The Ultimate Adventure Companion
It’s weird to make actual plans for something that sounds more like a dream—to just pick a day and book it. But way up north in Minnesota, up at the Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, a person really can go dogsledding. It’s even a website: dogsledding dot com.
Before it became something that most people do for sport—before it became associated with the Iditarod, the Alaskan, 1,049-mile, dog-driven trek (either northward or southward, depending on the year), and one of the three or four races everyone knows by name even if they’ve never watched it—dogsledding served a more pragmatic purpose. Sled dogs originally pulled loads (and people) across North America and Siberia. Today, they are still used among the Inuit peoples in the Arctic Circle, but snowmobiles have made them functionally unnecessary almost everywhere else. But as with every other animal humans have made our own in some way, it was probably never just about function.
Our day trip runs 9-5 and the Wintergreen Lodge is over four hours north of where we live in the Twin Cities, so my friend Rylee and I arrive in Ely the night before. The tiny, Boundary Waters-adjacent town (3,460 residents as of the 2010 census) is not unfamiliar to us—we’ve stayed in a cabin up there two summers in a row—but coming here in the dead of winter is different. Nobody is outside, and several of the souvenir/outdoor-supply stores appear shuttered for the season. When we pull up to The Grand Ely Lodge (which offers a discount for guests with dogsledding reservations) around sunset, the snowy parking lot is nearly empty. It doesn’t take many steps for me to arrive at melodramatic comparisons to The Shining, but being reminded of it in this case—the frozen hotel exterior not unlike the one Danny Torrance runs out into that night—seems more appropriate than ever.
After a night of very little sleep (due in no part to the lodge, which is cozy and ultimately not likely a place where someone might stick his head through your wall, but to dual senses of foreboding and excitement about the next day), we eat breakfast, put on as much of our cold-weather gear as we can stand, and pack the rest in the car. Wintergreen provides a comprehensive packing list, and offers extras in its store, but what dogsledders like us wear also depends on the weather. I wore: two long-sleeve thermal tops, a hooded sweatshirt, and an impossibly warm fleece-lined Columbia jacket on top; long-johns, jeans, snow pants, and two thick pairs of socks on bottom; a knit hat (under my hood) and a neck warmer on my head, and thick mittens on my hands. I was lent two neck warmers by my REI-aficionado mother, one of which I wore, and the other of which looked exactly like a black neoprene Hannibal Lecter mask, holes over the mouth and all. (There may be no such thing as a non-terrifying face mask, but this one seemed egregiously so.) When I realize I won’t need it, I am grateful.
AT FIRST, THE DRIVE over to Wintergreen seems simple—the map puts it about 10 miles away, but it soon becomes clear we didn’t leave ourselves enough time for four of them to be winding, unpaved dirt roads covered in slick snow and ice. The route is treacherous, even if only in a familiar-to-Minnesotans sort of way, and when we finally see the signpost for a right-hand turn into the lodge, it’s a little too late: we slide past it for a while before being able to turn back in.
The relief at arriving very nearly on time and un-crushed by trees plus the lack of sleep from the night prior makes us giddy. “What if the lodge were, like, run by dogs?” I ask Rylee, half-deliriously, imagining a whole staff of sled dogs dressed in matching polos and slacks. “Haha, what if one greets us on his hind legs and is like, ‘Welcome,’” she says, and it’s all very funny until we both notice a large dog up the wooded hill from the road, who seems to notice our car and proceeds to head down the path (on all fours, but still), following us into the parking lot. I really thought he might say something. For the first (but not the last) time that day, I feel like I am in the North Pole.
It turns out to be a human woman who greets us when we finally shuffle our way into the lodge. Sue Schurke, co-owner of the Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge with her husband Paul, is tiny and immediately lively and charming. She welcomes us into the lodge’s homey living room—sectional leather couches, a standing fireplace, a long dining table—and invites us to sit anywhere and throw our bags wherever. While we wait for everyone to arrive—with us that day are two young couples and a grandfather with his two grandkids—we learn a little about the dogs: Canadian Inuits.
There are 65 of them at Wintergreen Lodge, each one pure-bred. The family’s first dogs were obtained from an Inuit hunter; others were given to them by the Australian government, which was looking to give a good home to the last team of working dogs in Antarctica. Others were gifts from families in Canada and Greenland. Canadian Inuits are ideal for life at Wintergreen: they aren’t as big as Malamute dogs (another of the four main breeds of working dogs, along with Huskies and Samoyeds), which makes them easier to manage for beginners, but they’re bigger and stronger than Huskies, allowing them to pull sleds in the uneven Superior Forest backwoods. In the lodge’s owners’ terms, dogs like these live to pull.