Living the Dream: We Went Dogsledding

Did Katie Heaney actually go dogsledding? It seems like it—or this whole thing is just an extremely detailed fever dream.

That is your author, directing a dogsled.     Photo: Katie Heaney

Dogsledding through Superior National Forest.

Oh hey, dog. Wanna bring me somewhere?

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.

Dogsledding is criticized by certain animal rights activists for being inhumane, pointing especially to vicious dog abuse in the Iditarod—in 2007, Ramy Brooks received a two-year suspension for having kicked and punched his dogs when they wouldn’t move forward from a race checkpoint. Critics say he’s just one of many, and I don’t know what reasonable person would doubt there’s some truth to that. For trophies and medals and money, there are people—and a never-ending fountain of supporting evidence—who would do anything.

After being at Wintergreen Lodge for 15 minutes, it seems clear this place and those concerns have nothing to do with each other. The dogs here “retire” after 10 or 12 years, and from there they have the run of the lodge. The family, wandering in and out of the main room, talk to the dogs, who are also wandering in and out of the room, like people. They talk to them like people they’ve known and loved—and worked with—for years.

I ALWAYS EXPECT LENGTHIER training processes than most outdoors organizations give, mostly because I’m never sure why anyone trusts me with myself, but after signing our waivers and receiving a 20-minute lesson on how to use the sled brakes, we’re ready to mush. Here, especially, I have little reason to think more background would help: it really is the dogs who run this operation, and they’ll do it, generally speaking, with very little of my input. We do, however, learn a few very important commands: “Ready hike” means go; “Whoa” means stop. Sue tells us, and she’s not kidding, that we don’t need to remember “whoa.” “Whoa” will come to us automatically.

While we were getting our lesson, Wintergreen staff members were preparing the dogs, and when we exit the lodge we hear them down on the lake right away. I know what dogs sound like. What these dogs sound like isn’t what dogs sound like. Their whining whistles, warbly and high-pitched, sometimes sound more mechanical than canine. They sound the way pinching feels. Our group descends toward them, trudging a steep decline along a guide rope, and as soon as we can see them, I start saying “oh my God” and don’t really stop for the rest of the day. The dogs are unbelievable.

They’re lined up in a row, in groups of five or six per two-person sled. Every last one is beautiful. Most are quite big but some are small, in relative terms, nearer to the size of the typical canine pet. They are black and white and beige and red and brown. Rylee and I approach a group that looks especially calm, avoiding the wilder-sounding, tough-looking group behind them until, as our luck would have it, the staff shifts us back there anyway. Every few minutes, as everyone gets situated in a sled and the dogs beg to get started, one of the staff will yell, scolding, “HEINSY!” and they’ll be referring to our sled’s front dog, who is a crotchety troublemaker but also very sweet. Somehow they are all like this: tough, teeth baring viciously if another dog gets too close, and simultaneously the gentlest, most emotionally needy creatures I’ve met. Their faces burrow into your palms like rabbits. They grin.

Rylee will be in charge of braking, and I’ll be “lead musher,” which means that it’s my job to, whenever we’re stopped, jump off the sled and run to the front of our pack to calm, pet, and praise the dogs. If I don’t, they will find something else to do. On our first practice stop, just 50 yards from our starting point on the lake, I forget to do my job. In moments, Heinsy veers left, leading the team to run in a circle back around the left side of our sled, so that we are trapped by our dogs. The guides, who travel alongside us on cross-country skis, get us re-organized, scolding the dogs just a bit and Rylee and I a little more so. It takes a while to get a hang of this: not just the calming, but the braking, too. The dogs desperately want to run.

We get to know our dogs when we really get started, sailing across the snowy lake. In front are Heinsy and Millie; behind them, Isis and Jupiter, and in back, the strongest, Bones and Ramona. (A female dog is set alongside each male, because two males alongside each other will fight. In truth, so will a female and a male, but it won’t be as vicious. In our group at least, the girls start the brawls each time we stop.) Isis and Millie are our black sheep—Isis is especially restless and takes it out on Jupiter. Millie does the same with Heinsy, and when I’m in front calming them down, she also enjoys chomping on my mittens and scarf. Ramona, the Real Housewife of the group, likes to fling herself dramatically to the ground and flop her paws in the air. Bones is our favorite; he is stately and gentlemanly, dark gray fur with a gorgeous white face and the highest, weirdest howl we hear among them all.

What I’m doing when I’m dogsledding looks an awful lot like standing, so I find myself struggling to explain to you how it is so very different. At times I forget it myself, and find myself thinking about other things I have to get done for a few minutes before remembering, with a shock, where I am. On the lake it’s easier to forget: it is flat, easy, vast open space, with little need to adjust our speed or direction. But soon we come to the edges, where we will head into the Superior National Forest, with narrower, icier paths and dense tree grove barriers on either side. Here is where we will need the brake.

We’re never going so fast that it feels dangerous, but it does feel like flying. It does feel like Santa’s sleigh. It’s especially true given our sunny, stunning, frozen surroundings, which shift back and forth from forest so thick you can only see ahead or behind, to more open, swampier areas, from which petrified spruce rise up like twisted statues. There are a few points when the trees are so tall and thick that I look straight up and see them still, and it felt very movie-ish to stare heavenward like that, but it’s the best air I’ve ever smelled. Breathing in the cold often makes me feel at least theoretically immortal, and up here it feels certain.

I should say that it is important, as much as possible, to not look away from the path ahead. I feel strongly that the trees that jutted off the edges and into our space were heavily biased toward hitting me and not Rylee—I have to jump backwards off the sled at least four times to keep from slamming into trunks and branches. When this happens, I jog to catch up and jump back on the sled. It’s easy enough to handle, but one time I do swerve my body in an attempt to stay on the sled, and push my hipbone hard into the handle bar instead. The bruise I take home is my fault, no question, but it doesn’t mean I won’t hold it against my mushing partner for choosing the safer side of our sled.

IT’S ONLY TOWARD THE end of our day—split into morning and afternoon sessions, with an impressive hour-long lunch of wild-rice soup, egg-and-cheese soufflé, pasta salad, fruit, apple pie—that I start to feel cold or anything less than invigorated. It’s past 4 p.m. now, and I start wondering if we’ll make it back by sunset. The thought of being in this perfect place once it is dark is unimaginably spooky. (We do make it back by dark, but just barely.) You wouldn’t see a thing.

We reach the lodge and the dogs get put away in their large, wooden, open-air stalls. I tell each of them goodbye, but with my darling Bones I attempt an entire parting conversation. He is stolid, reserved with his feelings, but I know he cares. We spent the whole day together. Anyway, I love him.

After taking off a few layers and settling our checks in the lodge, it’s time to head back to the city. For the first half of the drive, I can see every star. Later, too soon afterward, the trip will feel like something I didn’t really do. Which means, I think, that I’ll have to go back.

Katie Heaney is a writer based in Minneapolis. She has a memoir coming out in early 2014.

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