Dogsledding the Boundary Waters Canoe Area
Dogsledding. The term conjures images of arctic expeditions and Iditarod races. Of barking dogs and a way of life that spans thousands of years. Throughout history, dogs have been faithful companions to humans, especially during hunting and traveling, and nowhere is this more true than in areas with brutal winters, where they provided assistance to transport supplies. And thus, the sled dog became the primary means of communication and transportation in subarctic communities around the world centuries ago. For them, dogs are working dogs—they care for the health and welfare but they are there to work. And this distinction between working dogs and our modern view of dogs as house pets, can come into conflict, to the point that we consider them animal abuse, including myself.
I have always been intrigued by this discipline and so I decided to check for myself. I actually signed up for a trip with Wintergreen Dogsledding Lodge in Ely, MN. The town is located by the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. This dogsledding outfitter is owned and run by Paul Shurke, who co-lead the US 55-day dogsled expedition to the top of the world in 1986. So he is a bona fide explorer. Hesitantly, I watched and listened, and asked questions of our guides. And they were very good about answering them. I spent 4 days there during which I dogsled, fed the dogs, played with them, and watched the staff interact with the dogs. I was looking for any red flags, because we have heard so many horrible stories about dogsledding dogs being abused. But while there I learned a few things:
This staff is very caring and devoted to the dogs’ health and welfare, and expected the same from the visitors. They are checked before they go, on the trail, and after we returned. We also got involved in their care during those 4 days. One of the things we learned was about their diet, especially dinner which is a high calorie combination of . It helps them keep weight on, but also it fires up the body “furnace” keeping them warm at night.
The dogs used at Wintergreen are Canadian Inuits (Eskimo) dogs. This breed has existed for about 4, 000 years but did not being used as sled dogs until 800 AD. They are considered the original sled dog used by the Inuit people for polar bear hunting and seal hunting. They are a primitive breed with a complicated hierarchy similar to that of wolves. They are truly the "tanks" of the sled dog world. (Facts Unkown)
Averaging 75 pounds, the Canadian Eskimo Dog has the build for back country travel but can still be comfortably handled by most beginners. Most of them are extremely personable. They have extremely strong pack instincts. The pack hierarchy is always changing. Therefore some of them will not run together without sparring over dominance. Reading these changes in the pack hierarchy and pairing the dogs up appropriately is part of the challenge and mystery of working with these amazing animals. (Wintergreen.com)
The dogs LOVE to go sledding. It is amazing how ready to rock and roll they are, and the ones left behind get upset— you can just tell. The most amazing thing happens— the dogs are barking maniacs before you go, but as soon you get going, it is totally silence. That was my favorite moment.
Dogs get into personality tiffs but the staff at Wintergreen managed to break those in a stern way that did not involved being abusive. By using voice commands, the dogs calmed down, and when that did not work, the staff would separate them.
Dogs are hilarious. They know you are not experienced and will try to prank you. Trust me. You can just see the mischief in their eyes. :)
Dogsledding is an intense exercise for the humans as well as the dogs, so if you are expecting a passive activity, this may not be for you. Be prepare for intense activity especially if you encounter deep snow, you have to break trail or go up a hill. You will be getting off the sled and pushing. You have to help the dogs go up.
Paul Shurke, and the staff at Wintergreen, love the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and are active advocates for the preservation of the wilderness area. We had an opportunity to visit with him and he was a gracious host, not only discussing the current situation in the BWCAW but also sharing his experiences as an explorer. And he is a fantastic storyteller.
Winter camping was something I was looking forward to doing but unfortunately, the forecast for the day we were supposed to do was -30F at night, therefore a command decision was made by Paul Shurke to not do it. At least we got to see where we would have camped, and I am glad he made that decision.
On a personal note, it is possible to be outside in arctic temps with the proper gear. Layers are key to controlling how cold/hot you are especially once you star dogsledding. As mentioned above, it can be a rigorous exercise and you need to keep an eye on your body cues. That being said, we had awesome guides who kept checking on us— so thank you Tristan and Virginia for making sure we had a great experience.
In all this was the most amazing experience of my life. I don’t think I will ever be able to forget that feeling of silence as we sled across the frozen Boundary Waters, and the only sound was the swish of the sled and the clinking of the gangline. Every time we stopped, the dogs would go insane barking and pulling as if saying “Humans, let’s go!”. Nothing I say can properly describe the entire experience, so I am hoping some of the images may give you a sense of how awesome it was.