Goodbye Balmy Gulf! Hello Ice-Glazed Snow
by Ute Carson
The Writer Within, August, 2006

A dog sledding trip in Ely, Minnesota

O be self-balanced for contingencies;
To confront night, storms,
Hunger, ridicule, accidents,
-Walt Whitman

Shortly after daybreak on January 4th, 2006 the 49 Inuit dogs at the Wintergreen Lodge kennel serenade us one last time with their eerie wolf-like howling. We will miss their communal chorus which stops as abruptly as it began.

We selected this New Year's Eve vacation partly to lay eyes and hands on this magnificent breed, one among the four remaining Eskimo dogs: the Malamute, the Samoyed, the Siberian husky, and our dogs, the Inuit or Qimmiq, the ones who were "born to pull." We wanted personally to inspect these amazing creatures, described by ethologist Konrad Lorenz as "powerful and hardy, capable of bearing up to a hundred pounds day after day for as many miles as is required to reach their destination without as much as a whimper en-route."

It didn't take long for us to fall in love with these 100 pound bundles of fur whose bodies are firm as soccer balls and covered with thick insulating down under a layer of coarse hair which sheds water and snow. These canines fan their proud tails in the chilly air like feathery plumes. They exude a strong musky odor. Because I couldn't resist petting them with my bare hands, their smell has penetrated the skin of my palms and still remains a week later as a faint memory!

Inuit dogs have not been domesticated. They are not pets but pack animals, and the social structure of packs is rigid. The dogs' personalities exhibit strange contradictions. They are affectionate with humans and ferociously aggressive with each other, but also playful. We were told that some animals bond deeply with their masters and each other. On an arctic expedition a team member was forced by illness to drop out and return home. His dog soon died, "having lost the spirit of pulling."

I had rather romantic notions about dog sledding. Visions of Doctor Zhivago whisking through a winter wonderland in a sleigh made of dark wood and painted with golden curlicues, I snuggled in a fur coat and cap, clinging to my loving husband. But things don't always turn out as anticipated and we can learn from the unexpected.

First, I learned that we had over-packed. We arrived on a clear night under a universe of stars and trudged from our car to Diamond Willow Lodge, our departure place for the lodge-to-lodge sledding trip. Chris, a most personable guide, sprinted in sock feet across the crusty snow and heaved our luggage into a cozy room. My embarrassed face reflected the redness of the flames from the fireplace. A couple about our age, Reva and Rick, laughingly greeted us, "We brought that much baggage too!" Later, two young women, Molly and Leah, eager and vibrant as colts, traipsed into the lodge dragging heavy suitcases behind as if they intended to stay for months. Then we all exploded in a fit of laughter when Molly and Leah emerged from their bedroom with Hawaiian shirts instead of woolen sweaters. They had picked up the wrong suitcases at the airport.

If I had to do it again, I would pack only a backpack with toiletries and a change of lounging clothes for dinner and fireside chats. Oh, and a bathing suit. I became a teenager again, rolling in the snow after absorbing the heat in the sauna whose temperature rivaled that of our Texas heat waves!

I would pick up everything else at the local Wintergreen store in Ely where garments are handmade in fashionable colors and are just right for this kind of adventure. Warmth is essential for such a trip and the store is stocked with everything needed to protect against the cold. Much of what I had packed, including my Texas boots and my make-up, was banished to the bottom of my suitcase until our return to the Minnesota airport. I even stopped worrying about my hair, which was permanently tousled as if from sleep.

The atmosphere in the lodge was friendly and inviting. The real luxury was the evening meal prepared by a French chef, Bernard, who not only has a most discriminating palate and impressive culinary skill but was willing to refresh my French as he chopped and stirred exotic foods for northern exposures. "Tres exquisite!" And his bread, freshly baked each day, was a true giver of life.

Personal introductions and plans for the next days were made after dinner the first evening and my romantic bubble about leisurely sleigh rides burst when I heard that I would have to stand all day. For about five years, since I turned 60, I have struggled with lumbar stenosis and severe back pain. How would I be able to manage? Was it the excitement, the rush of adrenaline, my determination not to give up, or my hypnosis training that enabled me to forget about the discomfort? Even after a long day on my feet, I was only mildly tired. Not until I curled up under warm bedding and relived the pleasures of our first day on the trail did I remember my aches and pains and reach for some aspirin.

The following morning, under a mild, misty sky, I stepped onto the porch and listened to the wind. It was as easy as breathing. But my pulse quickened when we were called to feed our dogs and harness them before trekking out across the lake and into the woods. I have been a horsewoman my entire life but I struggled with the harness. It looks so simple. The strapping goes around the neck and chest and under the front legs. From the neck, it extends to the base of the tail, finishing with a loop for the pull line. But I fumbled and fumbled. At one point I was rolling on the ground with a playful young dog who must have taken my clumsiness for an invitation to play.

We were assigned the same sled and the same team of dogs for the three days of our adventure and right away I had a favorite, Marina. She is not as gorgeous as her strapping male companions but she is smart. She was the only one who pricked up her ears at the sound of her name and whenever we stopped she would glance over her shoulder at us for instructions. She has very refined manners. While the other dogs greedily attacked their food, she sat in a regal posture, waiting. She also didn't like her dry food mixed with water. It had to be presented to her separately while others just gulped down what was in front of them. She is different, a queenly Inuit dog!

The team consisted of three lead dogs, Marina and Moon and Blue, followed by Slobber and Clark. The dogs are connected to each other by fan hitches and as we set off across the lake, sheets of ice below and a few soaring ravens above, I knew instinctively that my appreciation for these dogs would expand day by day by leaps and bounds. Then as we gave the command "Hike," the dogs clopped like draft horses across the ice, their chains clinging like bells. The dogs do not bark when they are working. The desire to pull is innate. Their pride seems to lie in doing the task and pleasing the master.

Our guides, Chris, Mike and Nick are as muscular and in as good a physical condition as the dogs. They also mirror the canine qualities of friendliness toward strangers and incredible endurance as they ski along with us all day long. I was awed by their stamina. When dogs got entangled, they simply picked them up as if they were nothing but feather-light parcels and put them over the chains, correcting the flank-to-flank pulling order.

Maybe the credit is due to Paul Schurke, the owner of the Wintergreen enterprise who chooses his guides with such precision. But it just may be the work which shapes these men or maybe their intrinsic qualities of endurance and perseverance that bring them to jobs like these. They are a rare breed indeed. Seldom alone, they are often lonely. Outside relationships are difficult to sustain. "It takes a special woman to share this life," one of them commented, "and I'm still looking." The participants on a trip change about every five to six days and while they are together from dusk until well into the night, they bond. But then the visitors go home and the guides have to connect with new travelers. The empty nest syndrome repeats itself in a constant cycle. Chris has his canine companion "Buddy" with him on these trips, a black lab mix from the pound. Some continuity there at least!

I was most impressed with the way the guides divide their attention equally. No one was left out or got special treatment. The guides are also quite knowledgeable about the environment, the wildlife and vegetation. They showed us a beaver lodge where the wind had sculpted the snow into a rounded hill like a sand dune. But our guides also compared the beaver to the human being and lamented its power to destroy tree and dam. With our ears pressed to the powdery mass we hoped in vain to hear rumblings from these underground dwellers. It reminded us that life's sweet murmurs run like undercurrents even under the deepest snow.

I tasted a piece of lichen. Even though deer can survive on it, I doubted if I could. But I savored the mushroom flavor while it lasted.

Our guides took care of us when we fell off the sled and, when we needed extra heating patches in our boots. They were the breakfast cooks and when we were out, also grilled lunches over an open fire on one of the frozen lakes or in a clearing.

Mike stacked and layered sticks and then ignited them. The wood caught and began to crackle and pop in a blue flame. The smoke ascended like incense and the fragrance of the kindling wafted in my direction. I did not blow the fumes away but inhaled them. Soon the heat enveloped me and I was mesmerized by the magic of the flames as they leapt up and licked one snapping stick at a time.

Around the fire stories are told. Chris recalled a camping trip when a girl's feet were so cold she didn't want to go on. "I placed them on my chest and in no time they were okay." There is naturalness in these gestures and easy physical contact without a loss of respect for boundaries. We all learned to relieve ourselves quickly in chilling bursts of air before freezing our butts!

Winter dreamed on when I faced my first fear. My husband was the assigned braker on our sled. I am too light and even when I threw my full weight on the brakes, little happened. The dogs are trained to respond to voice command, more to the inflection or tone than the words themselves. When we said "hike" which means "go" and "whoa" which means stop or "haw" for left and "gee" for right, little happened until we used a different pitch, more demanding or soothing depending on the intended speed. We had just trailed over icy ruts made by snowmobiles when we came to a steep downhill slope. A light snow was falling, pricking my cheeks. The cold quickened as we began to careen downward past ghostly trees in the direction of a lake when my husband slipped and fell into a snow heap. "Stand on the brake," he yelled. As much as I tried, it was useless. Instinctively, I closed my eyes as branches and twigs slapped my face. I held on for dear life, trusting that the dogs would find their way. I had taken a deep breath when the sled gained speed and now exhaled with a satisfying sigh as we rounded the corner into the clearing. We had arrived safely, my husband huffing and puffing his way back through snow drifts to me and the security of the sled. The next hill I took with new confidence.

Even though every effort was made by our guides to keep us safe, there is some risk involved in such adventures. We all fell off the sled at least once or we slid and lost our balance. The snow is a soft cushion but you never know what lies beneath or when you might step through thin ice near a lake bank. The mood of the weather changes constantly. It can turn bitter cold. You could get frostbite. The list of warnings is endless. But we always felt secure in the knowledge that we would be taken care of if something serious were to happen.

Having exchanged the sight of bobbing sailboats for snowplows, we were transported from a balmy tropical climate to a harsh northern one where we were tested in strange, new ways. Not only did we use muscles we had not used in years by standing all day on a sled, we also pushed the limits of our endurance. At the end of each day we were filled with pride that we had been able to exert ourselves much more than we had thought possible.

We two-legged travelers had fun. We laughed at our follies. We bonded quickly even though we came from different walks of life and knew little about each others' backgrounds. But as long as we shared this adventure we depended on each other and our guides. We looked out for each other. We worried when someone fell, we stopped when a sled was loose or just out of sight. For all of us time stretched. And after a day's outing we talked sparingly about our work or our families back home, recounting instead the day's events in all their exciting, trivial details. Boredom was nonexistent!

In the everyday world we tend to overlook the obvious. Stepping out of our daily environment meant a reunion with nature. The hands-on work with the dogs provided one kind of reaffirming connection. Shoveling frozen dog turds was quite another. But we were all steeped in nature, its harshness and its beauty.

Only for brief moments the sky shone arctic blue. The heavens were mostly overcast and the journey through dry marshlands, groves of ink-black forests of firs and blond birch trees with huge branches bending under the weight of snow, added a mysterious ghostliness to the countryside. The fallen branches which cracked under the sled runners and leaves, frozen and stiff, broke like thin glass. The wind pried open the pores of my face and opened my heart and when we picked up the tempo across a frozen lake or down a winding path, blood pounded happily in my ears.

The last morning has fully arrived. The howling has stopped and now it is as quiet as if we were back again sweeping across a wind-still lake. We all say our thank-yous and good-byes. When Chris hugs me, he suddenly picks me up as if I were one of the Inuit dogs and swings me into the air for a few seconds. It feels as if he is lifting me across an invisible fan hitch, a line that separates this vacation wonderland from my everyday world.

- ~ -