“Mushing,” says Arleigh Jorgenson, “is a natural skill, not a technical skill.” Arleigh, 59, is a former seminarian whose windburned cheeks reflect 30 years on a sled. We are standing in the bright winter sun surrounded by barking huskies and he is appraising me with that gaze self-reliant folk reserve for the softer members of civilization. “You have to think like a dog.”
Arleigh’s tone is gentle, but the implication remains an open question. Long ago, inspired by pictures in a National Geographic article on Eskimos, I forced my little brother to pull me around the yard on a toboggan. This was unsatisfying, and I’ve wanted to experience a sled pulled by real dogs ever since. Cross-country skiing has never been an adequate replacement. I’m not coordinated, and find trying to ski like trying to dance. The results are humiliating and sweaty, and all the graceful people keep telling me it’s easy, which makes me think I should be allowed to run them through with the poles I won’t need anymore now that I’ve stabbed you to death on the trail because you wouldn’t listen. So I was eager to join Arleigh, who runs a sled-dog outfit, for a 3-day trip into the Superior National Forest, in northeastern Minnesota. I signed up to drive a team of 6 dogs.
“Your job is to keep the tug line straight,” says Arleigh, pointing down the long axis of the sled where six dogs stand hitched to either side of a plastic-coated cable. “Use the brake to keep a little tension in it. If you slow them down a little now and then, they get frustrated and pull harder. If the line goes slack, they tend to let up. This is especially important coming off hills-if you overtake the team, you’re going to hurt one of my dogs.” His voice is still gentle, but his eyes sharpen when he says my dogs, and you can imagine what it would feel like to have that sled bumper slam you in the ankles a few times before Arleigh unclips you to walk home 40 miles through the wilderness with a granola bar and a safety match. “Downhill is where the dogs learn to trust you,” he says. “Now go hold your leaders. Get to know them.”