There are now high hopes for sled dog operations in Whistler after the industry hit an all-time low last winter when the world learned details of a shocking dog cull that took place near Whistler in the spring of 2010.
The company connected to the tragedy has been reborn and transformed into The Whistler Sled Dog Co, a foundation-owned operation run by a new entity called The Sled Dog Foundation.
Sue Eckersley is the driving force behind the foundation. In the span of less than seven weeks she and a team of concerned people created the foundation and struck a deal with Outdoor Adventures Whistler (OAW) to take over the dog sled operations formerly run by OAW.
The owner of OAW, Joey Houssian, donated 152 sled dogs and all the tools needed to go with the dogs to operate a tourist attraction.
The donation included the land leases, vehicles, sleds, kennels and more.
"The response I have received in Whistler has been extremely positive," Houssian wrote in an email message to Pique. "I have received an incredible amount of email and those I have seen and spoken to have been very supportive. For 10 months we have been working on different concepts with regards to the business and determining the right thing to do. The Sled Dog Foundation is the culmination of this work and represents the greatest opportunity to influence positive change for sled dogs."
Housssian said that the sled dog company employees all love animals and they were impacted by the cull of some of the company's sled dogs.
"While we voluntarily closed the dog sled operation we kept our staff on to care for our dogs over the past year and I'm really pleased to see that everyone has transitioned to The Sled Dog Foundation," Houssian wrote.
With snow on the ground now, the new company is operational and booking tours for the season at its tour area in the Soo Valley north of Whistler.
"This is a hugely popular activity in Whistler so it is important that we do it right," said Eckersley, whose passion for dogs starts with her own blue-heeler cross Dexter.
"We've had an amazing response from everyone on this."
Tourism Whistler (TW) backs Eckersley's claim that dog sled rides are a big draw for visitors.
Breton Murphy, TW's senior communications manager, reported that statistics from Whistler.com indicate the popularity of dog sledding is on par with other activities like snowshoeing and sleigh rides. He noted that visitor surveys have put dog sled tours in the top ten Whistler winter activities.
"We're very pleased to see this development," Murphy said of the transformation of the OAW dog sled operation. "The gifting of the sled dog operation to this charitable foundation will help promote the improvement of animal welfare of sled dogs. This community-based, grass-roots initiative reflects Whistler's long-standing commitment as a dog-friendly resort concerned with animal welfare."
On the first day operations got up and running at the Whistler Sled Dog Co. two of the tourists on the ride, Justin Van Den Bossche of Gabriola Island and Christa Clark from Alberta, got engaged.
That's not that unusual and there is even a Proposal Point along the route. For many a sled dog trip is a magical part of a Canadian winter.
According to guide Sam Decoste, many happy couples have become engaged while on sled dog tours with his company over the years.
Eckersley is running the new foundation with two other people on a board of directors — Stephanie McDonald, the CEO of the Board of the Edmonton Humane Society, and Whistler veterinarian Dr. David Lane of Coast Mountain Veterinary Hospital.
Eckersley said she is pleased with where the sledding company is at and the advanced bookings it has over the course of the season.
"The possibilities are just so huge," she said.
One of her visions for the company is to have a summer revenue stream explaining that she envisions some kind of dog walking experience for guests. Running the dogs in the summer months pulling wheeled sleds has been tried but Eckersley said the dogs get too hot. She said she feels people will pay to walk a real sled dog in the warm months creating a win-win where the dogs get off-season exercise while generating revenue in a traditionally slow time of the year.
Eckersley also said the company's general manager, Will Jackon, has a dream of offering glacier dog sled tours using helicopters. Eckersley is open to ideas that will work, even if they are costly.
While Eckersley and her board work with the staff of The Whistler Sled Dog Co, some people continue to lobby against sled dog operators.
Peter Fricker, the projects and communications director with the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS), wrote to Pique to point out that mandatory standard of care regulations for the industry were supposed to be presented by the Sled Dog Task Force in September.
"The recommendations are important, as they will determine the future welfare of sled dogs in B.C.," he wrote. He added that he believes there may be some disagreements among the working group's membership over the standards.
But in an email to Pique, Agriculture Minister Don McRae said: "Many views and interests were represented on the Sled Dog Standard of Care Working Group.
"The group met over the past few months and has done an exceptional job of providing recommendations for a Code of Practice and Standard of Care. It was important to hear from a broad range of stakeholders. Work continues and we expect the new standards to be in place this winter."
The VHS is opposed to the use of dogs for commercial sledding operations. In a note to Lindsay Kislock, Chair of the B.C. Sled Dog Standards of Care Working Group, the humane society wrote that it is impossible to adequately enforce a standard of care to ensure proper care of sled dogs.
"This is primarily due to the businesses' remote locations and the lack of public scrutiny for the majority of the time," the society cautioned.
Eckersley doesn't see things in the same light, as she believes the people employed at The Whistler Sled Dog Co. genuinely care for and value all the dogs. She said her company is constantly working to make the sled dogs social creatures by letting them mingle with each other off-tether and learn skills, like how to climb stairs, so when they retire they can successfully live with a human family.