Every Dog Has His Sleigh
ELY, MINNESOTA, IS JUST SOUTH OF THE CANADIAN BORDER -- the northernmost point in a loose net of pinpoint towns and surface roads that fetches up, abruptly, on a great unpopulated swath of forest and lakes known as the Boundary Waters Wilderness. It is not a place a person happens upon by accident. In the summer, perhaps, when the air is woodsy and fresh, the long days might lend themselves to serendipitous wandering with a bedroll and a tin coffee cup. But in winter, getting to Ely requires a series of concerted efforts: from Minneapolis by puddle-jumper, to the low bunker of the Duluth airport, to a rental car in a tiny lot and, finally, two hours north on a road patchy with dried salt, on which everyone seems to be heading the other way. The sky is the color of dull aluminum, like the bottom of a rowboat. On the map, the land around Ely is optimistically shaded green and blue, but in February it is frozen to a bitter white, cross-hatched with the bare branches of trees.
Just past the bright knot of lights and blond wood buildings that is the town, the highway becomes a single lane of snow, scraping the bottom of the rental car. It ends in front of a low building in a circle of high pines, in what is more or less the middle of the woods. The snow powders the exposed ankles of a person wearing sneakers. It is impossible to go any farther.
Or so one might think.
I have come to the Boundary Waters to go dog sledding. The building I have arrived at is part of Wintergreen Lodge, which offers a variety of small-group dog-sledding expeditions, including regular trips through the wilderness north of Ely. I have no knowledge of the sport beyond an awareness of the Iditarod and a vague memory of Robert Peary, swaddled in bearskin, staring balefully from the pages of a high school textbook. Looking for a solo vacation, I had mentioned the idea to my best friend, who once hiked with her boyfriend to the base camp at Mount Everest for fun.
It was her opinion that I might actually enjoy such a trip; her enthusiasm implied that venturing into a remote wilderness in the middle of winter could bring rewards unavailable to the timid.
I grew up in the South, but my family is from Detroit, and I always imagined this was something of a cold-weather pedigree; I remember my parents, on the rare occasions when it snowed, standing in the street shouting instructions to our neighbors, who were frantically spinning their wheels on an inch or two of ice. Perhaps, I thought, my friend was right. Perhaps I harbored a natural affinity, a love even, long dormant, for the deep seasonal freeze of my ancestral homeland.
But real winter, of the sort that closes around me when I get out of my rental car, is something new. The air is not so much colder as it is denser -- dense with cold, like ice water. With each breath, I can feel it taking the shape of my lungs. The surrounding woods are black and depthless, and it is hard to imagine spending much time there, rewards or no. By the time I retrieve my suitcase from the trunk and stumble up the steps to the lodge, my fingertips are numb.
The living room of the cabin is lit yellow by a wood-burning stove and an abundance of heart pine. I will be dog sledding with three couples, who have already arrived and are reclining on couches looking rosy and hale. They all seem to be dressed in variations of an effortless wilderness-casual: wool socks, plaid shirts, fleece pants. The cuffs of my jeans scatter snow on the pine floor. "Cold out there," I say.
"That's nothin,'" says a wiry man with his feet up on the coffee table. He turns to the woman next to him. "Remember how cold it was last time we were here? You opened that door, it was like opening a freezer."
"My glasses steamed up, and then they froze," says the woman, looking irked by the memory.
"Oh, it was cold," the man, whose name is Keith, says, sounding sorry he is not that cold right this minute. "My beard was frozen solid."
A broad-shouldered young guy named Jason appears and takes my suitcase. He and another guy, Dave, are our guides; each is fair-haired and blue-eyed with a jaw full of reddish-blond, week-old beard, like younger, hipper Grizzly Adamses. In the flicker of the wood stove, they give us a brief clinic in dog sledding, using a plastic model of an Eskimo sled and six plastic dogs, on the coffee table. We practice slipping a harness on and off of Jason's lank, maple-colored Labrador retriever, who submits glumly to our manipulations. Sled dogs, Jason tells us, are directed using the same voice commands as draft horses -- "gee" for right and "haw" for left -- and a sharp "hup! hup!" to go forward. He takes us through a practice round, which we deliver with gusto, like the chorus of an old drinking ballad. At the "hup!" command, his Lab springs to attention and runs anxiously around the room.