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February 2006

Dogsledding in Minnesota: Born to Run

Head out with six hard-charging huskies, and winter will never feel more alive.

I walk up the line and face the two dogs yoked to the front. “Hans and Fittipaldi,” says Arleigh’s son, Odin, who at 27 has already perfected his father’s steady gaze. “Hans is a good lead, but he has a habit of stopping to sniff and pee on bushes.” I pet and talk to both dogs. They endure the attention politely, but keep looking over my shoulder at Odin and Arleigh packing the lead sled. If you’ve ever been at a cocktail party talking to someone who glances up every time someone popular enters the room, you get the idea.

Once you go, you go. There is no buildup. Arleigh’s sled is moving off ahead, and my dogs leap to the traces. The dogs left tethered in the yard set up a howl and holler, and just as quickly-zip-it is just you and your team whooshing through a tunnel of spruce. The runners hiss against the snow, and the cargo bay grunts and creaks as the straps ease and the load settles. I keep my right foot on the studded rubber flap of the drag brake, but the dogs are flat-out flying. The first corner approaches, and now I realize why Arleigh puts your focus on that tug line. Any more responsibility at this speed this early, and you’d bail out at the first bend. “Slow ’em down on the straightaways and let ’em go on the corners,” he’d said. It’s counterintuitive, but if you brake on the corner, the dogs drag you straight into the brush. I step off the brake and hope for the best. The dogs stream around a tree trunk and out of sight. I dip, lean, and shift my weight. The sled tail kicks out and sweeps through the corner in an arc, tracking neatly in the dogs’ wake. The tree is scarred by beginners who gave in to the temptation of braking.

The trail winds through a dense forest near the upper meadows of the Kadunce River. It is a full-time job to cycle the checklist: Watch the cable, duck branches, scan for corners, watch the cable, duck, cable, duck! I “pedal” some on the uphills, dropping a foot to push and take some weight off the sled. When the dogs hear your boot thumping the snow, they look back with tongue-lolling grins, then pull even harder-although Odin says if you help too much, they will get lazy. They also look back if you overplay the drag brake or bump a tree and jerk the cable, clearly wondering how humans reached the top of the food chain.

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