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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.

We camp in a tight stand of spruce. First we unharness the dogs and string them boy-girl along a drop line. Each gets a bit of straw on which to bed, and while they roll and settle I trail Odin back to the river. He chunks a hole through two feet of ice with a steel spud, then we ladle water into pails, dipping slowly to avoid stirring up the silt. We pass the time discussing his senior thesis: Gloom, Despair, and Agony: A Comparison of Soren Kierkegaard and Dzogchen Buddhist Teachings Concerning Questions of Existential Despair and Suffering. After a brief consultation, we decided to go on living. Above us, the stars emerge.

Back at camp, Odin heats the water on a campstove, then pours it over buckets of kibble. “Sneaks water into their system,” he says. “If you give them straight water, they won’t drink enough.” After the steaming paste is ladled out into battered steel pans, we set up camp, eat, then drink coffee and talk big ideas until the coals have put a hole 3 feet deep in the snow. When you mush with a philosopher who has been running sled dogs for three decades and another who is capable of synthesizing Scandinavian existentialism, Tibetan Buddhism, and a song from Hee-Haw, you need not pass the time lighting farts. At one point, we are interrupted when every dog on the line springs up and sets to howling. The phase-shifting, ululating swirl fills the forest, and I am spooked and delighted. Later, when I emerge from the insulated tent to pee at 3 a.m., the air is subzero still, the campsite snow is striped with tree-trunk moonshadow, and each dog is a coiled furry circle.

At breakfast, the spruce are shot through with sunbeams that illuminate stray snowflakes as they filter through the canopy. The dogs are lapping up kibble broth as we eat French toast beneath the opportunistic gaze of a whiskey jack. We fold the camp, load the sleds, hook up the dogs, and slide away. The trees are lofted with snow and every sound is muffled. We spend much of the day mushing through rolling woodlands and recovering clear-cuts. The sun is warm on my nose. If I do get cold, I just pedal some. The dogs become a thicket of tails.

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