Friday, February 12, 2010…
Sipping coffee in the midst of a long winter, my husband and I gazed out at the ever falling snow and longed to run barefoot on a white sandy beach somewhere. Anywhere. Then, all at once, mother nature herself illuminated the room by placing a light bulb above our heads. We looked at one another and simultaneously made the executive decision to EMBRACE WINTER. What a novel idea for a Minnesota family. After googling winter adventure ideas, we immediately kicked our plan into high gear – at Gander Mountain. Swish, swish, swish… the slide of our credit card coincidentally sounded like skis hitting the slopes. We were on our way.
Our destination was the Gunflint Trail, a six hour drive north. Along the way, we stopped in Duluth for walleye, hiked along the frozen Gooseberry Falls, and watched waves crash and freeze along the shore of Grand Marais. When we rounded the bend onto the Gunflint Trail, globs of snow hung on the bows of a bazillion pine branches that lined the two-lane road, making each curve absolutely breathtaking. We even came bumper to snout with an enormous Moose and her equally enormous baby! They were polite enough to let us take a few pictures before they not-so-gracefully galloped into the woods and quickly disappeared into the magnificent pines.
Our secluded log cabin at Bearskin Lodge was a perfect wilderness retreat. No cell service or internet… and we found the lack of distraction a luxury. The kids even commented that it was nice NOT having television! After an extraordinary peaceful nights sleep, we were up early Saturday morning to do what we came up for – dog mushing! Our musher-guide Erik met us out on the lake at the sled-dog area and introduced us to the dogs. There were ten full grown sled dogs chained up outside and six pups in a kenneled area. Our daughters met all of the pups and helped feed and clean up after them. Chloe quickly became attached to a pup named Red Fox, and he equally seemed to like her. After a little time outside with the dogs, we headed into Eriks massive teepee for some classroom training. His outline consisted of dog-care, training, equipment and the golden rules of mushing – never lose your team or run over your wheel dogs. The teepee, with a fire in the center, was nice and warm and we learned that Erik has actually lived in it for four years at one time. He was a real Minnesota musher man, doing things on his terms and thorough in every word and action. After he covered everything that we would possibly ever need to know about sled-dogs, he brought his dog Kitigan in for an examination. The girls got a hands-on opportunity to check the dog out from head to toe – examining the feet for abrasions to signs of dehydration. After our training, we broke to the lodge for lunch to warm our bellies and toes for the next lag of our day. Over soup and hot chocolate we went over the things that Erik told us and the girls quizzed us on the names and ages of each dog!
The excitement in the girls’ eyes began to glimmer when Erik brought out the harnesses and had the girls help prepare the team. We instantly loved dog mushing- and hadn’t even been out yet! At the sound of the equipment, each dog came out of their barrels began to howl with excitement. Each dog was methodically put into place, clips and harnesses were checked, and we were ready to climb aboard. The four of us snuggled into the dog sled and Erik took his place as musher. With a quick “Hike” command, the team was off in a dash. We were all surprised at the speed and strength of the dogs. Oh… and the smell, that was a bit surprising too. “Moose” was the lead dog and the nine others followed. They all had their own running styles and offered different contributions to the team. As the dogs quietly ushered us across Bearskin Lake, we saw many otter and wolf tracks in the fresh sparkling snow. The girls each took turns mushing at the back of the sled with Erik. The look on their faces was that of pure exhilleration – as was Eriks, even though he’d probably mushed a million times before. When we entered into the Boundary Waters Canoe area, Erik stopped the team and asked us a funny question: “Do you want to continue on a big loop of the lake or take a more adventurous route over two portages through the forest?” We put it to a quick vote and chose ADVENTURE! Even when Erik added that we may have to get out an run behind the sled if the trail became too steep or dangerous, “Mush on” we declared! We thought that we had set out to embrace winter, but it seemed to be fully embracing us!
With only Erik in the mushing position, the four of us crouched into the sled. We learned fast to tuck our knees and feet in close because the trail was only as wide as the sled and our knees and shoulders bumped against trees along the trail. Keep in mind, we were still going at a pretty good clip so playing bumper cars with the forest didn’t feel that great – or as our daughter Carlie put it, “That one’s gonna leave a mark!” Up and down we flew through the tall white pines and then on to another lake. With a simple “Gee” the dogs were trained to hug the right side of the shore and avoid the open water in the middle of the lake where the current ran into the next body of water. After another thrilling portage, we circled the next lake and headed back to the lodge – ending our adventure with a simple and steady, “Whoa now.”
Looking back now, that wasn’t the end of our dogsledding adventure – it seems to have been just the beginning! Stay tuned for the ongoing saga.