(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