Tuesday, 5 February
The thermometer read 0 when we walked up to the lodge. Inside, we met the others who we’d be dogsledding with the next four days: Rick and Liz from Chicago; Fred from eastern Pennsylvania; and C.J. from northern Virginia.
More to the point, though, we met a few of the 78 sled dogs: Spruce, who’s retired, and Thistle, probably the largest of the dogs at 99 pounds. Both are friendly, though desperately need baths.
At dinner, three of Wintergreen’s guides introduced themselves to us and another group of six people who’d be sledding separately.
Dave talked about the right way to layer clothing and to prevent frost nip, frost bite and hypothermia. On a previous trip this season, the overnight low dropped to -48 without windchill, and since we’d be camping and outdoors the whole trip, knowing how to stay warm and safe was essential.
After dinner, Toby showed us our sleeping systems: an outer nylon bivy sack, which holds a closed-foam insulating pad and a -60-degree, mummy-style sleeping bag.
He demonstrated how to get ready for a good night’s sleep. First, you roll a quart-sized Nalgene bottle filled with hot water into the bag. Thirty minutes later (after warming by the campfire), you take off your boots and pull out their felt liners. The liners go in the bag with you to dry, and the boots are turned upside down on sticks. If you leave your boots collapsed in the snow, they’ll freeze that way overnight, and both feet and liners will be nearly impossible to put on in the morning. After your boots are off, you strip to your base layer of clothing and put the outer layers into your bag. And then you get in and organize everything.
Emily and I listened intently, especially to the part about sleeping under the stars. Until this point, we thought we’d be in a tent, but sleeping on the snow greatly appealed to us.
A little later, Toby inspected our gear, making sure we had enough clothing—and the right types with the right materials—and other items to be comfortably outdoors for four days.
That night, we slept with our window open as the heater couldn’t be turned down. The cold air filled the room during the night as did the distant baying of the dogs—a preview of the days to come.
Wednesday, 6 February
We walked down to the kennel to meet and feed the dogs. The sun shone low, and the baying, barking, growling and chain rattling of 78 dogs filled the -10-degree air. Some of the dogs eagerly stood on their houses awaiting their breakfast; nearly all vocalized in some manner, their breath visibly streaming from their muzzles.
Each dog has its own house and enough space to avoid fighting with its neighbors. One area of the kennel houses the active sled dogs; the other, the retired dogs.
Feeding involves one person holding a bucket of kibble, and the other sliding a large scoop of the food into a square slot in the front of the house. The dogs either eagerly dive into the houses from the back end or wait for the food to start falling and then dive in. Some noses stuck out of the front slot waiting for the food, and some hind ends splayed out of the back as the dogs ate. Only a few dogs showed no reaction, maybe because they were ill or simply not hungry.
Any thought that this trip would include white glove service vanished when we were directed to a poop bucket, a hoe and a shovel. Emily and I didn’t mind, though. We certainly didn’t want to be waited on and wanted to care for the dogs as much as we could. The bright side of this task was that we’d be scooping (actually, usually chipping at) the dogs’ waste during winter and not during the heat of summer.
One of the dogs, Scoop, peed on our bucket while we went to work in his area, and another playfully nipped at my hands and boot laces. Fred dropped a glove, and another dog made short work of one of its thumbs.
One shy dog never came out of its house during the feeding or clean up, and it was amazing how quickly the dogs’ raucousness died to silence after they ate.
A raven flew over the kennel, and the whitewash on the fencing suggested that ravens ate whatever food (and probably poop) they could get.
After a pancake breakfast, our group, guided by Toby and Amy, packed our three sleds and cinched everything down. Five or six dogs pull each sled, each of which accommodates two standing riders. The guides travel on cross-country skis.
Later, we went on a “nature walk”, a trip into the forest where the guides show you what kind of wood to collect for fires. Red and white pine are no good, and neither is paper birch, but the oil-rich bark of the birch is an exceptional fire starter. Balsam fir, aspen and black spruce are the best kinds of wood to burn.
After lunch, we brought the sleds down to the kennel, and the dogs went crazy. Almost all of them love to be on the trail, and all barked anxiously as the guides led some of them on two legs out to the sleds. This “two-wheeling” keeps the growling dogs from fighting as they’re led past one another. The general rule is to place a male next to a female on the gangline. The greatest contrast of paired dogs was Thistle, the large dog we met the night before, and Ramona, a small carmel-colored pup.
We waited down on the lake behind the lodge as the guides drove the sleds down. The other group’s three sleds took off across the lake with about 50 feet of spacing between them. Dave skied in front of the lead sled to guide the dogs; the other dogs simply followed the sled in front of them.
Soon our group took off, and the dogs seemed as exhilarated as we were to be out on the snow and under the sun.
We quickly learned that sled dogs, like horses, poop on the go, and that the scent of digested high-fat, high-protein kibble isn’t a smell you soon forget. The dogs also pee on the fly and grab snow for water as they’re running.
Wintergreen features Canadian Inuit (or Eskimo) Dogs, which have been bred for strength and endurance and not speed. Emily and I took turns jumping off our sleds to see how fast the dogs were moving. Jogging steadily, we kept up with the dogs. I felt like a Secret Service agent running along the sled with one hand grasping the handle bar.
Toby and Amy stopped us while crossing the lake to make sure all was well. We had learned commands for the dogs during lunch. A long, deep “whoooooooa”, with gradual braking, meant stop. When stopped, one rider kept their weight on the brake, and the other usually went to the lead dogs to keep the peace and to prevent them from going left or right. During this stop, however, most of the dogs just ate the snow around them.
The brake is a metal plate with a lip at the back for stopping in snow and two bolts on the bottom for stopping on ice, and we were instructed when stopped to always keep at least one hand on the sled’s handle and one foot on the brake. Otherwise, the dogs could suddenly pull, knock you off the sled and take off. A “loose sled” is something to avoid at all costs and something that Rick and Liz unwittingly demonstrated twice later on the trip.
The braking system typified the simplicity and beauty of the sled design. Several people in the other group had previously dogsledded in Alaska and Jackson Hole and told stories about an anchor thrown from the sled to stop it. The main problem in this design is that the anchor can hit a tree or the ice and bounce back. One of the women had been struck this way several years ago. The Wintergreen sleds also feature molded guards that flare out from the sides about waist high, which protect riders from trees and other obstacles along the wooded trails between lakes. There are numerous other parts that show the tinkering with and improvement over the years that Paul Schurke, Wintergreen’s founder, has made. (In 1986, Schurke, WIll Steger and others dogsledded to the North Pole, becoming the first known party to reach the pole without resupply. This trek took nearly two months and covered 1,000 miles.)
The sled Emily and I had today was a “lodge-to-lodge”, which is shorter than the ones used for camping trips (they don’t need to hold the sleeping systems, which lay flat on top of each other, or other camping gear). Poncho, Inya and Hobbes led our team, and Gus and Daisy were the “wheel dogs”.
The other two sleds had six dogs each, three pairs abreast—or from front to back, the lead, swing and wheel dogs. Each dog wears a snug harness which attaches to a short chain, a neckline, that’s clipped to the gangline, which extends straight out from the front of the sled. This neckline gives the dogs about a foot of room to the right or left and keeps them running straight. Another line, the tug line, goes from the harness to behind the dog and is the one the dogs actually pull with.
While waiting to sled again, the dogs jumped in surprise as the lake ice creaked.
With an order from the guides, the lead sled took off, and when it was our turn, we yelled “Ready … Hike!”, and the dogs were running once again.
We soon left the lake and glided through a forest. At one point, I impulsively pushed Emily’s head down to avoid it hitting a limb. There would be a lot more dodging and aerobics in the days ahead, but we were already learning to crouch, lean and duck.
During one of our frequent stops, Daisy repeatedly jumped up, raring to go. Gus, to her left, jostled anxiously, too. Inya, the smallest of our dogs—and sandwiched by Poncho and Hobbes, much larger males—proved to be quite a workhorse and was restless during stops, as well.
For several hours, we sledded across lakes and through hilly forests, bogs and beaver habitat. Moose tracks crossed one lake and wolf tracks several others.
Crocket Lake would be our first camp. The other group had settled there too, though far enough away not to be noticed.
After we two-wheeled the dogs to the hitch line (a long chain stretched between two trees with equally spaced eyeholes to keep the dogs far enough away from each other), we collected wood, set up our sleeping systems and chipped a hole in the lake ice to get water.
For dinner, we ate pizza quesadillas and pasta with meatballs and green beans cooked over the campfire in cast iron cookware. The dogs each got a pound of their high-fat, high-protein kibble with a splash of hot water and our leftovers. You have to slide their metal bowls towards each hungry and excited dog or they’re likely to knock it out of your hands. Poncho ended up last on the line and therefore got fed last. He sounded in downright agony having to wait until the second serving (17 dogs had to share 12 bowls).
Rime frost sparkled in the night air, and stars filled the clear moonless sky as we cleaned up and sat around the campfire.
Later, we settled into our cozy, hot-water-bottle-warmed bags on the snow-covered ice and fell asleep, roused occasionally by specks of frost falling on our faces.
During the night, I woke to see two shooting stars, as well as a few satellites gliding by.
Also, distant howls reached the lake in the night, and the sled dogs responded, sounding more like wolves than any other breed of dog I’ve heard howl.
Thursday, 7 February
Everyone woke by 7:00 except for Rick and Liz, who—indoors or out—were always the last to rouse.
Our breath had frozen on the outside of our bivy sacks, and it looked to be another clear morning.
Gray jays and a croaking raven visited camp during a breakfast of sausage links, oatmeal, and bagels fried in butter and topped with cinnamon and sugar.
The evening before, Thistle had been allowed to roam free, serving as “camp dog”. This morning, Ramona shyly moved around camp. She hadn’t had a lot of exposure to people yet, having been born during the off season, but she lost some of her timidity when enticed by a piece of sausage.
After breakfast, Dixie served as a patient (and sausage-bribed) volunteer as Toby showed us how to harness the dogs. The double loop (with the “X” side up) goes over the dogs’ heads. Then you gently slip each front leg up and out one side of the harness.
Emily and I swapped sleds and teams with Fred and C.J. today. Our group also traded Buster to Dave’s group for Dakota. One of Buster’s paws had been hurt, probably in a fight, and because Dave’s group wouldn’t cover as many miles, we swapped.
Our team today saw Copper and Dixie in the lead; Dakota and Lucky at swing; and Knud and Sweet Pea in the wheel position.
Dakota growled a lot at Lucky, who stayed as far to the right as possible and looked miserable. And Copper and Dixie fought often as did several other pairs on the other sleds, but it seemed mostly that they were anxious to be running and not idling. The same held true for us.
Toby and Amy had eased us into the art of dogsledding yesterday. Today, we learned the craft on the fly as our sled whacked into and bounced off trees. Several times, the dogs easily leapt over fallen logs as we jumped off and quickly pushed the sled over. For the tougher logs or steeper hills, we encouraged the dogs with: “Let’s go dogs! Let’s go!”.
Wintergreen encourages you to talk to your dogs, but this comes naturally enough once you get to know them. You shout at aggressors, praise the workhorses and joke about the clownish dogs, such as Gus, who scent marks while running uphill on three legs.
Also, if you see the dogs as companions in the wilderness and not as work animals, you don’t make them work any harder than they have to. When you see a hill coming, you jump off and allow the dogs to build momentum, and when they begin to slow, you push the sled as the dogs pull. And on the steep downhills, you ride the brake with all your weight so the sled doesn’t overtake and hurt the dogs.
The dogs looked back at times when the line slackened too much or when they were confused by your braking or commands. You learn to ease into the brakes, to ride the them just enough downhill, and to be efficient with your commands.
Several times, we sledded along areas dammed by beavers, and in the forest, we caught a musky scent, probably from coyote or fox urine. We also saw wolf and fox tracks on several of the lakes.
As we emerged onto one lake, a pileated woodpecker flew over to another forest. The sun caught its red head brilliantly as it glided along in undulating flight.
We soon crossed into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and started seeing more islands in the lakes.
The sun reappeared as we arrived at camp early in the afternoon. What were probably fisher tracks led down to where we would camp.
After taking the harnesses off most of the dogs and tying them up, everybody but Liz and Rick headed off to explore: Toby, Emily and I on skis, Fred and Amy on and C.J. in one of the sleds.
Back at camp, Emily and I chipped a 14-inch-deep hole in the lake ice using a four-foot-long, solid-iron chisel. Others gathered firewood and started dinner.
We had more quesadillas tonight and sweet and sour shrimp, some of which the dogs got along with their kibble.
A barred owl called after dinner and through the night, and cracking and gurgling sounds from below the ice unsettled me some, though I knew it was sufficiently thick to hold us.
Friday, 8 February
Distant howls broke about the same time as daylight.
While I walked across the lake, Thistle peed on my bivy sack. Emily, still in her bag, pulled it away, but not quite in time.
We’d be on a long sled again today, though Toby mixed the dogs up some, thinking that Copper needed a rest at lead. Copper dropped back to swing with Lucky. Dakota moved to the lead with Dixie, and Sweet Pea and Knud remained the wheels.
Dakota, a cranky old male with worn teeth, continually picked fights with Dixie, and Lucky still looked miserable after having had to put up with Dakota yesterday. For the most part as long the sled was moving, Dakota behaved, but whenever we stopped, Emily stayed on the brake, and I went up to and dropped to one knee between the lead dogs. Dakota seemed disinterested at first, but would try to get around me or under my leg to bite Dixie. However, I grew to like Dakota a lot; he worked hard and really appreciated the extra attention you gave him at camp.
While on the move, we noticed Lucky’s tug line sagging—she trotted just enough to avoid being dragged. Her spirits were lagging after spending the previous day with Dakota.
Life sprung back into Copper today. Maybe he was upset by being dropped from the lead. At each stop, he jumped, whined and barked, ready to run. Occasionally, he snapped at Lucky, though he probably seemed more angelic to her than Dakota. Sweet Pea and Knud also protested when the sleds stopped.
For most of the day, we glided through the Boundary Waters. We stopped for lunch at Murphy’s Rapids and were surprised to see a group of snowshoers there, the first non-Wintergreen people we’d seen in two days. As we ate, Inya, who’d hurt a paw, and Daisy ran free, although Daisy mostly hung around and begged from us.
Back on the trail after lunch, Emily fell from the sled but hung on with one hand, careening along until she realized it was best to let go and then run to catch up.
Farther along, we stopped on a lake, where a moose had fallen through the ice and been fed on by wolves. Hair, a little blood and wolf and raven tracks were all that could be seen. Down the trail, Fred and C.J.’s team found the remains of a deer kill. The dogs eagerly sniffed the area and picked up bones. Toby cleared the remains from the trail to lessen the temptation for the other two teams.
Wolves had killed another deer farther down the trail. Just the rumen pile remained. And farther along, two large blood spots stood out across the river, but no carcass could be seen, though fresh wolf tracks led in that direction.
While in the woods a short while later, we heard “Loose sled!” yelled from behind. Rick and Liz had fallen off, and their dogs were racing fast behind us. We yelled “Whoooooooa!”, held our hands out, and the dogs stopped. Rick and Liz jogged up quibbling about whose fault the runaway was—and who had caused the earlier rollover.
The second “Loose sled!” we heard came from behind again just as the forest opened onto Greenstone Lake. We yelled a warning to Amy, and she quickly got her skis off and ran back. With the trail wide open, the dogs could race off quickly. But Emily had hopped off our sled and subdued the dogs before they’d built up much steam. Rick and Liz emerged from the forest, arguing once again.
We glided to a protected alcove by the lake, which would be home for the night. The dogs whined and barked, anxious to be unhitched and jealous of Dixie and Inya running free.
We tramped out a camp in the deep snow, cut wood, and chipped a hole in the ice with a hatchet (Fred had somehow broken the iron chisel in the morning). Grouse and snowshoe hare tracks crisscrossed the woods around camp.
At dusk, wolves howled from within half a mile of camp, and the dogs howled back. Emily and I went out on the ice to look for the wolves, but had no luck. The rose-and-orange sunset added warmth to a snowy landscape as a sliver of a moon twinkled above.
Later, the wolves howled again, though from farther away. Our dogs answered again.
The forecast Tuesday had called for frigid air to settle in overnight and for bitter cold windchills tomorrow with highs just above 0 so we cut extra wood and put on more layers.
We had quesadillas again and noodles with chicken and broccoli. Afterwards, we fed the dogs. Poncho—last again—bawled mournfully. We also tossed each of the dogs a chunk of lard, extra fat to burn on a cold night. (Similarly, on the previous two nights after we’d crawled into our sleeping bags, Toby brought candy bars to us.)
Saturday, 9 February
That wolves had been so close to camp played in my mind as I drifted off to sleep. With my headlamp by my side, I listened for any noise from the dogs during the night. Yelling at wolves would probably be enough to scare them off. Yet I realized that the dogs are tied up at night, and that they travel in winter, a time when wolves aren’t taking care of young, defenseless pups. Nor do the dogs compete for the same food as wolves.
A few hours after midnight, however, I heard footsteps nearby and then the dogs barking. As I raised my head, Amy and Toby’s headlamps flashed this way and that. I called to Amy and asked whether anything was wrong. She said Larry, an overgrown pup who’s best friends with Hobbes, had slipped his collar. Not wolves, then, so I fell asleep again.
At first light, I saw Larry tied to the sled Amy slept in and felt snow flakes on my face. A little less than an inch had fallen overnight, and several inches would fall through the morning.
Faint howls came from the direction of the sliver moon.
The night turned out to be the warmest of the trip (so much for forecasts), and the extra layers proved to be too cozy.
Our breakfast included Red River cereal, tortillas and sausage patties. Because I was cooking the sausage, I stashed the leftovers so that I could later toss pieces of them to the dogs. I liked them all, but my favorites, including Inya, Dakota, Sweet Pea and Gus, got larger chunks.
While Toby, Emily and I harnessed the dogs, Rick yelled at some of his team. This made Toby think about Inya and six other dogs Wintergreen had picked up from another outfitter this season. Toby said the dogs didn’t understand “Hike!” or “Sit!” only knew “Hike goddamit!” and “Sit goddamit!”.
Toby also said one of the seven new dogs, Grayling, didn’t much like trail life. On his first trip out, he dropped to the ground and was pulled by the other dogs. The guides radioed to Wintergreen that night and arranged a swap. For some reason, Wintergreen gave Grayling a second chance, but again he fell to the snow, got dragged and was soon moved to the retired pen.
Emily and I pulled off in the small sled again, squinting into the falling snow. Later in the morning, the sun broke free as the temperature dropped.
Another pileated flew over a lake, and Toby let us have a long run over a good section of trail. We and the dogs really appreciated this.
Later, we stopped at the edge of a forest as a fierce wind blew all around us and across a lake we’d be crossing. Amy and Toby encouraged us to bundle up and to take turns facing backwards as we crossed the lake to protect our faces from frost nip and frostbite.
At the edge of the lake, we met a man and woman on snowmobiles and stopped so the woman could pet the dogs. Probably to her companion’s dismay, she said she’d rather be dogsledding than snowmobiling.
On our way again, we hugged the shore, and the wind lessened. Inya ran alongside and ahead of Toby all day because of her injury. She loved being free and caused some mischief with the teams as they’d try to follow her rather than Amy on her skis.
A few miles from the lodge, we stopped in the forest and ate lunch. While we were tying the dogs up, Gus and Lucky started fighting. Poncho, the kennel’s alpha male, simply turned his head and growled and Gus instantly submitted.
Back on lake ice again, Emily jumped off the sled to take a few photographs, and I let the dogs run as fast as they wanted. Looking back, I saw Emily running hard to catch up but losing ground so I slowed the dogs.
On the last lake before the lodge, frigid air gusted across us. We turned around at one point to see Rick running after a mitten. The laughter caused by seeing a lumbering guy repeatedly run to his mitten, bend over to pick it up only to have a gust of wind blow it farther away took some of the chill off.
At the lodge, we tied the dogs to the hitch line and gave them the attention they deserved after all the work they’d done. Inya howled in protest after having been free all day. Later, some of us went down to feed the dogs in the bitter wind. And still later, in the -13-degree air, just a few of us went back to give the dogs lard.
Sunday, 10 February
Some of us went down after breakfast to feed the dogs and to say goodbye. We couldn’t imagine how hard it would be to leave the dogs after spending more than a few days with them. Toby would be heading home to England in a few weeks and had already been with the dogs two months.
We went back to the lodge, packed the car and were ready to leave but had to see the dogs one last time.
Baloo and Daisy rolled onto their backs looking for belly rubs, and even Ramona sounded excited to see us. Sheila showed us more affection than she had during the trip, and Dakota appreciated the extra rubs we gave him. The other dogs greeted us just as warmly, but Gus sent us on our way with the most enthusiastic greeting—jumping at us and trying to take off our gloves and to clamp onto our arms.