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Dog Days of Winter

There’s dogsledding in Ely. And then there’s a whole weekend of it.

Dog Days of Winter
Photo by Ellen Burkhardt

I’m in the middle of the Superior National Forest, at night, in January. I have no compass, map, phone, or food; can barely see 15 feet in front of me; and am trusting four dogs to get me back to civilization. What on Earth have you gotten yourself into? I ask myself, again. And, again, I have no good answer.

I’d spent the month leading up to my trip with White Wilderness Sled Dog Adventures excitedly promoting my adventure: two full days of sledding, sleeping in a yurt, and a night run with just the stars and moon lighting my path. The itinerary was a hybrid of the typical trips offered by the kennel, which is one of five in Ely, sled-dog capital of the world. The choices range from half-day excursions to five-day, 100-mile, winter-camping expeditions. I’d asked Peter McClelland, the kennel’s owner and co-founder of the Ely Area Mushing Association, to put together a trip that was a little bit of everything. And he certainly delivered.

With every sharp turn and steep downhill, I was both flattered and terrified by my guide’s confidence in my abilities. Theo, a dog-sledding pro with 11 years’ experience, had given me a quick rundown of instructions before we left the yard: “haw” to turn left, “gee” to turn right, “whoa” to stop, “alright” to go. And then, just like that, we were off, and I was left to learn by doing.

I was third in our four-sled party: Theo led the way, followed by Shelley, an avid outdoorswoman and experienced musher; myself; and Sully, a full-time staffer at Voyageur Outward Bound and honorary member of the White Wilderness team—“I know enough to be dangerous,” she told me. I know so little it’s dangerous, I thought.

There’s a certain romanticism attached to dogsledding. We imagine fluffy blue-eyed dogs, endless expanses of untouched wilderness, and ourselves, standing relaxed on the back of the sled, taking it all in. We don’t think about how you can’t stop every time a dog has to go to the bathroom, so the stench of fresh poop overwhelms the crisp scent of the North Woods. Or how the sled is heavy, and you need to help push it up steep inclines then immediately hop back on and throw yourself atop the brake before the dogs ditch you in their mad downhill sprint.

In good conditions—ample snow, blue skies, mild temperatures—those challenges would likely take a backseat to the thrill of driving a sled for the first time. Unfortunately, this particular January weekend had decided to throw a weather temper tantrum: it rained all day Friday, and then froze overnight, resulting in a crunchy, slushy mess. Theo ranked it in the top-five worst conditions she’d seen in her 10 years of leading trips with White Wilderness. While I appreciated this information, it did little to change the fact that by lunchtime Friday all three pairs of my mittens were thoroughly soaked, or that the paths we’d planned to take Saturday were impassible, forcing us onto portage trails full of wayward branches that slapped me in the face. Every hairpin turn reminded me of just how much I’d underestimated the athleticism and skill it takes to steer a team of overeager, hyperactive dogs.

That isn’t to say there weren’t incredible moments during my 60-mile journey. Nothing rivals navigating trails that weave through towering pines and snow-topped birch trees. And allowing the dogs to run at full speed across a frozen lake feels exhilarating.

Right now is not such a moment, however. I know we’re near the end of our trip, but I’m unsure how near. Without a moon, it’s uncomfortably dark out, and I can’t see Shelley. I also can’t see upcoming turns or hills, and a shock of adrenaline shoots through me every time we encounter one, my team seemingly eager to shake that extra weight (me) off the sled. Common sense tells me Theo wouldn’t want her journalist guest to get stranded in the woods for the wolves to eat. But when you’re cold, tired, and disoriented, anxiety trumps rationality.

So I do the only thing I can do: hang on. As the lights lining the kennel’s driveway finally come into view, a wave of relief and pride fills me: relief at the nearness of a hot shower, and pride that I made it through the whole trip without crying. “You survived!” exclaims McClelland as he greets me at the house. I smile. I survived.  
 

MNMO'S GUIDE TO ELY

If dogsledding isn’t your thing, there are still plenty of reasons to head up to Ely in winter.

WHERE TO STAY
At eco-friendly Adventure Inn, rooms range from single queens to two-bedroom kitchen suites. Morning tea, pastries, and locally roasted coffee is complimentary. (From $60, adventureinn-ely.com)

WHAT TO EAT
Start the day at Front Porch Coffee & Tea (elysfrontporch.com). A hand-carved turkey sandwich and homemade soup makes a great lunch at A Taste of Ely (117 Central Ave. N., 218-365-6095). Do like the locals and grab a booth at The Chocolate Moose (101 Central Ave. N., 218-365-6343). Then head to Boathouse Brewpub for a pint of Stout at the Devil or Entry Point Golden Ale (boathousebrewpub.com).   

WHAT TO DO
Hit up Ely’s many cross-country ski trails (multiple places to rent, see ely.org). Browse the Steger Mukluks Store, just blocks from where the boots are made by hand (mukluks.com). See wolves up close at the International Wolf Center (wolf.org).


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