Mushers have nose for winter fun
Despite lagging snowfall this season, Minnesota's mushers are pulled along by a steady increase in demand.
By Chris Welsch, Star Tribune
Last update: February 24, 2007 ? 12:21 AM
Alice Wagner had just spent the day gliding across frozen lakes and bouncing over rocky portages in a sled pulled by six Canadian Inuit dogs. Neither subzero temperatures in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness nor artificial hips and knees kept her from having fun.
"It was like riding a bucking bronco," said the 78-year-old Anoka woman. "I would tell all senior citizens to choose dog sledding over a cruise any time."
With or without Wagner's endorsement, dog sledding has been enjoying a boom in Minnesota. Aided by snow-challenged winters that are less friendly to other outdoor pursuits, it's attracting people who pay $125 for a couple of hours behind the dogs.
Arleigh Jorgenson, a musher based in Grand Marais, said he has had to turn people away because interest outstrips his capacity. "If we had 60 more dogs, we'd be using them all this weekend," he said last week.
In Ely, gateway to the BWCA, the town's website gets more hits on its dog-sledding page -- more than 1,000 in January -- than on any other area. "We've been adding trips and still turning people away," said Paul Schurke, owner of Wintergreen, the biggest and oldest of Ely's mushing-for-tourists operations.
A couple of years ago, Schurke conducted an informal poll of Ely's mushers to get the first estimate of how many people had been drawn to the area by the sport. "The answer we came up with was 5,000, based on reservations," he said. "That number has certainly increased; it's about 8,000 today, and it could be closer to 10,000."
Dog sledding's surge in popularity -- at a time when widespread winter activities such as snowmobiling and cross-country skiing languish from a lack of snow -- is a sign of Minnesota's changing winters. Adventure trips, from rock climbing to whitewater rafting, are a growing segment of the travel industry. Many see dog sledding as a natural winter offshoot of that.
Conditions in the northern part of the state this winter have been good for dog sleds; most trails are passable, and the ice on the lakes is smooth and thick, topped with just enough snow to give dog paws a good surface for running.
Mushing requires less snow than snowmobiling, said Schurke at the company's dog sledding lodge on White Iron Lake. "Ten years ago, this lake would have been buzzing with snowmobiles. Now snowmobile season lasts about a month. We can run dog sleds from December first through the end of March."
Linda Fryer, director of Ely's Chamber of Commerce, said dog sledding is filling the void left by snowmobilers. "It's the fastest growing winter activity we have going up here," she said. The chamber boasts that Ely has "the most dog sled trip providers in the world."
About 20 commercial dog-sledding guides operate in Minnesota, from Brainerd and Moorhead to Ely. The majority are in the Arrowhead region, where higher elevations and lower temperatures mean more snow that lasts longer. Bayfield, Wis., is another active mushing area.
Customers are coming from all over the world. Schurke said about 50 percent of Wintergreen's clients come from the Upper Midwest, 30 percent come from elsewhere in the country and 20 percent from other parts of the world, including Israel, South America and Europe. Fryer said a couple from Australia celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in Ely on a dog-sledding vacation earlier this month.
The Boundary Waters is a wilderness area where engines are not allowed; canoes and dog sleds are the most efficient means of transportation and have been since long before European settlement. Well-established portage trails between lakes become dog sled highways once the snow falls and the lakes ice up.
The region's mushers offer a wide variety of trips, from half-day rides to weeklong camping trips into the wilderness. Dog sledding isn't cheap; a typical two-hour ride in the woods will cost $125. Two days of dog sledding with Wintergreen, including three nights lodging and all meals, is about $875 per person. That includes the opportunity to learn how to set up a dog sled, how to give commands and drive the sleds. It takes about an hour to learn the basics.
On a bitterly cold February morning at the Wintergreen Dog Sledding Lodge, the newly minted mushers pulled harnesses over dogs' heads and attached them to the gang lines on the sleds. The dogs howled madly, yanking against the lines, anxious to run. One by one, as the sleds were ready, drivers untied anchor ropes and gave the unnecessary command to go: "Hike." The dogs were running the minute the rope went slack.
After a first burst of speed, the dogs slow into their steady pace, 6 to 8 miles per hour, no faster than a human jogging. The dogs panted, and the runners of the sleds hissed on the snow.
"I take my boys fishing each year," said Jim Link of Stillwater, who was at Wintergreen for the second year in a row with his daughter Jayme, 9. "But this is perfect for Jayme. For her, it's all about the dogs. It's something we enjoy together."
Chris Welsch ? 612-673-7113 ? firstname.lastname@example.org