For Leah Fetterley (née Blenkinsop), the best coworkers in the world are furry, four legged, and fast.
Leah and her husband, Brad Fetterley, run North Ridge Ranch, a dogsled touring company in Huntsville, Ontario. Leah came to the sport by chance as a Lakehead outdoor rec student. She was inspired by a 10-day dogsledding and skiing expedition she chose to do for her third-year practical course.
"I fell in love with dogsledding and knew that I needed more of it in my life," she says.
After Leah graduated with her Honours Bachelor of Outdoor Recreation degree in 2004, she did wilderness guiding, worked at outdoor education camps, and, for six winters, led tours with Winterdance Dogsled Tours in Haliburton, Ontario. In 2012 while working for Ontario Parks, Leah met her soon-to-be husband, Brad.
“Brad already had an established dogsled touring business, so we naturally shared a unique passion and respect for sled dogs. We connected, had our daughter Brea, and the rest is a part of our story.
”The couple run North Ridge Ranch on their 500-acre property in Huntsville, which has a mixture of tall pine stands, deciduous forests, and hills. “It's kind of magical, especially in the winter,” Leah says. “It’s not like going down a snowmobile trail or through an open field – it’s a lot more intimate.”
Dogsledding is a sport Leah thinks everyone should try at least once. “It’s not rocket science – but there are two things you must remember: never let go and use the brake to control your sled and your speed."
If you forget to hold on, you’ll find yourself standing on the trail with the dog team far off in the distance.
“One time,” Leah recalls, “a guest fell at the top of a very large hill. I ran back up to help him. Unfortunately, he let go of his sled just as I got to him, and I was dragged down the hill by the dogs. "When I finally got the sled stopped, my underwear was around my ankles, I had ice rash on my thighs, and the brake was broken – but I did not let go. It was definitely a ride I wasn’t expecting.”
North Ridge Ranch has just over 70 Alaskan Huskies, and Leah is a huge fan of the dogs, which she describes as easygoing, good listeners, and great with people. The Alaskan Husky is a popular type of sled dog that performs best in longer multi-day dogsled races, like the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest.
“They are super athletes. Alaskan Huskies are pound for pound the strongest mammal on earth. In top condition, they have the capacity to run further and faster than any other animal on earth,” she explains.
The dogs at North Ridge Ranch have solidly built homes and live outside, but they do spend a little time in the big house. Every Friday, two dogs are invited in for a family movie night.
“Some of them really love it, and some of them would rather be in the dog yard,” Leah says. “Our daughter, Brea, shares her popcorn with them. She also likes to read them stories, trim their nails, and, on occasion, keep them in her room for a sleepover. It’s a cool relationship because the dogs and Brea are playmates as they grow up.”
Brea is dogsledding on her own now, and maybe, sometime soon, she’ll be teaching guests the ropes.
“The most special part of being a dogsled guide,” Leah says, “is that you get to share awesome dogs and an awesome sport with other people.”
North Ridge Ranch offers a one-hour 10-km trip and a half day 20-km trip. Find out more at www.northridgeranch.ca