Engaru is a town located just below the coast of the Okhotsk Sea in Hokkaido, close to the city of Monbetsu. The name has roots in the language of the Ainu–Hokkaido’s native people–in which it is known as “the lookout point”, probably due to its wide-open plains that allow fantastic views across sparsely populated terrain.
For a good 4-5 months of the year Engaru sees unbelievable amounts of snowfall, and temperatures that plummet well into the minuses. Between a smattering of fairly tall mountains, deep, flat valleys act as corridors for strong howling winds that make their way south from the ocean bringing with them a taste of winter in Russia, which sits several hundred kilometers directly to the north. For many these harsh winter conditions are too much to handle, but for others they are part and parcel of living in such a beautiful part of the world, and they allow for some interesting activities and businesses. Here’s where Outrider come into the picture!
Outrider have been in business in Engaru since 2013, although the man in charge has been involved in winter sports and nature oriented activities for much longer!
During the winter months, which typically start in December and end in April, Outrider offers unique experiences for people who want to try their hand at unusual winter activities in settings that are extremely photogenic, somewhat desolate and at times downright brutal due to weather conditions! They offer group activities that require working as a team, not only with the staff and other guests, but also with a pack of Alaskan Huskies who will be just a few feet from participants at all times during their stay. The dogs are seen as part of the family, and guests are expected to treat them as such!
There are 42 huskies in total, that eat, live and sleep in a forested area around a large Yurt, a type of round tent, traditionally covered with skins or felt, that has been used as a dwelling by nomads in Central Asia for thousands of years. The guests of Outrider base themselves inside the yurt, this is where they sleep, cook, socialize and plan for the day’s activities. A large wood burner sits in the center of the yurt, this acts as not only a source of much needed heat after a day outside in sub-zero temperatures but also as a means to make hot drinks and food throughout the experience.
A typical day will see guests arrive in the morning, and immediately get acquainted with the dogs. They are encouraged to greet the dogs one by one and build a bond with them, these relationships will deepen as time goes by as the dogs accompany guests on their sledding adventures. The guests are also responsible for feeding the dogs at the end of the day.
Once they have spent some time with the dogs and got to know their surroundings, the guests gather inside the yurt where they then get to know each other and the staff. Groups are typically made up of anywhere between two and seven people, and there are usually up to four members of staff with each group.
During this time lunch is prepared inside the yurt by the Outrider staff. It is made up of ingredients locally sourced and produced around Hokkaido. The meals are well thought out and time is taken to ensure they are both filling and healthy, as well as warming to the body, which is essential as after lunch the fun and games in the snow begins!
When lunch is done, the team are briefed on the dog-sledding activities of the afternoon. Strict instructions about safety for the guests and dogs alike are talked over and the crew go through the motions of the ride ahead with each other. They practice the runs without the dogs for roughly thirty minutes.
The dog-sledding course covers 20 kilometers in total, so it is essential all guests are ready for what lies ahead. The activity itself isn’t particularly hard to get to grips with, but unpredictable weather conditions can be challenging at times if you’re not well prepared. Average temperatures during the winter season are minus 15 degrees celsius, but have been known to dip as low as minus 25 in the past. With strong winds thrown into the mix, it often feels a lot colder than it actually is. The depth of snow also varies considerably along the course. Once training is done, the team sets off!
The group are led through a variety of terrains along the course including open roads and densely forested areas, all with a stunning mountainous backdrop. Two members of staff accompany the group, one at the front and one at the rear, both on snowmobiles. They keep a constant eye on the group members, the weather conditions and of course the dogs.
The course itself allows for some great scenery and opportunities to get some real speed up with the dogs! It follows a large loop that brings everyone back to the base camp as the afternoon starts to draw to an end. By this time the dogs and all members of the team are tired out and in need of a good feed. Before the guests can tuck into some well-deserved dinner though they must see that the dogs are also well fed. The dogs live off meats that are hunted locally, mainly bear and deer meat. Guests help prepare the meat and then divide it up between the dogs.
Other jobs that need to be taken care of at this time include making sure there’s enough firewood to keep everybody warm through the night, and filling the outdoor bath tub with cold water which is then heated using a wood burner while dinner is served. Once night falls and it’s dark outside, the guests take turns bathing in the tub, under either snow-filled or star-filled skies.
Once the baths are done guests can relax in the yurt, chat about the day’s activities and crack open a beer if they so wish.
All members sleep in the yurt together, to the peaceful sounds of the forest outside.
The next day everyone rises early with the dogs for more sledding and other activities including snow-shoe hiking and cross-country ski-shoeing!
The activities are evenly spread throughout the entirety of the experience, with the main focus being on the dog-sledding.
The staff at Outrider try and make it as fun as possible for all involved, and although the main language is of course Japanese, basic English is also understood.
Outrider Website and Information: http://www.outrider.co.jp/