Anyone who believes that only humans possess a sense of humor has never mushed sled dogs.
The six huskies of my team pull strongly across the flats. When the trail leads uphill, however, the hounds resemble highway workers in a construction zone. They stop, sniff around and halt traffic.
I give a push and shout “hike” (only TV Mounties say “mush”). The team begrudgingly lurches a few feet forward, then stops again. I push and shout. The dogs lurch, stop and sniff. Eventually, we reach the top.
That’s when the canine comedians launch their favorite gag.
With nary a pause, they take off, charging downhill like Mario Andretti at the Indy 500. I hang on, gripping the handlebar, ducking branches, stomping the snow brake and screaming, “Whoa, gosh darn it. Whoa!” The tail-wagging jokesters sprint even faster.
“They’re only trying to keep out of the way of sleds piloted by novice mushers,” explains our expedition leader, Arleigh Jorgenson.
Maybe he’s right. We four - Donna, Sarah, Larry and I - are beginners on the first day of a week-long dog-sledding trip. Our route will take us on an exploration of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, an array of interlocking lakes along the Canadian border of northern Minnesota. A summer paddler’s paradise, its snow-blanketed waters provide excellent mushing in the frozen winter.
After meeting Arleigh and his assistant, Susan, we spend our initial day getting acquainted with the animals.
“These are Alaskan huskies,” Arleigh says, “an unregistered line crossbred for pulling. At only 45-50 pounds, they’re small, but in a team they can tow several times their collective weight.”
We tour nearby lakes and trails, learning to make corners and getting used to running a team. Our day ends at Little Ollie, a lake-side log cabin, where we shower, sauna and dine on Cornish game hens. All expeditions should be so rough.
In the morning under somber skies, we stuff clothes and overnight gear into the sleds’ canvas-covered cargo holds. Heading northeast, we first follow a string of roads and snowmobile tracks. Then at Daniels Lake, we enter the wilderness where mechanized transport is banned.
The Boundary Waters were the eighteenth-century domain of the voyageurs, French-Canadians who ferried men and goods between fur-trading outposts. Using water as a highway, they connected neighboring lakes with short trails called “portages.” We follow one of their links to Rose Lake on the international border.
For miles, we traverse its frozen, snow-covered surface. Only the whooshing wind, panting dogs and zing of sled runners break the remote silence. This environment seems little changed since fur-trapping times. Gray sky, white snow and shadowy trees accentuate the historical illusion. They give the landscape the look of a timeworn black-and-white print. We provide the only dabs of color.
Arleigh heads to a nondescript point along the edge of the lake where we follow a portage through deep snow. Another lake follows, then another portage. The pattern continues to the Croft Yurts where we spend the night.
Used in Mongolia, yurts are roomy, cupcake-shaped structures made of fabric stretched over circular, latticework frames. A pair stand near the trail. Six bunks fill one. The other contains a cook stove and table where a caretaker prepares a Mongolian firepot dinner.
In an oriental brass vessel, charcoal warms a basin of broth. We add meats and vegetables, let it steep, then scoop the mixture onto a bed of rice. Genghis Khan would be envious.
In the morning, we load sleeping bags and camping gear. Our next two nights will be spent deep in wilderness. Heading farther from civilization, we cross frozen lakes and negotiate short portage routes.
Whenever we stop for breaks, the dogs lay down and rest until they detect departure preparations. Then, antsy to get going, they tug on their lines and encourage us with hurry-up barks, yelps, yips and howls. When they start moving, the cacophony stops.
“Some think dog sledding is cruel,’ says Arleigh, “but look at them. They’re bred to pull and that’s what they relish doing. If one cares for the animals, it’s as humane as horseback riding.”
We stop to camp in a sheltered cove on a nondescript lake. Donna, Larry and I help erect the insulated, Arctic Oven tent. A small stove fits inside, its chimney poking through a roof-top orifice. Burning twigs will provide enough heat to make the interior shirt-sleeve cozy.
Arleigh sculpts a kitchen area along the lakeshore, and places Coleman stoves on benches cut in the snow. Sarah and Susan prepare a dinner of steaks, vegetables and mashed potatoes, which we devour beside a blazing campfire.
The next day dawns with only a wisp of cloud marring an enamel-blue sky. It’s a lazy morning, and we linger in camp until the crack of noon.
Today’s route takes us across Brule Lake, largest of the trip. Over a mile wide and several miles long, it feels as if we’re sledding forever across an icecap surrounded by forest. Pulled by the primitive power of dogs, the rat-race world seems but a hazy memory.
That night brings an unblemished sky covered with stars, their faint glow reflecting on the snow. A thin crescent moon hovers over the horizon, and Venus hangs like a beacon in the western sky.
“This is why I’m here,” says Susan, warming by the campfire. “Days like this in the wilderness. A few years ago, my sister and I took a trip with Arleigh. I felt so at peace, I left an executive position to work here.”
We pack up camp in the morning and reload the sleds with gear. Today, we head back to Little Ollie Cabin, following a more northerly route across a string of narrow lakes.
A mid-afternoon portage pathway takes us over a long hill. Arleigh blazes the trail, and Sarah follows uneventfully behind. Then comes Larry. I allow him to get well ahead before starting up the slope.
As usual, my team creeps uphill, sprints over the crest, then charges down. The route drops gradually at first, then steepens, cutting along a densely forested hillside. With the increasing angle, the dogs pull even harder. We hurtle downward like a roller coaster on an slippery track.
Ahead, I see a sharp, right-angle turn coming. I yell “Whoa!” and stomp the brake bar. The dogs, of course, gleefully accelerate.
To make the blind corner, I know that I will have to use everything I’ve learned. I squat to lower my center of gravity, shift weight to the outside runner, and carve my best turn yet.
That’s when I find Larry.
When he rounded the turn, he lost control, and his sled slid off the trail. It now dangles over the edge, hanging by its gang line wrapped around a tree. Anchored by the weight, his team blocks the trail ahead.
As I scream around the corner, Larry looks up to see bolting dogs and madcap sled driver charging straight toward him. Like a Hollywood stunt man, he dives off the trail headfirst into the bottomless fluff. My team plows into Larry’s, and they meld into a l2-dog entanglement.
With everyone’s help, we unscramble the mess, right the sleds and get the procession ready to move. As we depart, I catch my lead dog glancing back. There’s a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
“You’re right,” I smile. “Maybe it was sort of funny.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Anyone in reasonably good health and condition can mush a team of sled dogs. The huskies do most of the work, and the expedition leaders provide training. Because of the close association with the animals, participants should, of course, like dogs. In addition, a good attitude and a healthy sense of humor will help along the way. When to go: By mid-winter the lakes of the Boundary Waters freeze over and will normally be covered with snow. Overnight trips are better later in the season when the days are longer. The trip: The 1998 “Across the BWCA Wilderness” expeditions are scheduled for Feb. 28 and March 7. Cost is $1,585, which includes lodging, meals, camping equipment and airport transfers to and from Duluth, Minn. Exact trip itinerary may change depending on conditions. Contact Arleigh Jorgenson Sled Dogs at (800) 884-5463 for details. What to bring: Since Minnesota gets nippy in winter, participants will need an abundance of warm clothing, including insulated boots, parka and pile pants or bibs. A complete list is provided, and the organizers can help obtaining some of the gear, if necessary. Getting there: The trip begins along the Gunflint Trail, Highway 12, which starts from Grand Marais, Minn. Drivers can reach Grand Marais by following Minnesota Highway 61 northeast 110 miles from Duluth, or 40 miles southwest from the Canadian border near Thunder Bay, Ontario. The nearest major airports are Duluth, which is served by Northwest (800) 225-2525 and United (800) 241-6522 Airlines, and Thunder Bay, Ontario, which is served by Northwest, Canadian Airlines (800) 426-7000 and Air Canada (800) 268-7240. Airport transfers are provided from Duluth. Other dog sled adventures: Arleigh Jorgenson Sled Dogs offers one-day “Mush Your Own Team” adventures for $250, and multiday camping, cabin or combination trips starting at $495 for two days, one night. Call (800) 884-5463 for details. American Wilderness Experience features a “Gunflint Lodge Mushing Week,” which provides six days of lodge-based training on how to feed, harness and run a team of sled dogs. Price is $995 for trips running from Dec. 27 to April 12. Call (800) 444-0099 for information. Boundary Country Trekking offers three-and four-day “BWCA Mushing Adventures,” departing on Mondays from Jan. 5 through March 2. Price is $875 for three days, $1,145 for four. Call (800) 322-8327 for details. Little Ollie Cabin and Croft Yurts: Cross-country skiers and other winter enthusiasts can arrange to stay at Little Ollie Cabin, Croft Yurts or any of several other shelters in the area. The cabin and yurts stand beside the Banadad Trail, the longest tracked ski trail in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Call Boundary Country Trekking at (800) 322-8327 for rates and reservations. For more information about the area, contact the Grand Marais (800) 622-4014 or Duluth (800) 438-5884 Chambers of Commerce, or the Minnesota Travel Information Center (800) 657-3700.
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