It’s 6:30 am on a January morning. Granite, the sled dog, pulls his tail away from his nose to look over the dog yard in hopes that his human is bringing soup. Chris, a dogsledding guide and Granite’s human for the season, has just arrived at the mushers’ shed and is mixing up 10 gallons of nutritious mink-and-minerals slop to ensure the dogs are well hydrated for a day of pulling sleds. Jane, Jeff, Jess, and Jo are at Britton’s Cafe scarfing down a high-calorie breakfast per Chris’s instructions, in hopes of staying warm for their first-time dogsledding adventure.
GRANITE(GR): I smell it! Is it soup yet?! So exciting!! Everyone else is excited too! I just have to jump and pull! What a day!! WHAT A DAY!!! AhhhOooo!! Yip! Yip! AHHHHOOOOooooo!!
Chris the Guide (CG): Where do those dogs get all that energy first thing in the morning? (Yawn…) OK. Time to scoop poop and serve soup. I’m out the door.
Jane, Jeff, Jess, and Jo (Js): We could eat bacon and pancakes every day if we were mushers. I wonder if I have enough layers on. It’s well below zero and I’m kinda wimpy when it comes to cold and snow. I love dogs, and this looked like so much fun on the Facebook page. But just standing on those sled runners could be cold. Well, we can trade off sitting in the sled wrapped in a sleeping bag. That should be cozy. And the woods will be beautiful with all this fresh snow.
At 8:15 the Js pull into the kennel area where Chris has three sleds ready to set up. Granite is playing Can’t-Catch-My-Tail with his neighbor, Gabbro, while Greenstone looks on. These two-year-old dogs are from a litter with rock names. Another litter mate, Slate, is in training to be a lead dog because she is smart and mostly well-behaved. Two more mature dogs make up their team: Birch is an experienced lead dog helping to train Slate, and Aspen is in wheel because he is big and strong. As Chris welcomes the Js and leads them to the sleds, the dogs realize some of them will be going out today and all 60 of them begin to bark and lunge against their tethers in an excited frenzy.
Js: Whoa! I knew they had a lot of dogs, but this is wild. And noisy. How do they ever get them hitched to a sled?
CG: All set? We have a lot to learn before we hook up, so gather around.
GR: Yip! Yelp! RahrRahrRahr!!
Chris holds out what looks to be a mishmash of nylon rope and a variety of hardware. Jess takes the big carabiner that’s on one end to the front of the sled and Jo stretches the other end out. Chris explains that this is the gangline, with a center line attached to the sled, pairs of tug lines that attach to the back end of the dogs’ harnesses, and neck lines that attach to the dogs’ collars. There are two wheel dogs closest to the sled, usually the biggest and strongest dogs, because they exert the most forward power. The lead dog is in front, and often two lead dogs are paired up. Behind the lead dogs are two point dogs who, when they are well-trained, help steer so that the sled doesn’t cut corners and run into a tree or toss off the musher in deep snow. Dogs between the wheel dogs and point dogs are team dogs, adding power but making steering and managing the team a bigger challenge.
CG: The main thing to remember when you’re driving the sled is not to let any slack occur in the gangline.
Js: How do you prevent that?
CG: Use the brake.
Js: There’s a brake?
CG: See that flap of black rubber between the sled runners where you stand? That’s a brake to add drag to the sled and slow it down. It won’t stop the sled with a 6-dog team, but they’ll slow down when they feel the extra resistance. When you step on the bar above the rubber, it has teeth that will dig into the snow and stop the sled. The dogs know the command “Whoa,” but only in the context of feeling the extra drag that the brake creates. And sometimes, like when they’ve just taken off or if they see a squirrel, they may ignore you.
Js: So we just stand on the runners when we’re going and on the brake when we want to stop, right?
CG: Not quite. Standing on the runners is kind of like standing on skis while you’re going downhill. It’s more than standing. You need to stay loose and move with the sled, leaning hard away from anything you don’t want to hit, like trees, rocks, or people. And you just put a foot on the brake, like driving a car.
GR: Will they ever be ready? Will I get to go? Guess I’ll just curl up and take a nap.
CG: The lead dogs know the commands “Gee” for right, and “Haw” for left. We don’t use the command “Mush” like you see in the movies. They don’t really need a word for “Let’s go,” but we may say it anyway. Once they feel some slack in the line, they’re off. We may say “Hup, Hup” to encourage them to go faster or pull harder if they slack off.
Chris gives a few more instructions then demonstrates putting a harness on a dog, points out the dogs on the three teams they’ll be taking, and orders the Js to make a final potty visit and check that their belongings are on the sled. Then out come the harnesses. The dog yard goes wild again with every dog barking in their excitement to be chosen.
Js: OMG! This is nuts! We’d better hurry or they’ll all have heart attacks. Or we will. Yikes! What are we getting into?!
GR: Yay! Me! Choose me!! I want to go!! RahhrRahhrRahhr! WoofWoof!! Me! Me!
CG: Ahh, yes. Another nice day for dogsledding. And these seem like good people who’ll have this down after the first hour or two. This is a great job.
With the dogs straining at their chains and creating an enormous ruckus, it’s hard for the inexperienced to stay calm and focus on what needs to be done. But eventually, with Chris and another dog yard helper lending a hand, three teams of dogs are hooked up to the sleds. Chris is in the lead so that if anyone behind loses a sled, the dogs might stop when they catch up. Or not…
The adult Js are driving the other two sleds with the kids bundled up and riding. At last they are ready to go.
GR: We’re going to go now! I just know it! Now!! Well, now!!! NOW!!! I can’t wait any longer! RaahhrrRaahhrrr! Yip! Yip!! Yip!!! Maybe I’ll just bite Gabbro’s ear to help him calm down. No wait! We’re going now! NOW!!!!
Js: OMG! This is going to be fun. What if we tip over? What if I do something wrong? What if there’s slack in the gangline? Oh yeah, just step on the brake. And yell if we lose the team so Chris knows they’re coming. And run to catch up so Chris doesn’t have to hold two teams, which seems entirely impossible. OK. NOW!!!
CG: Here we go! NOW!!!
The dogs leap ahead. No slack ganglines here. And luckily, or through someone’s good planning, no corners or downhills for the first half mile. There is sudden quiet as the dogs put all their energy into running and pulling, so happy to be out doing what they love to do. Sled dogs love to pull like retrievers like to chase balls and shepherds like to corral everything. It’s what they live for.
The miles slip by under snowy pines and across wilderness lakes as the adult Js realize that dogsledding is a much more active sport than they had imagined. Soon layers are coming off as they lean, pedal, run up the hills, and occasionally get bumped off the runners for a few steps. Tired after an hour, and with the kids impatient for a turn to drive, they stop their sleds to switch places. The dogs, nowhere near tired, scoop up some snow for hydration and begin to bark again, eager to go. Chris checks in to see that everyone is warm and doing well, and then they’re off again.
In the middle of a long downhill slope, Jo’s team starts to catch up with Chris’s sled. Jo grips the handle tighter, but the sled is careening out of control. Glancing back, Chris yells “Use the brake!!”
Oh, right. Jumping on the brake with both feet, Jo hits a rock hidden under the snow and is tossed off the sled like an apple core thrown out of a moving car.
Jo: Ouch! Oh, I’m not hurt. HaHaHa! Oops—I’m supposed to yell so Chris knows my team is loose. UhOh! They are catching up. I’d better run. What if Chris can’t hold them? I’ll have to walk back, and we must be 50 miles from the kennel. Hey, Chris!! Catch my sled! I’m coming as fast as I can! Hey! Hey!
CG: Good thing we’ve been out here a while. And Birch will listen to me, but who knows if Slate will follow her lead. Glad I ate my Wheaties for breakfast! Other
Other Js: Is Jo OK? Yes, looks fine. That was funny—didn’t know Jo could fly. HaHaHa. UhOh! Can Chris catch that sled? Are we going to run into them? Brakes! Brakes!
GR: Oh boy! Less weight! I can pull even harder and catch up to those other guys! Maybe even pass them! Come on, team— let’s go!
Chris is able to hold the team with the help of Jeff, who was riding in the sled. The three teams move on until they come to a spot where the trail splits.
CG: Gee! I said Gee!! Birch: Come on, Slate. We gotta turn right. Slate: I don’t hear anything. Let’s go this way. I smell a squirrel this way.
CG: Slate, Gee!
Birch: This way, Slate.
Birch: This way, Slate.
Slate: I don’t hear anything but a squirrel over here to the left.
GR: Go right, Slate! We have to follow
Slate: Oh, OK. I can’t pull the whole team to the squirrel. But geez… it was so close.
In another hour, Chris pulls over and ties off the lead sled, then helps the others do the same. Lunch time! The dogs, used to this routine, settle down, making little beds in the snow or cozying up to their neighbors for a short game of Mouth Wrestling. One watches the raven that playfully teases. Chris passes out treats, careful to place them clearly in each dog’s reach and not where another dog will want to claim it. Keeping a close eye on the dogs, the humans relax by a fire and enjoy hot brats and cocoa.
In an hour the dogs are getting restless again, and the people are eager to move to keep warm. Back on the sleds and comfortable now with the flow and glide over the snowy trail, the Js feel like they’ve been doing this all their lives. Instead of needing to focus on the sled, they notice the moose tracks crossing the trail, a grouse startled from its snowy cave, and how some trees arch over the trail in architecture created by heavy snow earlier in the season. They take photos to remember this day when they are back in the city. The light begins to change, becoming soft and rosy as the sun nears the horizon. Even though it’s been hours of running, the dogs keep a steady pace, never seeming to tire. They pull into the dog yard just as a beautiful sunset silhouettes the pines in pink and orange.
Js: Whew! Didn’t imagine this would be so tiring. But what fun! We’ve got to bring our friends and do a longer trip next time. Glad we’re staying at Grand Ely Lodge. That hot toddy before dinner is going to taste great, and the hot tub will ease my aching muscles.
CG: A perfect day. These are really nice folks. I hope they come back for one of our overnight trips next year. OK—get everything put away and head to the Steak House for fun with my friends. But not too late—gotta do this again tomorrow. What a great job!
GR: Hey everybody! We’re back! I got to go! I pulled really hard! Where’s dinner?! Hey! Dinner!! Now!! I’m hungry! NOW!!! RaahhrrRaahhrRahhrr!!!