Into the Wild with Man's Best Friend
IT’S THE PEACE, QUIET AND CAMARADERIE— NOT THE SPEED AND SHARP TURNS— THAT MAKE DOG SLEDDING EXHILARATING.
I yell from the back of the dogsled, urging my team of five peach-colored Yukon huskies to mush. I stand on the runners in far too many layers of warm clothing. The dogs instantly pick up speed, whipping through the woods and banking corners around the towering pine trees as we make our descent to the shores of Lake Umbagog in western Maine. Then we hit a bump and I barely hold onto the small sled while I scream “Whoa!” for the dogs to stop. No such luck. They are juiced and ready to run for hours, with or without me. On my next attempt, I yell “Whoa” as loud as my gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps did. The word echoes through the hillside and the dogs come to an abrupt halt.
“Not a good beginning, but at least you held onto the reins,” says my guide and mentor, Polly Mahoney. “Bend your knees.”
I gather as much composure as I can and cut myself some slack. After all, this is my first attempt at dog sledding. “Let’s go,” I shout once more, and the dogs zip across the lake’s frozen surface. We’re moving at a good clip and I begin to feel comfortable as I breathe in the crisp air. I am surrounded by a white wonderland of pine and spruce trees, their branches heavy with snow. There are no other signs of civilization—just the dogs and us, a small group of dog sledders and cross-country skiers, lost in the woods.
I hear the slight pitter-patter of the dogs’ paws as they propel themselves onward through the snow, the sound of the sled’s rudders scraping into the ice and my breath, now relaxed, as I sigh in awe at the tranquil beauty—but otherwise, silence. I realize that this is a wilderness that only a few lucky people have witnessed during the frigid days of January.
IT IS THIS CHANCE TO GET LOST IN the woods for an hour, day or week that has propelled the sport of dog sledding into the mainstream. All across the snowbelt, outfitters are popping up to lead guests on trips. Dogsleds have an average speed of 12 miles per hour, so riders can move faster than cross-country skiers (who typically move at 3 miles per hour) while avoiding the noise and smoke emitted by snowmobiles.
Dog sledding originated in the Arctic regions, not as a recreational activity, but as the best form of transportation during the icy winters. Little did those early explorers know how thrilling the experience would be to present-day riders whipping through the snow. The dogs, which work in teams of at least four, are easy to train, and the sled, basically a wood basket on two skids, glides effortlessly across the snow. “The lead dogs are lighter and quicker,” says Mahoney, who spent nine years living off the land in Canada’s Yukon territory—where she learned to cherish the strength and grace of the Yukon husky—before starting Mahoosuc Guide Service two decades ago. “The middle dogs are the point dogs. By far the strongest ones are the last two dogs, the wheel dogs, who help turn the sled.” On a full stomach, huskies can travel more than 100 miles a day. Say “Haw” and the dogs and sled go left. “Gee” prompts a turn to the right, while “Whoa!” (supposedly) makes them come to a stop.
Standing on the back of the sled with a grin plastered on my face, you would have thought my favorite part of the trip was the actual sledding. But I loved being with the animals before and after the outings just as much. I was particularly fond of one 9-year-old fluff ball named Kara. She ran to me when she wanted to be petted and remained quiet the entire time, even while most of the other dogs barked, whined and growled. In contrast to the ride, the time before you jump on the dogsled is a chaotic chorus of yelps by eager—and impatient—pups ready to begin their day of mushing.
FROM HER HOME BASE OF NEWRY, MAINE, MAHONEY AND HER PARTNER Kevin Slater lead sledding trips to Lake Umbagog and northern Quebec to dog sled with the native Cree Indians. I had signed up for the overnight trip, which includes setting up camp on an island and sleeping in a traditional North Woods tent with white canvas walls and soft balsam-fir bough floors. The tent is heated by a sheet-metal wood stove, which is also used to dry clothes and warm water for washing and cooking.
That’s not to say this was a night at the Waldorf-Astoria. Given Maine’s freezing winter temperatures, we were bundled in heavy, winterized sleeping bags, as cozy as mummies, with our thick snow caps pulled on tightly over our ears. When nature called in the middle of the night, I braved the frigid air and ran outside—and it was one fast run, even though the sky was shining with stars. As the sun rose, we woke to the sound of the dogs bark-ing—their way of telling us it was time to start the day. Having survived the night, I was as anxious as they were to get moving once again.
On my second day, I feel like a pro as I sled along the shores of the lake. I yell my commands and the dogs listen. We soon veer off into the forest and snake our way through the tall trees. In the distance, I spot a deer darting through the birches. It quickly dawns on me why this age-old sport remains so popular in the modern world: It provides a singular way to immerse yourself in pristine wilderness, far from the bustle of civilization. The dogs pant, I sigh with gratitude and we glide into another day of sweet stillness.
DOG DAYS OF WINTER
Sign up for a dog-sledding adventure of your own with one of these outfitters.
MAHOOSUC GUIDE SERVICE
Mahoosuc Guide Service offers trips ranging from one day to one week. Overnight tours start at $555 per person and include food, camping gear and winterized tents. 76 miles from Portland International Jetport; 207-824-2073; www.mahoosuc.com
WINTERGREEN DOGSLED LODGE
This outfitter has been offering dog-led trips into Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for 30 years. Its longevity is not surprising, considering Ely is widely considered the capital of dog sledding in the US. Using Wintergreen’s large chalet as a base, sledders ride into the 1.3 million-acre, road-free area, which boasts more than 1,000 pristine lakes and streams. Each custom-made, two-person sled is pulled by five barking huskies and covers 15 to 25 miles daily on three- to sixday trips. Expect to hear the howls of timber wolves echoing across the balsam and spruce forests and see moose wading chest-deep in snow. Three-night lodge trips start at $775 per adult; $475-$675 for children ages 6-16; includes lodging and food. 248 miles from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport; 218-365-6022; www.dogsledding.com
JAMAICAN DOG SLED TEAM
MONTEGO BAY OR OCHO RIOS, JAMAICA
Those who’d rather not brave the cold can book a day trip with the Jamaican Dog Sled Team. The team, made up of dogs found on the street and in shelters, will whisk you (on wheels, of course) around a farm and along the shores of the Caribbean Sea. $101 for adults, $71 for children. 877-424-8552; www.chukkacaribbean.com