Dog sledding, skijoring and snowshoeing in the Great Northwoods

Part Two of Three

After a delicious, hearty breakfast, we bundled up and headed outside for our first full run of the trail Saturday morning. Barbara, my roommate from Florida, was the first to volunteer. Having spent a few hours chatting in our room the night before, I was not surprised. Barbara is fearless and ready to try anything without a single hesitation.

She had done her homework when it came to warmth. Her son had given her some good tips and she was very comfortable in her new environment. In contrast, many of us “Wisconsin Girls” were shivering with hand and toe warmers stuffed in the appropriate places.

The dogs were again brought out one at a time and hooked up to the chain, whining and howling in excitement. MJ and her staff discussed which dogs to hook up first. I found those discussions fascinating.

Each time someone would return from a run, they would evaluate the run and why it went well or didn’t, and adjust accordingly. Today MJ had the added task of evaluating all the new mushers, and their level of confidence and skill.

As the dogs are hitched to the gangline, the sled is held by a special clip to keep the dogs from taking off prematurely in their enthusiasm. There is also a foot brake the driver can press with their foot to hold the sled in place.

The dogs are clipped in place and held by volunteers so they stay calm and don’t tangle before the team is ready to go. When all is ready, MJ calls “Line out!” which means to allow the dogs to move ahead slowly to make the gangline taut. She looks back and asks Barbara if she’s ready, and at her signal, the holding clip is released and the dogs instinctively know to take off.

The group shouts “Hike, hike, hike, hike!” to get Barbara on her way. She’s off at a fast pace, and disappears around the first curve, the chase team close behind on a snowmobile. There are only two rules in dog sledding, 1) Hold on, and 2) Don’t let go. It sounds like a joke, but you learn very quickly that it’s good advice, for lots of reasons.

Barbara returning from her dogsled run.

When Barbara returned, we cheered her in, but noticed her face was all sparkly. She had face planted in a snow bank on the first big curve at the bottom of the hill. Welcome to Wisconsin, Barbara! She took it in stride though, and it didn’t dampen her enthusiasm one bit.

As the morning wore on, each returning musher had some advice for the rest of us. We learned that bending your knees and using your weight on the inside of a curve are very good strategies. I referred to that move as “Crouching Tiger, Leaning Dragon” to everyone’s amusement.

We learned that the dogs don’t always automatically keep running, and it’s not a good thing if they stop. We learned that sometimes you have to help the dogs up a hill, and sometimes you just have to hang on.

One thing’s for sure, you have to pay attention. After all, you’re an important part of the team, and not just along for the ride.

My turn came up, and I strapped on the helmet. My team was hitched up, and when I was ready, the clip was sprung and off we went. My goal was simple. 1) Hang on, 2) Don’t let go.

Gliding down the bright, sunny trail, the soft sound of the snow passing beneath the sled, the team went down a small hill and then slowed going back up, so I started to kick. The dogs seemed to appreciate that, and we headed down the next hill, the one with the big curve at the bottom.

I realized that the dog sled was exactly that, just a great big sled and was reminded of all those years of sledding down the hills at Iverson Park as a kid on my own wooden sled. I remembered the runners and guiding the sled where I wanted to go by leaning and steering.

“I got this!” I thought, and bent my knees, leaning into the inside of the curve like a boss. I took a bump or two and just when I thought I might go over, the sled regained stability as we headed up the next hill. I kicked my way up, longer this time, and started to understand why mushers get so tired. I was doing a lot of work, but happily, as I was part of the team!

I called out to the dogs by name, telling them what a good job they were doing. The second half of the run was just pure fun since I had made it past “Dead Woman’s Curve” as we would come to call it later in the day. We made the final turn, and I was smiling all the way in for the cameras, my homies cheering me on as the team pulled in for some well earned doggie treats.

I was teased all weekend long for being the writer of the group. “Are you going to write about THIS?” was a question that came up a lot, as it often does, and others who were hoping to start a writing career had some questions on how I came to write a weekly column.

I was also teased for being active in community theater, and my new friend Mel kept suggesting I stand up and sing a song for everyone. I told her I would be very happy to oblige. Mel also offered me a twenty to make her the hero of the story I was going to write.

We headed inside for lunch and some rest, many of us admiring the assorted books available for our perusal. There was even a dog-sled-themed word scramble for us to solve, and Mel’s buddy Chris and I took it very seriously. There was only one term we couldn’t figure out, and I didn’t solve it until I got home Sunday evening and could use the internet’s help. That’s right, I’m no quitter. The term? “Sportsmanship.”

The afternoon’s adventure was learning to skijor. A sport believed to have been invented by Scandinavians as a means of faster transport, dogs are hooked up to a belt worn around the waist and pull you along on cross country skis.

Skijoring is for the brave!

A few brave ladies went first, and the dogs were chosen carefully. Back on the flat, short trail, not many made it around the curves and I almost lost my own nerve, since I am used to skiing in a groomed track, and this trail was packed down and slippery. Not wanting to wimp out, I asked for some tired dogs and the staff hooked me up. “Are you ready?” they asked, and I responded, “Not really.” And off I went.

I made it around the curves, and just before I reached the far end, the dogs decided to stop and turn around. There were plenty of people to help me out though, and my team and I were turned around quickly to head back to the kennel. I started to lose it on the last curve, but somehow flailed back into balance, and had a successful run without gravity winning.

After a mid-afternoon snack, it was time for snowshoeing. I had brought my own, which I had bought two years earlier, but hadn’t had an opportunity to get them wet, so this was to be their maiden voyage. I couldn’t think of a better place for that to happen.

The group headed out along Fawn Lake, but a handful of us headed right out onto the snowy ice and walked along the shoreline. Not having a lot of experience with ice fishing, I hadn’t had a lot of opportunities to walk on a lake, so I was enjoying the sunset, my new snowshoes and the thrill of walking on hard water. What can I say? I’m easily entertained.

We clambered back up on shore only to find we had lost the large group. We located them just in time to find them heading back up the trail after discovering otter tracks. Coming to a large field, I suggested we make snow angels. Barbara had mentioned that this was something on her bucket list, and I wanted to show her the proper technique.

Barbara makes her very first snow angel.

I explained the first step was making sure that everything was covered properly to prevent any snow from seeping into a place it shouldn’t be, and then flopped onto my back and began to flail appropriately. Barbara flopped down beside me and began her own flail. To my surprise, a handful of other ladies flopped down to make their own angels alongside us. That’s the great thing about snow, it makes you younger.

Back at the house, we enjoyed another delicious meal followed by a very long discussion about cows, as one of the ladies, Margaret, was a cow dietician. It was really a fascinating talk, and we all learned quite a bit about our beloved bovines. In fact, next time you see me, ask me what a bloat whistle is.

We all promised to come to Margaret’s booth at Cows on the Concourse that June in Madison and harass her. Believe it or not, another among us was once crowned the Beef Princess of Freeborn County in southern Minnesota, and the two became fast friends. You just never know what you’re going to get with a group of dog sled lovin’ women.

Next week: Snowmobile hijacking, Terror on the trail and Badass of the Weekend.

Originally published January 2017.

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