“Readddyy!” I yelled, taking a short breath before the second part of the command, “Hii–”
Before I had the word fully out of my mouth, the team of six Inuit huskies lunged forward, nearly pulling me off the runners. Holding onto the handlebar for balance, I precariously avoided the sole faux pas in the world of adventure dog sledding: letting the team run free.
Canadian Eskimo dogs, as they're also called, are the closest relatives of wolves and arrived in North America some 12,000 years ago. As the traditional form of travel in remote, rugged, and snowy landscapes, they’ve been instrumental in exploring and settling nearly every part of the Arctic. This wasn’t the first time they’d caught a newbie off guard, and probably not the last, either.
Some Background On the BWCA
My close call didn't happen in the Arctic, either—I found myself in a region tucked in the northeastern corner of Minnesota, adjacent to the Canadian border, called the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Known as the BWCA for short, the region covers over a million acres of interconnected waterways and wetlands, including more than a thousand lakes. It attracts a quarter million visitors each year, making it, by far, the most popular capital-W Wilderness in the entire country.
I know all of this because I grew up in Grand Marais, Minnesota, one of the two gateways into the BWCA (the other one is Ely). I spent a good portion of my summers paddling these lakes and rivers, trying to figure out how to start a fire, land a fish, and uncover who I wanted to be in life. In between trips I worked at a local restaurant, Harbor Inn, flipping fish burgers for flocks of tourists visiting from across the country.
This March I returned home with a handful of friends for a completely different type of trip: mushing sled dogs. While summer here is filled with chaos—all 4,000-plus campsites are nearly filled most nights—the winter is the total opposite; sub-zero temps, frozen lakes, and total emptiness, other than a few stubborn ice fishermen. On any given night, wolves outnumber humans by a factor of hundreds to one.
Which gets me back to that particular moment of adrenaline. After regaining my footing, I let out a calm “Whhhooooaaaa!,” instructing the dogs to stop. The first lesson was clear: never let your weight off the brake. The second lesson came just a minute later: identify the instigators and keep a close eye on them. Dasher and Comet, a pair of stocky brothers who each weighed 90 pounds, were quiet for a few seconds, then they tried again more forcefully, pulling so hard their front ends were entirely up in the air.
Choosing a Dogsled Outfitter
After researching the options for dog sled trips in the area six months prior, we booked a five-night trip with Wintergreen, an outfitter near Ely, Minnesota. Wintergreen is one of the oldest and most revered kennels in the country, with almost forty years of guiding experience. It was founded by Paul Schurke, who was the first to dogsled to the North Pole. They are also one of the few kennels that focuses on what we wanted: longer overnight trips, hands-on learning with the dogs, and a true backcountry experience in the BWCA.
Our trip—a fifty-mile loop—centered around Basswood Lake, the geographic center of the wilderness. This specific spot is an anthropological gem and, as some argue, part of the true Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. It was used heavily in the 17th and 18th centuries as part of the European fur trade; French and British trappers and Ojibwe guides passed through here regularly to access the vast lands of the West, looking for beaver and other high-value pelts.
"Moving at the speed of a fast walk, we had plenty of time to enjoy the empty and iconic landscapes around us."
Our aim was much less historic. We weren’t looking for a sufferfest or any sort of speed record. Much the opposite, actually. We simply wanted to sink into the rhythms of this remote area and learn a new way of travel—mushing dogs, sleeping under the stars, cooking on a fire, and taking time to appreciate small things like animal tracks, bird calls, and the variety of fauna in the boreal forest. Moving at the speed of a fast walk, we had plenty of time to enjoy the empty and iconic landscapes around us.
Getting Into the Swing of Things
After intros on the basics to staying dry, warm, and well-fed, we spent our first afternoon focused on two more technical items: sleeping in the cold and cross country skiing. Wintergreen has unique systems for both, which they’ve developed over decades. Their sleep system is derived from two foam pads, a -40 degree synthetic sleeping bag, a warm fleece liner, and a waterproof outer bivy. It might sound complicated but it's surprisingly simple and functional.
Trips like ours are billed as “advanced,” which means you do a little bit of everything. Cooking, cutting holes in the ice for water, chopping wood, building fires, taking care of the dogs, managing the sled team, and, often, skiing ahead of the sleds to navigate and break trails. For the vast majority of the trip we weren’t following a trail or tracks of any kind—it truly was an “out there” type of experience.
For some, this might not feel natural. The guides provide basic instructions, but the culture at Wintergreen is to learn as you go–even if that means making mistakes and learning from them. We figured this out fairly quickly, tipping a sled on a tight corner of the trail and having to pick it back up while managing the eager dogs in front of us. There’s something special about learning by doing, especially in a world where everything has a set of instructions, a user manual, or a YouTube series detailing every step.
After this quick learning curve, it took us a day or so to find a flow. By the end of the second day we were comfortably working in parallel with our guides, taking on a similar level of responsibilities and work. They would often defer to us on where to camp, what to eat, when to take breaks, and sometimes even what route to take. This is part of the culture of Wintergreen—their aim is to make everyone feel like an equal. This was exemplified at the end of our second day, where they had us select and set up the campsite, move and feed the dogs, and collect wood and water for the evening ahead.
After the third day, routine started to settle in. Wake up, make a fire, warm up your toes, brew coffee, feed the dogs, feed yourself, pack the sleds, and hit the trail. We would travel for four to six hours each day, taking turns running the sleds and skiing in front of them. When we got to camp, the biggest task was gathering firewood—food and warmth were dependent on it, so no reason to skimp. Then card games, dinner, stories, and slowly retreating into our bivvies to fall asleep watching the stars above.
Yes, You Can Dogsled Too
The skills required for a week-long dog sled trip are fewer than you probably think. Wintergreen has established systems (and ample rental gear) to keep you safe and having fun. If you’ve done any sort of hiking or camping, you likely have a general understanding of layering systems. Layering is your most important skill for any winter camping trip, including dog sledding. Reduce sweat, stay warm.
Wintergreen prides itself on taking new mushers and making them competent and comfortable by the end of a trip. You’ll harness, move, feed, and likely fall in love with at least a few of them. Comet and Dasher, despite our tense start, became my two favorites. One afternoon I even took them out for a skijor adventure, racing down the lake while harnessed to the two “knuckleheads” so we could all blow off extra steam.
While I had a lot of camping experience to begin with, the more important prerequisite is a willingness to try something new. The culture here is friendly and open. The guides are upbeat and down to earth. The dogs love to run but love attention and pets almost more. We saw some folks come in with almost no skiing or camping background and do just fine, because they were open to the challenge.
Gear We Recommend for Dogsledding Trips
As mentioned, Wintergreen has gear rentals of all kinds—warm jackets, warm boots, skis, etc. That said, I found that having my own gear was a big bonus. It meant fewer blisters, more familiarity with how the gear performs, and trust in the warmth, allowing me to be more focused on the experience at large. These are the four pieces of gear that I loved and would highly recommend to any winter campers.
When approaching a wide variety of conditions—wind drifts across lakes, slushy spots, technical portages, and a sneaky breakable crust, you want a backcountry cross country ski that is as versatile as possible. That’s exactly how Rossignol designed the new Positrack, a steel edge to increase grip, a fishscale waxless kick and glide, and the widest underfoot ski on the market to keep you light and floating in deep snow. This ski was a true game changer for us. We recommend outfitting them with Rossi's Explore Bindings ($230).
While in camp or mushing the sled, I switched to the Apex, a polar-rated boot with a waterproof base that is amazingly good at thermoregulating. I had no issues with cold toes, even on days near zero degrees, no issues in slush, and even stayed warm while hanging out late into the evening.
The warmest down layer manufactured by one of the premium outdoor brands did not disappoint on our trip. Designed for shiver-free belays on alpine routes, the high-loft yet highly packable warmth was a key tool for us in staying warm while dog sledding in one of the coldest places in the continental US. By the end, nearly everyone else in the group wanted one.
Created for Canadian guides who needed a reliably warm glove for long days working outside, the Heli Ski Mitt has been a go-to of mine for years. The durable leather gives a good grip and feel, although some dexterity is sacrificed with the extreme amount of warmth it provides. I often use a liner with them, which helped my fingers stay warm while clipping dogs into the line, cooking food, sawing firewood, and otherwise.