I went to bed March 1st, in a cheap hotel outside of the Detroit Airport dreaming of cold nights and fast trails for sled dogs and veterans on cross country skis. I was stuck in Detroit on a connecting flight to Duluth, MN where I was headed to catch a ride up to Ely, MN and serve as as an intern with Voyageur Outward Bound School (VOBS) for a winter veterans' course.
When I finally arrived at Voyageur late the next day, I was pleased to see that winter had indeed visited Northern Minnesota. The lakes were frozen and the trees were more than dusted with snow. I spent the next two days preparing for the course with our guides Dan Blessing and Nina Wray. I had met Dan two winters prior when he was my guide on a similar veterans course through VOBS, at the time, sponsored by the Sierra Club. Nina, though no stranger to dog sledding, cross country skiing, and winter living, was going to be on her first veterans’ course.
Just after dinner on Saturday night, a van load of six veterans joined us at VOBS, filed in, and just like in the military, completed a full gear lay out before we all spent our first night in the crisp winter air of Minnesota ensconced in two sleeping bags a piece.
The next day we loaded two dog sleds onto the back of a pick up truck and headed to the dog yard to meet the real athletes of the trip, our 11 sled dogs, who, along with the other dogs in the yard, were more than excited to see us. After a bit of two wheeling, a process where dogs are lifted onto their hind legs and with their human companions, move to their destination. We put them in a specially built trailer, and after an hour's drive, we were finally dropped off on the edge of the Boundary Waters Wilderness just before lunch time.
Half the group learned how to maneuver on cross country skis while wearing massive expedition winter boots, while the other half readied the dogs on the sleds. I was in the skiing group and we headed out across our first frozen lake to lay a track for the dog sleds to follow. After an hour out on skis, you could hear the dogs barking maniacally far behind us. That meant they were hooked up on the guidelines and ready to pull. A moment later, all we could hear was the squeak of our skis on the crusted edge of snow. The dogs were silent, meaning they were pulling to their hearts content.
Expedition style dog sledding is not for the faint of heart. It is not a sprint race, nor the Iditarod, or anything like the movie Balto. With five or six dogs pulling a sled weighing anywhere from 500-800 pounds, the two human mushers push and pull the sled up and down hills and trails and across the ice as much as the dogs. Physically, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done outside of the military and rivals much of the training I received while in uniform…and I’d happily go back outside with those dogs tomorrow.
Over the course of the next six days we would alternate skiing and dog sledding, carrying everything we needed with us as we went, or finding it along the way. The coldest it got was on one -20F morning, followed the next day by a noon high of 48F. We got sunshine, blizzards, horizontal snow, open water, and absolute silence. We saw wolf tracks around our solo campsites and saw an otter, bald eagles, plenty of ravens and dozens more otter and fox tracks.
At night we would gather firewood and chop a hole in the ice for water. We dried our inner socks, the ones we wore underneath the vapor barrier locks (plastic bags, which had wool outer socks covering them) by the fire. We ate well and slept (mostly) warm each night, exhausted from the day’s work underneath tarps and on top of packed snow with a hot water bottle thrown into our inner sleeping bag.
When we finally sledded out of the wilderness and turned our dog sleds onto mostly empty, rural roads towards the dog yard and base camp at the end of the week the noise and hustle of our modern world compared to the wilderness was almost overwhelming. Another great week in the Boundary Waters Wilderness complete.
To quote from Stephen Wolf, one of the participants, "Out here, you just can't hide from yourself."
I’d like to give special thanks to Chad Spangler at Outward Bound, USA; Suellen Sack, Robin Zinthefer, and the great team at Voyageur Outward Bound School including but not limited to Dan Blessing, Nina Wray, Craig in the dog yard, Tyler Fish, and all the other great staff and volunteers for allowing me to come and intern with VOBS! To Aaron (who shot many of the photos seen here), Steve, Lourdes, Laura, CJ, and Mitch for being the best expedition team one could ask for, you’re all DVP in my book, and to Blackjack, Dewey, A Boy Named Sue, Ash, Tucker, Ginger, Eagle, Huey, Hank, Spider, and Able for pulling all of us and our gear all over Northern Minnesota!
~Stacy Bare, OIF Veteran
Military Families and Veteran Representative to the Sierra Club
"Helping America's Military and Veteran Community experience the freedom of the land they defend"