My incredible first day on the trail with “White Wilderness Sled Dog Adventures” was turning out to be everything I hoped it would be.
Wind and blowing snowflakes whipped my face as I breezed down a long, steep hill. The dogs pulling my sled were engaged in a fast, joyous run, fresh-fallen snow flying up behind their feet, tails high, heads bobbing. I was riding the back runners behind the sled driving my own team of dogs. One foot balanced on a runner, while the other put pressure on a rubber traction flap between the runners known as the break pad; this kept the sled’s speed in check enough to prevent it from colliding with the dogs. At the bottom of the hill the trail disappeared going into a wide turn.
“Remember, you can’t ride the break pad around the turn,” one of the guides called over her shoulder with a friendly reminder, as that would have messed with the dogs’ ability to navigate.
I gingerly moved my foot from the brake pad to the other runner, gripped the sled’s handles a bit tighter, and leaned in for the turn; on my face, I’m sure, was a smile was so wide the Cheshire cat would have been impressed. After making it around the corner intact, I felt like I had just made it down Mt. Crumpit.
After a short plateau, we came to a rather steep hill that needed climbing. The dogs dug into their harnesses with brave abandon, but at some point, one by one, they glanced back over their shoulders as if to say,
“Hey, a little help would be appreciated!”
The foot that had been on the brake pad now found its way to the snow along the sled, digging in and helping the canine engine make it to the top. Whoo-wee! This was definitely a team sport, one in which all parties participate and experience feelings of good-rush accomplishment. At the top we could see another upcoming down-hill slope.
All the while we reveled in the beauty around us, where fresh-fallen snow clung to every branch in a brilliant, winter-wonderland display.
What I hadn’t wanted was a passive ride in a sled driven by someone else; I wanted my own experience, and White Wilderness delivered. I was on an excursion, and the best part was, I had two full days ahead of me!
The weekend, though, was about much more than just being on the sled; the whole experience called to me. I was looking forward to open campfires, the woods, harnessing the dogs, spending three unadulterated days away from the rat race and all its stressors; away from my electronics, the clock, Facebook, phone, work, and any other symbol of the crazy bustle of civilization. How can you go wrong in the Ely, MN wilderness? I was far from disappointed.
I chose this particular trip because of the two nights we would be spending in what is called a yurt; a mobile structure made of a wooden frame and thick insulated canvas, containing snug, warm winter sleeping bags on cots. A propane stove with a chimney exiting the skylight ceiling heated the dwelling, which also had a kitchen area for cooking. This was luxury camping that still gave the experience of being in the wilderness. Yes, the propane stove can stay.
The only other client on this trip besides me was a lovely lady from Chicago named Annette, who was experiencing dog sledding for the first time. Along with our experienced, compassionate guides Heather and Risa, this made for a small, personable group; eighteen dogs and four humans.
Our guides Heather and Risa were absolutely wonderful; they knew how to make us feel at home and had all the proper equipment to keep us warm. Every step of the way they made sure we had what we needed on the trail and at camp. They were friendly, experienced, and most impressively committed to the care of the dogs; so committed they slept outside with them.
All the food on this trip was included; the meals were home cooked, delicious, and filling. Nothing like eating lunch over an open fire while on the trail, which included a thermos of steaming, mouth-watering homemade soup previously prepared by owner Peter McClelland himself.
The last leg of that first day included a magnificent ride across the peaceful, frozen lake that brought us to our camp – a perfect way to end the day. After we unharnessed and fed the dogs, we gathered around the table to a wonderful meal prepared by Heather and Risa. There was something about dining after a full day of outdoor activity that was especially satisfying, and our cooks did not skimp on dessert! After clean up and a chat over hot tea, I looked to the cot with the comfy sleeping bag; I must say, it looked pretty good.
We went to bed at 8:00pm, lights out. Those who know me are thinking, “no way” – I am a confirmed night owl – but our guides informed us that with no TV, computer, or other electronics to mess with our circadian rhythms, our sleep patterns would return to a natural schedule. I was amazed how quickly I fell asleep and stunned at how much energy I felt when I awoke around, say, 6:00 am. I am such a creature of habit that this really impressed me. There was no rubbing of the eyes or yawning; I could have even gotten by without coffee…if I had to.
I do remember lying awake for a few moments to chat with Annette and listen for wolf howls before going to sleep; we never did hear any, but the dogs sang for us. They started slow, then began a chorus of howling that was hauntingly beautiful in its similarity to their wild cousins.
“That was their nightly ‘after-dinner’ howl fest,” Heather explained the next morning as she got the coffee on. “They usually start that shortly after eating.”
Dogs maybe have more of their wild ancestry in them than we think.
For me the high point of any experience is always the dogs. Naturally, I made it a point to visit each one of the eighteen dogs that accompanied us and give them milk bone treats. The dogs that pulled my sled got special attention, of course, and one of them named Misfit was actually a pet who came in and out of the yurt during the evening.
I took advantage, and she enjoyed a mini training session and massage as tips for her efforts. She and the lead dog of my team, Shinook, found a special place in my heart. They were all pretty wonderful though, including the hearty rear runners on my team, Steve and Cetus. How often do you go camping in the Ely wilderness with eighteen dogs? My answer would be not often enough!
There is just not enough space in a blog post to describe everything, but a few other highlights would be the other trails we experienced on days two and three. They were just so exciting, and though some were challenging due to low snow cover in spots, I loved every minute of it. One trail in particular had me feeling as though I was in a sled dog video game, and I was winning every point. This is one bucket-list item I will be repeating; one could become addicted to this!