Tin Can Mike

Wintergreen 2016

The alpha male bared his teeth over the carcass of the big white tailed deer.  The pack respected his leadership by waiting their turn.  This was the second week that I had witnessed this ritual.  I was hungry, but not enough to challenge this hundred and thirty pound package of muscle and teeth.  Maybe there would be some raw meat in the refrigerator at the lodge.

As I continued to watch I recalled that It had all started innocently enough.  Where would I get my dogsled fix this year?  Paul Schurke is a renowned adventurer by dogsled, so his Wintergreen Dogsled Adventures caught my eye.  

Ely (hard E, L, hard E) Minnesota is tucked into about the most remote corner of the U.S.  250,000 outdoor enthusiasts descend on the area, much like mosquitos, to canoe the millions of acres of pristine boundary waters lakes and rivers.  The town showed signs of this invasion, even in winter.  Outfitters, lodging establishments and liquor stores vie for space on the main street.

Glad to have the three day drive from Virginia over, I happily settled into my room.  I called my guide, Ellen, to let her know that I had arrived and would see her at the Wintergreen Lodge the next afternoon.

Google indicated that the local library was closed.  Inquiries found that a modern new facility had opened.   This was fortunate.  I had pictures of my library volunteer wife, Chris, insisting that we move to Ely to correct the situation.  Keeping her warm in winter may have proved a challenge.

My excitement for dogsledding was tempered by my uncertainty about trying a new operation.  I went to sleep among my scattered gear that was awaiting yet another unnecessary reorganization.  The last two hours of driving had been on snow covered two lane road with only a few logging trucks for company.

Directions from Ely took me from well cleared highway, to snow covered road and finally to a long one lane driveway that passed the dog yard to a parking area below the lodge.  I was first to arrive.  Alice, a beautiful five month old white husky with brown spots greeted me.  I made myself at home in the comfortable lodge.  

I was gazing out the window over the ice covered lake when a mellow voice behind me said “Hello?”, inquisitively.  Courtney was eighteen with nine years sledding experience.  She and her brother had owned and run dog teams.  She was apprenticing at Wintergreen, hoping to one day have her own operation.

Ellen entered from the kitchen and asked “Elmer?”  A shrewd guess since we had talked the night before.   She and Courtney laid out snacks in anticipation of the arrival of the other clients in my group.

Jack and Laura arrived from Atlanta for their first northern adventure.  

Steve, from West Virginia, arrived, with a brash good humor that was immediately endearing.  He was a neck and throat cancer survivor.  An after affect was the loss of his hair and much of his sense of taste.  As a result drinking alcohol gave no pleasure so he had stopped drinking.  The jokes about his shiny dome were not always G rated.

Gray, from New York City, was the counterpoint to Steve’s brashness with a quiet confident manner.  They were also a contrast in size, with Steve at six one and 230 lb.,to Gray’s five three and 150 lb.  Gray was a graphic artist to pay the bills and an aspiring cartoonist.  His work was used in the movie “People, Places, Things”.  He also did not drink.  Must be going out of style.

Sisters Julie, Nini and Kathy completed our group with local knowledge and outdoor experience.  The “girls week out” was to maintain connection after recently losing both of their parents.

My first attempt at cross country skiing in Bunny Boots lasted 100 feet.  The toes popped out of the binding and I went over backwards, landing hard on my tailbone.  Switching another binding type helped and I was able to stay upright..  What little skill I had many years ago was very rusty.

After dinner, in my back triangle room, I was quite pleased with the makeup of the group.  

Morning introduction to dogsledding took me back ten years.  Ellen and Courtney presented the essentials of staying safe and keeping the dogs safe.  Being the bashful soul that I am, I only put in my two cents worth when I absolutely could not help it.  They would certainly have done just as well, or better, without my help.  

At morning dog feeding my repeatedly frostbitten fingers reminded me, painfully, to be careful of my hands.  The pain starts suddenly and immediately makes any use of the affected digits impossible.  I shirked part of morning cleanup duty by pretending to get acquainted with Bella.  The heat from under her forelegs eased the pain to a throbbing to my elbows that gradually receded to only the ends of fingers.  The telltale chalky white fingertips turned pink by the time we returned to the lodge for breakfast.  Each year my hands get desensitized after a couple of days, but I am still careful, wearing gloves whenever I can.

The first impressions of the dog yard were positive.  The dogs were healthy and happy.  The yard was clean and the process for keeping it clean were effective.  These were Eskimo working dogs, not the racing dogs that I had run before.  The dogs were heavier, with heavier coats.  They did exhibit the same yearning for attention and affection that made me love sled dogs so much.

For someone new to the dog yard, the organization was very user friendly.  Dogs were housed alphabetically.  Wood walls after each two rows narrowed the search further.  Dogs’ harnesses were hung at the end of the walls at a common walkways corresponding to the dogs in those rows.  Conflicts during transit were still possible, but greatly minimized.  The walls provided added benefit in reducing noise level and distance that must be traveled to handle dogs.

For our first run I had Bella in lead.  She stood relatively calmly as I harnessed her and took her to her place on the gang line.  A line down the outside of the outside wall provided a connection so dogs could not wander while the rest of the team was being assembled.  I hooked Douglas next to her.  He was also mostly white and smaller than most of these big dogs.  He stuck his nose, then his tongue, in my ear.  I knew that we were going to be friends.  Bella bared her two inch canines and rumbled deep in her throat at him.  “No!”  She looked at me casually, as if she were sure that I must be talking to someone else.

Douglas shied away to the end of his neck line.  His high pitched “talking” bark and submissive posture made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with those teeth.  I scratched his ears then reentered the yard for Mudro.  He was a pretty red dog named after a local lake.  His striking color and elegant posture would have justified a more elegant name.  He and Bella exchanged halfhearted growls.  I connected Sheana next to him in swing.  Her rough brown coat identified her as a senior member in the dog yard.  She had put in for retirement but was run occasionally.  Her snarl at Mudro said “Leave me the hell alone” and he did.

McKenzie struggled to get to her wheel position faster.  She was nearly vertical, dancing along, all the way to the sled.  Her coloring was a more traditional husky black and white.  Her long outer and thick inner coat were nearly Samoyed.  Cashew matched her for color.  He was slightly taller with a lighter build.  McKenzie only warned him halfheartedly when he checked her menstrual condition.

The dog yard was at the end of a narrow twisting trail leading down to White Iron Lake.  Staff drove the excited dogs to posts at the edge of the lake.  I rode the sled down with Courtney.  A first time on a sled may have been too exciting through those trees with excited dogs.

When all the guests had walked to their sleds, Courtney skied out ahead to lead the way along the edge of the lake.  Guides on skis was new to me.  The absence of snow machine noise did not hurt my feelings.  I did have a vision of a skier disappearing under the front of a team of Alaskan huskies, remembering the speed at which we usually left the yard.  We had been cautioned not to run over the guides and that, if we did, we should not use the brake on our way over them.  The guides were all expert skiers.  The dogs’ pace matched the lead guide without too much braking.

Kathy and I were on the forth sled.  Our long sled was loaded with several hundred pounds of camping gear.  I was immediately impressed with the power of these dogs.  Five dogs (Sheana apparently was still retired and along for the ride) easily pulled that weight plus two people.  Kathy was justifiably nervous.  She would be undergoing hip replacement surgery two weeks after our return.  Her opinion was that the hip was already being replaced so why not keep going.

The bright, cold morning reminded me why I am drawn north while everyone else is migrating south.  I had ridden short distances with a person on the other runner, like when we were pursuing the other person’s runaway sled.  Adjusting to this permanent arrangement began on the first turn through the trees.  The trail hopped the edge of a road and turn hard right around a tree.  

“Whoa!” Kathy’s command echoed mine.  Neither did any good as the sled and happy dogs skidded down the hard packed snow on the road on its side, with me in pursuit.  I caught them and righted the heavy sled without them taking off again before I could get on the brake.

“Fortunately I fell on my good hip” Kathy responded as she rejoined me at the sled.  With the first wreck out of the way, we enjoyed the trail across another portion of the lake and up Triangle Creek..

Kazan decided to eat Gabe on a team ahead of us.  Both dogs are large and heavy coated.  Kazan likes to fight and Ellen thought that he would have won if the fight were not stopped.  No matter how often you remind yourself not to stick anything that will bleed into a dogfight, reflexes are often faster than thought.  Neither dog was injured but Ellen was accidentally bitten while intervening.  The wound was not serious but we did not continue until it was carefully tended.

During this delay Bella rolled on her back and pawed at Douglas.  McKenzie pushed into Cashew and he pushed back without growling.  Mudro had gotten Sheana’s message and maintained a respectful separation.  There would be little worry of fighting on this team.

Kathy walked past two of the dicer sections of the narrow trail through tightly spaced trees going downhill.  Her sisters finally convinced her to reluctantly change sleds.  The smaller sleds had a platform for the passengers and being unloaded were less likely to tip over.  Big sister Julie joined me and Kathy rode with Nini.

An unexpected advantage of riding double was having someone to talk to.  As much as I love dogs, a conversation with the butts of a team of dogs can only take you so far.  Julie was knowledgeable on the local flora and pointed out the species along the way.  Our surroundings changed constantly.  Spruce bog, cranberry bog and cedar groves alternated with ponds and lakes to keep us entranced.  The trail was a deep winding gash in three foot deep snow.  Stunted spruce were dark green cones marking our turns and silently noting or passing, in a scattered patchwork pattern to the edge of the bog.

Looking back at Steve and Gray on the sled behind the difference in size of the two men gave the illusion of two sleds with Gray fifty yards back.  “As far as balance goes, what Gray does don’t make much difference” Steve joked in camp.  His West Virginia humor never wavered.

We traded Cashew for Gabe to equalize sled speed.  Gabe was big and black and pulled steadily.  McKenzie did not entirely approve of the change.  She was civil but did not flirt, as she did with Cashew.

Sleds ahead carefully popped sleds over a downed tree on a steep upgrade.  Just beyond that the dogs sled and driver disappeared as if they had fallen down a mine shaft.

“Julie, why don’t you let me take this one”.  She agreed reluctantly and stepped off.

The team neatly cleared the log with enough speed left that the front of the sled pointed at the sky as I helped push.  Jumping for the runners, I was not quite ready when the front of the sled slammed into the ground.  Douglas and Bella had already dropped down the mine shaft.  The rest of is followed before I could recover enough to get on the brake.  McKenzie was looking over her shoulder in concern when I landed both feet solidly on the brake, keeping the sled from catching her.  The sled neatly caromed off a tree and came to a stop to wait for Julie to walk up to us.  Julie regretted missing the fun.  Both McKenzie and I were glad that I had the whole sled width to recover and catch the brake.

Back on the “marge” of White Iron Lake we reached our campsite.  Two walled white tents were already erected in the grove of large trees by the lake.  A large fire circle split the distance between the tents.  Everyone had decided to sleep outside.  For everyone but the guides and me winter camping was new.  

“Outside” meant in a sleeping system consisting of a fleece inner liner, minus fifty sleeping bag and two pads.  All this was protected by a water resistant bivy sack.  It was very similar to systems that I had used before.  Getting in and out was the main challenge.

We sought out spots that were a safe distance from the fire circle.  The snow was flattened or removed depending on how we had been schooled in the art of winter camping.  At warmer temperatures you are risking awakening in a puddle of melted snow when you pack it down.  I have also found snow compresses in a way that is not always comfortable.

As the wood pile grew, Laura demonstrated fire building skills that she had developed using her wood burning pizza oven.  The gleam of a true pyromaniac, in her eyes, also identified her as the proper keeper of the flame.

As we were patting ourselves on the back for being such rugged adventurers, Courtney’s boyfriend Caleb arrived on his three wheeler with pizza.  We wolfed it down as an appetizer.  Ellen popped popcorn, then made dinner.  The fire warmed one side of us..  The other side chilled more quickly as the temperature dropped.  

Laura’s story of the coyote bringing fire made me vow to work harder on my story telling skills.  She told the tale very expertly.  The coyote brought fire to humans with the help of other animals.  The story is similar to the Inuit story of the Raven bringing fire.

My story of Sam McGee’s ghost, from a previous trip, started with an apology for not having “The Cremation of Sam McGee” with me to set the mood.  Ellen volunteered to recite this lengthy sledding tale from memory and did it perfectly.  Ellen and friends had memorized Robert Service’s epic tale of being cold. The group was canoeing in the Northwest Territory.  My tale of that strange day was well received, if a little skeptically.

Ellen tried, with limited success, to induct us into the “Nine O’clock Club”.  Staying up does make the night shorter.  Everyone had retreated to warm sleeping bags, with a hot water bottle, by shortly after nine.  The temperature was between minus fifteen and twenty in the night.  Everyone sleeping out for the first time would have bragging rights.  I heard Gray get up once and smugly patted my external bladder with the distinctive lid and skull and crossbones duct tape.  Laura commented that it seemed like men were tramping around all night.

Awake, but warm, I waited to hear Ellen and Courtney get the fire going before I stirred.  The spot where Gray had been sleeping was empty.  No wolf tracks or drag marks, so I looked inquiringly at the wall tent but did not investigate further.  As each camper related a “near death” experience with the cold in the night, we decided that Gray’s midnight relocation was a sign of higher intelligence.  He did lay the description of the luxury in the tent on a little thick.

My new daypack, with camp stool incorporated, made entering and exiting the sleep system much easier.  I also was testing a new ultralight camp chair.  It was comfortable but not completely stable.  Steve was eyeing the chair covetously.  The sound of Steve’s two hundred thirty pounds impacting the snow was as satisfying as the twang of a snare catching a rabbit.  The chair dumped me a couple more times before I learned not to lean.  Steve refused repeated offers to use the chair again.

Even in the numbing cold everyone pitched in on chores.  Having a willing team makes the experience so much better for everyone.  Ellen and Courtney still did the lion’s share of the work.  

We moved smoothly along the back bay of White Iron Lake and up the Sunset Trail into another section of spruce bog.  Aspen Alley slid by illuminated by the bright sun.  Entry into Kawishiwa old growth white pines was magical.  We stopped for lunch.  Even the dogs sensed the majesty of the place and settled to rest quietly.  Very little old growth survived lumbering activities.

We pushed up hills and braked down the other side after lunch.  Julie and I took turns being the brakeman.  She let me know when she needed my weight on the other side of the brake.  Husky Pond allowed us to relax and enjoy the steady pace of the dogs.  Sheana trotted along with her chain slightly slack.  She was done pulling for the day.  She had returned to retirement.  I smiled every time I looked at her back end.  Her fuzzy little brown feet padded along exactly like a cartoon teddy bear.

Ponds had beaver dams for us to cross.  The raised line marking the lower end of the pond often stretched several hundred feet.  Lodges, extending several feet above the surrounding snow, were often marked with predator tracks, hoping for an easy lunch.

Tracks of wolf, moose, fox, rabbit and otter spoke to the biodiversity of the area.  Bogs and bugs reduced access in all seasons but winter.  Something new to wonder at around every corner made it hard to pay close attention to the dog team ahead.  Another advantage of two on a sled was doubling the likelihood of being prepared for problems up front.

Another grove of tall trees by Crocket Lake ended our wandering for the day.  Dogs were promptly moved to lines for the night.  Sleds were unpacked and a fire lured campers to warm their hands between sessions of preparing for the evening.  It would be another cold night.  The sisters had completed the sleeping out part of their adventure and the dome tent was erected.  Modifications to the tent will be added to my standard for pole tents.  One end was taped into the grommet location, half the joints were glued keeping the poles in the sleeves.  Spreading the tent out like a Japanese fan and working the poles back through to secure the second end worked very well.  Why didn’t I think of that?

Julie tried sleeping in a dog sled and the other two sisters took the dome.  Gray took the other sled and everyone else slept out again.

Gathering wood for our two night stay scattered all hands in all directions.  Steve was particularly industrious to a point approaching deforestation.  We nearly lost him in a hollow in the snow next to a tree that he was attacking.  Laura rubbed her hands in glee as the woodpile approached the specified “2 VW bugs” in size.  

Courtney prepared Casa Dias to tide us over until Ellen’s main course of pasta and meatballs was ready.  Everyone ate heartily, but Gray took some ribbing about never declining any food offered.  

Laura followed her tale from the night before with a gripping tale of an African chieftain rescued by his sons.  His youngest had been the one to repeatedly insist on the search and received the reward.  As told by an expert the story was very compelling and I still find myself pondering the conclusion.

I slept soundly and was surprised when I shook the ice from my bivy sack to find the the sun was just touching the tops of the tall spruce trees far above my head.  The fire made warm beckoning sounds.  “Good Morning” from Ellen as she arrived with water from the lake.  A pure source is found by boring a hole in the ice well away from the shore.

“It is warmer?” Jack intoned hopefully as he struggled from his bivy sack.  Clouds rolled in and it started to snow during breakfast, proving him right.  A bolt had broken on a sled and temporary repairs delayed our start.  The repair was successful, lasting the rest of the trip.  

With empty sleds we decided to leave Sheana and Mishka in camp for a rest.  They complained bitterly, even though they had not been pulling the day before.  Five dogs would pull our empty sled with no problem and we were less top heavy on corners.

Flurries intermittently trapped us in an elaborate snow globe with our furry friends.  Spruce Bog, Moose Trail and Otter Hill were all adorned with a brilliant two inch coat of new snow.  Snow slowed both the dogs and the skiing guides.  As we approached Otter Hill Ellen moved Julie’s and my team to the lead to take a turn breaking trail.  Julie let me take the team off the trail into the three foot deep snow.  My feet slipped as I tried to push.  Gripping the bow, I tobogganed along behind the sled until we returned to the packed trail.  

“What kind of otter track will the next group think that is?”  Ellen laughed.  The signature walk/slide of the animal is typically much narrower.

“Hole!” I yelled over my shoulder, leaning all my weight to the left.  Julie pushed against me as our right runner ran into thin air over a six foot deep hole large enough to hold a sled.

“What?” Gray asked from behind.  He had stopped his sled with one runner over the hole to find out what the problem was.  In this case having Steve’s bulk on the other side saved them.  No team fell in the hole and all climbed neatly over the next beaver dam onto Husky Pond.

We heard the two dogs that were left behind complaining and knew that we were nearly back to camp.  Snow was falling so we hung tarps to protect those sleeping out.  Jack and Laura worked with others to string a handsome pup tent shaped shelter.  When Gray and I quickly tied edges of our tarp to randomly spaced trees Steve wisecracked “Look, a West Virginia carport”.  Snow pulled our cozy like world in around us as we gathered around the fire.

Steve and Gray had been enjoying comic antics of Tin Can Mike, a big black dog with a mile of personality.  Mike had reached to the side of the trail to grab a tree branch without seeing the tree further ahead.  He banged his head resoundingly.  Only a hundred yards later he turned to see what Steve and Gray were laughing about and ran into another tree.  Ellen was perplexed when the dynamic duo came by her laughing hysterically.

Mishka often “sang” to us from her spot on the stake out line.  The high pitched yodeling was plaintive and nearly formed words of reproach for not paying her more attention.  She is Sheana’s daughter and has stayed very attached to her mother.  She is seven and never developed into a reliable sled dog, only pulling at all next to her mom.

A red squirrel peered at us around tree trunks, watching for any chance to grab a crumb.  The whiskey jacks also stayed close to help with any cleanup.  Some dog kibble always got scattered for them.  It would be the last night for Courtney’s smores and Casa Dias.  We would share them with no vermin.  A smore with a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup was especially good.

The snow had piled on our carport enough by morning to lower the roof a foot.  I popped the snow off after I had slipped into my day clothes and boots.  On many trips my habit of rising early made me the fire builder.  I had no problem waiting to hear popping and smell spruce bow smoke before crawling out.

Packing for our day run back to the lodge went so smoothly that a bystander would have mistaken us for an Indy pit crew.  Tarps stuffed into sacks, tent stowed, sleds filled with sleep systems securely cinched down on top.  For once I looked up and all the other teams were at their sleds before mine was.  Sheana and Mudro were back with us.

While the dogs were fresh, Ellen removed tug lines to reduce power for a steep downhill   Julie enjoyed the ride and our sled emerged from the row of tight curves through trees unscathed.  Only Jack was ejected into the trees.  Ellen confessed that the tug lines had not been removed on his and Laura’s sled.  Gabe was always strong and enthusiastic on their team.

Ellen and Courtney worked harder.  It was a credit to their skiing skill that they could stay ahead of the dogs with new snow and warmer temperatures.  Yes Ellen, we all know that not all the stops, on the way home, were to rest the dogs.  At one stop Julie assisted by scraping the snow buildup from the bottom of Ellen’s skis.

Snow had stopped falling.  The artwork added to the already stunning scenes made time fly as we tried to take it all in.  The command to start for these dogs is “Ready, Hike”.  I have found that they are always ready.  Our team leaped forward.

Behind us, Steve and Gray were each finishing a candy bar and their command came out more like “mnfp pmck”.  The dogs understood the Snickers dialect perfectly and jumped into the trail behind us.  Steve and Gray were laughing heartily as they passed Ellen.  By now she was sniffing the air for traces of strange tobacco.

Avoiding a head on with other teams on the one lane trail gave us the opportunity to try a seldom used trail winding through trees spaced even closer together than the ones we had been negotiating.  “Look, Julie, there’s one with sled marks on it that we did not hit”.  She laughed and we counted all trees missed as a sledding success.  

The icy drop onto White Iron Lake meant that our day, and our sledding adventure were nearly over.  The dogs were much happier to get back to their houses than we were to return them.  Douglas tongued my ear and pulled on my beard again.

Ellen, Gray and I visited the sauna while everyone else cleaned up.  Ellen did the polar plunge and Gray stuck his hand in the water.  Elmer took pictures.  We joined the others and wound down with a great dinner and a visit to the Wolf Center.  Seeing these one hundred thirty pound animals a couple feet away makes me a little less sanguine about going to sleep under a tree listening to them howl.  Very majestic.

We graduated, including learning the secret handshake.  Really?  What part of secret do you not understand?  We parted company for that other world.  Each of us was a little richer for our nights in the cold and days on the sled with our dogs.

I had some time before my next group would arrive.  The brew pub served a “Juicy Lucy” burger with a fine stout beer.  Thanks to a suggestion from Ellen, the bookstore took some of my book “Raven” to sell.  The lodge was empty and peaceful when I returned.  It was not long before skiing, sledding and dog care interrupted my solitude.  The guests for the advanced camping trip started to arrive.

Steve and his daughter, Meagan; Gordie and Louriene;  Fern and Rachel;  Todd and Abby; Brian were all here for a winter adventure.  Isaac would guide with owner and accomplished adventurer Paul.

The forecast for warmer weather and rain was not promising.  We were nearly ready to take a shot at skiing when a thunderstorm drove us back indoors.  We were out quickly after the front passed and completed some skiing and a sled run.  The rutted frozen lake surface and trails did not raise my assessment of my ability on skis.  In one wreck I lost my cell phone.  I do not know what made me check for it ten minutes later.  Isaac and I went back to look for it.  My fondness for hot pink paid off.  The corner of the phone was clearly visible near the crater my body made in the hillside.

Brian started as my sled partner.  Our combined weight slowed our team so Rachel came to my sled and Brian joined Fern.  Rachel skijored with her husky.  Skijoring is being pulled by dogs on a line to a hip belt.  Translating her balance and muscle memory to dogsledding was easy.  We were soon moving right or left like one driver to make turns and avoid trees.  We alternated control of the brake.  Once again, conversation was less one sided than talking to the back end of the dogs.

Before our skiing and dogsledding was over I had decided, reluctantly, to stay behind from the boundary waters camping trip.  The weather forecast brought memories of soggy afternoons and wet gear.  My tailbone would approve of limiting additional contact with the lake ice.  My main regret was in missing hearing Paul’s exploits over a campfire.  

Pre-adventure excitement kept the dinner table lively.  When conversation turned from our current adventure to war and politics, I slipped away to my quiet triangle room.  I was like a house elf.  I could enter my room through the staff kitchen and used the staff bathroom.  Other guests never knew that I was there unless I chose to present myself.  I would have enjoyed hearing more from Paul about his expeditions.  He is the quintessential soft spoken Minnesotan, yielding the floor politely.

Paul and the Wintergreen staff accommodated my decision without a ripple.  I helped pack for the camping trip.  My envy of the organization of the shop and equipment could not be concealed.  Paul, of course, was modest, saying that his father was much more organized, with pegboards and tool outlines.  He laughed when I said that I did the same thing, but there were never any tools in the outlines.

Sleds and dogs were smoothly loaded on and in the dog trailer.  The staff made maximum use of available client labor without being dictatorial.  Not knowing what lay ahead for me, I questioned my decision as the teams shrank to black dots up Moose Lake toward Canada.

The Boundary Waters, on both sides of the Canadian border, are a very special place.  Set aside to remain pristine, no motors are allowed.  Two hundred fifty thousand people visit each year.  Like mosquitos, the vast majority come in summer.  For this reason the winter traveler has a unique opportunity to be very alone, with a permit of course.  To reduce impact, no more than nine people are allowed in any group.  With two guides this is solved by dividing the group for travel and camping.

Paul’s daughter, Bria, made me part of another group seamlessly.  I kept my triangle room.  I was thinking of homesteading.  As the third group began to arrive I was starting to feel like staff.  Zach and Darlene were from Buffalo, with their nine year old son Ethan.  Kathy and Heidi were friends who had been in the area before.  Mike was a retired railroad worker from California.  

Bria’s partner, Will, would be our other guide.  They were both exceptional skiers, as they would have opportunities to demonstrate.  As they easily handled the rutted ice and afternoon slush I was more glad that I did not go where skiing was part of the program.

Our early start, to beat the heat, did not inconvenience anyone.  Breakfast and time for two cups of coffee was considered rushing.  Bria thought that I probably did not need the dogsledding 101 talk so I went to the dog yard and harnessed dogs while the others were schooled on safety.  The organization again impressed me.  Having the harnesses at the end of the row on pegs made it simple to harness up the teams that you wanted.  Only one dog here seems to be a chewer so putting harnesses on early is not a problem.

I was working hard at names of people (I had the dogs down pat).  This group had a dynamic similar to the first group.  Nine friendly, excited people looking for an adventure in a special place.  I rode my own sled to the lake.  Guides brought the others down through the trees to the launching area.  

It is probably time to introduce Donna.  Will and Bria had adopted this English Bulldog.  She came along on sled runs.  She not only came along but pulled Will or Bria part of the time.  She takes no guff from the larger sled dogs and deports herself as if she were conducting the entire operation.  On one occasion she abandoned us to go exploring.  This caused concern until she reappeared wondering what all the fuss was about.

Bria and Donna led us down the lake.  I recognized parts of some trails.  So much snow had melted that it was a different world.  This was more challenging for the guide/skiers.  Bria and Will were alternately ice skating on a pond riddled with ruts and water skiing in pools and slush.

At nine years old, Ethan turned out to be a natural and they let him take a team of three by himself.  Ethan listened to instructions and controlled the team better than most adults.

Having my own sled felt more natural.  It was now that I realized how much fun it had been to coordinate with another rider and comment on our surroundings.  The up side was that it was so simple to control the sled by myself and I could paddle without inconveniencing my partner.

Crossing White Iron lake, we ran up a creek on the far side to Trappers Pond.  Open water in the stream was too inviting to one team of dogs.  The sled stopped with the lead and swing dogs in the stream.  It must have been very cold when Will had to wade in to his waist to lead the adventurous canines back to our side of the stream.  I explained to Bella and Larry that we definitely did not want to go that way.

Mike was still behind me on our return along the stream.  Our path led around open water.  Larry followed the next team around.  I always try to be close to the next team when I do not want the dogs to cut across on a turn.  Mike did not have this knowledge and was well behind me.  If his team took a straight line to me they would cross fifteen feet of very cold water.  I was actually fumbling for my camera as he approached the open water.  Cruel I know, but why miss a photo op?  Mike joked later that my journal would probably relate how he and his dogs had to swim a fifty yard lead.  Sorry Mike.

Lunch seemed like only a few minutes into the morning.  I barely recognized the walled tents where I had spent the first night.  I felt like the wicked witch of the east “I’m melting!  I’m melting”.  Only the tents assured me that this was actually the winter wonderland of a week ago.

A long rest for the dogs was in order.  We roasted bratwurst and other delicacies.  Donna was certain that one of the brats was hers but she is not allowed people food.  The fire was cheerful, but not required for warmth.  Bria and Will were able to dry footwear.  Skiing through the slush soaked them both.  Every time I saw them expertly negotiate ridges of ice or plow through four inches of water I patted myself on the back for changing my plan from the camping trip that would have required considerable skiing.  I did, also, thank my luck for picking Wintergreen.  Their easy flexibility to accommodate my decision was the best.

The lake and forest trails soon had me totally lost.  Occasionally I would recognize a location or obstacle and marvel again at the difference a few days made in the snow pack.

It was pleasant to slide along in only a base layer top.  More work was required pushing in the heavy snow.  The dogs were hot.  Larry scooped mouths full of snow whenever he could reach it.  Tin Can Mike rolled and burrowed in the snow every time we stopped.  This often resulted in his tug chain being twisted around the gang line several times.  This did not bother him but I sorted it out whenever someone else would hold my sled.  They do not carry snow hooks here, so when you are riding solo you can not leave the sled or it will leave you.

Bella did not approve of either the reaching for snow or rolling around.  She regularly snarled and bared her two inch fangs at them.  They both ignored her, looking away and pretending that they could not see her.  She pulls well and loves me, but the word bitch does apply to her in the most negative connotation.  All day these three kept pace with the five and six dog teams.

Mike, the retired California railroad worker, was particularly enjoying this adventure.  His sled was behind me when he lost the sled in some trees.  The familiar sound of happy dogs pulling a riderless sled alerted me to grab the swing dog just before the lead dogs reached my team.  Fearing a fight I was a little stern in telling him to get on the brake so that I could pull my team out of harms way.  Mike took it well and we both laughed.  I was pleased, and a little surprised, that neither his dogs nor mine wanted to engage in combat.  Other than communicative snarling, these dogs are generally more tolerant of each other than I am used to.

A mile further on, I heard from behind, “Elmer, I need help”

“I will get help.” I pulled ahead to where I could send Bria to untangle his dogs.  He had not responded quickly enough when his leader stopped to poop.

The hill to the dog yard was very familiar by now and returning dogs to houses, unharnessing , feeding , watering and poop scooping went very quickly with everyone pitching in.

Mark and Cynthia, from Minneapolis, had arrived by the time we returned to fill out our group.  They were returning in winter to where they had gotten engaged on a summer canoe trip.

Our evening entertainment included a film of Paul’s expedition to the north pole.  The book “North to the Pole” details the adventure.  My evening reading was the book on his expedition from Siberia to Alaska.

The next morning, without an undo rush, we got another early start.  It would be easier on everyone to not be out when the temperature rose in the afternoon.  I had no partner on the short sled.  Larry and Bella were at lead.  She treated him the same way she had Douglas.  Instead of being intimidated or responding aggressively, he turned his head slightly away from her and ignored her.  You know how women love that.  Pure black and twice her size, he was all business.

All business did not apply to the rest of my team.  Tin Can Mike, in swing, pulled steadily but could not help being the clown that he is at stops.  Sheana and her daughter Mishka were only along for the exercise and not for pulling the sled.  The three pullers generally kept up with the six dog teams with a little help from me.  I did not need the exercise to keep warm but paddling always makes me feel more part of the team.  I at least imagine that they understand when you are helping them and work harder.

There is such a warren of trails that repeating routes, for very far, is coincidental.  Where there had been deep snow there were bare spots and rocks sticking up.  The rugged design of these sleds impressed me more as I used them more.  The thick plastic runners slid over even large obstructions.  The same material on the brush bow in front slid off any but the most direct contact with trees.

Leaving the dogs in the shade, we found large rocks under the pines at the mouth of the Kawishiwi River.  After a leisurely lunch, we hiked to two sets of rapids.  A pileated woodpecker had drilled large cavities in one tree.  There must have been something very good in there.  An otter slide in the snow made us wish that the little fellows would come out to play.  Bria found some Wintergreen plants where the snow had melted.  The taste was like wintergreen gum.  Be careful though, the one I found for myself later was very bitter.  Wrong Plant!

The slick hill onto White Iron Lake made us all wonder how nine year old Ethan would do.  He had handled his team very well all day.  We cheered when his three dogs came to a stop safely on the ice. 

“Loose Sled!” I yelled ahead to Will

“Take Donna” I grabbed the little bulldog’s harness as Will shot by.  Even controlling the little ball of muscle and my team, I got a good view of what happened next.  Mike’s team came by at full throttle.  Will yelled “Whoa!” but was not relying on voice commands.  Skating up the ice with all his speed he lunged and barely caught the sled bow.  He then kicked off one ski and braked the excited team to a halt.  Quite a show.

A Goldendoodle named Izzy is also a house dog.  She ran with us and chose my sled to follow much of the time.  I could feel her running next to my leg when I paddled.

I saw Bria testing the ice ahead and had a real sinking feeling when the tip plunged through halfway to her hand.  She and Will talked it over and decided that it was safe to cross.  I did not jumped up and down or even paddle as we passed the thin spot.  Will had the questionable duty of standing at the edge of the thin spot directing the dogs away from it.  Sledding on the lakes was nearing the end for the season.

Hard rutted ice alternated with pools and slush.  We laughed nervously at a turkey vulture sitting to our left near an open lead.  What was he waiting for?

Will and Bria demonstrated their skill with couples moves and near 360 degree horizontal spins in the air over the ice.  They had skied competitively in high school.  

The dog yard was like home and we were soon at the lodge.  We set the dogs and sleds up for our trip to Canada in the morning.  There would be time for a sauna before dinner.  I made the mistake of noting that I may try the polar plunge this time.  Nine year old Ethan latched onto this and assigned himself to take pictures.  What could I do?  We stalled in the sauna.  “In five minutes” but no one was wearing a watch.  Finally, as the sun set, we ran down the hill to the lake. 

A hole had been chopped in the lake.  Two foot thick chunks were scattered about.  Cynthia recorded my insanity as I plunged into the hole in the ice over my head.  I think I could have cleared the edge of the ice without touching it, and without the hand that Zach reached out to help me.  The cold only hit after I was out and only lasted a few seconds.  I expected to have to sprint back up the hill to the sauna.  In reality, I only hurried to the 190 degree heat.  My skin almost vibrated and I stayed until time for dinner.

Excited discussion of the days events and our plan for the trip to Canada through the boundary waters filled the dinner hour.  I eventually escaped to my room to read and very soon to slept very soundly with a full stomach and pores that had been fully opened and slammed shut.

Could it be Saturday already?  My last day of sledding and, based on record high temperatures, probably everyone else’s also.  Breakfast, loading dogs and launching onto Moose Lake, for our invasion of Canada, was completed with amazing alacrity.

We launched where I had helped the camping group start.  My same team ran down the hill onto the lake first.  From the beginning neither Sheano nor Mishka were pulling.  We had expected this.  Larry, Bella, Tin Can Mike, and Elmer were the power for the run.

Before we started it was shirt sleeve weather.  Will was soon down to shorts and T shirt.  He outpace the dogs but only because of his ability on skis.  The more it warmed up the harder he had to work.  The dogs were hot also.  We stopped whenever we could find shade along the lake shore or the shady side of an island.

We passed a huge bald eagle’s nest and the occupant took off as we passed.  

We met the camping group come hack.  Some assistance from skiers was required to keep their line of sleds on one side of the lake and ours on the other.

I heard “Elmer!” shouted across the lake and I waved back.  My pink shirt and headscarf must have given me away.  

We parked the dogs in the shade of an island fifty yards from the Canadian border and crossed to have lunch.  Bria turned Larry loose before we left.  I tried to call him but he was not coming out of the shade.  

A dam and rapids, at the border, made a perfect backdrop for our final lunch.  We hiked to the Canada Entry Station that was closed for the winter.

When we returned to the sleds, Larry was sitting in his position in lead at my sled.  In spite of Bella’s warnings, he knew that this was where he belonged.  It is not hard to hook up a tug and neck line to a dog who is sitting in his spot.  This did not keep him from running the sled over me when we turned back to the U.S.  Only my pride was damaged as I scrambled up to jump on the brake.

Sledding across a frozen lake when it is seventy degrees can be unsettling, if you stop to think about it.  There were hole in the ice where I could see the level of the ice moving as we passed.  It was so warm that even Tin Can Mike’s chain went slack just before we finished.  Bella and Larry pulled us to the landing with me paddling.

I visited the Wolf Center again with this group.  The camping group was there and we compared notes.  As the wolves devoured the road killed deer I reflected on this once in a lifetime vacation.

Kathy, Heidi and I picked up beer in town.  The film of Paul going to the pole was playing again when I went to bed.  The team dispersed one at a time the next morning.  The last to leave were Kathy and Heidi.  We said goodbye at the dog yard, where they were reluctantly saying goodbye to their favorite dogs.  Appropriately, Will came by looking for the independent little bulldog, Donna.

I had eaten, gassed up, and driven two hundred thirty miles when a car pulled alongside and paced me until I looked over.  An excited lady was waving madly.  Darlene, Zach and Ethan went on ahead and the adventure was over

Or was it?  They say “getting there is half the fun”.  I had decided to stop at Cave of the Mounds.  Directions and GPS were misleading so I stopped at a Kwik Stop for help.  The clerk “Wasn’t from around there”.  The first customer shrugged and left.  The second old fellow was obviously a long time resident.

“Well, you go back down the way you came.  Don’t pay no attention to those highway signs.  Keep goin till you get to the roundabout at Bethel.  Go three fourths way round to the Kwik Stop.  They should be able to tell you where it is”.  Fortunately more signs for the caves saved me from having to do that.

The cave was small but well presented with as much of interest above ground as below.  Carter’s Caves State Park in Kentucky was also beautiful.  I took a long hike to take the kinks out of my legs before continuing home.

See Tin Can Mike run

Sled dogs always love to run

We ride along to join the fun

Tin Can Mike is big and black 

A heavy coat is on his back

He paws the air to bring you near

Pleasure when you scratch his ear

Lift.  Put this boy in two wheel drive

Pulling hard,to the sled he’ll strive

Get both feet firmly on the brake

Hang on tight, Streak across the lake 

Stop.  Let the big guy cool down

Mike twists, digs and rolls around

He is after those tiny red voles

Safe in winter tunnels and holes

When it’s time to go again

Mike is twisted in his chain

No heed for what may be ahead

He grabs sticks, looks back instead

With all Tin Can’s comic activity

The clown often smacks a tree

We love each of our hard pulling dogs

Over lake ice, high dive drops and logs

Every rider has a favorite in the yard

No other dog makes us laugh so hard.

As I tell my friend goodbye I see

He acts so very much like me

Ever eager to run and roam

Just as glad to get back home

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