Anyone who believes that only humans possess a sense of humor has never mushed sled dogs.
The six huskies of my team pull strongly across the flats. When the trail leads uphill, however, the hounds resemble highway workers in a construction zone. They stop, sniff around and halt traffic.
I give a push and shout "hike" (only TV Mounties say "mush"). The team begrudgingly lurches a few feet forward, then stops again. I push and shout. The dogs lurch, stop and sniff. Eventually, we reach the top.
That's when the canine comedians launch their favorite gag.
With nary a pause, they take off, charging downhill like Mario Andretti at the Indy 500. I hang on, gripping the handlebar, ducking branches, stomping the snow brake and screaming, "WHOA, GOSH DARN IT, WHOA." The tail-wagging jokesters sprint even faster.
"They're only trying to keep out of the way of sleds piloted by novice mushers," says our expedition leader, Arleigh Jorgenson.
Maybe he's right. We four, Donna, Sarah, Larry and I, are beginners on the first day of a week-long dog-sledding trip. Our route will take us on an exploration of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, an array of interlocking lakes along the Canadian border of northern Minnesota. A summer paddler's paradise, its snow-blanketed waters provide excellent mushing in the frozen winter.
After meeting Arleigh and his assistant, Susan, we spend our initial day getting acquainted with the animals.
"These are Alaskan huskies," Arleigh says, "an unregistered line crossbred for pulling. At only 45-50 pounds, they're small, but in a team, they can tow several times their collective weight."
We tour nearby lakes and trails, learning to make corners and getting used to running a team. Our day ends at Little Ollie, a lake-side log cabin, where we shower, sauna and dine on Cornish game hens. All expeditions should be so rough.
In the morning under somber skies, we stuff clothes and overnight gear into the sleds' canvas-covered cargo holds. Heading northeast, we first follow a string of roads and snowmobile tracks. Then at Daniels Lake, we enter the wilderness where mechanized transport is banned.
The Boundary Waters were the eighteenth-century domain of the voyageurs, French-Canadians who ferried men and goods between fur-trading outposts. Using water as a highway, they connected neighboring lakes with short trails called "portages." We follow one of their links to Rose Lake on the international border.
For miles, we traverse its frozen, snow-covered surface. Only the whooshing wind, panting dogs and zing of sled runners break the remote silence. This environment seems little changed since fur-trapping times. Gray sky, white snow and shadowy trees accentuate the historical illusion. They give the landscape the look of a timeworn black-and-white print. We provide the only dabs of color.
Arleigh heads to a nondescript point along the edge of the lake where we follow a portage through deep snow. Another lake follows, then another portage. The pattern continues to the Croft Yurts where we spend the night.
Used in Mongolia, yurts are roomy, cupcake-shaped structures made of fabric stretched over circular, latticework frames. A pair stand near the trail. Six bunks fill one. The other contains a cook stove and table where a caretaker prepares a Mongolian firepot dinner.
In an oriental brass vessel, charcoal warms a basin of broth. We add meats and vegetables, let it steep, then scoop the mixture onto a bed of rice. Genghis Khan would be envious.
In the morning, we load sleeping bags and camping gear. Our next two nights will be spent deep in wilderness. Heading farther from civilization, we cross frozen lakes and negotiate short portage routes.
Whenever we stop for breaks, the dogs lay down and rest until they detect departure preparations. Then, antsy to get going, they tug on their lines and encourage us with hurry-up barks, yelps, yips and howls. When they start moving, the cacophony stops.
"Some think dog sledding is cruel," says Arleigh, "but look at them. They're bred to pull and that's what they relish doing. If one cares for the animals, it's as humane as horseback riding."
We stop to camp in a sheltered cove on a nondescript lake. Donna, Larry and I help erect the insulated, Arctic Oven tent. A small stove fits inside, its chimney poking through a roof-top orifice. Burning twigs will provide enough heat to make the interior shirt-sleeve cozy.
Arleigh sculpts a kitchen area along the lakeshore, and places Coleman stoves on benches cut in the snow. Sarah and Susan prepare a dinner of steaks, vegetables and mashed potatoes, which we devour beside a blazing campfire.
The next day dawns with only a wisp of cloud marring an enamel-blue sky. It's a lazy morning, and we linger in camp until the crack of noon.
Today's route takes us across Brule Lake, largest of the trip. Over a mile wide and several miles long, it feels as if we're sledding forever across an icecap surrounded by forest. Pulled by the primitive power of dogs, the rat-race world seems but a hazy memory.
That night brings an unblemished sky covered with stars, their faint glow reflecting on the snow. A thin crescent moon hovers over the horizon, and Venus hangs like a beacon in the western sky.
"This is why I'm here," says Susan, warming by the campfire. "Days like this in the wilderness. A few years ago, my sister and I took a trip with Arleigh. I felt so at peace, I left an executive position to work here."
We pack up camp in the morning and reload the sleds with gear. Today, we head back to Little Ollie Cabin, following a more northerly route across a string of narrow lakes.
A mid-afternoon portage pathway takes us over a long hill. Arleigh blazes the trail, and Sarah follows uneventfully behind. Then comes Larry. I allow him to get well ahead before starting up the slope.
As usual, my team creeps uphill, sprints over the crest, then charges down. The route drops gradually at first, then steepens, cutting along a densely forested hillside. With the increasing angle, the dogs pull even harder. We hurtle downward like a roller coaster on an slippery track.
Ahead, I see a sharp, right-angle turn coming. I yell "WHOA" and put my weight on the brake bar. The dogs, of course, gleefully accelerate.
To make the blind corner, I know that I will have to use everything I've learned. I squat to lower my center of gravity, shift weight to the outside runner, and carve my best turn yet.
That's when I find Larry.
When he rounded the turn, he lost control, and his sled slid off the trail. It now dangles over the edge, hanging by its gang line wrapped around a tree. Anchored by the weight, his team blocks the trail ahead.
As I scream around the corner, Larry looks up to see bolting dogs and madcap sled driver charging straight toward him. Like a Hollywood stunt man, he dives off the trail headfirst into the bottomless fluff. My team plows into Larry's, and they meld into a l2-dog entanglement.
With everyone's help, we unscramble the mess, right the sleds and get the procession ready to move. As we depart, I catch my lead dog glancing back. There's a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
"You're right," I smile. "Maybe it was sort of funny."