Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Day 290 - Dog Sledding

I have never been dog sledding. As a person with an unfettered love of dogs, the idea of coasting over the snow guided by a team of Huskies has been something that has drawn me in for as long as I can remember. Although my exposure to the sport has been limited to clips of sled teams on television and in movies, I have longed to experience the bond formed when working with a team of dogs and to feel the rush of the experience since I was a child. Dog sledding has been one of those things I simply needed to experience, but up to this point in my life I never acted on that desire.

Given that reality, I knew my “I have never...” year offered me the perfect opportunity and motivation to finally experience dog sledding firsthand. As a result, I set to work finding a location to learn how to mush at the first signs of winter this year. Ultimately, that effort resulted in me finding a dog sledding outfit called the Siberian Outpost in east-central Wisconsin, which offered full mushing lessons and half day excursions over 30 acres of trails. Realizing the offering was my best outlet for finally gaining an experience I had dreamed of for most of my life, I promptly contacted the location and narrowed down a list of days that would work for the event. With a little coordination and planning, that resulted in owner of the outfit, Jim, and I landing on today as the best time for me to make good on my lifelong goal of learning how to mush.

Acknowledging the experience was one I didn’t want to gain alone, I spent the weeks leading up to the event doing my best to convince my friends to join me for the event. Although most of them were unable to make it, my friend, Wes, was quick to commit when I told him about the opportunity. In turn, the two of us drove to the Siberian Outpost early this morning and prepared for an experience we both knew we would never forget.

The welcoming crew...

Jim was quick to greet us when we arrived at the Siberian Outpost this morning. Through the frigid, -10 degree air he called to us from the opposite side of a massive dog pen containing nearly two dozen of some of the most beautiful dogs I have ever seen. Curious about our arrival, the dogs followed us closely as we moved around the pen and met Jim at his location. Busy loading firewood into a massive wood burning stove, Jim advised us we could our way into a large pole shed  connected to the dog pen to prepare for the day’s events.

Happy to heed Jim’s direction, Wes and I found our way to the interior of the building and prepared ourselves for a few hours in the cold. As we did so, Jim joined us in the building and explained the day would start with some training on how to manage a sled, which would be followed by some runs around the fields and forest of his sprawling property. Eager to get started, Wes and I quickly finished up our preparations before Jim guided us into the back of the building and introduced us to a pair of his sleds.

The Siberian Outpost

Over the next 30 minutes, Jim walked us through the basic principles of dog sledding, which included dog commands, steering, balance, and operation of the sleds’ key components. Although the instructions were relatively simple, Jim was forward in warning us of the power and challenge presented by a dog team in a full run. “These dogs can pull 1,000 pounds apiece. When you get going the sled is going to want to turn over,” Jim said firmly, “You’re going to have to get physical with it; lean into turns, twist the sled, and tell the dogs their pace. They run, but you are in control. Remember that.” The words were not lost on Wes and me as we listened on. “Your safety and the safety of dogs, those are number one,” Jim continued, looking at the two of us for confirmation of our understanding.

One of our sleds

Getting schooled by Jim

Wes and I immediately offered statements of affirmation to Jim’s remarks, which set him to work grabbing a variety of rigging from a nearby container. “Alright, I’m going to be running a team of 16. The two of you will be alternating on a team of four,” Jim said concisely as he returned to the sled and made a few adjustments, “Are you feeling ready?” Wes and I excitedly confirmed that was the case before moving toward the door near Jim’s side. Jim smiled at our response and offered a simple reply, “Well, then let’s get ‘em rigged up!”

At Jim’s instruction, Wes and I helped move the sleds out to the pen where the dogs were waiting and worked the sled near the gate. Our actions caused an excited response from the dogs, who watched on with wagging tails as they leapt around in anticipation of the forthcoming run. The sight was enough to put a smile on my face as we continued through the process at Jim’s direction, which led us back into the pole shed and straight into the dog pen.

Passing through a door between a massive row of dog runs, we were greeted by the pack of dogs as they massed up around our legs. To my surprise, their excitement at our presence didn’t cause a single one of them to forgo their manners. Instead, each of the casually wagged their tails and looked up to us for attention while we prepared the harnesses for each of them. They were kind and gentle in a way that was almost unexpected given their enthusiasm and strength, which moved me to comment on their behavior.

“What good dogs,” I said petting several of them as they approached, “They are so well mannered.” In response, Jim finished placing a harness on one of the dogs and looked up at me with a smile. “You know, almost all of them are all rescues,” he said proudly, “...Dogs that they said couldn’t find a home or were unfit for families.” Stunned, I kneeled down and pet a large white Husky that had been by my side since we entered the pen. The dog responded by licking the side of my face and wagging his tail happily. “That’s Alex,” Jim said pointing to the white dog, “He was scheduled to be put down the day I picked him up. They said he was unfit to live with a family. He looks unfit doesn’t he?”

Gearing up

Some of the best dogs I've ever met... and almost all rescues

Shocked, I replied to Jim’s remark with the only thought that crossed my mind. “Him? Not one bit,” I said petting Alex once more. My comment caused Jim to pause for a moment. “...All he really needed was to run,” Jim said breaking his silence, “Now that he can, he’s one of the best dogs I’ve ever known.” Continuing in his work, Jim grabbed another harness from a nearby container and looked back at me. “I guess that’s part of the reason I do what I do,” he said conclusively. In his remark, I saw the passion Jim had for the pack of animals stirring around us. It was all I needed to know I had come to the right place for my first experience dog sledding.

Once we finished fitting each of the dogs with harnesses, Jim walked Wes and I through the process of securing the dogs to the sleds in preparation for our departure. As we did so, the dogs happily howled and played in their side-by-side positions at the front of the sleds, causing Wes and I to curiously smile at their playful behavior. “Do they normally do this?” Wes asked as Jim as he made final adjustments to the rigging. Standing and moving toward the sled Jim replied casually, “Yeah, they know what’s coming, and they can’t wait for it.” With that remark, he gave one last look over the setup and looked to the two of us. “OK, Wes you get on the race sled. Caleb you hop in the front of the cargo sled. We are ready to go.” Wes and I gave one another an excited glance at Jim’s comment, realizing the experience we had come for was finally upon us.

Ready to go!

With Wes and I in our positions, Jim slid open a massive gate at the opposite end of the dog pen and moved to the rear of the sled I had taken a seat in. “They’re ready,” he said firmly, “Now, I’m going to release the chain keeping the sleds in place, and then we’re going to go. You guys ready?” Wes and I responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes,” causing Jim to shift his arm slightly and drop the safety chain to the ground with a metallic clatter. The movement was almost immediately accompanied by a single word belted over the winter air. “Hike!” Jim bellowed as he leaned into the handles of the sled. In response, the dogs tore forward through the open gate and onto a prepared trail. Wes followed suit with the same command and fell in line immediately behind us as we gathered speed. Within moments we were spiriting into the frozen terrain surrounding Jim’s home and darting toward the forest at the rear of his property. As the dogs worked in unison, I found the speed of the sled surprising, even following Jim’s earlier lesson. Regardless, those first moments of the trek were absolutely exhilarating and incredible. I would come to find those feelings wouldn’t fade until well after our time on trails came to an end.

On the trail

Over the next 20 minutes I happily rode along with Jim as Wes found his bearings on the race sled behind us. Winding through the trees and over the fields at a steady clip, we made our way around the property before Jim slowed to a stop and asked Wes and I to switch places. Excited by the prospect of gaining the experience I had come to gain, I sprang to my feet and met Wes as he called his four dog team to a stop behind Jim. Minutes later I was in position behind the handles of the sled and ready to test the skills Jim had taught me earlier. In that moment, the anticipation I held was the greatest I have felt since I was a child, but, in a way, that made sense given I was about to live a dream I had held onto since my youth.

Taking the helm!

After Wes took his position at the front of the cargo sled Jim looked back at me and gave me a nod. “You ready?” he asked bluntly. “Yeah,” I said in return, “Let’s do this!” With that, Jim called his dogs to action, leaving me behind on the trail. Within moments they pulled some 20 yards ahead of my location, which gave me the cushion I needed to fall behind Jim’s sled. “You ready, guys?” I asked as I tightened my grip and gave a quick check of my feet. Confident my position on the sled was correct I lifted my head, took a deep breath, and belted out a single word, “Hike!”

The call barely escaped my lips before the dogs dug deep into the snow and pulled my sled from its resting point. Under the force of their paws we were immediately gliding over the terrain and narrowing the distance between us and Jim’s sled. Noticing the dogs were eager, I encouraged them to continue in their effort with the commands Jim had given me earlier. “Let’s go! Pick it up!” I called, “Run, run!” In response, the dogs heightened their speed as we moved into a turn, which sent my sled sliding toward the edge of the trail. The force was strong enough to put the sled up on one rail, which forced me into action twisting the sled and leaning into the turn as Jim had instructed me earlier. Almost immediately, the sled responded to my actions, slamming back into the snow and regaining forward momentum in the tracks left by Jim and Wes. With the frigid winter air rushing by me, I laughed at the intense and amazing feeling of the moment. It was wonderful and rousing in a way that is hard to describe, which made it impossible to wipe the smile from my face.

A little frosty after 30 minutes on the trails

The euphoria caused by the experience on the sled didn’t fade for a moment as Wes, Jim, and I continued over the trails for the next few hours. With Wes and I taking turns running the race sled, we had plenty of time to get comfortable in the sport, which helped us more readily connect with the dogs and move the sleds into faster speeds. By the time we reached the end of our outing, Jim felt confident enough in the progress we had made that he gave me a chance to lead the cargo sled team of 16 dogs, which provided the perfect cap to an already amazing experience. Under the power of 16 eager Huskies I drove the sled through the woods at amazing speeds and ended today’s new experience with a rush of excitement. There’s simply no other way to describe it, today was amazing.

Ready for a post-trek snack and a nap...

In our final time at the Siberian Outpost Wes and I helped Jim remove harnesses and give the dogs some well-earned food and water. As I watched the dogs settle in after their hard work on the trails, I thought about Jim’s rescue work, his commitment to the dogs, and his love of the sport. It was clear his heart rested in every moment with the animals and his joy came from seeing them on the trails. Recognizing that reality, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelming respect for his efforts and devotion. That takeaway was the last thing I expected to gain from today’s experience, but its occurrence made an already incredible day that much better. Today was one for the books in my “I have never...” journey, and there’s a lot to be said for coming to that conclusion.

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