Powder hounds

🕔Dec 03, 2008

Last November, a couple of weeks before Shames Mountain opened for the season, I found myself standing on the side of a run, watching with delight as Maisie, my three-year-old golden retriever, leapt and swam her way down the hill toward me. Knee-high powder snow on me was deep enough that all I could see of her was her head, flowing tail, and sometimes a flash of front paws. Tongue lolling, she joined us briefly before diving into the next snowbank, looking back as if to say, “Guys, what’s keeping you?”
Four-legged winter mountaineers are no uncommon sight in the Northwest. With tails wagging and bellies festooned with snowballs, there is usually a dog or two padding up the skin-up trail with a group of skiers, maybe taking a detour off to the side to check out a promising scent or two, or bounding ahead to break their own trail through the snow. There’s no doubt that, given the right dog, the right location, and the right snow conditions, ski touring or snowshoeing with a canine companion can be a fun and rewarding experience for dog and owner.
My own first foray into skiing with a dog took place one spring on one of the old ski runs on Mount Hays. Maisie is an athletic, high-energy dog, so hiking and skiing with her seemed like a great way for us both to get some exercise. Had she been a small, short-legged Dachshund or Basset hound, I would probably have left her at home on the couch with the cat. That day on the old ski hill, there was nobody else around, just me, my bright pink skis, and my goofy young golden. When I clicked into my skis for the first time, she was transfixed with curiosity. However, when I began to slide away from her on the spring corn snow, she was horrified.
Maisie tends to behave more . . . exuberantly than most dogs I know, so I wasn’t really surprised when her reaction to this new experience was to leap around in front of me, pawing and yelping. I’m pretty sure she was just trying to save me from whatever oblong monster was attached to my feet and creeping up my ankles. My first few turns that afternoon weren’t exactly graceful, what with Maisie barking and trying to bite my poles, and me yelling at her to get out of the way, trying not to sever her toes with my ski edges.
In reality, it was the perfect place to introduce her to ski touring. No witnesses, for one, to our combined chaos, but also no other skiers for Maisie to hinder in her puppy ignorance. It’s bad enough when another skier poaches your line, but having the rhythm and flow of your turns interrupted by somebody’s dog is even more frustrating. I know of more than one skier who has spoken grumpily of someone else’s dog that ruined a perfect run in the backcountry by getting in the way. Maisie and I did a few runs that day, alone on the snow above the city, and by the end of the day she was much less frustrating to ski with. I hesitate to claim that she is 100 percent tuned in to the niceties of skiing etiquette, but she no longer tries to run backward down the hill in front of me with complete disregard for both our lives and limbs.
Something else that made Maisie’s inaugural ski-tour a success was the gentle snow conditions: early spring corn with a centimetre or two of new snow on top. All backcountry skiers love their powder, but last winter a friend told me of one trip that was curtailed because the dog in the party was completely overwhelmed by the physical challenge of following his human through particularly deep snow. Though they slowed their pace as they skinned up the mountain, the group had to turn back to the truck when the dog, utterly exhausted, lay down and refused to go any further. There’s no doubt that most dogs have more energy to expend than their people, but imagine slogging through winter powder deeper than one’s head, and how difficult and tiring that would be. On those mega-deep days, the hound is best left at home.
That being said, most dogs love snow, and a heavy fall of fluffy powder brings out the puppy in the most stoic old rover. They dive into snowdrifts and try to bite the really big flakes. More than one skier has spoken proudly of the way their ski-touring doggies “swim” or “float” down a deep, snowy run, and how much the dog seems to enjoy it. These real-life powder hounds take as much joy in bounding down a wintry slope as the human version, and speaking for myself, the sight of that goofy, ecstatic face only enhances the glorious experience that is ski-touring in the Northern BC mountains.