It is a winter pastime that, like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, requires good snow, demands long underwear -- or, for some, thick fur -- and favors participants with a strenuous but exhilarating workout.
But unlike those activities, dog sledding could never, ever be thought of as silent sport. Yelping sport, more like it. When I went to Wolfsong Adventures in Mushing a few winters back to let my inner Sgt. Preston run free, the three-dozen Siberian huskies in John and Mary Thiel's kennel were in full throat long before it was time to raise the anchors that held sleds in place and head down the snowy trail.
It was "mush," not "hush," but it quieted the cacophony as off we sped through the black and white woods, the huskies all business behind lead dogs Uriah and Elvis. Sgt. Preston had Yukon King. I had the Memphis King. Good enough.
Dog sledding, whether racing or merely recreational riding, is an increasingly popular pursuit in the snow country of northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. At least it is when winter keeps its end of the bargain, unlike last year when a prolonged lack of snow even in the far north left mushers and dogs baying in dismay. Some outfitters were forced to take the winter off, and one of the sport's biggest events, Duluth's John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, was forced to first postpone, then later cancel, its 25th running; not for nothing did the group's December meeting this year focus on global warming.
"Climate change," said longtime Ely, Minn., outfitter Pal Schurke, "is the talk of the town."
But timely snowfalls early in December got this season off on the right paw, and Thiel, whose company offers 2 1/2- and 4-hour expeditions, said advance bookings for the winter were good.
Even better, because it borders on Lake Superior, Bayfield County benefits from lake-effect snow and is less susceptible to winter's whims, Thiel said, which is one reason -- along with an extensive trail system -- it is a popular place for racers from other states to train their teams.
If a snow sport can have a hot spot, it would be in Ely, self-proclaimed sled dog capital of the lower 48 states. Outfitters there offer everything from half-day sled rides to three- or four-day excursions that include dog sledding by day and winter camping at night. That's not as rigorous as it sounds; some of the outfitters offer heated tents and even heated yurts, the Mongolian-style shelter.
"When you mention a heated tent with a wood stove," said Stu McEntyre of Ely's White Wolf Dog Trips, "people think that sounds pretty good." One package McEntyre offers includes fishing for lake trout or northern pike.
Ice fishing, of course.
Most outfitters offer customers the full experience, from handling and harnessing dogs before the run to feeding and watering them at the end. And most outfitters allow every participant a chance to drive his or her own sled if they wish. Driving a team involves giving a few voice commands, occasionally stepping off to push the sled on uphill trails and staying balanced on the runners, but outfitters say it is easy enough for almost anyone to do.
"If you can walk and stand up," said McEntyre, "you can drive a dog team. I've taken people and let them drive their own team -- and they were in their 80s."
Girl Scout troops are regular customers at the Paw-Tuck-A-Way kennel in Danbury, Wis., said Cliff Maxfield, whose wife, Kathy, operates the business. "We had a group of Red Hat ladies [a club for older women] come out too."
The number of dogs per team depends on the driver. At Ely's White Wilderness Sled Dog Adventures, Theo Theobald said, "We give you as many dogs as we think you can stop. [But] it is something that anybody can do. Last year we had a 92-year-old woman on an Elderhostel trip."
Thiel, who is president of the Northern Wisconsin Dog Mushers Association, said the number of kennels continues to grow, especially small kennels owned by people who want just enough dogs to be able to hitch up and run when they want to go.
"The big kennels come and go," he said, in part because of the expense of food, veterinary care and equipment, and in part because of the time demand and a host of other owner issues.
At one Internet site for mushers, a discussion board included threads on bootie fit, keeping wolves at bay and, inevitably, the "pooper-scooper question."
Some kennel owners favor Siberian huskies or, in the case of Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge in Ely, pure-bred Canadian Inuit dogs; others prefer mixed breeds like Alaskan huskies. In fact, Thiel said, almost any dog can pull a sled, though some breeds are better than others. One Wisconsin musher runs a team of Irish setters.
Baying for snow
Dog sledders in the North Woods hang on for a white winter
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