Eric Marsden’s life has gone to the dogs—to 38 Alaskan racing huskies, maybe more. Some or all of the eight puppies that were born under his bed might also become his employees at Revelstoke Dogsled Adventures when they grow up.
When most of us think of dogsledding, we wonder if it’s cruel and inhumane to let dogs pull us across snow. Most of us have heard horrific stories over the years, such as the Whistler incident after the 2010 Winter Olympics, or the tragedy at the 1997 Iditarod race in Alaska, the famous dogsledding race where many dogs perished. (Animal rights groups say the distance the dogs run and the weather in which the race takes place make the Iditarod inhumane.) But these are isolated cases and the vast majority of dogsledding operators are like Marsden: They treat their dogs like rock stars.
“Eric is invested in the health and welfare of his dogs and he runs an ethical business,” says Julia Jackson, senior veterinarian at the Revelstoke Veterinary Clinic. And she has had canine clients since 1998. Jackson knows Marsden’s dogs are healthy and well-housed—she goes directly to his property for annual checkups and vaccines, but Marsden brings dogs to the clinic ASAP if there are any medical concerns. “Some people think the dogs are underweight but they are ideal for athletes,” Jackson explains. “And he has many retirees who are just hanging out and being dogs—none are euthanized. As for housing, some of the males aren’t neutered so having their own shelters and leashed keeps everyone safe and no unwanted litters.”
It’s October and Marsden’s canine crew (they run the gamut from “Fur-raris” to slow and dependable) are busy preparing for tourist season. “Right now I’m quad-training them. I hook up eight to 12 dogs on the four-wheeler and they pull me around,” says Marsden. “Ideally, before seeing the first snowflake they’ll have 500 kilometres of pulling experience before moving up to the dogsled. This morning we ran about 22 kilometres and will slowly build up.” Marsden’s tours could be up to 40 kilometres.
All the dogs live in his backyard. At any given time some are loose in the tennis court enclosure while others are on a post-and-tether system. All the retirees are free to roam. Marsden says some dogs have their “bits” intact so he has to control the population, but he rotates them so all dogs get time to free-range. In the summertime Marsden, wife Connie and their two daughters, take the huskies on camping trips. He also does forestry-related work and a few canines accompany him. Others are fostered to friends for a few months and come home a bit fat, but they trim down fast. “When they aren’t running, they’re making wallets,” Marsden quips. “Kidding.”
A typical Revelstoke Dogsled Adventure takes four hours, door-to-door. Marsden picks up guests with the dog trailer in tow and drives about 10 minutes to the trail head. Guests “meet and greet” the dogs before they are hooked up to the line, and every guest has the opportunity to mush the team under a guide’s supervision (either Marsden, his wife or two other experienced guides) or they can sit back and enjoy the ride.
“If you want to mush, a penchant for canine-powered adventure is all you need,” explains Marsden. “We’ve taken a 95-year-old and young kids sledding—the dogs don’t judge.” There put two people per sled, with a maximum of eight people (four teams) per trip. “And there’s no racing. I’m leery of giving the keys of my Porsche to someone who has never raced before.”
“I first went dogsledding four years ago and I’m hooked,” says Heather Hood, a local journalist. “At Revelstoke Dogsled Adventures’ super-clean kennel, Eric and his daughters are usually playing with some dogs while others are stretching and lazing about. Then they are excited to get in the truck and there’s a rush to get them hooked up to the sled. Eric is mushing while I’m being pulled and all of a sudden it’s complete silence. I’m in awe of my surroundings and the dogs. Eric has a big smile and it’s obvious the dogs are happy.
“During the ride Eric tells stories about the dogs; he talks to the dogs, encouraging them, and a few glance back. When we break, some dogs roll in the snow while others seem anxious to get going—that’s enough lolling about! Then you feel the surge of power and settle into a pace for the next hour.
“Eric and his wife Connie are so proud of the dogs, and the dogs never jump on their two young girls. It’s a family business. I think some dogsled operations do it just for tourist bucks, but others have a deeply ingrained passion, bordering on people questioning your sanity! I know that living for your dogs takes a ton of work. But they do it well.”
Marsden breeds his dogs to make a husky that’s just a tad faster. “My dogs aren’t purebred; I purposely add a hint of greyhound and a dash of German pointer to make a speed rat,” says Marsden, laughing. Mutts are typically healthier than purebreds, without genetic weaknesses. And these sled dogs, technically deemed Alaskan husky (although the American Kennel Club doesn’t officially recognize the group), love to run and work. They actually have more endurance than the traditional sled dogs—Siberian Husky or Malamute.
Alaskan Huskies are known to be smart and high-energy yet easygoing, and they love howling. Like humans smitten with wanderlust, they have an insatiable need to see what’s around the corner, where maybe the grass is greener. But for these dogs, you can’t beat Revelstoke snow.
“I grew up on a working ranch in northern BC, and some of our work dogs pulled us kids around on various implements,” says Marsden, adding that it was quite a leap to mushing a team of his own dogs. “After university I travelled overseas doing bird research before my life went to the dogs—working as a guide in the Rockies I hopped on the back of sled with a guiding outfit. I knew right then that sled dogs would make me stay somewhere.” And that somewhere is Revelstoke.