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A humorous, almost disastrous true story by Paul Schurke ….
Though dogsled adventure tours have been a way of life for my family and I for nearly 40 years, I first learned the art of mushing back in the late ’70s from the famous adventurer Will Steger. My wife Susan and I lived in a sod-roofed log cabin with no power and no phone at his remote homestead near Ely, Minnesota. Since the nearest road was over 2 miles away, all of our supplies had to be brought in by dogteam.
During our first winter Will spent weeks teaching my wife Susan and I everything he knew about the art of mushing and Canadian Inuit dogs and then he capped it all off one day by saying, “Everything I’ve taught you all boils down to this– just be sure you never let go of your sled.”
The significance of that lesson hit home hard a few weeks later when I set off by dogteam to gather firewood along an old logging railroad grade near the homestead. The day went well and near dusk I headed off to fetch one last load. Normally, I’d tie the dogs off to a tree each time I’d stop to load the sled. But on this last trip of the day I figured they were tired enough to sit tight while I bucked the wood and brought it to the sled.
Boy, was I wrong. Perhaps they caught the scent of a passing deer or maybe they saw a rabbit race across the trail far ahead. Whatever it was, something triggered all six of them to suddenly lurch upright in a flash and bolt down the trail. The empty sled banged merrily along behind them. To no avail, I yelled and yelled for them to stop and then I took off in a dead run after them. They soon disappeared around a bend, headed in the direction of Jackfish Bay on Basswood Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
A few miles later, drenched in sweat that was rapidly caking my clothing with ice in the -20 F air, I reached the shores of huge Basswood. In the dimming light I stared out at dog tracks disappearing under drifting snow across miles of lake that stretched to Canada. There was no sign of the dogs. I was terrified that I had lost the team forever.
I frantically scanned the horizon hoping to catch a clue as to where they went. Just as I was about to give up in despair, something caught the corner of my eye. There appeared to be a speck out towards the middle of the bay. I didn’t recall there being any islands in that area so, battling hypothermia, I trudged out through the deep snow to investigate.
The speck got bigger. Soon there appeared to be some movement. Then an immense flush of relief swept over me as I realized I had indeed found the dogteam and sled. Curiously the dogs were sitting quietly in a circle. As I got closer I realized that a the center of the circle was a lone ice fisherman sitting on his bucket jigging.
I turned the sled upright, anchored it off, and went to approach the fisherman. He never looked up but simply said, “All I want to know is who’s going to pay for all my crappies?” I was perplexed and there was odd moment of silence. But then he looked up, shook his head with a hearty laugh, and explained what had happened.
While making their way across Jackfish, the runaway team had smelled his day’s catch laying on the ice and raced towards him. Before he knew what to do my dogs had snarfed down all the frozen fish. He figured somebody would eventually come to retrieve the team and so he simply sat down to catch some more.
I was overjoyed to find the team intact and I apologized profusely for the mishap. The old guy never cracked a smile but I think he too was a bit humored by the situation. He accepted a ride back towards Ely on the sled with me. When I dropped him off at his truck he looked back with wry smile and said, “Never let go!”
If it’s true that you’re not a real musher until you’ve lost your sled at least once, then that day was my rights of passage. You’re welcome to become a real musher too on a dogsled adventure holiday here with us at Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, www.dogsledding.com . Don’t worry — our ace guides are always there to ensure you’ll never need to chase your team!
Paul Schurke - Polar Explorer
Paul Schurke is the owner and operator of Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge. When he's not on trail or with guests, he can probably be found out on an exciting adventure in the wilderness.