My introduction into wilderness Adventure travel.
I’ll be 54 years old this April and I’ve been a avid outdoors-man for the last 49 years. From those early memorable days fishing with my Dad and Grandfather to growing up in Detroit and camping out with friends in our backyards and waking up really early just to bike through the upscale neighborhoods of the Grosse Pointe to where Lake St. Clair enters the Detroit river and fish for ever we could catch. Then my two older brothers took me to the next level, canoeing and camping on the Rifle river along with some fishing and they also introduced me to small-game hunting, Bow Hunting and Rifle hunting. When I turned 18 both my brothers took me to an even higher level, First it was my brother Ronnie, a childhood friend Jeff Tuttle and our friend Jimmie Figures all 8 or 9 years older than me. They took me on my first real adventure to Isle Royale as a graduation present from high-school. It was 9 days of rain, blistered feet, Butt cramps that I still think I should’ve gone to the hospital and stories we still talk about to this day. It wasn’t soon after a lucky break on my part, my brother Johnnie called me and asked if I wanted to go Mountain climbing in Colorado for a week and I jumped at the chance, another trip we still talk about. Right there and then back in the early 80’s I knew I caught the bug…I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life…I knew the Great Outdoors was going to be my driving force. Now many years later I’ve done more in my short life than most men ever do…I have been very lucky. Fishing and camping all over North America, Central America, a premiere guide for 8 years and now checking off trips off my bucket list at a dramatic rate. So I guess the real reason for this introduction is to show how having the right people at the right time can influence a person in a positive way. I am very blessed to have family and friends that showed me this way of living…I know it changed this old Detroit boy forever!
One of the greatest experience’s of my life
Dog sledding in the Boundary Waters for 5 nights and 6 days. When I first planned this trip last year and contacted Peter McClleland from White Wilderness. I thought like I usually do, I’m going to make this an epic trip because I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again, I’m a big believer in going large or go home, It’ll be another check off my bucket-list right…WRONG! After that first day I knew I’d be back, it affected me in a way I never thought was possible. There is something about driving a dog sled team across the ice and snow, over the portages and through the wilderness to places where no one has been the entire season.
On this trip It was Jim McKeon and I along with our great guides Paige and Lance. Jim sent me this trip report a few months back and after reading it again I thought it was great! My segment will be about my and Paige’s great day of breaking trail.
The Epic day of Breaking Trail
First of all Paige and I hit it off. I think he knew I wasn’t just going to let them coddle us, Jim and I were in it for all it was worth. On Tuesday night Paige said he was going to break trail all the way to Thomas lake about 35 miles round trip. He then looked at me and he knew I wasn’t going to let him take that epic day trip all by himself and as soon as he mentioned it I adamantly said I’m going, he smiled with this smirk on his face and said we’ll break trail in the morning. It was a glorious morning, no wind, cold temperatures with great dry snow. Jim and Lance decided to stay at camp and fish and take care of camp chores. We packed up with plenty of food, water and emergency provisions and we were off. Little did we know this would be one of the greatest days of both of our lives.
The snow was so dry we were flying across the lakes and my favorite the portages, I loved it the trees whipping across my face and trees and boulders flying by the team and sled. The snow was so deep sometimes 3 to 4 feet we would have to help the dogs up hills by running along side of the sled, but I came up with my own technique of running between the runners behind the sled just before the brake and pushing the sled up hill with pure force…it was awesome. On one of the portages we were flying and when I knew the lake was coming up I would let the dogs go full tilt and when we reached the lake there was a short hill no more than 5 feet tall and when the team hit that hill the leaped off of it like Santa’s reindeer’s and by the time my sled hit it, I was airborne on the other side, I fell to my knees all the while the team was running full speed I jumped up on the runners and looked over at Paige who was waiting for me and he yelled out are you alright and I shouted in a joyous resounding YESSS! I could see the look on his face like this guy is not holding back. Through the dozen or so portages and lakes that day we just had a blast, I had over 50 video’s just of that day. We saw dozen’s and dozens of wolf tracks along with moose and otter slides. On this day alone there were 4 different occasions where I could’ve been injured. But it was all worth it. We made it back just in time for a fire and dinner and that’s when I told Paige of all the things I’ve done, deep sea fishing for marlin, wahoo, barracuda and many other species, Snorkeling, fishing, zip-lining in Belize for 3 weeks, mountain climbing and guiding for 8 years this was the one greatest day of my life…so far.
I received a email from Paige a few weeks ago and this is what he wrote:
“Hey hey hey!!! Thank you so much Ramsey! That day breaking trail to Thomas one one of the more epic I’ve had here. I’m so glad we could share the experience of that day and the whole trip. I’m already excited for next year! Sick video, by the way. All that filming paid off!
Here is a great GOPRO video of our trip its only 5 minutes long but its a must see.
Now after reading this entire newsletter and watching this Video if you think you have what it takes to really get out of your element and have a truly spiritual trip. Well I’m planning another trip next February here are the details:
Next year Dog-Sled trip
Okay here’s the itinerary and the cost of the February 2017 Dog-sledding trip. Everyone is welcome but we already have a few people who have committed. Emily Dowgiallo-Anderson, Jeffrey Paul Tuttle, Jeff Tuttle. We would leave early on February 17th, show up in Ely the evening of the 17th. Have a full day in Ely on the 18th to get last minute equipment and supplies and head into the woods on the 19th and come out the 24th. So that would be 6 days 5 nights. the next day the 25th we would drive directly home. White wilderness supplies all equipment ecept your own 20 degree bag that you insert into their winter bags and clothing. They do rent winter clothing at a great price $60.00 for the entire trip. everyone will get their own dog team. The price is $1,729.25 the regular price is $2062.50. This price includes the 2 nights at a the Grand Ely Lodge before the trip and the night we come out, along with a great meal the night before with the guides at a top notch restaurant where we will talk over our itinerary, and breakfast the morning we head in. Once we come out we have dinner with the guides and the owner of white wilderness Peter McClelland where we tell stories all night long and the breakfast the morning we leave is also on White Wilderness. The perfect amount of people is 5, if we can get more people to come they’ll have to go the next week I’ll also be in that group. This is a bucket-list trip and I can guarantee you if you’re into the outdoors this will give you a lifetime full of memories that you will never forget. Personally I know it affected me like I never thought it would.
Dog Sledding Feb – March 2016 Ely, MN
By Jim McKeon
Harnessing the dogs:
The dog harness is pretty simple. It’s balanced around the dog’s shoulders and lies out across the back creating a tug line at the tail and collar line near the head. It maximizes the pulling effort of the dog. After putting the harness on; the dog is taken to the sled and attached to the gang line. Lead dogs are attached first to keep the line tight. As the harnessing begins and the dogs are being attached the excitement grows with dogs yipping and howling, jumping and straining. For the dog this is a moment of pure joy, for the musher it is a really good physical exercise.
Our teams were generally 6 dogs: 2 lead dogs, 2 wheel dogs (at the sled) and 2 middle dogs. The lead dogs are strong, but more important can stay alert when they are tired. While all the dogs pull nearly the same the wheel dogs carry a greater load.
The guides had 8 dog teams. While we only had a single sled, one of the guides ran a freight train – a super-sized sled plus a 2nd sled.
How to handle your team and what to be prepared for
“Ready …. Alright”
Is the go command. On the flat surface of a frozen lake a 300lb sled and 6 dogs is pretty easy to control, slight turns made by shifting the mushers weight left or right. ‘HA’ is supposed to take you left; ‘GE’ takes you right and “Everbody Now” provides extra effort up a hill, in deep snow or (usually) both.
The best experience is an established track and the dogs turn left or right as the sled in front of them does. Across a frozen lake teams of less experienced mushers cut a lot of corners, and if one of your lead dogs is named LOLA, all corners are cut.
A single dog has the brain power of a robin. A team of 6 dogs does not have the cumulative brain power of 6 robins, dog brain power is not additive, it degrades at a geometric rate with each yipping, leaping dog.
- On level trail when the path ahead has a tree in the middle of it and the path leads to the right the probability of both lead dogs going right is not certain, the musher needs to lean the sled, standing on the left ski while applying the brake to negotiate the turn.
- On an uphill path this is more difficult as the musher may have to run next to the sled to help the dogs and the side of the path may be in deep snow. In this situation a musher can lose balance and be dragged, forced to do a chin up to get back on the sled skis. On a long hill this can happen a number of times.
- The downhill path is the most difficult as the team gains speed; and generally the musher is pretty tired from a series of chin ups on the ascent. Simultaneously the dog team gets excited – the hard work is over – and now it’s a race to the bottom – forgetting that they are tied together. In order to win the race, lead dogs will always look for the steepest route down.
Unfortunately there is no path with a single tree to negotiate. All mounds of snow hide a fallen tree, boulder, stump or – near a wet bottom – beaver dam. Once an obstacle is negotiated, another appears. The double dodge is pretty simple, but more than 6 in a row is tough as the dog brain is provided multiple opportunities to screw up. Surprisingly even an inexperienced musher can anticipate the hazards pretty quickly, and dodging them provides one of the great satisfactions of dog-sledding. Eventually, however the lead dogs will split and go on both sides of the (name your favorite) Tree, Boulder, Stump.
When this happened we had top notch guides who helped us get the sled back on the path and dogs calmed down.
There is also no path that is simply uphill or downhill. There are many double dodges and a full array of grades. Rarely do uphill or downhill paths exceed a 75 degree slope. They are generally 35 – 50 degrees. If this sounds ridiculously steep then it should. When the downhill exceeded 75 Degrees we belayed the teams down the hill. Belaying uses a rope to slow the decent to a controllable speed. Often tug lines on the dog harness are undone which reduces dog power.
The brake is an effective control mechanism. Even on the uphill. The gang line is a string. The dogs turn the corner of the tree before the sled, at that point your sled will ram into the tree. By braking just a little the sled will remain straight for a nanosecond – enough for the bumper to clear the tree – then by releasing the brake you simply bounce off the tree, rather than run into it. In this manner the low hanging branch you did not see is the only thing that will hit you.
Brake whenever you cannot see at least 2 turns in front of you. Brake just as you crest a hill – it is the beginning of the downhill dog race, there will always be at least 1 double dodge on the downhill, it will appear steeper than the uphill (even when you go back on the same path). Braking gives you control.
Brake whenever you jump a beaver dam – generally thinner ice on the other side.
The Ramsey rule
If your name is Ramsey the brake is optional. Why use the brake when you can wrestle a 300 lb. sled and 6 dogs all day? The downside being pulled biceps and stomach muscles – nothing that Vitamin I can’t fix.
Ramsey developed the following formulas to know when to let go of the sled:
- Downhill Letting go point = rate of increase in speed due to steeper downhill x (number of boulders + trees ahead) greater than 100
- Uphill Letting go point = when injury is certain.
The uphill formula is less complex because gravity will work in your favor.
Due to low hanging branches suggest wearing ski googles to protect your eyes.
Warming up the team
The brake is used each morning to slow the dogs and let them ‘warm up’. The idea is to prevent a dog from having a pulled muscle, tendon, etc. As the dogs have just been fed breakfast, a morning defecation is in order. No sled team would ever think of stopping and taking care of business as a unit. It is an individual affair employing the following 3 styles:
- Squirt it out like a horse in a parade.
- Hop like a kangaroo while being dragged by your collar
- (For the bigger wheel dogs): just stop, sit, read the paper. The whole sled stops with you.
This was real work. The snow could average 3’ deep but be drifted and be more than 4’. It was easy to lose your footing. One morning we inadvertently crossed a running creek with thin ice resulting in Ramsey having 2 very wet feet and Jim nearly having a boot sucked off by the icy muck. Fortunately we had a hot tent with a stove (not where we slept). A little fire in that stove would warm the tent quickly and just as quickly make the tent a sauna. It was always welcomed and very helpful in drying wet gear.
When a long distance of trail needed to opened Paige would don snowshoes, and cut the trail for the dogs to follow. Once, when Ramsey and Paige opened a ½ mile of trail, Paige hooked his team and sled to Ramsey’s; snow-shoed the ½ mile and then whistled for his team to follow. Ramsey drove the double team to Paige.
The nightly howl:
One of the pleasures of camping is the endless activity that 28 dogs provide. Their tie-ups are long enough to sniff their neighbor – but not long enough for a dogfight. Some mornings 6 dogs in a row might be spinning on their lines – excited – happy, ready for a new day.
After their evening meal, as the sun sets 1 dog (any dog) would start to howl, a chorus would start – 4 dogs – 8 dogs – 15 dogs – 24 dogs – then 27 dogs and 1 puppy. A calamity of noise – barks, howls and a tiny little yip. Then Serge (the beast lead dog) would growl and it would stop.
When you have over 100 dogs and you want to keep track of their heritage while treating each dog individually litter themes are needed. At birth – each litter is given a theme – TV shows; Movies; Constellations etc. My team had some siblings as follows:
Lola Movie – Blazing Saddles
Raj TV Show – Big Bang Theory
Coho Fish – Salmon
Leonard Big Bang Theory
Camping on Ice
This is simple but it’s worth a review: the water in the lake turns to ice when it gets cold, the snow falling on the lake can become: water, ice, slush or snow depending on the temperature, amount of sunlight and amount of ice already on the lake. Subsequent snow can cover that surface resulting in what looks like a frozen lake but having the following layers: snow, slush, ice, water. The ice being 18 – 24 inches thick. Surprisingly you can have a frozen lake with snow on top and have slush as a middle layer. The slush can be very wet.
We were lucky, weather conditions changed as we arrived and we did not have slush.
However all it takes is your body heat to melt the snow layer and begin melting the ice. Our tents were dried and moved each day to get rid of the ice water developed from body heat and ice accumulation from condensation of our breath. Even though every night was well below 0 Fahrenheit we found that sleeping with the tent doors open was best as our heat dissipated more. With closed doors – in the morning you could be wet with a layer of ice on top of you from breath and a pool forming under you from body heat. Early on our guides told us that in if we wanted to be comfortable during the 6 days we would be outside then: eat when you get hungry, drink when you get thirsty and keep your bedding dry. Very good advice.
Camp food was far better than expected. Each day began with your choice of Starbuck’s or Coffee from a French press. Either made a great starter. Because of the expected calorie burn during the day – breakfast was loaded with butter. As was dinner. A favorite was hot chocolate with a spoonful of butter – rich and creamy when hot – and cooled to become a rich and tasty ice cream. Fresh fish was great. Actually frozen fish provided a north woods currency – we ran across another dogsled group and traded 1 frozen fish for 4 donuts. The meals prepared by White Wilderness (our outfitter) were tasty with plenty to eat.
Lots of firewood is a key to great campsites. Paige would look for standing dead trees with bark and saw them into 5’ logs, tie them to his sled and return to camp; his skill with a saw and ax resulted in nearly a cord of split kindling within 2 hours. Birch Bark was the preferred fire starter.
The clear night skies
Our night sky was clear, the horizon low and once the fire was out no artificial light resulting in a surreal view. We could easily see planets, falling stars, satellites and jet planes. The only thing we could hear –strangely – was very distant jet engines. No wolves or other natural night sounds. And the stars. The number you could see increased steadily for the 1st hour you watched; after that you were probably asleep. We had double sleeping bags – so if you were dry – you could form a warm cocoon and get a very deep sleep.
What was that noise?
The water in the lake will continue to freeze as temperatures fall. Water expands 9% when frozen. Due to the weight of top ice and snow, as the lake continues to freeze it cannot easily expand. Pressure builds and eventually the lake expands with a lurch, crack and POW from the ice right beneath you. A cold night can create a nearly continues expansion of the ice with all kinds of noise – near and far as well in a shift of the ice you are laying on. Very cool.
Lance Drilled fishing holes. Always to the legal limit – never more. As you fished you need to spoon out the ice – the hole could re-freeze over – to a full inch — in just a few minutes. Landing a fish was tricky – you brought the head to the center of the hole and then a lucky bastard would reach in with their hands and pull it out by the gills. We landed eaters. Getting the head of a trophy size Laker through the hole would have been tough. The fish almost froze instantly.
Wolves be out there
A husky paw print is 3+ inch; a wolf 4 ½ + inch. It was eerie the day we dogsledded from camp to a waterfall cave and then saw on the fresh snow that a pack of wolves had crossed our path.
Before ending our outfitter – White Wilderness and our guides Paige and Lance deserve a shout out for a job well done.
First and foremost we were impressed by the care and attention that 28 dogs received. These are working dogs – not pets – but they were very well cared for and clearly enjoyed their jobs.
As mentioned above Peter at White Wilderness provided varied, tasty and high quality – calorie meals, very welcomed on a 6 day trip.
Lance’s background included a number of years as a fire jumper and helicopter fire fighter resulting in real time practical field knowledge. Currently training for the Iditarod Lance has many insights into dogs and mushing techniques.
Paige has had an extensive experience in the woods as a trapper, guiding hunts and trips like ours. He also guides sea kayaking trips. Paige knew our ground and could spot portages and break trail very fast. His knowledge of animal behavior was very interesting – estimating the size of a beaver dam and how otters and beavers breathe under the ice.
This was a very fine trip supported by professionals with top line equipment and knowledge. Thank you.
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