Mushing Through the Snow
Dogsledding in a Minnesota winter takes all you’ve got.
Thursday, March 11, 2004
I am a native Californian, born and raised near the Pacific coastline. Winter for me means extended weekend frolics to the Sierras. Taking my California blood and injecting it straight into a Minnesota February was quite a stretch.
I’d first heard about dog sledding 12 years ago while on a trip to Alaska, but when I set out for the north woods of Minnesota last month on a ten-day dogsled expedition, I was clueless as to what a typical day on the trail demands.
The expedition was a staff invite of the Voyageur Outward Bound School where I worked last summer helping to facilitate canoe trips. There were seven of us—four participants and three instructors. Not only was I the oldest in the group—everyone else was younger than 30—but the other three participants were men, and both they and the instructors worked year-round at other Outward Bound schools.
Intimidating, but I’ve always been one for a challenge.
I felt a bit tentative as soon as I saw how strenuous the adventure would be. After packing our gear onto two sleds, the seven of us pushed the 300-pound sleds down to the dog yard. All 60 dogs began howling excitedly. We had to hold them back by the collar as they were harnessed and attached to the sleds.
Our course that first day had us twisting and turning through deciduous tree-lined portage trails and across flat, snow-covered frozen waterways, overcoming slushy conditions and overturned sleds. The snow was exceptionally deep, about two feet on average, and the landscape so picturesque, I felt giddy. I kept giggling—I couldn’t believe I was finally out doing this after more than a decade of thinking about it.
That was how it felt for the first half-hour—before we started “post-holing” through two feet of snow to wet slush below (post-holing is when you end up knee-deep in the snow with each step). Before we had to push the sled through tight turns on trails that connected the frozen lakes. Before we started scraping slush-ice off the runners of the sleds.
One day, after snow-shoeing for several miles in the deep snow, we made camp around 4pm. It was minus 14 degrees, and dropped to minus 32 degrees when a high cloud system moved in shortly after dark. The landscape was gorgeous, truly a postcard-perfect sight. Untouched snow, the sun going down, glowing yellow on the snow-tipped tree line. The almost-full moon was rising, but my mood continued to drop with the outside temperature.
I was having a difficult time untying the knots on the p-cord that held my backpack to the personal mini-sled I’d been lugging around all day. I felt defeated, frozen, and completely bummed. It was so cold I was surprised my tears weren’t freezing to my cheeks. I set off, fingers numb, to help fell a tree and drag it back to camp.
Making camp during this expedition meant a long list of chores that took a minimum of two hours to complete in the deep snow and sub-zero temperatures. We had to unhook the dogs and keep them from fighting, shovel snow, pick a big water hole through a foot of solid ice, shovel more snow, put up the tent, feed the dogs, and somehow keep from freezing to death ourselves.
The temperature inside our canvas tent often was a sweltering 55-60 degrees. The smell of cooking food welcomed us in, the small wood-burning stove crackled with hot-burning jack pine. A snow bench was fashioned and we all would take off our wet layers to hang them dry during dinner.
That’s when we talked. One evening I was telling the others how my sled had overturned that afternoon right into the only patch of open water we’d seen all week. The day before, we’d evacuated one of the Florida boys for frostbite on his big toe.
I started freaking out; “It’s too cold, I am too slow, this is too hard, I need to get out of here.“ I went up to the instructors and said, “Let’s talk about me leaving.” They looked at each other, looked back at me and said “no.”
Great. Suck it up, girl, I thought, before sulking away feeling sorry for myself.
On the second to last day, there was a big dog fight. You know those cartoon fights where all you see is a cloud with curse words and arms flying around the periphery? It was like that, only with wild-eyed snarling dogs, big teeth, and much scarier. Lots of dogs were bleeding from ears and cheeks, and two people got bit before it was over.
Spending that week in the frozen wilds of Minnesota, I found my thoughts becoming streamlined, simplified. The physical aches I endured “out there” helped me realize that my inner strengths are greater than I had known. Out there, each day’s goal was evident; get from point A to point B with everyone intact. Stay warm to survive. Chop wood. Carry water.
Now that it’s over, I recall the trip with fondness. The distress I felt so intensely at the time has dissipated. Those remarkable vistas, unseen by most people on the planet, shine brightly in my mind’s eye. The sparkles of reflecting sunlight on miles of untouched blankets of snow, the scenes that left me breathless, are exquisite visions I will never forget.