First in a series of three parts
Every once in a while it’s good to get one of those items off your bucket list. Last fall I received an email about a workshop called “Gone to the Dogs,” a Beyond BOW (Becoming an Outdoors Woman) program offered by the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point.
The typical BOW program offers opportunities to learn outdoorsy skills based on the season. Many years ago I attended one and really enjoyed it. It’s a great opportunity to meet like-minded women from all walks of life and a great confidence-builder.
This special workshop was no different. It featured a chance to learn how to dog sled, skijor, cross-country ski, snowshoe and more in the great, wild northwoods of Wisconsin. Since dog sledding has always been on my bucket list, I thought, “Don’t think, just do it. Click the button!” And that’s how I signed up for the 10th Annual Gone to the Dogs Workshop.
I’ve always had an interest in the sport. I owned a Siberian Husky puppy back in 1988 and had read a few books on dog sledding over the years. When I went on an inside passage cruise from Alaska to Vancouver in 2007, I made a point during our stop in Skagway to take a side trip into Yukon territory to visit the summer camp of a sled team, where I was able to enjoy a ride through the woods in a wheeled dog sled drawn by a team of happily barking canines.
During that cruise, I was fortunate enough to meet and chat with Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Iditarod, who spoke on the ship while docked in Juneau about her winning run and her life raising and racing dogs in the Alaskan wilderness. Libby was actually born in Madison and moved to Alaska just before her 17th birthday.
In the weeks prior to the workshop, information was sent on what to expect and what sort of gear to bring. When the weekend of the workshop was a few days away, I started packing.
Winter clothing being very thick, it soon became clear that packing a suitcase was going to be futile, so I threw most of the outdoor clothing into two large laundry baskets. Friday morning came, and I threw everything into the back of the car and took off for the northwoods with a big smile on my face.
It was an extremely cold, but clear and sunny morning. Two Moons Kennel is roughly 30 miles east of Woodruff, and the roads were clear and the traffic sparse. Beautiful views of snow-filled woods and wind-blown, snow-covered lakes kept me entertained on the trip. Eventually I pulled into the Birches Resort, just north of Springstead on Boot Lake, to check into my room.
While I was unloading the car, the door to the cabin next to mine opened slowly. A face peered out and hollered out a friendly, “Hello fellow dog musher!” What I didn’t realize then was that this was Mel, and she was about to become one of the most fun parts of the weekend. Her face fell for a moment and asked if I was indeed a fellow dog musher, and I responded, “I hope to be!” and we both laughed.
Two Moons Kennel is set deep in the beautiful northwoods on Fawn Lake. As we pulled into the drive, the dogs barked an excited hello. It was clear they understood what we were all gathering there to do that weekend.
The staff at Two Moons welcomed us into their lovely cozy home complete with woodstove, and one of the dogs, Chewbacca (Chewy for short) was there to sniff all the new smells we had brought along with us. We sat down at the dinner table and introduced ourselves.
Besides myself, there were women from Waupaca, Verona, Madison and other cities in southern Wisconsin, and also women from Ohio, Georgia and Florida. It was then that I met Barbara, my roommate for the weekend. Barbara had never experienced snow prior to this trip and was looking forward to the adventure.
After an incredible and sumptuous lunch, our hosts told us what to expect for the afternoon, and soon it was time to gear up and head outside and meet the dogs. We made our way to the kennel, and the staff brought out the dogs one at a time.
The dogs are actually held by the collar and walked out on their hind legs. Then they are clipped to a holding chain, where they are held until they are needed. This is also where they are brought after the sled run, to give them a rest, a drink and a treat for doing a good job.
The staff decides which dogs will go on the run based on who will be driving the sled. Some ladies wanted a fast ride, others wanted tired dogs. As the first team was being hitched up to the gangline, the unchosen dogs howled out their dismay, and the ladies were happy to console them with pats, hugs and perhaps an extra treat or two.
Our first attempt at dog sledding was a short run, just to give us a feel for it. MJ, our instructor and owner of Two Moons, explained the parts of a sled, how to stand on it, how to hold on, steer and brake. Terms were explained. “Hike” for go, “On by” for ignoring distractions, and “Whoa” for stopping. The dogs tend to take “Whoa” as a suggestion more than a command, we were warned.
Since the run was on a familiar and established trail, “Haw” for left and “Gee” for right weren’t too important. We were to run out to the end, and the staff would turn us around and head us back. We watched each other go out and return, taking turns filming the runs and shouting out support.
Every once in a while the dogs would get tired or confused and slow down or stop, so the staff would be right there to get everything going again. Sometimes the dogs are thrown off by an unfamiliar musher, and if you don’t sound like you mean it when you holler “Hike!” they’re not going to take you seriously.
They told us not to talk too much while on the run, but I called my dogs by name and told them they were doing a good job, and they seemed to respond to that. Mel teased me that I was just like Santa, calling out to my team, and I took that as a compliment.
Since there were 10 of us, it took a good chunk of the afternoon to get everyone’s run in. Every two or three runs the staff would switch up the dogs, and we’d give them treats and hugs, and the helmet would be passed to the new driver with a big smile. Each successive run was welcomed back with hoots and words of encouragement.
Our first runs complete, we helped put the dogs and other equipment away and grabbed a quick snack at the house. We suited up for cross country skiing, the next activity of the afternoon. I had brought my own, a pair of (now) antique Splitkeins I purchased back in high school.
We headed out down the trail to get familiar with it, since we’d be running it with the dog sleds the next day. This was the first time some of the ladies had been on skis, so the pace was pretty laid-back. Watching the sun setting against a serene blue-orange sky behind the birches, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed this sport, and thought to myself that I must remember do it more often.
A few of us stopped at the top of a small hill to admire the scenery, when I checked in with Barbara. “I’m havin’ fun, but my left butt cheek is killin’ me!” she replied. I told her she was doing a great job, and she was. She was such a trooper in fact, that as we approached the end of the trail, she asked me if I’d like to go around again. Always wanting to stay outside if it’s an option, I told her I was more than happy to.
Back inside, we had a glorious supper that included blueberry cheesecake for dessert. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was the best blueberry cheesecake I have ever eaten. While enjoying that with an excellent cup of coffee, Chad, the other owner of Two Moons, suggested we go around the table and mention what we do for a living, and that lead to some very interesting discussions.
Heading back to the cabin with a carful of mushers, we all agreed we’d had a very full day and were looking forward to a good night’s rest. Most of us that is. The ladies from Georgia were planning to head over to the lodge for a drink. I don’t know if they got any other takers, as Barbara and I were bushed and achy, and ready for a nice hot shower and a warm bed.
Next Week: Dog sledding, skijoring and snowshoeing in the Great Northwoods.