A Delawarean’s dogsledding tale

“Most people go on vacation to somewhere warm in winter,” read a text from a friend after asking where I was.

Truth be told, a warm vacation would have been a nice, normal, escape from the bitter chill of the Middle Atlantic, but since when has normal ever been more fun than different?

After graduating from the University of Maryland Baltimore County in December 2015, I celebrated with my parents and my boyfriend-turned-fiancé, Jordan Lingo, by going to one of the most northern towns in Minnesota for a dogsledding excursion.

We weren’t concerned about the weather in the least.

Winters on the East Coast tend to be more raw and bitter, piercing through every layer of clothing you put on. Once you get far enough west, however, the air is dry and you find yourself walking outside in 20 degrees with nothing on but jeans and a heavy sweatshirt.

The snow doesn’t pack; it blows across the street.

Your nose hairs might freeze and you might get frost nip, but you aren’t cold to the core. If it does get too cold, you just layer on every article of clothing you have before going outside.

So, in the middle of January, we left the mock winter shivering the East Coast, boarded a train for Chicago and didn’t look back.

From Chicago, we rented a car and planned our drive to our first stop, Duluth, Minnesota, about six hours away. We spent two days in Duluth, where we hit our first below-zero weather — a balmy -11 degrees during the first morning.

Wearing two pairs of pants, undershirts, sweaters, coats, hats, gloves and scarves, we wandered the city streets and the frozen shoreline of Lake Superior, packed the car and continued north to Ely.

The outdoor life

Less than 30 miles from the Canadian border, Ely is the epitome of a small town. With one main street and roughly 3,500 residents, Ely is home to the International Wolf Center and the North American Bear Center, which work to raise awareness for wolves and bears alike.

The majority of northern Minnesotans are very outdoorsy, and their towns reflect it, which is exactly how my parents previously had found the Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge.

Owned and operated by Paul and Susan Schurke, Wintergreen dogsledding has been featured in National Geographic, Outside Magazine, the Travel Channel and “Good Morning America.”

What started as a way to get disabled people outside via summer canoe trips quickly transformed into the ultimate winter adventure. Mr. Schurke, who was instrumental in an exploration dogsled trip to the North Pole and in the Bering Bridge Expedition, continues to make history around the world through environmental expeditions and frequent travels to the Arctic. Now, with their business, he and his family share the thrill of dogsledding with those willing to brave the wintry weather of the north.

On our first full day at the lodge, we went to the dog yard, home to more than 60 sled dogs.

Wintergreen has a family of Inuit huskies, which look similar to Siberians but are slightly stockier. They have two layers of fur, with the inner layer acting as a down comforter.

Wintergreen also had a team of retired racing Alaskan huskies on loan from another local kennel, which looked drastically different. They were skinnier, had less hair, and weren’t as outgoing, but were just as eager to pull a sled.

Half an hour later, with the temperature slowly rising to 12 degrees, we had our teams of the friendliest and most lovable dogs I have ever met. No matter who you were, you were greeted with a hug and kisses. We wrestled them into their harnesses in between excited barks and were off.

We started with five dogs per team and began our first day of training out on White Iron Lake.

Dog power

While we knew the commands, the dogs didn’t actually listen to us. They followed LynnAnne, our guide, who cross-country skied in front of the sleds the entire trip. The first day we traveled 16 miles in the area around White Iron Lake, and by 5 p.m. everyone was exhausted.

We took our dogs back to our cabin, gave them dinner and refilled their straw beds for the night. When I looked shocked at how happy the dogs were at the bale of straw, Lynn­Anne told me, “Some dogs get just as excited about straw as they do food.”

They build their beds out of the straw for insulation and comfort, so they see it as a sign to unwind.

Yes, the dogs slept outside in the snow at night. No, they weren’t cold. Actually, they were uncomfortably warm at some points.

Sled dogs, either Alaskan or Inuit, are bred to be able to withstand harsh winters. When the temperatures rise, the dogs can overheat quite easily, so they were all very happy with the weather being in the mid-teens while we were there. If they got too hot, they would roll in the snow when we stopped. If they were thirsty, they would chomp on a snow bank to rehydrate as we ran by.

After our first day, LynnAnne decided we were skilled enough for more adventure and told us we were going to break trail in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. For that we would need more power and stamina and both teams were given an extra dog.

In the morning we woke up, fed our 12 sled dogs, fed ourselves and went off into the wilderness.

Blazing trails

Calling it “the wilderness” may seem a little extreme, but it’s not an exaggeration. The area we sledded through was called the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and it was obvious why. Once we got off the lakes and into the forests, we had to stop every hundred yards or so to move trees and cut branches.

At one point we had to build a bridge over a small stream that wasn’t completely frozen. There hadn’t been anyone on those trails all winter, and we were clearing them.

We finally took a break to eat lunch outside over a fire while the dogs rested, and then continued on. By nightfall, everyone was beat, but feeling very accomplished.

Our last day of sledding saw some more trailblazing and snowfall. When we returned to the dog yard, where we started only three days before, it was hard to say goodbye to the dogs we had come to know so well and who had led us on our greatest adventure yet.

Over three days we sledded about 40 miles in and out of the wilderness, over lakes, through trees and past wildlife. We trail blazed. We broke some sleds. We broke some ice. My mom fell through the ice. Our guides fell through the ice.

We ate with our dogs, we ran with our dogs, we played with our dogs.

By the end of the trip, we wanted to take our ever-faithful sled dogs back to Delaware with us. They had become part of our family in three short days.

Now that I’m back home, I’m surprised I miss the snow-covered trees and the bite of the morning cold. The landscape was more beautiful than I had ever seen, resembling something you would see on a Hallmark Christmas card, something that really is a winter wonderland.

Winter isn’t meant to be 60 degrees in early February.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lexi Coon is a native Delawarean who has lived in the Camden area for 20 years. While her parents previously lived in Minnesota, she had never taken a liking to winter, until now. After experiencing a winter wilderness for herself, she wanted to share her unusual trip with other Delawareans so that they too may want to venture out into the cold. For more photos of dogsledding, visit brantaphotos.com/blog.

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