Wilderness Inquiry: Unforgettable Dog Sledding

dog-sledding-minnesota

About two years ago, I took a dog sled trip in Northern Minnesota near the Canadian border with an organization called Wilderness Inquiry. Based out of Minneapolis, Minn., Wilderness Inquiry is an organization that enables people with and without disabilities the experience of nature oriented trips, both domestically and worldwide. The trips are offered year-round and include dog sledding, skiing, kayaking, horseback riding and canoeing. Many of the domestic trips take place in Minnesota and neighboring Midwestern states, but there are also international trips to Canada, South America, Australia and Europe, as well as safaris in South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania.

The trip that I took part in was four days with two days of travel through quaint towns and open Minnesota landscapes
and two days of dog sledding, hiking and sleeping outside in 10 degree weather. In addition to the guides, the group on my trip included families and singles and people with and without disabilities. Some of the disabilities were visible and some were not.

Getting Ready for the Big Day

The trip to our new home was an adventure in itself. Those of us who used wheelchairs were assisted into a one-man sled that was sturdy and comfortable. Our gear was placed in these sleds for transport as well. Our guides, who would become close friends, tied themselves to the sled and became our sled drivers who would take us to home base. As we traveled, I felt a sense of excitement and awe at being able to do this. I live with osteogenesis imperfecta — brittle bones from birth — and here I was, ready to embark on this dog sledding trip. Am I crazy? Yes, I am, but I was up for it.

We traveled across frozen lakes, and when we came to a steep hill going upward, our human guides ran with all their might and power up the hill — and man, did we fly! It was scary and exhilarating at the same time. I loved feeling the cold wind on my face and the smoothness of the ice and snow under the sled. Once we got to the top, I could only imagine how fast they would take us going back down the hill. After all, this was a rush for them as well as us.

Once inside, we were introduced to the staff that would prepare our meals and were shown where we would sleep the next few days. It was a large cabin-like structure with a ballroom-size mess hall with army-style tables. A small fireplace with couches and chairs made for a cozy evening after being out in the cold. We unpacked our gear, had dinner and then met with the team and two of the dogs who would be taking us on our adventure over the next few days.

On Friday the day of dog sledding and hiking began. Although many opted for the hike, I was one of the few who begged to stay back so I could prepare for the dog sledding. One group went in the morning and I went in the afternoon with another group. It was both exciting and nerve wracking to hear about the morning group’s trip with the dogs. The hills were steep, some said, and there were nooks and crannies that could cause the sled to tip over, especially if the dogs slowed down.

When it was my turn to go, I was escorted outside and helped into my travel sled to take me to where the dogs were. Once I was in the sled, my guide took me down snowy steps with the help of others. I found this to be rather smooth, not rough at all. Then we embarked up steep snowy white hills that glimmered when the sun hit them just right and helped us to see for miles around.

We got to where the dogs were and I transferred into my dog sled. Blankets and pillows warmed me and cushioned any hard blows below the sled. One by one, each dog was attached to the sled, and once attached, the dogs came to life with excited howls and barking. If not kept under control, they would have taken off without the rest of the dogs or the guides ready to lead.

Once all were attached, we were ready to embark on our two-and-a-half hour journey through the wilderness.

An Unforgettable Adventure

dogs-leading-sled
Photo courtesy of Wilderness Inquiry

My sled started slow as we began traveling through the woods. The pathway was very narrow and steep. The dogs knew what to do and where to go as my guide maintained our speed around 7 or 8 miles per hour. At times our travels were on flat snowy runways and across large snow-covered lakes. At other times we traveled up and down mountainous inclines that felt more like a roller coaster ride. Nature was everywhere with birds chirping, and the sun peered through the trees as we traveled. On one adventurous move, we had to literally jump over a snowy groove in order to get the sled over a mound of snow. I was amazed at how cushioned the jump was, and once down, we were on our way again.

The trip included moments of comedy, as the dogs would tend to get overexcited and get their ropes twisted around one another. When that happened, we would need to take a five minute break just to get the dogs untangled. To end the adventure, we had to tackle a death-defying hill that came up just past the cabin and would bring us back to home base. The hill was so steep that I felt I was looking down at a ski slope as we began to head down the hill. The guides had to hold on to the dogs hard as we headed down the hill full force. Let’s just say it was a terrifying rush, and I’m glad we made it out alive.

In the evening, we settled in for dinner and reminiscing about the day’s travels. We also prepared to embark on our next adventure, which took us out into the elements to sleep overnight in 10-degree temperatures. In order to survive the night, we wore layers of clothing and had special mats and sleeping bags that kept the heat encased within our own sleeping bags that we took with us. We were also given candy bars to eat in the night — should we become hungry. I never knew how many calories our bodies burn when we are cold.

We slept on an open frozen lake near the cabin. Our eyes were treated to millions of stars in the night sky. I slept OK for my first adventure, but not like I was used to. The next morning I was starving and also came to see that some of our group had become so cold that they had to go back inside and sleep in the warmth of the cabin. I went back inside and devoured a full breakfast of eggs, bacon and anything else I could get my hands on.

well-cushioned-sled-sleeping-under-starsThe author, above, says her sled was well-cushioned and even handled a jump without incident. She was one of the group who made it through the night sleeping outside under the stars (right).

Later in the day, I was treated to a hike in the afternoon that was a surprise highlight of my trip. Although I am very independent when back home in my everyday world of accessibility, I had to allow myself to be OK with depending on others to assist me when traveling through the deepness of the snow. But in allowing myself to do this, I also opened myself up to a world that I would never be able to get to with my wheelchair unless I put skis on my wheels. I was escorted in my sled through open frozen lakes and snowy woods and taken to a part of the woods that felt like a winter wonderland. We entered a woodsy door that took us into nature at its most raw and beautiful. There was snow everywhere on trees, logs and ground. We did not know where the ground started and sky ended. We came across a frozen waterfall and river that was partially flowing and breathtaking.

In our last adventure, a group of us went out to where a frozen pond was poking out through the ground and people took turns jumping into the jaw-dropping icy cold water. Once out, people would warm up in a lukewarm sauna that was right next door to the pond. Although I did not dive in with everyone else, I relaxed in the sauna and tried to get warm when the door would open up to the outside and people would come in and spray me with the icy cold water.

On the last day of the trip, people participated in a last day of hiking, and then we packed our gear and chatted with our hosts at the cabin. We said our goodbyes and promised we would meet again for another wilderness adventure.

Wilderness Inquiry currently only offers the dog sledding trip for private groups of 17 or more, but they have many other accessible outdoor offerings. To learn more visit www.wildernessinquiry.org