Dog-sledding in Northern Minnesota

Going north on one of the coldest days of the year during one of the coldest winters on record might seem crazy. But then again, a dog-sledding adventure might seem a little crazy. 

Crazy or not, dog-sledding might be the single greatest way to explore Minnesota’s great snow-covered Northwoods. Memorable doesn’t even begin to describe it.

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This trip was a Christmas gift from my l fiancé Bri, who knew that my love of the north was only superseded by my love of dogs. It was pretty much the perfect gift.

Before our dogsledding adventure, the closest I had come to running a team of dogs was watching Disney’s Iron Will. Nonetheless, my excitement levels were off the charts. I had to check a few times to see if I peed my pants.

Layer Up

As my friend’s dad would say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing choices.” It was a cold winter and wasn’t looking like it would get warmer any time soon, so preparation was key.

The dog sledding outfitter, White Wilderness, sent Bri a list of everything you should bring along for your trip. Stuff that every self-respecting Minnesotan should know intuitively, but a good reminder and checklist — especially if you haven’t been dog-sledding before. Plus, if you didn’t have the gear, you could any and all of it from them.

Here’s what we brought:

–      Moisture-wicking long underwear – tops and bottoms

–      Wool socks. At least two pairs a piece.

–      Thermal long-sleeve shirt

–      Warm sweatshirt

–      Snowpants

–      Multi layer winter jacket

–      Face gator

–      Glove liners and big mittens

–      Warm hat

–      Hot hands and hot feet inserts

–      Warm boots

–      And, of course, some treats for the dogs

All things told, the preparation paid off. Our fingers and toes were especially grateful.

 

The Ride Before the Ride

We left from work the night before our adventure and stayed in the Grand Ely Lodge. We had initially looked at cabins, but couldn’t find one that met all our needs. Mostly a sauna and/or hot tub. The Grand Ely Lodge was nice and had a hot tub. Sold. 

The next morning, we arrived at White Wilderness Sled Dog Adventures, deep in the heart of beautiful nowhere. Our little Toyota Camry indicated that it was 25 below zero. Otherwise known as #)@*$%ing cold. It was at the end of an old logging road, so we were a little skeptical that the Camry would make it out there. But, we made it out with little incident. However, we had to push another car to make it up a hill on our way out, so make sure your vehicle is up to the task.

It’s a Go

I thought maybe the folks at White Wilderness would cancel the trip or reschedule. No way. This is northern Minnesota, if you can’t hang at 25 below, go back to Minneapolis. Though, they’re too nice to say that.

Excited sled dogs barked, howled, jumped and yelped as we stepped out of the car. I was surprised at just how loud it was, which made me even more excited. There had to be at least 50 dogs. Not the pristine white or white/black dogs you remembered from Iron Will, but the kind of dogs that Tramp (of Lady and the Tramp fame) was running with. A gang of mismatched mutts. Pulling maniacs, really.

Inside, a couple of friendly bearded men looked us over to make sure we had enough layers and protection from the cold. They set us up with special boots to keep our feet warm.

Outside, the group was waiting for us. A couple of gals in their 60s, a family with teenagers, some college kids and another couple. It was great to see such a wide range of people up for an outdoor adventure in extreme weather. 


The guides briefed us on everything we needed to know.

Driving the sled: Put your feet on the skids. Hold on.

Being a passenger in the sled: Sit down and zip up your sleeping bag.

Slowing down: Step on the metal trail brake softly.

Stopping: Step on the metal trail brake hard. Like, really hard.

 

That’s pretty much it. No little training runs or rides with the guides on your sled. Just get on and go. One rider and one driver. Switch if you want to, when you stop. 

White Wilderness isn’t a fancy place where you sip hot chocolate in a little chalet while you’re getting ready for the trip. Nope, this was a real-deal, we’re in this together, get your hands dirty (if you want to) and have a great time type place. No frills. Just pure, dog-sledding fun times.

The guides sandwiched us and the five other sleds. One at the front to blaze the trail and one at the back, in case we fell off or the dogs got a wild hair to charge down the wrong trail. Which most definitely happened to us.

Bri gave me first dibs on driving. It was my Christmas present, so there would be no coins flipped or paper rock scissors competitions. 

I stood on the runners ready to drive and Bri sat in the sled. The dogs howled in anticipation. They pulled and jerked, looking back at us as if to say, “For the love of god.” Finally the lead sled took off, then the next, and then it was us. I let off the trail brake and we were suddenly gliding through the snow and off into the woods. The howling stopped.

You go pretty damn fast. Not scary fast, but faster than I was expecting behind a dog team. And it’s completely silent except for the slight sound of your sled being pulled. Quieter than cross country skiing.

The ride was incredible. Surrounded by tall pines, we meandered silently through the woods, up and down slight hills. Driving was a lot of fun. The dogs knew exactly where they were going and the trail was mostly just one direction, so no need for any actual driving skill. Still — standing, holding on and feeling the unexpected power of five dogs was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

When we were faced with a hill, the dogs would look back at us with sad faces. Saying, “Alright, jerks. You can’t give us a little hand here?” I was definitely taken advantage of. I would hop off to run alongside to help. Because I’m a softie. Plus, it helped keep the feet warm.

The lead pullers of our team were Joker and Serendipity. The Odd Couple of sled dogs. Joker was the biggest dog of all the sled dogs, he was like Marmaduke’s dopier working-class cousin. And Serendipity was the smallest of all the sled dogs. All business and out to prove that she was the best damn puller of ‘em all.

Joker would occasionally get distracted by something on the side of the trail, slow down to see what it was and Serendipity would bite his neck. This happened every few minutes. It was pretty funny.

It was definitely cold. So cold, that whenever Bri would take out her phone to take a picture it would die almost instantly. We also had icicles coming off our face masks. Those hand and feet warmers were crucial.

At a fork in the trail, our fearless leaders charged down the wrong path, just to make sure we were paying attention. As instructed, I slammed on the trail brake. One of the guides ran up, grabbed the dogs and thrust them toward the right trail. And we were off again.

We stopped every twenty minutes or so to make sure everyone was all good. Bri and I switched positions. Riding was also delightful. A little colder on an extreme day, since you weren’t really moving. The sleeping bag helped.

Just before we stopped for lunch, our team took a hard right and our sled tipped. And straight into the deep snow I went. Bri had also fallen off and is considerably lighter than me. I could see the dogs taking the sled off, so I wrapped my arms around the handles of the tipped sled and dug in. They still dragged me a bit. It took a bit of force to stop the sled, and just as we did the guide was there to get us set up again. I would say it was really exciting and a little cold with a little snow up the old shirt. Lunch, complete with a fire, was just across the lake. I could bare the cold for that long.

We arrived at the north shore of the lake and stopped for lunch. No cabins, houses or signs of civilized life anywhere. The guides pulled out hot chocolate, brats, hot dogs, veggie dogs, trail mix and some awesome home-made cookies.

They told us the best way to keep warm would be to gather some firewood. I would have tap-danced shirtless to keep warm at that point, so gathering firewood sounded like a solid plan to us.

Food and hot chocolate was simple and delightful. It really tasted great after our jaunt through the woods. The guides were fun and helpful. They also made me want to quit my job and move up to the woods and learn some actual useful skills. Like driving sled teams, building yurts and knowing how to survive in the middle of nowhere with basically nothing. They were cool.

We continued on, more of the same lovely driving and riding through idyllic scenery. It felt like we were the subjects of some painting that hung on the wall of someone’s cabin. The dogs were happy and so were we. It really was the perfect way to spend a cold day. Just as the cold started getting to me, we arrived back at the camunhitched the dogs and said our goodbyes. Rewarding our rag-tag team of dogs with some little treats in our pockets. We returned to Ely to reward our selves with some little treats in a couple of cold beers and a game of cribbage. And finally to the hot tub where we could soak it all up and recount our little adventure through the woods.