Imagine bundling up in skins and furs, emerging from your igloo to a sight of dogs poking their heads out of the snow like crocus sprouts, and taking off into the wild in search of something harpoonable. This was morning in the Arctic 1,000 years ago.
Only one animal was content with this state of affairs – and not the ones contributing furs or harpoon targets. Eons of breeding have tempered the Arctic working dog into a creature utterly devoted to tugging people across snow. The sputter of engines gradually muffled the sled dogs’ eager yips and yaps, but a few special places still offer this primeval mode of conveyance. Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge of Ely, Minnesota is one of them.
“I’ve had a love affair with the Boundary Waters since I was a Boy Scout,” said Paul Schurke, co-owner of Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge. “I got the chance to call the Northwoods home back in the ’70s when a college friend and I started a non-profit called Wilderness Inquiry, which offered people with disabilities the opportunity to go canoeing and dogsledding. We hired Will Steger to help us get started. Will was already a master musher at the time, and he and I later went on to lead the first confirmed solo dogsled journey to the North Pole.
“Along the way my wife Susan and I started Wintergreen. This is our 40th year taking people out dogsledding. It’s a great way for people of any age and ability to come up and enjoy the winter woods. And our business is very fortunate – dogsledding is just about the most effective method of social distancing available.
“We have 60 Canadian Inuit Dogs, all of which came from Inuit communities. They are an ancient breed that made the traditional Inuit way of life possible, and we’re committed to their history and integrity.
“The Canadian Inuit Dog is hardwired to pull a sled and wants nothing more than to be harnessed to one. The second they see a sled, they start going bananas. They are impervious to the cold. We get occasional bouts of 40 below weather up here, and the dogs still prefer sleeping outside in it. And although their closest cousin is the wolf, they’re almost friendly to a fault. That’s a reflection of their evolution alongside the Inuit people, who wanted gentle dogs that could act as blankets when they weren’t pulling a sled.
“Launching out across that beautiful snowscape, with nothing but the sounds of panting and paws racing against unpacked snow – it’s exhilarating. Everyone comes off the trail humming with the energy of the winter woods.”
You actually get to drive a team of dogs with Wintergreen. It’s surprisingly simple. Yell “Gee!” to the dogs and they will turn right. “Haw!” indicates that adventure awaits to the left. “Woah!” means stop, a command that the dogs dislike and which must be underscored by liberal application of the brake.
Wintergreen offers a variety of dogsled expeditions. If you are given to certain luxuries such as a fireplace and a private chef, three and four night trips that begin and end with the lodge and its surrounding lakeshore cabins are available. If you prefer a more authentic experience, then Wintergreen’s camping trips will deposit you in a tent in the middle of nowhere at night. And if you’d only like to become a musher for a single day’s outing, Wintergreen can accommodate you just as well.
Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge operates in Ely from early December through the end of March, and on into April when the sun permits. You may learn more about the country’s oldest dogsled center at dogsledding.com.
By David Scheller