Ely, Minnesota

One day, I would love to trek to a Pole – North or South, or even both. But like many women I have a tendency to cold hands and feet. And I’ve read enough polar adventure books to know that frostbite is a very real danger for even warm-blooded males. So in the interests of establishing my chances of coming back with all digits intact, I decided a good first step would be to go on a dog-sledding trip as a hopefully enjoyable introduction to the big chill.

Wintergreen Dogsledding, based in Ely, Northern Minnesota, offers a positively balmy climate compared with the polar regions – only minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29 Centigrade) the first night I arrived there – but at least it would be a first dipping of my toe in the waters (ice?) of cold-weather survival.

There were 5 of us in our group, the first of the season. We were split between 3 sleds, the two-man sleds having 5 dogs apiece, and the one-man ‘zip ship’ being pulled by 3 dogs. I am not a real ‘dog’ person, never having been remotely tempted to stop and coo over other people’s pets in the street, and I had also heard that these sled dogs could be unruly, wild, strong, and very smelly. So I was apprehensive about how I’d handle the canine aspect of the project. But in fact I was surprised by how comfortable I felt with these dignified, powerful Canadian Inuit dogs, in some cases with a bit of husky or labrador thrown into the mix. Like Andrex, they are soft, strong, and run very, very long.

We quickly got to know their individual characters – bold or timid, leader or follower, noisy or quiet – and to respect their outstanding ability to run all day and then sleep out of doors in subzero temperatures. They seemed born to run – as soon as they were hitched to the sled they were raring to go, straining at their harnesses – so although we were taught that ‘Hike’ was the mushers’ word for ‘Go’ it was usually entirely superfluous. As soon as the sled was unhitched from its post they were off and running as if their lives depended on it – which, of course, in an Inuit environment, was literally true. In a harshly cold environment there is no time to be sentimental about dogs – they had to earn their living by being good sled haulers, so through natural selection the gene lines that have survived are those that can run long and hard.

Having said that, they can’t do it all themselves, and dogsledding is far from being a passive activity. We were often breaking trail, being the first sleds to go where only a pair of snowshoes and a snowmobile had been once before, so the terrain was often lumpy and the sled would get snagged on trees. Then we’d jump off and push the sled over the obstacle or haul it out of the undergrowth. It was a good workout, and that plus our cozy Wintergreen gear ensured we all stayed warm.

So what did I take away from the experience? Memories of beautiful Christmas-card scenes of paths winding through the snow-laden trees… the knowledge that if properly clad I can survive in moderately cold temperatures without my extremities freezing off… a set of outdoor clothing on which the unmistakable and probably not socially acceptable scent of husky dog still lingers… and an eagerness to get back there and do it again as soon as possible.

[photo: me mushing]

P.S. I know I was meant to be taking the month off, but just couldn’t resist the urge to share this.

All the best for whatever you’re celebrating this December, and I’ll see you in ’08!

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