Part 1: Dogsledding

 

This past January, my friend and I went up to Minnesota to go dogsledding. Yes, dogsledding. We were going to a place about an hour fifteen away from Duluth. The weekend we had chosen turned out to be the inauguration/Women’s March. We didn’t want to cancel our plans (and lose our deposit) and felt that it might be a good respite from all the politics, if only for a little while.

We decided to drive up there through Wisconsin, which was the longest route through the state (diagonally). We actually were in Minnesota only for the last hour and half of the drive. I lived in Wisconsin for two years but had only really seen the Madison area so this was a new experience. It was about a 9-10 hour drive up and a longer one down as we decided to enjoy some of the offerings by the road. On the way up, we stopped at a few gas stations for obvious reasons. But the added bonus was that we found an amazing gas station on the way up – it had hats including a fake skunk hat, salsas in the shapes of cowboys and pirates, curious signs, and much more. It’s always a joy to wander around such places. (The skunk hat and pirate salsa came home with me; the latter was a gift for my husband.)

During our trip up, it was incredible to see how little snow there was. This isn’t surprising now given how Chicago got no snow in January and February. I recall the year in Madison when we had a blizzard three consecutive weekends in March. We did see some awesome wildlife on the way. At one point, we saw these stocky four legged creatures, all with collars, eating nearish to the road. We weren’t sure if they were female elk or moose but we think they may be moose given how bulky they were. I also saw two bald eagles enjoying road kill on the side of the road.

We arrived to our destination around noon. The area we were staying at was a forested area outside of Duluth. As we pulled up the driveway, we first encountered the dogs. They were on both sides of the road, each had their own little house. We pulled up to find another vehicle that was also filled with dogs. We soon learned that the owner had a friend visiting who brought 16 dogs with her; this lady had run the Iditarod 14 times. Absolutely amazing!

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We put our things in the wooded cabin and helped out giving the dogs water before we headed to lunch. We learned that the owner had built our cabin! We put a mix of water and meat into each dog’s bowl, which was a nice way to say hello to all the dogs. Some were more approachable than others.  The dining table was seated in front of big windows facing the bird feeder. What an astonishing place. So many birds including black capped chickadees, blue jays (!), and even grouse would eat there. It was a constant source of joy for me during our time there.

After lunch, we were going to learn how to harness the dogs and go out for our first ride. We learned the best way to put the dogs in the harness before every run. We learned there are lead dogs and wheel dogs; the former are at the front, and the others are at the back. If there were more than four dogs, the dogs behind the leads were point dogs. If there are more than 6, the additional dogs were the team dogs. We never went out with more than 6 dogs. It was important that you didn’t bring the dogs up to the sled until it was time. Also, you couldn’t walk or hop the dog through rival dog territory. And you had to watch to make sure the dogs don’t chew through their harnesses.

What was astonishing to me was the cacophony when we brought the harnesses out. Every dog went crazy. All 50 of them! All of them were basically saying, “Choose me. Choose me!”Then you would go to the assigned dog (there were also assignments for all runs), harness the dog up, always squirming, and then take the dog to the sled when you got the signal. It was honestly my favorite part of the weekend. I loved being with the dogs.

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Once you hook the dog up, and all the other dogs were hooked up too, the sign would be made, and the sleds would be off. Suddenly, all the dogs were quiet. Night and day. Until about 20 seconds before the sleds came back to the yard. Astonishing.

I got to go first on a run. I was seated in the sled itself, crossed legged since sitting on my knees is hard. The job of the person on the sled is to help steer, so you have to lean in on curves. It was so quiet as we ran through the forest. Just the panting of the dogs and the sound of their feet in the snow. At one point, we stopped on the trail and I had to run to the driver’s side to keep the sled tethered. It’s important that you hold on the sled with both hands, with your foot on the brake and the other one on the ice clamp. Those dogs want to run. I could feel the power of them while holding for dear life on the sled. The big thing is to never let go, even if you lose your footing!

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Then we returned to the yard to unharness the dogs and get ready for the next sled ride. We harnessed the dogs each time (so the maximum number of dogs could run). I made friends with Tillie, a sweet pup who liked her belly to be rubbed, and Tahti, who loved attention.

Afterwards, we had some spare time to go snowshoeing. I was excited since this is something I had never done. Sadly, this was not a task I really enjoyed. It may have been that the snowshoes weren’t as well fitting so it made the process  more difficult. But I’m glad I have done it and am glad it was over.

Before dinner, we had to feed the dogs.  Now, the place we were staying at was very off the grid. There was no plumbing, we had to use an outhouse, another first for me. There was a hand pump for water. Also, there was solar power but we had to use our headlamps when it became dark. We had light in the cabin we were staying at but we needed to conserve it as much as possible. There was wood fires in both our cabin and the main house. We had dinner amidst candlelight, another first for me.  At the time of the dinner for the dogs, we had to use our headlamps since night had come. It was a little thrilling to be feeding them and navigating the icy snow to bring them their food. Also, due to the dark,  our flashlights reflected in the tapetum lucidum in the dogs’ eyes. The tapetum lucidum helps with night vision. Deer also have it. So you could see the green glowing eyes of 50 dogs including those in the dog truck reflect back at you.

After dinner, we talked about dogsledding. I really relished hearing from the experience Iditarod musher’s experiences! Then it was off to bed. As we were heading off, we could hear all 50 dogs begin to howl. We were told that this is how they thanked us for feeding. The experience of 50 dogs howling was simply marvelous.

That’s all for now!

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