MARQUETTE - What had been, only moments earlier, an exhilarated cacophony of dog barks and yelps turned silent when the dog sled under my feet jolted to life and my team of dogs piloted me into the mute, snow-shrouded Upper Peninsula wilderness.
I hadn't been on the back of a dog sled for years and I had forgotten just how powerful and fast sled dogs can be. I held on tight to the sled's handlebar as my team rocketed around a sharp curve in the trail. I took the curve too fast and my sled bounced off an exposed tree root. I had to jump off the foot boards of the sled's runners and run on the trail to maintain my balance and keep from tipping my sled. During this awkward maneuver I made sure to keep my grip on the handlebar. The three rules of dog sledding are: never let go, never let go and never let go.
I recently had the opportunity to go on an overnight dogsledding trip with several guides from Nature's Kennel in McMillan. Ed and Tasha Stielstra run Nature's Kennel. Both have won the U.P. 200 sled dog race and Ed has taken dog teams to the Iditarod - so they know a thing or two about the sport.
My trip was nowhere near as grueling or as difficult as a race. It was more like a moderately-paced tour of northern Luce County. But someone forgot to tell my dogs that. Prior to getting on the trail, I hooked all five of my dogs to the gangline with the help of the guides. I'm pretty sure my team would have taken off without me had the sled not been secured in place. The dogs were ready to run and let me know it by jumping up and down and barking constantly and loudly.
Once we got on the trail they wanted to race, which unfortunately for them was not on the itinerary. Whenever we got close to another musher and their dog team, I had to put on the drag brake to slow them down.
Every time I did this, Ladybird, one of my lead dogs, looked back at me bewildered, as if saying, "What are you doing? Let's pass!" Ladybird has run in the Iditarod and U.P. 200 so she knows far more about dog sledding than I do.
They're extremely smart animals and very well trained. In fact, the only thing the dogs needed me for was to slow them down when we approached another team or stop them when approaching a road crossing.
The other dogs on my team included Uke, who was more excited than anyone to get going but was all business once on the trail; Sprout, the calm, affectionate Zen master of my team; Maggie, who recently had puppies; and Garbage, who was more interested in what Maggie was doing than keeping his eyes on the trail.
The day started out with beginning mushing lessons from the guides and a test run on the three mile "puppy loop." Following a hearty lunch, we were back on the trail for a 20 mile journey through the hardwood and conifer forests of Luce County. We then arrived at the kennel's winter camp which has a spacious, heated tent kept warm through the night. After feeding ourselves and our dogs we sat around a blazing campfire, drank hot chocolate and coffee and discussed the finer points of dog sledding with our guides.
After passing the night in the tent we had breakfast, fed the dogs and prepared for the 20 mile trip back to Nature's Kennel.
You haven't really seen the Upper Peninsula in winter until you've seen it from the back of a dog sled - it's difficult to experience the quiet, serene stillness of the gray, green and white landscape from a snowmobile, or appreciate the enormity of the wilderness surrounding us from a car on the highway.
It was a rare chance to see the land I live in the same way people 100 years ago may have. Even though these days people rely more on machines than they do animals, places like Nature's Kennel demonstrate how well those old partnerships worked.
Christopher Diem can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.