The long and brutal winters of Minnesota can be hard to take. Yes, they build character, but sometimes a gal accumulates so much character, she doesn’t know what to do with it all. At that point, a change of pace is in order.
A few years ago, some friends and I decided to meet winter head-on with a day of dog sledding. We used the dogs and services of Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge in Ely, Minnesota.
Not knowing what to expect, we signed up for the half-day tour. The lodge has longer tours, though, ranging from one full day to several-day tours for the true outdoor enthusiast.
We had two people per sled, led by a pack of several dogs. The staff started by orienting us, explaining what to expect and how to lead the dogs. They did not abandon us, though. A guide accompanied us on skis in case we got in trouble.
The dogs’ pace was brisk, but not too fast. They took us over frozen lakes and through hilly, winding forest paths. For the most part, they were not too hard to control, although we had a few close calls when veering around trees. It was great fun!
I would definitely recommend trying dog sledding at least once in your life. The main drawback was that it was quite cold. (Even though we were bundled up, it remained a bit chilly because we weren’t exercising; we were mostly just standing on the sled.) A full day (or several days) of that kind of cold would be tough.
Here are a few fun facts about Wintergreen, sled dogs and dog sledding.
- Wintergreen has a “staff” of 65 Canadian Inuit dogs. According to their website, “Canadian Inuit Dogs are one of four main working breeds of the far north, which also includes the Siberian Husky, the Malamute and the Samoyed. The Siberian Husky and their mixed breed cousins (commonly called Alaskan Huskies) are the fastest and thus are the breed of choice for racers, though they range only 40-60 pounds in size. . .averaging 80 pounds, the Canadian Eskimo Dog falls between the Malamute and Husky in size. That means they’ve got the beef and build for back country travel but can still be comfortably handled by most beginners. Most of them are extremely personable.
- Size isn’t everything. Sometimes the strongest dogs are on the small size. “You rarely see a really good sled dog over about 55 pounds,” says onetime musher Joe Runyan,who won Alaska’s Iditarod sled dog race in 1989 (PBS Nature),
- With the advent of cars and snowmobiles, dog sledding declined as a mode of transportation in the snowy north. But in 1925, in hazardous conditions, Alaskan sled dogs proved vital when they were used to transport diptheria serum from Nenana to Nome to stop an epidemic. This heroic trip was the basis of the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which is over 1000 miles. (Neary)
- Like all elite athletes, sled dogs need to keep in shape year-round. Sled dog owners or “mushers” will often start training their dogs in the fall, often by roping the team to four-wheeled cart or to an ATM vehicle. One owner, Nancy Ensley, says she begins her dogs’ fall training with four mile runs as they are roped to her ATM. Gradually, the dogs work up to thirty-mile runs.
- At first, I was ambivalent about using the dogs to pull us and our sled. I thought it might be abusive to force them to pull us. I soon realized, though, that they really do love to run and pull. When the team was standing around waiting to go, they were irritable. They bickered with each other and got into little skirmishes. However, once we started moving, they were happy as could be and got along swimmingly with each other.
- In our orientation at Wintergreen, we learned that “gee” is the command for a right turn and “haw” is the command for a left turn. I learned the hard way, however, that my polite request to the dogs to “please turn to the gee” and “could you possibly take a haw here?” did not work well. Yelling works better.
- I also learned that sled dogs will obey our commands—but only up to a point. (They are like college students in this respect.) If the team sees another team of dogs off in the distance, they will run after their doggie friends rather than listening to City Girls’ pleas to stop.
- The dogs are pretty darn adorable! I understand why Nancy Ensley has them sleep in the house with her at night.