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Mushing into the winter wilderness
No romp through the outdoors is as exhilarating as dogsledding. Trotting along the trail, tails wagging, this is what the dogs live for: The crisp air, the whisper of the sled runners, the glittering snow, and the thrill of running across lakes and through the forest. “The dogs love to run. They’ve been bred for over 10,000 years to run, and that’s all they want to do,” says David Benson, who, along with his brother Tom, is a longtime dogsledder and former wilderness guide.
Dogsled is the way people once traveled in the north; just a hundred years ago, mail in northern Minnesota was delivered by dogsled. Today, it’s more of a recreational affair. Try a day trip across the frozen lakes of the north, or pack your gear for several days of adventure in the winter wilderness.
On the Gunflint Trail, you can choose your level of adventure. One lodge offers dogsled rides of various lengths, from a one-hour jaunt to a full-day ride with a trail lunch. Or, choose more challenging, guided learn-to-mush expeditions from one to six days, with overnights in trailside cabins or yurts. On a day or half-day trip, you’re more likely to be riding in the sled than learning to mush, “getting just a taste of running dogs and seeing the back country,” Tom Benson says.
Ely—famous as a gateway to canoe country in warmer months—becomes a dog sledding center once the snow falls and the lakes freeze. A half-dozen outfitters here offer day trips, or multi-day dogsled expeditions into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Dogsledding allows you to see much more of the wilderness than you might during the warmer months, Tom says. “You can travel three times as fast with a dog team as you can in a canoe,” he explains, adding that those who travel on more extensive trips will get more experience learning how to drive a dog team. “The animals love to run so much and they’re eager to please,” he says. “Most folks bond with the dogs quickly.”
Participants learn to harness and drive their own dogsled team. Some trips are lodge based, returning to cozy quarters each night, and other expeditions spend the nights winter camping under star-studded skies. These dogsled trips might also take in some ice fishing or wolf tracking.
“It’s all about taking care of the dogs…and they’re going to perform for you,” David says. “The dogs are unbelievable athletes.”
To learn more about dogsledding on the Gunflint Trail or in Ely, visit www.gunflint-trail.com and www.ely.org.