As soon as the words finished spilling out of my mouth, I was handed a harness and shown how to hook a dog up to a sled. A quick training tutorial from Peter McClelland from White Wilderness Sled Dog Adventures followed and soon I’d be holding on for dear life as a team of six dogs were pulling me through Minnesota’s frozen northwoods.
When we scheduled a trip through White Wilderness to film for Northland Outdoors Television, I figured I’d just be riding in the sled, while our camera guy followed along capturing all the excitement. I expected a fast, bumpy ride and just hoped that I wouldn’t fall out while the camera was rolling.
Instead, I’d be driving my own dog sled. Solo.
That’s the goal of White Wilderness, McClelland explained. They want you to have the whole experience from harnessing the dogs to driving the sled. You learn how to direct them to the left, (Haw!) to the right or how to tell them to pass by something on the trail. There are two brakes, one for slowing the sled and one for stopping it completely. He channeled .38 Special by saying: Hold on loosely, but don’t let go. When people take selfies, they end up face-planting.
I knew I was in for an experience that I’d looked forward to for a long time. Riding a dog sled should be one of those bucket-list items for anyone who lives in the Northland. Particularly if you consider yourself a “dog” guy.
“Mush!” I practiced as we gathered near the empty sleds that were waiting to be joined up the with the dogs. I was quickly informed that the term “mush” is more for the books and movies that we’ve all enjoyed growing up. Saying “ready” and “alright” was how you’d make these dogs move.
“How many times do people fall off?” I asked.
“All the time,” was the response I heard back with loads of laughter. If I were to end up face-first in the snow, it’d be replayed on Northland Outdoors Television for everyone to see. The pressure was on.
Finally my dogs were strapped in, gear was bundled in the sled and I was ready to step onto the skis. I’d be led by a veteran, “Garmin”. (Maybe he could find our way back if I drive us down the wrong trail?) Chica would be his partner in the lead position. My wheel dogs, (position closest to the sled) were made up of a fiery, one-eyed brute named “Uff da”. (I couldn’t imagine a better name for that dog.) His partner would be Coho. The two dogs in the middle were Bobby and Yogi.
I lifted my left foot onto the left ski and then the right. I grasped the handle bar with both hands and steadied myself to go.
“You’re not wearing those gloves are you?” Guide Paige May asked.
Not convinced that my hands would be warm enough, he handed me a pair of beaver mittens that he made himself.
“I trap beaver in the fall, in between my seasonal gigs,” May explained. “I call it FUNemployment.”
He spends time in the boundary waters trapping beavers and since the market value on them isn’t very high, he turns them into functional items that come in handy on a cold winter’s day.
“I usually spend the extra money to get them tanned and then I’ll make beaver mittens for myself, friends or other mushers who want them,” May continued. “They’re really warm and cost efficient as far as the fur goes.”
With my new mittens, once again I grasped the handle bars, watched as May and his team of dogs took off in front of me and braced for departure. I said “ready” and the dogs tensed up, finally as the first syllable of “alright” slipped out, the dogs shot onto the trail and we were off. We started down the main road from of camp and bent left onto a small trail. We were quickly immersed in snow-covered pines. Mike Tyson couldn’t have knocked the smile off my face.
As a newbie, I took it slow at first and May was soon out of sight ahead of me. The trail wound to the left and back to the right, around tamarack swamps and over creeks that dripped with just enough current to show open water. For a few minutes, I was alone. Aside from my team of 6 dogs, the woods were quiet. Just the rhythm of 24 padded feet digging into the snow and the smooth runners gliding in harmony along the trail.
The solitude people seek can be found and enjoyed in a number of ways. Hiking, kayaking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and backpacking are all popular methods, but watching a group of dogs work as a team while you journey further and further from civilization takes it to the next level. Or, more appropriately, the previous level. If you’ve ever wondered if time machines exist, I’m here to tell you that they do. The deeper into the woods we went, the more I pictured the fur traders of the past, living off the land, traveling from camp to camp by dog sled and building fires in the snow. Despite the “fiction” description Call of the Wild carries, I couldn’t help but picture Buck leading my sled.
We’d be going 6 miles before stopping at a backwoods trout lake, where we’d make camp and fish. May would build a fire near shore and sharpen a few sticks that Ben Putnam from Ely Ice Guides stuck brats on. The dogs lounged in the snow, anxiously waiting to get back on the trail.
I knew how they felt.
I enjoyed the fishing, but I was excited to step back on those skis and give the “alright” command to my team of dogs. That’s right, MY team. On the ride out, I had begun to bond, in my mind anyway, with this group of dogs that would gladly take me where ever I wanted to go. Mostly they followed the trail and the guide ahead of me, but I felt like I was getting the hang of driving and becoming a part of the team.
As the afternoon wore on, it was time to pack up the fishing gear and begin the trek back to the kennel. May suggested taking an alternate route, one that might offer a little more excitement. I happily agreed and soon we were back on the trail. I purposely lowered my heel on the snowmobile track that dragged between the skis-this was the braking system that would slow the sled. I let May and his dogs get far enough out in front of me that I was, once again, alone in the woods.
I was going to milk every moment of this.
A fork in the trail appeared and I caught up with the guide. This would be the new territory. I started off, wide-eyed, wondering what laid up ahead.
Soon we ducked into a stand of pines that offered a gap just wide enough to pull the sled through. Branches scratched their way across my arms and hat. It was like entering a tunnel or passageway that you’d see in a fantasy movie. The pace quickened and the lessons I learned on steering and weight distribution on the trip out came in handy, as we took sharp turns, steep curves and actually bounced over logs and ruts in the trail.
This was more like it.
My heart was pounding, my beaver-mitt covered hands were sweating and the dogs were in heaven. I felt like a Beargrease Marathon winner on that final stretch and as we pulled into the dog yard, I was more than a little disappointed that it was over.
I was a champion. My dogs were champions. I just held on long enough to finish the ride. Although a little part of me was pretty proud of my dogsled-driving abilities.
“I’ve had 9-year-old kids driving my sled,” May said after I asked what type of people he’s guided. “Now I don’t feel quite as cool anymore”, I answered, only slightly disheartened.
“You’d feel worse if I told you that I’ve had 80-year-olds out there as well,” May added, laughing.
At that moment, it was pretty tough to make me feel bad, regardless of who else has done it.