Dog Sledding Through Minnesota’s Boundary Waters
About a year and a half ago, while in Vietnam, I met an “addicted to traveling” couple from Germany. They were just two of the hundreds of travelers I’ve met during my time abroad. However, something happened in our conversation that was unique. They were the first people I met while traveling who knew where Minnesota was (not counting fellow travelers FROM the United States). Not only did they know where Minnesota was, but they claimed it had been one of their favorite travel destinations. That was saying a lot, considering they had been to countless destinations in over 80 countries.
I simply had to know why they considered Minnesota as a favorite. It’s not that I don’t think Minnesota is great. I love Minnesota. Especially in the summer when the Twin Cities are so full of life and the Boundary Waters are so full of untouched, natural beauty. However, like most people, I tend to overlook how great my own home is when I compare it to other places in the world.
Much like the chickens in this cartoon, I’ve noticed a trend in how people view a certain travel destination based on how far away it is from their home. For example, Americans look at the island of Bali in Indonesia as an exotic, once-in-a-lifetime cultural getaway. While most Australians look at Bali as a cheap, party destination that everyone goes to at least a couple of times in their life. In contrast, many Australians look at places in the Caribbean as exotic, cultural-rich destinations while very few Americans would consider the Caribbean more than just a place to go for a week of all-inclusive gorging. Don’t get me wrong, both places are amazing travel destinations, but I find it interesting how differently travel destinations are perceived based on how long it takes someone to get there.
After that conversation with those Germans, I made a vow to myself that I would explore my home more when I returned. Starting with the German’s first recommendation: dog sledding in the Boundary Waters. This is something I would have never considered two year ago, but right now, I am determined to try and view my home as if I’m an excited traveler visiting here for the first time.
About Minnesota’s Boundary Waters
The Boundary Waters is the name given to the protected wilderness area between Minnesota and Ontario, Canada. Within the wilderness region are six protected areas (four in the U.S., two in Canada). One of those areas is the Superior National Forest, where we will be roaming during the two-day dog sledding trip. It takes us just over four hours to drive from my home in Minneapolis up to Ely, where I can get one last hot shower in before my trip starts in the morning.
Arriving at the kennel
I pictured the arrival at the kennel being full of chaos and barking dogs. Instead, after a 20 minute drive through the woods, we come across a relatively quiet clearing with a small house and at least 100 bright red dog houses. I use the word “relatively quiet” because I’ve never been in a situation where more than five dogs were involved and it wasn’t total chaos. Here we are with over 100 dogs and yet it seems organized and “just another day” in the forest.
We are introduced to our guides, Pat and Paige. They are both sporting large winter beards, and although Anne and I are both bundled up in multiple layers, these two are walking around in nothing but flannel. I like them both immediately. They teach us how to properly harness the dogs, and we manage to get all six of our dogs harnessed onto our sled in less than 30 minutes. I noticed one of the dogs was shaking while I was harnessing him. Feeling concerned, I asked Pat if the dog was scared of me. He said that the dogs sometimes shake out of pure excitement because they know they will soon be hitting the trails and that they are born to run.
It isn’t until all the dogs are harnessed up that the quiet finally disappears. These dogs are ready to go, and the one thing they seem to not like is to be harnessed up, but not running. If these sleds weren’t tied securely down, they would be long gone down the trail. These dogs seem skinnier than I expected. I guess I expected large, fat, hairy wolf-like dogs. However, these dogs are lean. They might not look huge and muscular, but I am quickly corrected that these dogs are not only fast and smart, but they’re powerfully strong. We are told that ten of these dogs could pull a car out of a ditch.
Driving the sled
Our next task is to learn how to drive our sleds. There are a total of eight people on four sleds going along on the journey. Anne and I have our own sled and a team of dogs to manage. Our sled is set up with two lead dogs, Lola and Chinook, and they quickly take charge of the four other dogs. It’s a bit nerve-wracking at first, but once we get moving, I quickly get the hang of it. The sled doesn’t look like much, but it’s made of fiberglass, and is extremely durable. I stand on the back legs of the sled, and in between my feet is a dragging tire tread. This is my brake. I can put one foot on the tread to slow the dogs down a little bit, or I can put all of my weight on it to bring the dogs to a near walking pace. In front of the tire brake is a metal bar that I can stand on to stop the sled.
It’s amazing to me how much the dogs themselves can feel what is going on by my feet. If we are moving along and I step on the brake, the lead dog will turn around and look at me with sort of a “what gives?” look. Like he wants to know why we have to slow down. Sometimes when we go up hills, I jump off and run alongside while pushing the sled. However, if we go up a hill and I decide not to help and stay on the sled instead, Chinook turns and looks at me and gives me the “are you going to help or what?” look. It doesn’t take long until the dogs feel you out and soon a sense of team work is built.
The commands are also pretty simple and easy to learn. To get the dogs to begin running you simply have to say “Alright.” However, when I first say it, my dogs don’t even flinch. Our guide tells me I need to have more positivity in my voice. It almost sounds like some feedback I would receive during an annual job review. So I try it again. This time, I try to say it more like a Canadian mountain man would say it. A nice and slow “All Rye Eat.” It worked. I almost fell of the sled they took off so fast.
To stop the dogs, in addition to standing on the brake, I also have to say “whoa.” It needs to be a slow, deep, “whooooooaaaaaaaa.” Like when someone makes a “too soon” joke.
To turn left is “haw” and turn right is “jee”.
Breaking the trail
One of the reasons I chose to do the two-day trip is because it gives our group more time to head further into the forest and gives us the ability to see more pristine, untouched wilderness. The plan is to head out for a couple of hours through a frozen marsh, then stop for lunch on the trail before taking the rest of the afternoon to reach the yurt. We will then spend the night at the yurt before taking a different route back to the kennel tomorrow.
After about 30 minutes of easy sledding, we make our first turn into a denser, wooded trail. This is when I first learn how challenging it can be to keep the sled from tipping. When we were simply traveling along on smooth, wide trails, this was easy. But now, in the woods, we begin hitting roots and downed trees, and many times we hit them on an angle, which requires me to lean the other direction to keep us from flipping. We also get airborne a couple of times on some of the larger roots. I am loving every minute of it!
We make our way to a frozen marsh. There is now no one around for miles, and there isn’t one trace of a footstep and not one hum of a snow mobile. It’s pure winter beauty. Because we’re the first group to go through this marsh in a while, our lead sled needs to break trail, pushing the dogs through snow that is almost as high as they are. Many times, it requires the guide to jump off and help push the sled along, as you can see in the photo above.
Untouched frozen lakes
After the marsh, we spend the next couple of hours moving from one frozen lake to another, passing through many winding forest trails. We even pass a few frozen lakes that have some scary looking “holes” in the ice (pictured above). Our guides assure us they know where the trail is, and not to worry about falling through the ice. Let’s not forget that this is how Iron Will’s dad died…
We also stop for a late lunch alongside one of the wider trails. Our guide’s sled has a cooler in it, and before we know it, there is a fire roaring and brats roasting. We are also served hot chocolate and trail mix. As we sit here and enjoy our Wisconsin brats, I start to realize what those Germans were talking about. Even though I’m only four hours from home, this really is a unique experience, and something that can only be done in a few places on Earth. I’m really glad I made the decision to come up here and try this.
After lunch, we get back on the sleds and cross a few more lakes before finally arriving at our home for the night. We stop on a lake called August Lake. The dog sledding company has a yurt set up on this lake for overnight trips, and soon we are unharnessing our dogs and unpacking our sleds. We finish setting up camp just in time to walk out onto the lake and enjoy a beautiful sunset.
Even though the sun is behind the trees, there is still an hour or so of light left in the day. Just enough time to feed the dogs. Thankfully, the majority of this work is left to the guides. It’s not that I don’t want to help, but these two are so efficient at their work, that I would hate to ruin their flow. OK, and maybe because they are serving some stinky-ass mink meat. Who’s hungry?
Once the dogs are fed and everyone is situated in the yurt, it’s time to warm up and relax. Paige, who is not only our guide but also our resident chef, begins cooking a nice hearty pot of ravioli. The rest of us enjoy sharing stories over some more hot chocolate. One of the guys on our trip is a holistic nutritionist, and is using the last bit of daylight outside the yurt foraging for some leaves that only grow in this area of the forest. That turns into a long conversation about eating habits that somehow ends with Pat and I each eating a dog treat. I’m still not sure exactly how that happened, but it will be the last milk bone I ever eat.
The dinner is exceptional. All the meals that are consumed on these trips are prepared at the home of the company’s owner the night before. There is plenty of food to go around, and before we know it, we’re all leaning back in our chairs and groaning from being so full. After cleaning up dinner, we all join in for a ‘friendly’ card game called Spoons. It’s a game I grew up with, and it is fun to meet others who also had the game be a part of their childhood. If you’ve ever played Spoons, you already know, but the game can get a little physical as people fight for the spoons on the table after each hand finishes. It’s all in good fun, and in a way it brings our group closer.
Bitter cold morning
I didn’t mention the weather at all in yesterday’s recap. The reason I didn’t was because the weather was absolutely perfect. It was sunny, and it never dipped below 25° Fahrenheit (-4° C). However, upon waking up this morning, it is clear today we won’t be as lucky. At 8am, the thermometer outside the yurt reads -20° Fahrenheit(-29° C).
I would love to say that I slept well. I definitely wasn’t up all night, but one of the fellow sledders seems to have an undiagnosed case of sleep apnea. The snoring was non-stop all night and it kept me tossing and turning most of the night. Normally that kind of thing doesn’t bother me. What bothered me is when our guide asked everyone in the morning: “How did you all sleep?”, and the snoring offender answered with “I didn’t sleep at all.” Bullshit! I kept that reaction to myself like the passive aggressive Minnesotan I am. He was too nice of a guy to throw under the bus.
Paige gets to work on cooking up another great meal. This time, it’s wild rice porridge. Just like dinner, it’s fantastic. The food on this trip has exceeded all expectations. I’m eating better in the middle of the woods than I eat in the middle of the city.
Now that it’s significantly colder outside, we take a little extra care in making sure we are as bundled up as possible. Once we’re all packed up, we repeat the process of harnessing all the dogs. By now, we’re all pros at this, and it’s fun to watch the dogs excitement level rise as they realize we are readying to go.
Back to the kennel
Our trip back to the kennel takes us along a different route than yesterday’s. Our goal is to get back to the kennels before lunch, and although it’s cold, the weather is still very clear with little to no wind. It is so peaceful just cruising along the trail with the dogs in front. They are so excited to be out running again, and something I learned about sled dogs is that they don’t stop for anything. Not even to go to the bathroom. These dogs are trained to pee or poop as they run. It’s an amazing skill to witness.
We go through a couple more narrow forest trails, complete with large roots and hairpin turns. A couple of times we have have to drop down a steep slope to get onto a frozen lake, only to minutes later have to climb another steep slope to get off the lake. My love for dog sledding only grows each time we pass another obstacle, and the day seems to end too soon as we finally arrive back at the kennel.
About the trip:
– We booked the two-day, one night Yurt Escape with White Wilderness.
– Thanks to the Grand Ely Lodge for hosting us the night before and the night after the trip.
– Thanks to Anne for her amazing photography. You can see all her shots from the trip on her photo blog.
– Here is a link to the highlight video that is also embedded above: Dog Sledding in Superior National Forest