometres a day in teams of six to eight per sled.

While huskies enjoy a mischievous reputation for eating furniture and digging holes in their suburban owners' backyards, Drapeau says in a dog team they can't get enough running, often gnawing on their reins in their eagerness to sprint.

"Even a five-minute break is too long," he says. "They get so excited they jump and bark to go again and ... you have to make them really tired."

According to Drapeau, part of the skill of an experienced dogsledder is being a part-time dog psychologist, managing the personalities within his sled teams.

"There's so much to know about one dog because some dogs don't get along and you don't really know why, but they all have their history."

First-time drivers shouldn't be intimidated to drive his modern aluminum sleighs either: Kids as young as 13 can learn to safely drive the sleds in no time.

"There are always two on the sled: One person driving and one person sitting ... It helps to have more weight in the sled so if the (driver) doesn't lift the (right) foot to break or make a curve, it won't matter really because the person sitting will make enough weight."

Drapeau has been dogsledding for 30 years and fell in love with the sport when he watched his uncle mush a team as a kid. When he got older and had his own dogs, he offered dogsled rides as a way to pay for dog food.

"We had so many people asking and asking, finally I decided to change my job to (dogsledding) full-time."

Ten years into his dogsled business and visitors come to Drapeau's resort to mush their own dogsled teams or try the more adventurous sport of Skijoring, which is cross-country skiing with a harnessed dog pulling you forward along the trail.

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If You Go...

Dogsled resort Escapade Eskimo is in Pontiac County, a scenic 75-minute drive from downtown Ottawa through the historic Gatineau Hills.

Dogsled guide Sylvain Drapeau says to come prepared with your warmest cold-weather gear, but if he feels visitors may be too cold along the trail he provides everything from Canada goose jackets to special winter boots, free of charge.

A half-day of dogsledding costs $119 per adult and $59 for kids with a shorter sprint-package costing $25 for adults and $15 for kids with other winter activities available at the winter resort.

Contact Escapade Eskimo at 613-454-5443 or online at http://www.escapade-eskimo.com.

The website http://www.ottawavalley.travel/ also has information on other dogsledding retreats in the area, including many in the Gatineau Hills and Ottawa Valley.

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