Winter is the busiest time of year for mushers in Yellowknife and Kam Lake is home to some of the oldest dogsled tour operators in town.
The city’s industrial area is a uniquely Northern patchwork of businesses, where busy truck routes intersect with a network of dogsledding trails.
“We hit up a lot of roads and what we do for safety is we bring a pilot vehicle to tell the team to stop if there is traffic when you have to cross a major road,” said Jordee Reid, president of the Yellowknife Dog Trotters Association.
Reid also works at her family-owned business Tugah Northern Experiences, located next door to the Dog Trotters’ lot backing onto Kam Lake.
“In the wintertime, our business, Tugah, doesn’t cross any roads. We go straight out onto Kam Lake and then onto another lake from there,” she said.
But dog mushers who train for races have to cross Kam Lake Road to get onto Grace Lake, said Reid.
Beck’s Kennels’ property is bordered by Curry Drive, meaning they have to cross the road every time they take a team out.
As a safety precaution, they bus visitors onto Grace Lake to avoid crossing the road in the winter, said Grant Beck, owner of Beck’s Kennels, which operates Aurora Wonderland Tours.
“We cross the two roads with snowmobiles and dogs only,” said Beck.
Accidents between dogsleds and vehicles are rare, but they do happen. Several years ago there was a collision between a dogsled and a vehicle on Deh Cho Boulevard, said Reid.
“It was with a local dog musher who was training his racing team,” she said. “He and his family were out there.”
To improve safety, there could be more signage warning drivers that there are dogsled crossings in the area, said Reid.
“There’s no sign on that road where that collision happened,” she said.
Beck agreed that more signage would be helpful, a stop sign in particular at the dogsled crossing on Curry Drive.
Some drivers still speed down the road, but “it helped when they cut the speed limit down,” said Beck, adding that Curry Drive is not typically as busy as Kam Lake Road.
A few years ago the city put a culvert underneath Kam Lake Road between Kam Lake and Grace Lake to help mushers bypass the busier road.
“Part of their reasoning of why they wanted such a big (culvert) was hoping that the teams could go through there,” said Reid. “But when the water level rises there’s no way, and then it takes a long time for it to freeze so it’s open water for so long.”
Last year Beck said he cleared 45 centimetres of ice out of the culvert with a chainsaw to make it passable for the dogsleds, but it was “a lot of work.”
In addition to vehicles on the roads, dogsledders also have to be aware of snowmobiles on the trails.
And while the city has bylaws regulating the use of snowmobiles in town, there are none pertaining to dogsleds.
“We try to work a lot with the snowmobile community in town because we cross over multiple lakes and so we have to go through portages that have really narrow trails,” said Reid.
Those portages can be dangerous if a snowmobile is going too fast and the dogsleds meet them head-on. Fortunately, there have been no accidents involving snowmobiles, she said.
“Most of the snowmobile community is good,” said Reid.
Creating good working relationships with other businesses in Kam Lake is essential, she said.
“It’s kind of like this little community we have down here,” Reid said. “You’re in business long enough here, you get to know everyone else around the area too.”
Both dog-mushing businesses said they anticipate the road crossings might become more dangerous as the residential area in Grace Lake South is developed and regular traffic comes along with it.
“It’s doable now but I think going forward in the future if they develop that way we’re going to start thinking about something else,” Beck said.
Beck’s Kennels has been in business for 30 years and predates Kam Lake, so they’ve seen the area evolve over time, he said.
“There’s been many changes. It’s not new to us that the development is going to come, but we’re adjusting as we go,” said Beck. “We’ve been there and done that.”
For the most part, people who are familiar with Kam Lake know to be aware of dogsleds, said Reid.
“People that have owned businesses in the industrial area for years know that’s what the dogs do, and they’re really good about it,” she said. “It’s kind of new people to town or new people to the area that just don’t quite know yet.”
Other than getting the word out about the fall training season, Reid said there’s not much more they can do.
“The dogs, we can’t train them to look both ways,” she said. “They just run.”