Thursday, January 26, 2012

Dogsledding (A Damn Fine Adventure)

It's been well over eight months since I've written.  As evidenced by this post, I'm still alive--alive and kickin', dreaming and scheming.  Some days more so than others, to be honest.  I'm glad I took a little break from writing, but little breaks turn into big breaks more quickly than you'd imagine.  I'd been waiting for a damn fine adventure to end the big break from writing, and I finally had one:


Cornell Outdoor Education put together a group of instructors for a week long winter camping, cross-country skiing, and dogsledding expedition in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota, hosted and guided by three instructors from the Voyaguer Outward Bound base near Ely.

most amazing pantry ever
We had one full and fun day of preparations.  We sorted and packed gear and food in the enormous, well-outfitted trips building (I almost fainted when I saw Outward Bound's pantry).  Outside, we tried out our skis for a brief intro to skiing lesson.  It was my first time on skis in three winters (how sad), but my legs soon remembered their groove.

At 3:00 p.m. we headed to the dog yard for dogsledding 101.  Walking into the dog yard for the first time is an unforgettable experience:  63 dogs barking, jumping, yapping, lurching, howling, begging to be put on a line and given a chance to pull.  (By the end of the week, I would be nearly immune to the sound of dogs barking and howling.)

something about milkshakes and a yard? i don't remember...
These dogs aren't indoor pets.  They have one goal and only one purpose in life:  to pull as hard as they can in a forward direction.  As such, they're treated like a precious, albeit feisty and defiant, piece of equipment.  You shove your leather mitt under their collars, stand them on their hind legs, and walk them around.  If they're on four wheel drive--i.e. all four paws on the ground--they will walk you instead of the other way around.  They sleep outside, eat chunks of lard before bed, wake up covered in frost, and don't seem to mind very much.

I, on the other hand, do mind very much when I wake up covered in frost, which is what I did for five consecutive nights.  Sleeping warm in a very cold climate is just as much performance art as technical skill.  The night before the expedition, we slept outside the trips building to practice our systems with the psychological comfort and physical safety of a heated building just steps away.  I didn't sleep much that first night.  I was excited, and though I was mostly warm, my mind churned over the question of "I wonder when I'm gonna get cold."

And then...  we were off!

five days and four nights away from civilization and everything uncivilized about it
Our days went like this.