Hello! My name is Leah Fetterley and I own and operate North Ridge Ranch Dogsledding in Huntsville, Ontario with my husband, Brad Fetterley. I had my first dogsledding experience while attending Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. I was in the Outdoor Recreation, Parks & Tourism program, and I participated in a 10 day dogsledding expedition with Outward Bound.
This experience was a total turning point in my life. Magnus was the sled dog I was responsible for on the trip, and we spent a 24 hour solo experience together while out. He was an incredibly special dog and I will remember him forever. I have always loved dogs, but this experience allowed me to form a greater appreciation and respect for the bond that humans and dogs can have while enjoying the great outdoors and being physically active together in the winter. The co-dependency and teamwork is like nothing else, and at the end of that experience I knew it was something I needed more of in my life.
After graduating, I started to look at dogsled touring companies I could work as a guide for, so I could spend my days with the dogs and expand my experiences and knowledge. Winterdance Dogsled Tours in Haliburton is where I found my happy place and developed my passion for sled dogs.
After awhile I moved to Huntsville to explore new grounds and shortly after met up with Brad. Brad had a dogsled touring business, and our mutual love and respect for sled dogs is what ignited our connection and now the rest is history.
We have 68 sled dogs in our touring kennel, so our teams are always changing, but they are all Alaskan Huskies, and most have been born and raised at our kennel. We have also adopted a bunch in the past few years to help diversify our lines when some mushers have been retiring. The dogs all have unique characteristics and personalities, strengths and struggles, but the one common denominator that they all share is they are a part of our chosen family and have our unwavering love and respect.
The characteristic I enjoy most about our dogs is their spirit. Sled dogs are kind of like super-natural beings whose drive and desire to pull is like no other. The excitement and joy they get from doing their job is inspiring. I always say, “If humans had half the work ethic of a sled dog, the world would be a different place.”
We live on 500 acres of wilderness, with our 4 yr old daughter and 68 sled dogs (ages 6 months to 15 years). In the winter we share our lifestyle and love for the dogs with guests that join us for tours, and the rest of the year is for family time, enjoying and caring for the dogs, renovating and building.
When preparing for the winter we start with short runs to get the dogs used to running as a team again and then slowly build their strength and endurance to meet the needs of the various tours. We are always changing up running positions and partners to keep things fresh and diverse for the dogs. Diversity and fun is key for our touring dogs and helps to keep them enthusiastic throughout the winter.
We offer half day and 1 hour tours with our dogs, which run approximately 10 kilometers for the 1 hour and 20 kilometers for the half day. In the winter we run all our tours daily from mid-December to the end of March. We offer 2 tours a day, and we have the 1 hour tour and the half day tour that is approximately 2 hours of running time.
Our run schedule changes throughout the winter, but generally Monday to Friday we run a 1 hour and half day tour and on weekends we run 2 half day tours. We monitor which dogs run each tour daily so we can ensure they are running within their abilities and have adequate time off. Our kennel has running dogs that range from 1 year to 10 years old, so some dogs only run one 1 hour tour, where some can run 2 half days per day. Trail time for the dogs is all based on their individual abilities and desires and the needs of each tour.
Our business is only four months of the year, but our commitment is year round. Sled dogs require daily care, attention and exercise to help develop and maintain them into the amazing athletes and friends that they are. In the off-season we focus on relaxation and fun, so our kennel basically turns into a dog park. We do a lot of free-running during the cooler parts of the day, and they chill out and relax during the rest of the day. We spend a lot of time in the kennel cleaning, feeding, watering and renovating in the off-season so we get lots of one-on-one time with the dogs to hang out and build up our relationships with them outside of dogsledding.
My most memorable experience while dogsledding is a little embarrassing, but certainly memorable! I was taking out a tour a few years ago with my 2 year old daughter as a passenger on my sled. The customer sled behind me was having some coordination and balance issues while driving his sled. Unfortunately at the top a fairly steep and meandering downhill, the man behind me tipped over! I double hooked my sled down, told my daughter I would be right back and ran up the hill to help the customer, while encouraging him not to let go of his sled. He did a great job holding on….until I got there.
Literally as soon as my hand touch the sled he let go and there I was, off to the races, being dragged down a hard, fast hill. This happened about 2 kilometers into the tour, so the 6 dog team was ready to GO, with Timber (probably the strongest and most motivated sled dog in our kennel) in wheel. I had a hold of the side stanchion and was “super-manning” it on my belly. My concern at the time was to NOT hit my sled that had my daughter in it – mission accomplished – but just barely! I can only imagine what my daughter, Brea, was thinking as she watched her mom drag past her and around the corner out of sight.
I was able to right the sled and get it stopped just before the bottom of the hill, but not before my snow pants, long johns and underwear were around my ankles (I now ONLY wear snow pants with suspenders) and I had this beautiful burning snow-rash on my thigh. Thankfully all the dogs were unharmed (I imagine they actually took great joy in the experience), and the customers were fine and got back onto the sled. My snow hooks held and my “calm” team with Brea in the sled were contentedly waiting for me as I frantically ran back up the hill for them. Phew! I hope this never happens again, but I guess this is what memories are made of??
My advice to new mushers is, as long as the good days outweigh the bad days, keep calm and mush on. Mushers are uniquely blessed by their choice in lifestyle and this can easily be forgotten. Remember to pause and look around your dog yard and pause your thoughts out on the trail sometimes to take it all in. Remember and realize how truly special sled dogs and our sport is. The dogs truly are the best co-workers and our chosen family. Their beauty, athleticism, desire and drive is unmatched only to their quirky, unique and loving personalities. Oh and NEVER LET GO OF YOUR SLED :)