Mushing magic for kids and canines

Students from area schools seized the opportunity to experience a rare and exhilarating ride but this was no ordinary group of students and it was no ordinary ride.

Al Magaw

Al Magaw

Students help harness sled dogs before winter ride

Students from area schools seized the opportunity to experience a rare and exhilarating ride but this was no ordinary group of students and it was no ordinary ride.

Visually impaired students journeyed from area schools Friday to take a dogsled ride at Spirit of the North Kennels in Salmo.

Kennel owner Al Magaw says it all started about three years ago when Nelson teacher Jackie Cole brought a group of aboriginal and special needs students out for dogsled tours.

“She said it was so good for the kids, she was amazed at the difference it made, just one session with the sled dogs,” said Magaw.

Groups of visually impaired students took turns rocketing along a wilderness trail Thursday, Friday and Saturday as part of the Project Adventure initiative started by coordinator Sofeya Devji of School District 8. The project is designed to raise money to pay for outings for visually impaired students, ranging in ages eight to 17.

“I decided to try dog sledding, I had heard about it through Jackie Cole and I thought, ‘Hey, why not fundraise to try something new?’” said Devji.

Visually impaired students in school districts eight and 20 sold bracelets with “Adventure” written on one side and rendered in Braille on the other to fundraise for the project.

“We came with a couple groups yesterday (Thursday) and I liked it so much we came again today,” said enthusiastic J. L. Crowe student Ariel Cochrane. “I loved going dog sledding, it was awesome.”

Magaw first introduces the students to the usually rambunctious huskies before helping them harness the dogs and then bundles three students into each sled before heading off on a seven-kilometre sprint through the forest and along the scenic Salmo River.

“I couldn’t believe it, my sled dogs are really live wires, yelling and howling when they’re getting hooked up, but with these kids they were just so gentle and patient,” said Magaw.

Mike Lonergan, program director for B.C. Blind Sports, made the journey from Vancouver to take a seat in the sled.

Project Adventure and Blind Sports coordinate activities to

emphasize the importance of social interaction. The have gone skiing, kayaking, canoeing and camping, but the dogsled experience was a first, said Lonergan.

“A lot of it is just getting the kids together.”

There may have been some concern initially, as people with impaired vision are usually afraid of dogs because they can’t see if they are friendly or not, said Devji. However, the dogs reacted so well to the students, it surprised everyone and created a really special bond between the kids and the dogs.

After 34 years of raising huskies, even the 72-year-old Magaw, who still competes in dogsled races in B.C. and Alberta, was amazed at the way the canines interacted.

“I put it down to an enhanced intuition,” he said. “These aren’t pets, they are sled dogs. The normal social behaviour of the house dog is far different than the sled dog’s . . . People have no idea of how dogs communicate and what they pick up on. It continues to amaze me.”