(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2007)
Before I hop onto the back of my dogsled, my guide, Johnny Peterson, issues sage parting words: "Just remember to keep your balance. " Simple advice, until I find myself face-first in powdery snow. Looking up, I see the six bobbing heads of my Alaskan huskies continuing happily without me. Johnny yells, "Whoa, " and they stop short. He doesn’t even need to tell me. I already know. Lean away from the fall.
Ed and Tasha Stielstra opened Nature’s Kennel Dog Sledding five years ago outside Newberry, Michigan, 90 miles east of Marquette in the Upper Peninsula. Their 50-mile, amateur overnight treks help train their 120 huskies. Every trip begins in the kennel, a noisy neighborhood of straw-filled barrels next to Ed and Tasha’s house. As soon as Johnny introduces me to my team, Rhu becomes my favorite. Knee-high, with coarse black fur, she barks eagerly as I secure her harness.
Johnny spends the morning teaching me simple commands and explaining how to use the metal brake and drag pad. But a big part of dogsledding is instinct, especially in the turns, when the tension and pull on the sled change. After a two-mile test run, we break for chili, and Johnny decides I'm ready for the 25-mile ride to our campsite.
Hands on the bar. Feet hip’s width apart. I shout, "Ready? Go! " and the sled lurches forward. I maintain my grip for the first few miles (until the first of my two falls) and the dogs settle into a silent, 10 mph jog. Their quick pace magnifies the cold, but my team seems blissfully unaware of the 20-degree temps.
We don’t see anyone else during our nearly three-hour ride: just us in the landscape. Falling snow clings to spruce and lines the willowy arms of beech and maple. Sometimes, the dogs move in tandem, brushing against each other in twos. Their paws pad the trail as the sled runners crunch through the packed snow.
When we arrive at camp, the guides build a roaring fire outside the platform tent and a tamer version inside, in a wood-burning stove. We roast tinfoil packets of seasoned meat and veggies in the coals and improvise a dessert of buttery, toasted jam sandwiches. Darkness falls, and the dogs curl up outside on open straw beds. Johnny assures me they can withstand zero-degree temperatures, but I still feel a little guilty about my cozy sleeping bag.
The smell of fresh coffee rouses me the next morning. The trail back to the kennel skirts frozen lakes, and I intuitively shift my weight, staying upright on curves that sent me flying yesterday. Before long, a thunderous chorus of howls and yelps echoes through the woods. I feel like a celebrity on a white carpet. With their tongues hanging out in happy grins, more than 100 dogs tug on their leashes and climb on their barrels to welcome us home.
Written by Kristine Hansen. Photographs by Jason Lindsey
The woods have all the color of an Ansel Adams photo as dusk seeps in on a Wisconsin afternoon. The world seems reduced to snow and shadow in a forest stretching to Canada’s Arctic reaches. Slender pines arch under loads of powder, black slashes across a white trail. I’m navigating through this world of binary color behind the guiding streak of Dick Decker’s yellow Ski-Doo snowmobile. He leads me through a curve, taillight flashing red as he squeezes the brake and leans into the turn. I focus on the blaze of Dick’s blue coat, watching for his hand to point to an upcoming side trail.
Dick and a few of his pals are taking me on a two-day swing along the 500 miles of trail outside Eagle River, the trademarked Snowmobile Capital of the World. Sno-Venture Tours’ longer treks spend a week or more touring Ontario, Lake Superior and even Iceland and Alaska for those willing to fly to the trailheads.
On this trip, nearly everyone squeezes the throttle a few times, waiting for the satisfying surge of the sled leaping forward on the trail. But multiday tours increasingly draw riders simply because the treks unlock huge tracts of winter scenery that are otherwise out of reach. Typical days cover roughly 100 miles between motels.
We spend long stretches cruising straightaways and meadows, snow blurring into a crystalline streak under the track. I’m impervious to the wind, thanks to thick clothes and handlebar heaters so robust that I leave them on only a few minutes before it feels like I’m gripping hot bars. Soon, we slide to a stop in the snowy blanket on a frozen lake, kill our engines and pull off our helmets. My ears ring in the silence. The alternating speed and stillness each make the other more thrilling.
Day’s end brings dinner inside the log walls of the White Spruce Inn, Eagle River’s oldest building. Snowmelt glistens on helmets stacked by the door, and snowsuits swish by constantly. Dick surveys the crowd, full of people he considers both clients and friends, and some of the best folks he’s known. He leans back and says, "I’ve never met a really bad snowmobiler. " I can’t help but be proud that he’s looking at me as he says it.
Written by Trevor Meers. Photographs by Aaron Peterson
Gliding Through Minnesota
Two hours after check-in at Bearskin Lodge, in the far northeastern tip of Minnesota, my husband and I are getting our "ski legs" in the dark. Fortunately, laughter cushions most falls. The maize-colored moon smiles thinly as we swoosh along an illuminated trail. When I make the last hill, I let out a whoop of triumph.
Bearskin is the first stop on our three-day, lodge-to-lodge ski trip along the Gunflint Trail, a 57-mile former logging route that wiggles north from Grand Marais to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Recently, warm temperatures have softened Minnesota’s famed winters, but snow usually blankets the Gunflint region’s 120-mile trail network by January.
Bob and I hadn’t skied cross-country for a few years, so we asked Ted and Barbara Young of Boundary Country Trekking to plan our itinerary. The Youngs own a bed and breakfast, Poplar Creek Guesthouse, and they partner with several other area lodgings. Booking with Barbara is like playing connect-the-dots, as she plots a skills-appropriate route. She and Ted even transfer gear. But the skiing is up to us.
The next morning, we tentatively make our way onto Poplar Creek Trail, a groomed path with enough slopes to keep the pace interesting. We shuffle up small hills and sail around curves, past wetlands and through pine and birch forests. In a former gravel pit where locals once practiced downhill, Bob bends at the knees, and scenery speeds past like film on fast forward.
Water burbles as we cross a tiny brook, the first sound we hear beyond our voices and the friction of skis on snow. We stop at a shelter after an hour and a half to eat sandwiches. Silence settles into our ears like cotton. Cold sets in, too, so we hustle back into action.
Eventually, we turn onto Lace Lake Trail, a narrower, single-tracked path the Youngs maintain near their guesthouse. We keep our eyes peeled for wolves or moose. Animal tracks crisscross the trail, and at one point, a furry pine marten scurries into the brush.
Three hours after leaving the lodge, we glimpse the clapboard inn through the pines. Barbara had said six miles would be plenty, and she was right. We gratefully pop off our skis and accept mugs of hot tea and coffee.
After a deep sleep, we wake up ravenous. Barbara serves poached pears and French toast. Beneath her chef’s hat and red lipstick, Barbara’s a wilderness woman. She tells us how she used to push canoes through spring ice so her son could reach the school bus.
Bob and I eagerly speak up with our own North Woods tale. The night before, coming back from dinner at Gunflint Lodge, our headlights swept across a lone wolf in the road. We braked and held our breath. The wolf paused and glanced back at us before loping out of sight, back into the wilderness.
Written by Lisa Meyers McClintick. Photographs by John Noltner