It’s one of the more unusual sights on Lillooet streets this fall – a dozen dogs hitched to an old $100 motorless quad with one man riding on the quad.
The unusual sight represents an unusual dream – Francis Perreault intends to follow his own “Call of the Wild” and take his 12-dog team on a sledding expedition into the Chilcotin Mountains this winter.
He has a sled ready for his winter adventure and uses the quad for dry land training.
Perreault says all of his dogs are “rescue mutts” he’s picked up along the way over the past two years. Some he got as puppies two years ago; they accompanied him on hiking trips through Mexico and the United States.
When he was returning to Canada last winter he decided he wanted to go on a dog sledding adventure. His plans did not include a famous race such as the Iditarod or the Yukon Quest, but he did want to test himself and a team of dogs against the challenges of cold winter weather and a snowy trail.
“I started visiting shelters,” he told the News. “I didn’t want to start fresh with puppies because it would take too long, probably a couple of years. So I chanced it with some adult dogs who had come from other places. So far, so good.”
He arrived in Lillooet in April and has been training the dogs since summer.
“It was slow going at first,” he acknowledges. “I think mostly I had a lot to learn for them to be able to respond to me.”
Now, he says, “I think I’m learning something new every day about these guys and what they need to do or be. I might say something different next month, but there were a couple of dogs I had to find new homes for because they were just too lazy. They would always be running with slack in the line. These guys are all pretty good.”
The dogs are very well behaved. While he shopped at the Farmers Market last month, they sat quietly by the side of Fraserview Street. When he returned, they immediately paid attention, their heads swiveling side to side to follow his movements.
“They have to focus on the job they have to do,” explains Perreault. “A friend of mine visited from Vancouver and he stayed with us for a month. They really took a liking to him, so much so that I would ask them to stop barking or stop doing whatever they were doing because it was bad and they would just go to him. And then they almost started pulling away from me a little bit. I thought ‘Oh, this isn’t going to work.’ I ask so much of them - they’re not exactly pets.”
Perreault’s rescue dogs include a kelpie (similar to an Australian border collie), mixtures of Rottweiler, Doberman, a husky-lab-shepherd cross and a lab-shepherd cross.
The original sled dogs were chosen for their size, brute strength and stamina, but modern sled dogs are mixed breeds valued for their endurance, strength, speed, tough feet, good attitude and healthy appetites, and most importantly, their desire to pull in harness and their abilities to run well within a team.
Perreault’s dogs consume 20 to 25 pounds of food a day. With the arrival of hunting season, he says, they haven’t been eating kibbles nearly as much as they were because friends and others are giving him scraps and bones for the dogs.
When will Perreault head to the mountains in his new role as musher? He says that’s entirely dependent on the weather and the snowfall. This will be his first winter in Lillooet so he’s unsure of when the first snow will arrive.
He believes his dogs have shown they have the endurance to make the trek.
“I’ve never been on the snow,” says Perreault. “Last winter there were five of them I ended up traveling with. We walked 40 kilometres a day and everyone was cool with it. Even when we go hiking, it’s fun to be with them and whenever they feel like it, we pull over. We’ve traveled for a couple of days with this (he indicates the quad) and I just bring camping gear. Whenever everybody’s tired, we stop for the night.”
Perreault has an independent streak – the kind that allows him to turn down a suggestion to help fund-raise for the expenses of his upcoming journey.
“I’ve always been thinking that I prefer to be self-sufficient because then I can take it whichever way I choose,” he told the News. “Some people think I’m doing this to save the dogs, but honestly I’m doing this for myself and because it’s an adventure.”