Garrick Schmidt’s passion to share traditional knowledge is behind the effort.
Barks, squeals and howls loudly fill the air as more than 20 dogs are carefully lifted out of a red kennel trailer and leashed to the sides of it.
The dogs eagerly await being harnessed, yipping with excitement at a chance to run.
Garrick Schmidt and his dogsledding team travelled more than 200 kilometres from their home near Moose Mountain Provincial Park in the southeast corner of Saskatchewan to Regina’s Wascana Park to provide tours.
For Schmidt, the dogs are a way of life, one he shares with others through Eagle Ridge Dog Sled Tours and a land-based learning program for students on White Bear First Nations. Schmidt, who is Métis, is a proponent of passing on Indigenous culture and knowledge related to the environment and our relationship with the land.
“It’s something that not a lot of people do anymore,” said Schmidt.
“I love being able to see a team of dogs running, especially in the south of the province, because not a lot of people really run dogs in the south.”
His first introduction to running dogs was when he was about 10-years-old.
A family friend, Nancy Dragon, brought a team of dogs to his home in Lebret, Sask., over Christmas break.
“I was a kid and just absolutely fell in love with the sport,” said Schmidt.
He said he was drawn to the relationship built with the working dog, and to the tradition of dog sledding built up before people came to rely on vehicles and snowmobiles.
That interest was revived after a visit from Kevin Lewis about three years ago.
The land-based educator and founder of kaniyasihk culture camps brought 40 dogs to Ochapowace Nation while Schmidt was teaching there.
Schmidt said that Lewis became his mentor. Schmidt went up to Lewis’s camp at Ministikwan Lake Cree Nation and together they trained sled dogs, built canoes and tanned hides. Lewis told Schmidt the oral histories behind dog sledding.
“That was when we started developing our real good friendship,” said Lewis.
Schmidt now passes on the lessons he learned to his students and tour visitors.
He and his students built a traditional sled with birch wood. The students also learn the way of life that revolves around the dog, making sure they are fit and fed, in combination with other land-based lessons like medicine picking.
Training the dogs
Two years ago Schmidt got his first dog, six-month old Kona, who he trained by driving on his quad and teaching her commands as she ran beside it.
He now has 24 dogs that he has received from Lewis — the oldest is 11-year-old Federer.
The dogs are Alaskan huskies, a cross between greyhound, blue heeler, and Siberian husky, bred for speed and obedience.
Schmidt said they can reach speeds of 30 kilometres per hour, but for tours and long-distance racing they slow them down to 12 kilometres per hour.
Training begins every year in October, when temperatures begin to cool down.
Schmidt said he “dry land trains” the dogs, hooking them up to his quad, and they start off slow just to get them back into the routine of running.
Once it starts to snow, they get back on the sled and go for longer distances, 60 to 80 kilometres a day. The goal is to have them ready for both tours and racing.
Dog sledding origins
Oral history of the working dog has ceremonies, songs, star and teepee teachings.
“Dogs are our canine relatives in the Cree worldview. We see him as part of the family and they work as well. So it’s what we call canine therapy,” said Lewis.
Many stories centre around the black wolf, who took pity on his brother Wisakedjak and humankind.
Schmidt said a story from Wilfred Buck outlines how the wolf watched humans fail to protect their camps and gave them a pup as a gift, with the fox and coyote following suit.
“We were getting left behind, you know, all the time. And then this wolf was getting tired of waiting for his brother to catch up,” said Lewis.
Lewis said the wolf gave humans the technology to pull the pups and showed them how to make toboggans or sleds by using birch bark.
Lewis said the dog sledding community in the province is small and tight-knit, sharing tricks of the trade and even puppies.
He said Schmidt is the only operator he knows in southern Saskatchewan, but that there once was a racing circuit and a large competition held in Fort Qu’Appelle.
“It started slowing down and almost to nothing down south,” said Lewis.
He said that the sport is building as interest in outdoor education and land-based learning grows in the province due to the pandemic.
Visiting cultural camps, learning traditional stories and supporting traditional ways of living is one way to take part in reconciliation, according to Lewis.
“It’s helping keep it alive,” he said.