Above all, you are humbled by the dogs. They are up there tugging, heads bobbling like ping-pong balls on a vibrating motel bed, lugging your lard up, down, and around the frozen wilds of northern Minnesota, while you merely offer encouragement from the back of a sled lumbered with the equipment required to coddle and keep you alive through the subzero nights. The dogs, of course, will simply curl up in the snow, tuck their noses beneath their tails, and wait for morning, when they will lug you again.
Make no mistake: The dogs are happy to pull. To believe otherwise is to remain willfully blind to their demeanor. Perhaps because I was raised on a farm where my father taught us to treat animals with respect but not confuse them with long-term family members, I am not one to get anthropomorphic. And yet, when we pull off trail for a cheese and hot cider break, I feel compelled to move from wheel dog to lead dog, kneeling to pat and scratch each one, looking into their eyes in an attempt to convey gratitude.
When it is time to run again, I step to the back of the sled and, with one foot on the rail and one on the brake, say, "Ready?" The dogs jump up and lean eagerly to harness, tails wagging. I wait, and they glance back over their shoulders. "Ready?" I say again, in the tone I might use before giving a child a push on a swing. The dogs whine and stamp their feet, and the tug line tightens.
"All right," I say, and release the brake. We fly away into the woods.
"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."
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.
By midmorning, as predicted, Hans is distracted by the bushes, and Odin pulls up. "I'm gonna change him out," he says. He switches Hans with a small dog named Abner. "Lead dogs have egos-if I move Hans back, he'll work hard to get back out front." The uptick in pace is remarkable-like Odin swapped out a fouled spark plug.
I am fascinated by each dog's distinct character. In the wheel position, a husky named Buck runs while shouldering hard to the right against Reese, the largest dog on my team, who runs like a veteran jock-pulling his weight, but never breaking out of a lope if he can help it. Oliva, now partnered with Hans in the middle position, ducks shyly when I pet her, but lunges forward when it's time to pull. Out front, Fittipaldi presses the harness, running hard, fast, and arrow-straight, feet a pitter-pat blur. And Abner-Abner is frantic in his desire to pull, running with his tiny body rotated 20 degrees off center and his backbone hunched, directing all his force against his right shoulder. Looking like he's half-cocked to take a dump, he goes and goes.
Mushing is organic snowmobiling. Enough speed to feed your appetite for new territory, without the piston-blast. Because you can hear the sled's squeak and the dog paws drumming, you feel not so much that you are covering ground as flowing the terrain. You learn to roll against the flex of the runners, and soon you are slow-dancing the curve of the earth. We run all morning, stop for lunch, then run again. We descend, break through the dogwood brush flats, and plane out across the smooth ice of the Brule River.
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.
By afternoon, we are dropping rapidly through big trees. I nearly lose it two switchbacks in a row, then suddenly we pop out on the broad plain of Esther Lake. The sled bumper fluffs through the unspoiled feather-pillow snow. White pines stand windblown on the skyline, and a bald eagle watches from a snag. Twenty-five miles today. We make camp at the lake's far end, at the base of a sheer rock face. When the dogs howl in the night, the primordial sound echoes off the palisade.
The first thing I hear on our final day is snow sliding from the tent. It falls thickly that morning, even when the sun blazes. The effect is blinding and beautiful. I feel so comfortable on the sled that I relax and get dumped on a downhill corner. I run after the dogs, shouting whoa, whoa, whoa!-a backsliding existentialist unwilling to trade the sled for the void. I catch them only because they are struggling to drag the sled up the hill sideways.
We bite off a long run-more than 30 miles-and Arleigh pushes hard to get us in by nightfall, but I don't want the ride to end. We shoot through the forested half-light, plaiting ourselves between the gray tree trunks
in pure cold silence, snaky wraiths working our way back to civilization. Finally, I hear the yard dogs howling, and the sled jumps a little as Abner and the others dig for home.
Arleigh Jorgenson Sled Dog Adventures (www.dogmushing.com, 800-884-5463) offers a variety of outings (from quick rides to major excursions) into the Minnesota backcountry. Jorgenson can customize a trip to fit your comfort level, interests, time, and budget. A typical 3-day, 2-night trip costs $1,120 per person.