Originally created 12/25/05

Minnesota trip turns into adventure



ELY, Minn. - The immense vault of cobalt sky shimmered with the thousands of stars you can see only when the closest city is five hours away. Swirls of powdery snow chased one another over a 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 Minnesota's Boundary Waters wilderness on the Ontario border; the temperature was 3 degrees, not counting the wind chill. We'd been getting off the sleds to pull them over beaver dams, then jumping back on, when the sled broke through the ice.

A guide and my companion pulled me up, but my boots 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 a 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 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 pure-bred Inuit, the original breed of arctic dog. (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.

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.

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 the trees.

Later, 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.

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.