Reminiscing now, I think the profound anticipation of our adventure, almost equaled the experience itself. Dogsledding was something so far removed from anything we had yet experienced … mushing our own dog team, harnessing, feeding, bedding and caring for it, plus camping out in the wilderness in temperatures that would reach freezing at nights. It evoked a frenzy of excitement in our household from the day we secured our booking. My 8-year-old daughter could barely contain herself. I have to say my anticipation was also tinged by an element of fear; I knew the learning curve would be steep.
We travelled on the direct flight from Cayman to Chicago, picking up an onward two-hour flight to the port city of Duluth, on Lake Superior, and driving a further two hours north to Ely, Minnesota. After a night at the luxurious Grand Ely Lodge we were collected by Wintergreen intern guide, Jacob, who took us to Warm & Cozy, a shop from which we could get much needed advice on cold weather gear and buy or rent boots, mittens, thermals, trousers and jackets as needed.
At last, the moment arrived to go to Wintergreen Lodge itself. Given the choice, of course we opted to stop first to meet the dogs at Wintergreen’s kennels. I shall never forget it, the memory still sends a shiver through me. On hearing the arrival of our truck and voices, the kennel, some 50 plus Inuit dogs strong, in unison broke out into howling … joined spontaneously by my daughter (who had been practicing her howl for the previous fortnight). I was rooted in my tracks. This welcoming, coupled with our long anticipated and awaited yearning to meet them, brought tears to my eyes. It was an emotional experience I had not been prepared for.
We were to learn so much about these beautiful and endearing animals over the next five days, but what struck me at the outset was their genuine affection for humans. As we walked along the rows of dogs, each chained to his/her own box house, every one strained against its hold, desperate to be greeted individually. It was overwhelming to meet them for the first time. Having been told that we would likely depart at the end of our five days knowing, not only the name of every dog that was to go with us, but also each one’s distinct personality – had seemed hard to imagine, but now felt plausible.
On his website, Paul Schurke, founder of Wintergreen Dogsledding Tours, describes the Inuit dog (one of the oldest pure breed of dog) as a true athlete.
“It will pull at least twice its weight at a pace of 5 to 6 mph for hours at a time. Their thick double coats and tough demeanour allow them to thrive in extreme conditions. They’re accustomed to eating snow for moisture and, when night comes, they curl into a ball, wrap their tails over their noses, settle into the snow and sleep soundly. Come daybreak, they all pop up with the slightest hint around camp that sleds are being loaded and anxiously paw the air seeking to be the first to be harnessed.”
We were continually amazed at how hard and seemingly effortlessly the dogs worked, and moreover how much they do love it.
Our first night was spent getting to know our four fellow adventurers and two guides, whilst dining over a veritable feast prepared by Chef Christian, for our welcoming. Our guides, Tina and Chris, went through each individual item of our clothes, to ensure that we would all be safe and comfortable on the trip. Unexpectedly (and I felt, thankfully) the weather had turned unseasonably warm during the days. This change meant careful planning of a new route and it was decided to drive still further north to the Basswood Lake entry point on the Minnesota Ontario border where we would sled mostly frozen lake trails where the ice was still very thick. This area, known as the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness, untouched by civilisation, covers more than 1 million acres of forest, with over 1,000 pristine lakes and streams and over 1,500 miles of waterways, is the largest wilderness area east of the Rockies.
Getting up to speed
The following morning was spent getting instruction on sledding technique and packing up the sleds. The dogs were carefully chosen by the guides according to the weight they would be pulling, and their hierarchy in the pack. Their placement is an art: like their cousins the arctic wolves, they have extremely strong pack instincts. The pack hierarchy means that some of them will not run together without fighting over dominance. The “lead” dog is placed in front; dogs in training in the middle with experienced dogs at the rear. They are paired male to female, and it is important always to maintain the single-file caravan line to prevent your team from coming up along side another team as the alpha dogs are extremely aggressive and will fight viciously if they come into contact.
Finally after lunch, with the dogs loaded into custom made boxes on a trailer and the sleds hoisted onto the back of the truck, we set off. At the appointed portage entryway it was a thrill to leave all civilisation behind us, and sled into the wide, frozen expanse that opened in its vastness before us. We found ourselves whooping out loud with the exhilaration of it.
Late afternoon our guides chose what would be our base campsite for the next three nights. From here we would take off after morning chores of feeding and watering the dogs, and a leisurely breakfast, and sled all day, returning late afternoons. Lunch would be a picnic somewhere scenic en route when the mood struck. Late afternoons back at camp were spent gathering firewood, cross-country skiing, and skijoring (being pulled on skis by one of the dogs). I don’t know how the guides managed to produce the hearty, delicious meals they did each evening, but they did, and with great adeptness.
Under the stars
We slept out each night in the open under the stars on a compacted bed of snow. On a couple of the nights the temperature dropped to freezing and we would fill our camelback bottles with water boiled over the campfire and place them in our arctic rated sleeping bags, making for a toasty warm slumber. The long forgotten pleasure of sleeping out under a clear night sky, listening to the distant howling of wolves was wondrous.
I think my daughter took away so many life lessons from this experience. I was so proud of not only her ability to adapt to such a foreign environment, but also of her keenness of spirit to take up new challenges. One such challenge was a polar plunge when we got back to Wintergreen Lodge on our last day. This involved dropping through a hole cut out of the two foot deep ice, to fully submerge into the icy cold waters of the lake below. I stood in awe as I watched her small head disappear momentarily, painfully aware of the “I will do it if you will do it” promise I had so rashly given to her.
Back in the civilisation of the small town of Ely, after a visit to the studios of local famed National Geographic photographer, Jim Brandenberg, we sat in voluminous sofas of the coffee shop, chatting to locals who all wore knowing smiles when we spoke of the richness of the experience. Later that evening a visit to the International Wolf Centre was an echo of our wilderness journey we were so sad to have left behind.
I feel so thankful for having had this opportunity. The dogs really are central to that gratitude. I find myself struggling to put into words just how extraordinary they are, and believe one needs to be amongst them to understand. We all had our firm “favourite” by the end of that first day – mine was George. I would spend a little extra time with him, and by the end of our trip when I stood next him, he would lean in, pressed hard against my legs. The gift was definitely mine. I want to take my friends there to share it all with them.
At home, I picked up an article written by journalist, author and travel guide Jim Klobuchar, and read these, his words, with a new sense of empathy:
“Isolation brings you surprises in the wild country. It sharpens your nerve ends and tightens your focus. The realisation that you are both free and at the mercy of your own judgement is intense and exhilarating. The wilderness in winter when you are alone is full of suspense and whimsy and the unknown. The creaking trees are ventriloquists, throwing their moans and prattlings to other trees. When it was time to camp and the sun was low and lost, as I was skiing back to the Echo Trail, I thought, we spend years looking for some ultimate peace and reconciliation in our lives. When we come back from an experience in the forest, we almost invariably feel better about ourselves, and the world.”