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.

A group of five skiers left camp first thing in the morning.  They broke trail for the dogs, orienteered with map and compass, checked the trails for hazards like downed trees that could snarl the sleds, and used a hatchet to check the thickness of the ice.  The skiers glided over frozen lakes, cutting through dense spruce forests at sections of rapids where the ice wasn't thick enough to support the sleds.  Those sections were called "crashes" for a reason.

spruce forest crash
The four mushers stayed behind in camp, packing up the two sleds and hooking the dogs to their lines.  After the skiers got a decent head start, the mushers followed behind.  Especially on the flat, smooth lakes, the sleds soon caught up to the skiers.  Skiers and mushers played tag for the rest of the day.

from the sled
As the sun pulled lower to the horizon, skiers likewise pulled into a bay, close to shore, where we would camp on the flat frozen lakeshore for the evening.  First order of business was to get the dogs out of their harnesses and onto their chain line for the night.  At this point in the day, I never got any gruff from the dogs--they were content after a day of pulling, eager for dinner, and ready to snuggle into the snow.

-20 degrees (-30 for you metric peeps)
Staying warm requires food to burn and/ or activity to burn it, plus insulation to catch the heat your body loses.  Skiers stayed warmer than mushers during the day due to physical activity, so when I was mushing, I made a point of stomping circles around my tipped-over sled any time we stopped.  Sometimes I jumped off the sled and ran along the side of it, hands always gripping the handlebar. 

Staying warm once the sleds and skis were packed away for the night used the same concept:  keep moving, keep eating, stay insulated.  We spent a lot of time processing firewood, felling dead trees, sawing logs, and splitting pieces.  We shoveled lots of snow to make benches, firewood processing areas, and one night a series of windbreaks.  We set up tarps for sleeping, and on two of the four backcountry nights, we set up a large canvas wall tent with a small metal stove.

evening chores: chop, saw, burn

With evening chores nearly complete, our instructors did all of the dinner cooking--what a vacation!  Food was great, way heartier and fattier than my usual trail chow.  Even with the massive amounts I put away, I lost a bit of weight (all of my work clothes feel much looser than usual).  Around our dinner fire, we took off our heavy boots, then our wool socks, then our VBLs (vapor barrier layers, i.e. plastic bags), and finally our liner socks.  So strange to be barefoot in the snow, but you gotta dry out those little piggies to avoid foot funk.

Every night, about a half-hour after dinner, I started to get cold.  My body cooled off from the day's activity, all of my blood was hanging out in my gut to digest dinner, and I'd been sitting on one layer of padding on top of a snow bench.  Eventually, I figured out that I needed more padding under my butt, and that pushing and pulling the sleds back and forth for a while warmed me up enough to get into my sleeping bags warm.

Then, sweet dreams.  I slept better and better as the nights went on, until I was sleeping through the night without waking at the end of the trip, even when the mercury dropped to twenty below.  I always woke up ravenous and just starting to feel the chill as the sun rejoined the lakes.

The trip was a fantastic experience.  I went in without very many expectations, but I will say that it was physically easier and not as cold as I thought it would be.  Our three instructors did a great job showing us how to stay warm, and with a cheerful attitude, -10 F isn't frightening.  We had a stellar team; though there was so much work to do, we had nine hard workers to do it.  Outward Bound as an organization has an amazing perspective and stands for some really important principles.

Just the adventure I needed.

the COE group :-)
I took a ton of photos, and my favorites are in this album.  Check them out--the few that I added in this post do not tell the whole story!

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