I am wistfully wishing for more snow, as the last layer retreats with temperatures pushing 50 degrees Fahrenheit — an unseasonably warm day for early December. We are past the warm colors of autumn, and the green of spring is many months away. Living in northern Minnesota, you learn to embrace winter, or face the risk that winter wears you down with gray days, early sunsets, and bitter cold temperatures. Over the years, we have gone snowshoeing, downhill skiing, and cross-country skiing; froze our gizzards running a road race in International Falls in January (OK, that was just me while the rest of my family watched) . . . . and most magically of all, mushed our own dog sleds. Every time I look at these images I captured last winter while dog sledding, I am reminded of the beauty of winter and why I love each of the four seasons.
Arriving at the wooded property near Ely, Minnesota, where White Wilderness Sled Dog Adventures is based, we were impressed with the obvious good care provided for the dogs. (I admit, I am one of those “never took my kids to the circus” parents, due to feeling conflicted of how the animals were treated! And, I admit to researching the reputation of this kennel of sled dogs before we went out on the trails with them, and was happy to read they had recently received recognition for “best cared for” team at races they ran).
We were invited to walk through the yard and greet the dogs as our sleds were set up for the day’s trip. We were not passive spectators as the teams were selected for the day. The guides showed us how to harness the dogs and hook up our own team, which allowed us to bond with and learn how to handle the dogs before we hit the trails. Each dog has their own distinct personality. While one dog just wants to get out on the trail and run, begrudgingly accepting a pat on the head, others are happy to visit, give you a kiss, and get a tummy scrub. I swear my youngest son can still remember the name and personality of each dog who pulled his sled that day!
Theo was our trusty lead guide, there to help us if we had troubles handling the team. What I loved best about this experience, though, was enjoying the silent grace of the winter woods, as gaps would come and go between sleds, leaving us in solitude for periods of time. One would hear the occasional shouted directions passed back to each sled, and we would comply with the proper commands to the dogs. And there was that bit of shouting when I lost my sled while trying to manuever around a rock on the trail and repeatedly hollered “WHOA!” to no avail! (No worries, the sled got hooked up on a small stump as I ran up the trail where the dogs waited patiently for me as I set the brake and got everything squared away again!)
Slicing through the snow-covered pines on a narrow trail, the magic of winter’s wonder enveloped me, and I experienced many moments of wanting to take it all in and etch it in my memory forever. The scenery varied from endless seas of tall pines to close-knit clusters of snowy spruce.
Mushing a dog sled can be somewhat physically demanding; it takes a reasonable level of fitness to enjoy, especially when cutting through fresh snow on the trails. We ran alongside the sled to help the dogs up the hills (always more of an effort when bundled in heavy winter outdoor gear), but had plenty of stretches where we just glided through the trees and took in the view.
For lunch, the guides tied our sleds to trees along a wider section of trail. We collected tinder and kindling for the fire that Theo set up at the edge of the trail where we roasted delicious locally made brats (similar to Polish or spicier hot dogs for those unfamiliar with a “brat”), and ate handfuls of hearty trail mix, topping the meal off with home-baked cookies dipped in hot chocolate. Our teenagers took a granola bar for a trail snack, and we were off again after resting with the dogs for an hour or so.
While any time would be picturesque in the Superior National Forest and Boundary Waters Wilderness areas, we were particularly fortunate that the weather was relatively mild (the dogs would have probably preferred it a little colder, in fact), and the fresh snow coating the trees turned every trail into a perfect winter postcard scene! These dogs run through an amazing piece of wilderness, where we saw nothing more than wolf tracks, dog sled tracks, and mile after mile of pristine forest. Dog sledding is an incredible way to soak up the magnificence of the Northwoods.
I have promised myself that some day I will return for an overnight adventure, sleeping in a yurt, sledding at night under the stars, and perhaps even finding myself fortunate enough to catch the northern lights dancing in the night sky. In the meantime, I leave you with this short video I pieced together from the snippets of film I took from the back of my sled (the dogs really do drive themselves on familiar trails!):
“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” ~ John Muir
Ciao! ~ Kat