It would take years to master the art of dogsledding, but the heart of a musher can be seen in an instant. It appears when every obstacle is faced with a constant overcoming.
Dale Swan, owner of Seppala Siberian Tours near Kitscoty, Alberta is one of ‘those’ mushers who always overcomes, and insists on praising his dogs more than himself. Handed trials from an early age, he was diagnosed with Dystonia, causing his brain to fire rapid impulses to his muscles.
From age 9 – 18 he recalls being like a fish out of water. He was on crutches with a curved ankle, and walked on the top of his foot. Then he progressed to a wheel chair, then spent four months on a stretcher, and finally was lying on the ground. At 16, after being told he was probably not going to be able to walk again, he wanted to go for deep brain stimulation surgery. His parents encouraged him to wait until he was 18. At that time, he was only the second person in Canada to have it done.
“I’m positive, optimistic, and I don’t give up. People underestimate me,” said Swan.
At the University of Alberta in 1999 or 2000 he underwent three surgeries to get back into walking condition; one for the battery pack in his chest, one for the two electrodes from his brain down to short out the rapid electrical impulses; and one crushing and reconstructing the ankle.
He had to relearn how to walk and talk, and still suffers from scoliosis. Swan has been dogsledding for the past 15 years, and admits that he is still learning.
After transferring to Medicine Hat’s Eco-tourism Outdoor Leadership course, he received an applied degree for starting his company. Swan offers various dogsledding tours with his 10 foot long tandem tour sled, and also races with a sprint racing sled as a way for the dogs and him to have fun.
“I believe the dogs can understand me, and racing is a lot of fun! You can learn feeding and training tips from other mushers, and spend time teaching others. Mushing can be hard on your knees and your back. A lot of people think we are crazy, but races allow you to see how your training is going,” said Swan.
He went on to say that he likes the Seppala breed because they are both a working dog and are good with children. He figures that there are only approximately 120 left in Canada and approximately 180 in the United States, and that the numbers have dwindled because people diluted the blood lines, having wanted to breed their qualities for show. For example, an Alaskan Malamute has longer hair, a curled tail, and is more bulky.
“It’s a rare breed, and Seppalas are the original sled dog,” said Swan.
Working with the Seppala Siberians, he feels he has the benefits of speed and strength.
“They are built to both tour and race. They were once called skinny rats, and were brought by a Norwegian man who won a race four times in a row. They are one tough breed, and have really strong immune systems. They can each pull 100 pounds and with all of my dogs together they can pull up to 900 pounds with ease,” said Swan.
He spends two and a half hours per day training in the winter. In the summer he uses a cart and helps train the dogs to remember their commands for an hour per day. In the future, he plans to compete in 80 mile races, 350 mile races, and the 1,000 mile Yukon Quest race.
For when he travels to races, he built a dog trailer with his Grandpa. He can fit the sleds in the middle where they are out of sight and protected from gravel, and the dogs each have a nice small room so they don’t lose too much heat at night.
For each race he is required to take a glove bag that has Velcro which is easier to attach to the dogsled in the cold. Inside he keeps another pair of gloves, first aid kit, dog boots, extra line, matches, extra collars, a garbage bag; anything he would need to reach quickly. His sled dog bag is used to carry all of his equipment for long distance races. They must have mesh netting so that they are breathable in case they have to carry injured dogs.
“I’d like to say that I’ve never had to haul any of my dogs in one, but I have unfortunately. Another racer clipped my dog on a corner,” said Swan.
He also carries dog jackets, a snow hook for emergencies, and prefers using claw brakes. He uses a bungee cord to take the shock out of the line in order to not jolt the dog’s hips.
“It’s not about winning the race; it’s about the health of my dogs and a chance to see my mushing friends," added Swan.
Swan has impressed other mushers with the amount of training he puts in. For example, he has trained his dogs to keep the lines tight, while other mushers have to uses stakes. He also pedals to help push while others won’t because he feels his dogs perform better when he is working hard too. Other mushers will always have some females on the team because the males often try to assert their dominance. Working harder with them to ensure there were no fights, his thorough training has also allowed him to use an all-male six dog team.
When in the bush with a dog team, Swan insists that they will protect you. On a recent tour, his lead dog wouldn’t go down a certain path, and when he walked a little further to inspect it, he found fresh cougar tracks that the dog could smell.
“The Seppala breed is the only one that will look back as they are running to make sure their musher is okay. We look after each other,” said Swan.
Part of a team, each dog and musher work towards the same goal, and share the same heart. Swan is looking forward to benefiting his team further by taking Lakeland College’s Animal Health Technician program next year. Next season his larger trips will be on hold, but for more information you can visit https://seppalasiberiantours.jimdofree.com/ or call (780) 872-3575.