Monday, February 28, 2011

Bayfield Dogsledding, February 25 - 27, 2011

What do you do in the winter when you’re tired of shoveling snow, braving the cold, and being cooped up in the house for weeks on end, spending even more time in slower traffic and warming up your car for the dreaded commute?

You harness up some gorgeous dogs and go for a dogsled ride!

Ann and I started talking about going to Ely, MN to do an all-day dogsled trip, got curtailed by practicality and canceled the plans, then Ann sent me a text one night asking what weekend I was thinking of going again. And so began the search for a dogsled adventure for the two of us for the last weekend in February.

Ann found Wolfsong Adventures in Mushing in Bayfield, Wisconsin, and as soon as I realized it was Bayfield, I was sold. Having been to Bayfield twice, it’s a place I won’t hesitate to go if given an opportunity, and I already knew where we should stay, what restaurants to eat at, and what great side trips we could take. Kismet!

Two weeks before the trip, we went shopping for warm gear, having appropriate snowpants and down coats already. Someone incredibly sweet had given me an cute, warm, wool hat for the trip, and we went looking for wool socks and various other necessities. We were partly successful, coming back with wool socks, fleece facemasks, I got snow goggles and Ann got a knit Kermit the Frog hat with earflaps. The excitement was building as well as our wardrobes.

By 8:30 on Friday the 25th, we were headed for I-94 and north to Bayfield!

The drive was long, longer than Google Maps said, and the 7½ hour ride turned into 11, with a half-hour break for lunch and an hour break for dinner.

Somewhere outside of Stevens Point Ann said, “That rock looks just like a bear.”

I turned to look and much to my astonishment, it WAS a bear. On a hill on the other side of the highway was a young black bear walking in the snow. As I turned to look at him, he turned his head toward us and we both knew for certain at that point that it wasn’t a rock, or a sign, or any kind of lure or decoy -- we saw a young black bear! Having seen one up close in Canada a few years ago, I knew how big a bear around a year and a half old would be, and since black bears have their cubs in January or sometimes early February, I figured this little one was about a year old. It was an incredible way to start the trip!

We drove through towns like Fond Du Lac, Oshkoshs, Wausau, and Hurley, and once at the WI/MI border, I jotted over into Ironwood, MI to see Hiawatha, the giant Indian. He must not get a lot of visitors because they didn’t plow the snow on the path leading to his moccasins.

Since our library started having an annual Pow Wow, emceed by Jim DeNomie, who comes from the Bad River Chippewas, I’ve learned a lot about the culture and my fascination only grows more and more. I recognized the floral bands on Hiawatha’s wrists are a Chippewa tradition, and whenever I’m in reservation country, I must make a stop and pick up wild rice from a store, harvested by the Indians on that reservation. Legend says that the Anishanaabe were instructed by The Great Spirit to go west from the East Coast until the found the food that grows on water, and when they reached the Great Lakes and found wild rice, they settled in the area and it became both a staple food and a symbol of their destiny.

Somehow I got turned around in Hurley or Ironwood and didn’t end up back on Hwy. 2, though I swear I followed the signs. I blame this on confusing Wisconsin signage, which is devised in such a way as to get you to waste gas and visit more places than you intended to. Sneaky state.

So, we took 77 instead and found ourselves in Ashland anyway. This was the next planned stop so we could dine at the Deep Water Grille for dinner. After a bit of driving through town, I finally located the place, being farther north than I remembered it, and once inside, the familiar warmth and fuzziness it gives me took away all my concerns.

Soup, salad, and crabcakes, as well as some of their homemade root beer (best I've ever had!) for me and a rose petal martini for Ann. It was cozy and delicious, just the way I remembered it.

As we were leaving and heading north into the peninsula, merely 30 or so minutes from Bayfield, we both noticed something: there wasn’t much snow. Sure, there were piles on the sides of the roads from the plowing, but beyond those piles, there wasn’t much to be seen. Patchy spots were here and there, but mostly it was dead grass and brush. This concerned us a lot! How does one dogsled without snow?!

In Bayfield, we unloaded into room 24 at the Seagull Bay Motel, one of my favorite places I’ve ever stayed because the rooms have enormous picture windows that overlook Lake Superior and Madeline Island (the largest of the Apostle Islands), and they have back doors that lead to shared balconies which lead to a beautiful yard area and a trail into town.

Ann was excited, despite the fact that it was after 7 pm, and we’d been on the road for most of the last 11 hours. Here she is jumping on the bed.

And here she is showing off her forgetfulness at bringing only one of her slippers, which is just as well because her socks didn’t match either. Oh, shhh, I wasn’t supposed to tell.

We were freezing and set the heat at 75º, then fell fast asleep by 11. In the middle of the night it was so hot in the room that it woke us both up at the same time, and I had to turn the heat way down and open a window. It was -6º outside and snowing, and despite the open window, it remained warm in our room until we got up the next morning.

No grudges, though. LOOK at that sunrise view from inside the room!

And you can see down the beach to the marina from the balcony.

Still concerned about the lack of snow and the meager ¼-inch dusting we’d received overnight, we wondered if the dogsledders would call us to cancel due to poor conditions. It worried us both.

We were up, dressed, and out the door by 8, headed to the Egg Toss Cafe for breakfast where we loaded up on sustenance for the day and figured that the shops in town would be open by 9. Nope. Thus, we headed to the Red Cliff Indian Reservation to do some hunting for some wild rice and perhaps visit the gallery and gift shop. Nope. Don’t open until May. While driving, though, Ann spotted more interesting wildlife. A red fox!

I followed him, in reverse, down this remote street, until he was obliterated by pine trees lining the road, but what a cool spotting that was!

We drove back to town by 10 and found that some shops had opened, and by 11 we were completely done shopping and having terrible bouts of fatigue and sleepiness, so we stopped at a coffee shop for fuel. A bottle of Boylan cola and a gigantic chocolate chip cookie did it for me, and Ann had a cup of chai and a gigantic peanut butter, chocolate chip cookie. Slightly rejuvenated, we headed back to the motel room to gear up for our adventure.

Toe warmers, hand warmers, wool socks, silk thermals, snow pants, snow boots, tank top, turtle neck, down coat, cotton glove liners, big ski gloves, wool hat, fleece facemask, snow goggles -- my outfit. I looked like the winter version of the Unibomber, and I could hardly move. So we stripped off some layers and headed to Wolfsong.

We arrived and were greeted by the owner, John, who welcomed us and invited us inside to prep. Here, there was snow. It was very obvious we’d have no problem with the dogsledding.

Once inside, we were introduced to our guide, Jen, and so began my first slight girl-crush. After we signed releases, they rejected our lame, urban boots and gave us each a pair of mukluks to wear, which we both immediately fell in love with. Jen helped us get them on, as mine would not go up over all my layers, and we got them folded down so that they fit under my snowpants, and Ann’s were so furry that she wasn’t sure how they worked. These things were amazing! The next time I have a few hundred dollars laying around, I’m getting a pair of these boots!

Then we were advised to make sure we had snug liner gloves, which I did, but Ann had only a pair of leather gloves, and she was given some wool liner gloves instead. On top of that, we were given a pair of musher mitts, which are like oven mitts only double the size and cushion, also made of wool and leather. They were so thick, it was hard to bend your hand, but that’s not what they are for.

There were two other women, Cathy and Julia, who were from Wisconsin and Ohio, one of which had already gone out on the sleddogs this season earlier and was back for more. Also, there was a father named Eric and his son Bobby. Together, with John and Jen, we comprised the group of mushers.

We walked over to the lines where the dogs were kept and encouraged to visit with the dogs.

My love of mukluks immediately forgotten, I went down the lines and greeted and petted each dog, and I think there were something like 25 or so of them waiting for the run, and I loved them all. They were so excited, not necessarily to see us, but knowing they were going for a run. What incredible energy they bred!

Some had these amazing eyes, one brown/one blue. Swoon!

This pair had a congenital disease, either glaucoma or something similar, that caused them to go blind. They’d previously been leaders, but being blind they could no longer lead, but were excellent followers in the team still. Blind sled dogs! And gorgeous.

Some were standoffish...

Some were curious...
Or maybe it was the odd hat
 Some were stoically dignified.

And then there was Starbuck, who stole my heart. My face was almost covered in licks, and he showed no sign of tiring of being so affectionate. When Ann found her way over, he licked her as well. In fact, anyone who paid him any attention became the victim of a slobbering of their lifetime. That dog is awesome.

This was not just a ride on a sled. This was a lesson in mushing, unlike I expected.

We were given instruction on using the sled, the parts of it, what the parts did, how to slow it down, how to stop it, how to anchor it if we had to disembark, how compliant and incompliant the dogs can be, what to do if you tip your sled...

John, instructing us
And all kinds of important things we understood and would likely forget once out there and in the moment.

Ann, practicing running and jumping back on the runners
We were also warned that the trickiest spot was right at the beginning of the trail, which had a hard turn to the right, and if we managed to stay upright and in control through that, we’d be okay. I heard “dun-dun-dun” in my head and no idea that was foreshadowing.

We harnessed the dogs...

We hooked them to their lines on the sled, and we addressed who would be driving and who would be riding while on the run.

Ann with Jen's leaders, Horton and Cindy Lou

I volunteered to do both, to switch off, because I really wanted to be able to take pictures while out there, so Ann and I were the only pair not to ride for the entire 90 or so minutes of the trip. The amateurs each got a sled, while Bobby, the little boy, rode in John’s sled in the rear, and Ann rode in Jen’s sled in the lead. I followed Jen, and Julia, Cathy and Eric followed me. Quickly we were off, and holy crap, they shot off so fast I was gripping the handle of the sled for dear life.

There is a track between the runners, the runners being part of the sled on which you stand, and the track is made of the track of a snowmobile, which flaps between your feet and you step on it to slow the dogs down. There is also a brake right in front of the track which will stop the sled cold and the snow pick that will anchor the sled if you have to get off it and you don’t want the dogs running away. We practiced using each of these while standing still, but once in motion, it was hard to remember it all.

We were warned to put a foot on the track through all the turns, when going downhill, or to slow down the dogs if they were getting too close to the team in front of you. However, what I didn’t realize when they said this was that one foot (the one on the track) would be significantly lower than the other, and one leg would be responsible for holding up all your weight while doing a tiny squat. Additionally, all your weight would be concentrated on one side. And on top of that, the dogs go WAY FASTER than you think they’re going to go, so you’re holding on for dear life to the handle, or bow. I tried to remember to not lock my knees. I tried to remember to not lock my arms and squeeze the hell out of the bow. I tried to ride the track just enough to keep the pace, balance my weight on the sled by leaning in the opposite direction of the one foot I had on the runner, and cling to the handle so I didn’t fly backward.

It didn’t work.

As we rounded the infamously hard right turn, something like 10 seconds into the run, I bit it. The sled toppled to the right at the end of the turn, though I was banking hard and falling through most of the turn, and through some miracle of gravity and luck, the snow pick fell out of the holster and into the snow, anchoring the sled so that the dogs didn’t leave me in the dust. There I was, laying on my side, disoriented, panicking, embarrassed, and I got up and remembered what to do, amazingly. Jen kept shouting questions of concern, was I okay, stuff like that, and I knew that I was fine, but just shaken. I got back on the sled, foot on the brake, picked up the snow pick in the proper manner, holstered it on the sled, and then took a deep breath and was ready to try again. I wonder if my fall slowed everyone behind me down enough that they didn’t fall too, because they all stayed upright, but they’d been WAY behind me even though we’d just gotten started, so they rode their tracks hard to keep their pace at a crawl. Lesson learned.

The adrenaline from it all kept me numb from the fall, though later I would find that I had taken some damage. Unfettered, I soldiered on, and the exhilaration was so intense that I completely forgot the fall altogether.

We went over tiny wooden platforms covered in snow over creeks that looked like dangerous little pieces of ice that we traversed. We went up gigantic hills, down gigantic hills, over lakes, through the woods, across fields, and not only did I learn how to control the sled and the dogs, but I got so confident I was encouraging the dogs to go faster and keep right up with Jen, which was thrilling. Jen and I left the other teams so far behind, we could not see or hear them anymore. (Well, Jen probably could, but it felt a lot like we lost them.) Frequently we stopped and had to wait for everyone. My dogs rocked! Sam and Blackberry were in the lead, with Lightning and another dog whose name I forgot but love just as much were riding wheel. Four dogs to pull this big sled and me amazed me, and I knew we were going 15 - 20 mph in some areas, easily. Jen’s team had 7 dogs, the other amateurs had 4 dogs each, and John’s sled had 6 dogs. Jen and John had more dogs because they carried a rider and thus more weight.

At one point, Jen asked if Ann and I wanted to switch, so we did. Ann struggled getting out of the sled, but made her way over, and I gave her a quick warning to use her body weight to keep the sled balanced and use the track a lot, but not too hard because it’s really strong. Ours had screws in addition to the track, and just touching it on the ground with our toe caused the speed of the sled to drop immensely, and Sam looked back each time as if to ask what was wrong.

Riding in Jen’s sled was just as cool!

She, clearly, was a much better musher, and the ride was smoother and easier. The view from a sitting position put my head just over the dogs, and it was the perfect setup, for both pictures and enjoyment.

With Ann driving our sled, Jen and Ann again were way ahead of the rest of the pack. We stopped when we made it onto the lake, which was where Jen had to strongly instruct the dogs to follow the trail they didn’t not want to go on, and I wondered if the others would make the turn without us so close to lead them.

Julia and Cathy made the correct turn left on the trail for the shorter route (haw, not gee), but Eric’s team went right (gee, oops, not haw) and John had to help him turn his team around and get on the correct trail. And we didn’t know we’d lost anyone until we stopped on the lake and waited, but it was a while before the rest showed up, and even longer before Eric and John caught up.

Waiting, on the lake
Then Julia’s sled bit the dust as she banked and made contact with the lake. She, too, was okay, probably rattled, and didn’t react quickly. Jen kept yelling instructions to her, but she either wasn’t responding or she was taking her sweet time because Jen started getting a little impatient and telling her to hurry. Meanwhile, Eric was so enthralled with talking to his son in the sled behind him that Jen barked a few times at him to keep his hands on the handle at all times and keep his foot on the brake. He was totally flaking out and you could see she was getting a little irritated with his insolence. So, between Julia crashing and taking her sweet time fixing matters and Eric brushing off his instructions and being reckless, I think this put Ann and me in Jen’s good graces, despite my wipeout. I’m sure she wasn’t as irritated as it seemed -- just trying hard to keep everyone on track and safe -- but I felt like I was in grammar school again and the whole class was acting up while I sat in the front row smiling sympathetically at the instructor who was sighing and growling under her breath.

While riding in the sled, Jen talked to me almost the entire time, telling me about the dogs, answering my questions, and I felt so lucky to be sitting in her sled, getting all this extra information and insight.

John and Eric's teams rounding the other side of the lake.
At one point she offered to switch and let me drive her team while she rode. I was tempted, but it was intimidating enough to be driving behind her, the expert. I didn’t want her riding in my sled and feeling the amateur making mistake after mistake. AND I didn’t want to dump her out of the sled if I fell again, so I told her I was just as happy riding and taking pictures. She laughed, said they do this all the time, I shouldn’t feel like it was a risk, and they wouldn’t experiment on me if they didn’t know it was safe. Still I declined and continued riding, which was just as well because we were almost done.

Going downhill was the most fun!

As we rounded the bend and I recognized the cabin in the distance, I knew it was over and was quite sad for that. The 90 minutes flew by like it had been maybe 10 minutes. Absolutely the fastest hour and a half of my life!

Once we were anchored with our snow picks, we disembarked and they encouraged us to take pictures of each other with the sleds and the dogs, and they took pictures of us in pairs as well.

After the photo session was done, we were released, though we were also welcomed to stick around and help feed the dogs and put them back in their yards, which we all happily did.

Jen, pouring food into the bowls

We got the dogs off their lines, chained them back up, took off their harnesses, and then the food came.

This sparked excitement among the dogs like the approach of the mushers did earlier. They were baying and barking, pulling on their chains, tails high and wagging, awaiting their meal.

We all stood around chatting about the dogs as we watched them eat, marveled at the creatures and loved them just as well.

They all had distinct personalities, and in the short time we spent with them, we were starting to get to know them all, too. Horton and Cindy Lou led the team Jen drove, and they were amazing. How tiny Cindy Lou makes for a co-leader with her larger littermate, Horton, I don’t know. And we learned about the dogs from the same litter having themed names, like the Seuss group, and the teas, and the newborns from the night before, they’d discussed naming after Muppets, which was confirmed as the right choice when Ann showed up the next day with Kermit on her head.

After the meal, we took the dogs to their homes in the yard and got to socialize with them for a while again.

Green Eggs, father of the newborn pups to be named after Muppets

Even after the long afternoon, Starbuck still was the most loving and grateful dog in the bunch.

Sadly, we made our way back to the cabin at the end of the adventure, thanking everyone, even the others who mushed with us, for the best time of our lives. We peeled off our borrowed winter gear, bid everyone a good evening, and as Ann and I made our way back to the car, we both agreed that was the coolest thing we’d ever done, and the most fun we’d ever had in our lives. We weren’t even buckled in before we were talking about how soon we could return and for a longer ride.

Something interesting I realized also, as many commands as Jen gave the dogs, she never said "mush". I recognized early on that to get them going she always said, "Go, dogs, go!" When I lagged behind her and my dogs were lallygagging, I said, "Go, dogs, go!" too. And when they did, I said, "Good dogs!" just like her and found that they responded well to that. Eventually Sam stopped looking back so often and just kept on going. The lingo and the dynamics between the dogs, and between the dogs and the musher, are still surprising to me, even now, days later.

Thrilled and completely satisfied, the best $200 either of us had ever spent, we were grinning goofily and giggling uncontrollably all the way back.

I made a stop for gas on the Red Cliff Reservation and decided to ask inside if they knew where on the res I could get some wild rice. The woman looked around, found a Ziploc baggie they still had for sale, and I bought it immediately without even caring that I’d just spent $17 for a pound of wild rice until I got out the door and remembered I paid $4 for a baggie this size in Grand Portage, MN just 2 years earlier. Hmmpf.

Back in Bayfield, we visited the Wolfsong store to find that the gear we borrowed was so far out of our price range that we couldn’t even afford the mittens. I did get a thermal mug, though, and on it there are quite a few of the dogs we met and loved, so I was happy.

We returned to the motel to change back into normal clothes and head over to Maggie’s for dinner. Ann was daring and ordered a chimichanga. I asked her if she trusted a Mexican entree prepared by an old white woman in the middle of an area that probably no Mexican had ever settled. She said no, but ordered it anyway. I got a brisket sandwich. Mine was awesome; Ann ate about half of her plate and didn’t bring the rest home. I got blueberry pie for dessert and she got a sampling of odd flavored ice creams -- creme brulee (which had a burnt flavor, which sorta made sense), almond joy (which was coconutty, and she wasn’t fond of that), and lavender (which she described as being mostly flavorless but leaving an herbal sensation in her throat as an aftertaste, like she’d walked into an incense store). Again, she didn’t eat much. Too bad, because Maggie’s has some good stuff. Just not that, I guess.

We made a stop at the IGA, picked up raspberry Mike’s Hard Margaritas and headed back to the room to drink and color.

Though I’d been comfortable all day, the cold caught up with me and I could not get warm in the room. We cranked the heat and I kept on all my warm clothes, but still I felt slightly frozen. My face was a mess as well. My cheeks and nose were dried to a crisp and bright red, either from the cold or the wind, not unlike they do when I go cycling in the cold, so I had to get into a hot shower and lotion up. That’s when I discovered that my right knee had a number of smaller bruises and a baseball-sized lump on my shin was starting to darken up. I have a matching lumpy bruise on my left shin, and the only thing I can think of that would do that was something during my sledding fall. I don’t even remember how I fell, what parts of the sled I crashed into or landed on me, but clearly I’d taken some damage. These enormous bruises came through the mukluks, the wool socks, the snow pants and the thermals. I was lucky I didn’t break my legs!

It was a quiet evening, despite the margaritas, and we colored our little hearts out and then fell fast asleep before it was even considered late.

We both awoke an hour before the alarm and started getting ready to leave.

Luckly we both had leftovers from our meals out to heat up for breakfast and that saved us time and money. We took our time getting ready, packed up the car, and headed south on 13 toward Ashland.

I dropped Ann off at the church so she could attend mass and I went back to the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center.

We had returned to the part of the peninsula that didn’t have much snow, and I was extremely grateful that the land we sledded on had gotten more snow and managed to hang onto it despite the warm-up two weeks ago.
More snow on Lake Superior than on land, so much that it had to be plowed so people could ice fish properly

While waiting for Ann to finish, I drove around Ashland and took pictures of the murals which are always moving and impressive.

Heading out of Ashland, I said I wanted to stop on the Bad River Reservation to try to find more wild rice, hopefully less expensive, but we didn’t find a single place to stop other than the casino, so I kept on going. Once we got to the Hurley/Ironwood area, gas stations all over were boasting wild rice, so I ventured inside and found a pound for $5 from a small Minnesota company and bought two pounds. Cheaper than the grocery store and maybe not contributing to the Indian economy, but still, encouraging the care and harvesting of a vital local crop.

We didn’t make many stops, except for the biggest snowman I’d ever seen, in Minocqua.

Having been stuck in the car so long, when I spied an eagle on the ground on the side of the highway munching on a deer carcass, I asked if she minded if we went back for pictures and she said no. I think we were both looking for a distraction. By the time we were heading back on the other side of the highway, the eagle had switched sides and was now on the side we were driving on, luckily. I pulled over to the shoulder and took a series of pictures of this spectacular bird I so adore.



When we’d spent enough time enjoying his company, we turned our car around and decided on lunching in Stevens Point. Pizza Hut: such exotic cuisine!

We didn’t make any more stops on the way home except for gas, and we arrived at her place in Kenosha around 7 pm. We were both exhausted and out of conversation, so it was just about the perfect amount of time to be locked in a car together.

I drove home noticing that all the snow in Illinois seemed to have melted as well, and as I thought about that, it began raining. Though this was the snowiest winter in my area in recorded history, Bayfield was still waiting for winter. Their ice road to Madeline Island had been open only 14 days this year, and the ice caves on the shoreline were inaccessible due to open water, too. Ice fishermen didn’t even use their augers this winter, just hacked down the meager 4 inches of ice to get to the water and the fish. It was a winter unlike any other, tempered by the odd winds and lake behavior, creating a milder climate than their area has come to count on.

It’s an interesting era, weather-wise, and having found this passion for a winter-weather-related activity, I’m going to have to start hoping for more severe winters again. What an odd transformation this trip made in me!

1 comment:

Kate P said...

What a great trip it must have been! I loved that there was a theme for the dogs' names, too. Sorry you got all those bruises, though.