Dog sled team stops in at OLW

It was a fitting way to cap off Voyageur Day for the students of Our Lady of the Way School in Stratton on Friday.
They were visited by Burton Penner of Borealis Dog Sled Adventures and 18 of his 33 dogs.
Penner spoke to the entire student body about the history of dog sledding and the voyageurs that used to use them in the winter.
“Many voyageurs used dog sleds in the winter to transport things like the mail from the Red River to Thunder Bay,” noted Penner. “They travelled right out here along the Rainy River.”
In addition to taking tourists on dog sled adventures, Penner, himself, also uses dog teams to travel his trapline up near Red Lake and as far away as Hudson’s Bay.
Penner talked about his dogs and how they are smaller than most people think they should be.
“They are Alaskan Huskies and not as big as you might think,” he said, adding Alaskan Huskies are those that have had other types of dogs bred into them to maximize performance.
Comparing them to an Olympic athlete, Penner explained Alaskan Huskies have an oxygen uptake of 275 while the athlete only has an uptake of 75-80.
“They can really get the oxygen into their blood very quickly,” he noted. “They do what they are designed to do—burn a lot of energy—and love doing it.”
On a busy day, his dogs will burn about 10,000 calories a day, whereas a busy human will burn about 1,800 calories, Penner added.
The key to a good dog team is having a good lead dog, said Penner. He said that when puppies are born, he watches them very early on to pick out who might be a good lead and then the dog’s training begins.
The lead is key when Penner yells commands to the team. “I yell ‘Gee’ to go right and ‘Haw’ to go left,” he remarked.
Penner said you can’t make a dog be a leader that doesn’t want to be a leader. But one that does is good to go after about two-three years of training.
Penner showed the students all the gear the dog teams use, including booties for their feet and their harnesses. He noted the booties are not necessarily to keep the dog’s feet warm.
“After about 20 or 30 miles on very cold days, the ice/snow crystals are like glass,” he explained. “Dogs have lots of blood pumping through their feet so if they get cut, it is not good.”
Jackets also are used when his dogs go further north than normal since their coats are not as thick as they would be if they lived further north.
Penner said the three rules of dog sledding are: “Never let go of your sled, never let go of your sled, and never let go of your sled.”
Once the dogs get going, they do not want to let up. Running is what they love to do.
With that in mind, Penner even showed the kids that he still, like many kids, has strings through his sleeves for his mittens. “If I drop my mitten, I cannot easily go back and get it,” he reasoned.
Penner also acknowledged caring for 33 dogs is a lot of work and some dogs require years of care. “I have had dogs work up to 14-15 years of age. I let them decide when they are done being work dogs,” he said.
After his oral and video presentation, Penner took the students outside and started off with a race between half of the dogs with him on one sleigh and some of the senior students at OLW pulling another sleigh.
The dogs easily won.
Then he took the older students on rides while the younger ones watched from around a bonfire.