Originally created 12/25/05

Dogsledding in the frozen wilderness



ELY, Minn. - The immense vault of cobalt sky shimmered with the thousands of stars you can only see when the closest city is five hours away. Swirls of powdery snow chased one another over the frozen lake, and the lanky spruce trees along the shore turned bluish in the last afterglow of dusk.

Four Canadian Inuit dogs panted as they pulled a sled swooshing in the distance - too much distance, I suddenly realized, shaking myself from my reveries and breaking into a run to catch up.

Those dogs were pulling the sled that I had been on - until I fell through the ice. I was on a dogsledding trip in January in Minnesota's Boundary Waters wilderness on the Ontario border; the temperature was 3 degrees, excluding wind chill. We'd been getting off the sleds to pull them over beaver dams, then jumping back on, when the sled I jumped on broke through the ice.

A guide and my companion pulled me up, but my boots had filled with water. Now I was running behind the sled - as I'd been ordered to - as a way to prevent frostbite in my feet.

Although our excursion with Wintergreen Dogsledding had ended up as this Jack London-style adventure for survival - for my toes, at least - it hadn't started out that way. The company's founder, Paul Schurke, a polar explorer and wilderness activist, says his mushing trips are for anybody "ages 7 to 70."

So a day outing seemed like the perfect way to insert moderate adventure into a typical northern Minnesota vacation. A few friends and I had just spent four days cross-country skiing and snowshoeing over portages by day and, by night, interspersing Finnish saunas with invigorating dips into the square hole neatly cut in the frozen lake in front of our cabin.

A deceptively summery sun sparkled on the unbroken whiteness of the landscape as my friend Alessandro and I drove to Wintergreen Lodge the day of our dogsledding trip. The snow-covered roads crackled as we drove the last few miles past the small town of Ely.

Any qualms we had about mushing our own team of wildly howling dogs dissipated when we met them - four tail-wagging beauties moored with their sled on long White Iron Lake. Thule, the team leader, would be pulling alongside her puppy.

The five dozen dogs at Wintergreen are all purebred Inuit, the original breed of arctic dogs. (The breed, recognized by the Canadian Kennel Club, is also called the Canadian Eskimo dog.) Shunned by most commercial outfitters, they are the choice of both polar indigenous peoples and explorers, the "Sherman tanks" of the mushing world, said our guide, Mike Anderson. They can pull more than double their average weight of 80 pounds and are built for distance rather than speed, doing about 6-8 mph on compact snow.

Standing on a small platform on the back of the sleek sled, we'd lead them with our voices - "hike" to move, "whoa" to stop, "slow" or a gentle foot down on the brake behind us if they were speeding.

"Just make sure they don't run me over" was Anderson's last instruction before he set out on skis and our team rushed after him, snaking along the lake's rocky shores.

For a couple of uneventful hours, our only care was to soak in the silent beauty of fir branches frosted like gingerbread and the snow dunes constantly reshaped by a low wind.

At a pit stop for the dogs to lap up some snow, Anderson told us about Wintergreen's history. Schurke had been involved in the fight to preserve more than a million acres of these lakes and forests motor-free.

He helped deflate one of the major arguments against the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which Congress instituted in 1979, by starting an outfitter for canoe trips for the disabled, proof that even untouched wilderness doesn't require extreme athletic skills.

Dogsledding followed the environment-friendly approach and Schurke has kept at it even while leading high-profile arctic expeditions, including a U.S.-Soviet effort across the Bering Strait at the end of the Cold War.

As if they too wanted the thrill of danger after Anderson's polar stories, the dogs picked up the pace when we started back across the hilly woods. Sledding became more like sailing - we leaned way overboard while the team cut sharp turns and the sled barely missed getting wrapped around birch after birch.

The snow was turning golden in the late afternoon sun when we met two other sleds, led by Nick Williams, and the two guides took us on another loop through the marshes. Tufts of frost-burned weeds puffed through the snow, covering the slush from freezing rain a few days earlier that stuck to the blades and slowed us to a painful pace.

After stopping twice to scrape the sleds and the guides' skis, we started racing against the fading sunlight, still miles from the lodge. Alessandro and I alternated running after the sled to give Thule and her team a break. Williams gave up his sticky skis.

At that point, we started encountering the beaver dams. In each case, we had to let go of the sled, get it unstuck from the vertical wall, and jump on it as soon as it cleared the crest. Jump after jump, this was getting into territory adventurous enough to warrant bragging rights.

Then came the loud crack and the rush of numbingly cold water. With synchronous yelps, the dog on the rear left and I went in together. Alessandro and Williams grabbed me so the water only reached into my boots, quickly seeping through all the various layers of pants.

"Do you need a change of clothing?" Anderson asked. But I didn't want to stop and strip, so he told me to start running to keep my toes from freezing.

Anderson zoomed off to take the two other sleds to safety before total darkness. Alessandro and Williams took turns on our sled. The dogs howled. I ran, trying to stay on the harder snow in the sled tracks despite my numbed feet.

I kept thinking of how quickly hypothermia set in for the Jack London characters whose stories I'd devoured as a child. But the twinges of terror I felt were mixed with shots of pride for being a tried-and-true adventurer of the Great North. White Iron Lake hadn't seemed this large in daylight, or this beautiful.

About an hour later, a bobbing searchlight told me Anderson had come back to the rescue. He led us to the shore where Schurke was waiting in a toasty truck.

"So you got the complete package?" Schurke asked, chuckling. Much as I played it cool, right then I would have preferred some stunned admiration for what I thought was quite a feat for a city girl.

The overnight guests were sitting down at a rustic wooden table in the lodge's dining room when I sloshed in. It took two people to break the ice over the bootstraps and get my feet out - 10 toes, checked. Wintergreen comped a pair of green woolen socks.

The guides said the incident was unusual, but perhaps because they were so unruffled, I was left with a big splash of self-satisfaction and only a touch of fear. I had tasted the wilderness - not just passed through it - and I was hooked. I will absolutely go back - I'm a proud alumna of the complete package, after all.

The sky had turned black by the time we left. Sitting in the utter darkness before starting my car, I knew that nowhere can a person feel as small as inside the great, still frozenness of the great North.

Nor can a dry sock feel warmer.

If You Go...

GETTING THERE: Ely, Minn., is 250 miles from Minneapolis-St. Paul. Northwest Airlines flies to Duluth, 100 miles away, and Hibbing, 60 miles away. Take a cab or rental car from the airports to Wintergreen Lodge. Roads are plowed within hours of major storms.

TRIPS: Wintergreen offers dogsledding trips for up to eight participants, with 5-6 hours of mushing daily. Prices, including everything except transportation to and from Wintergreen, range from $750 per person for the three-night, lodge-based trip, to $1,475 for the "Star of the North" four-night lodge-to-lodge package. Our day-trip cost $75 per sled. Camping trips also offered. Reservations required; http://www.dogsledding.com or (218) 365-6022.

WHEN TO GO: Trips offered December through March. In January and February, temperatures can dip below minus 30. Snowfall, always abundant, peaks in March; warmer temps can mean slower going.