New Year’s resolution #132: Go dog sledding and don’t complain about the cold. That’s the brief version of how I ended up in -12° F (-24° C) temperatures, five layers between me and the frostbite, and miles from any hope of hot chocolate. I persuaded (read: conned) my American husband, Curt, and two fellow Aussies, Cassie and Simon, into taking a weekend trip to Maine to experience dogsledding. And, as I would learn later, I scheduled it for one of the coldest weekends of the winter.
We left Boston mid-morning on a January day. After managing to drive south instead of north and turning a two-hour trip into an extended after-dark drive, we arrived in Newry, Maine, where Polly, a petite, ruddy-cheeked guide with Mahoosuc Guide Service, greeted us.
Polly was a seasoned dogsledding professional who had spent 10 years living a subsistence lifestyle in the Yukon Territory. Our overnight accommodation was a rustic farmhouse with an eclectic mixture of Native American artifacts and dogsledding paraphernalia.
Morning arrived, and I got my first glimpse of our surroundings. Looking out the frosted window, I could see that we were in a basin surrounded by snow-covered mountains.
Though the sun was barely out, I could see and feel how isolated we were. Standing close to the window I could feel how cold it was, too. We enjoyed a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, bacon and homemade banana scones, straight out of the oven.
Following breakfast, Polly arrived and we suited up. And I mean really suited up. The four of us began to feel like marshmallows as we put on layer after layer. Footwear was provided in the form of large, reinforced-rubber army boots to protect us from the cold and damp (but not from falling down, which I did as soon as we set foot out the door).
Polly enlisted our assistance to help bring some of the dogs out of their kennels and load them into the truck. Polly and her guide partner, Kevin, own more than 40 dogs, and she explained that they know each one of them not only by name, but also by their bark.
We navigated the icy dog yard in our Rambo-style boots, retrieving each canine and bringing it to Polly. The dogs yelped as we retrieved them; those left behind howled when we passed them by. One particularly beautiful dog, a lively husky with a black-and-tan coat, shares Polly’s name, and was Polly’s team leader.
Yukon huskies are gentle and friendly in nature, however, like people, they don’t get along with everyone. Polly engineered the loading of the dogs into the truck to ensure they only met their best friends and not their acquaintances. She told us the dogs were thrilled since they were about to do what they were bred to do: pull.
Twenty minutes later we arrived at the frozen shore of Lake Umbagog, a 10-mile-long lake surrounded by a pine forest. As we surveyed the postcard-perfect scene, two deer ran from an island to the shoreline about a half mile from us. Twenty-four dogs, previously howling and barking with excitement, were wriggling with silent joy in anticipation of pulling us to the other side of the lake.
The stillness of the scene was broken by the roar of snowmobiles doing doughnuts on the ice. Silently, I vowed to join the Sierra Club upon my return.
Each eight-member dog team was organized according to the strength of the individual dogs and their ability to get along as a team. Then we received a crash course on how to control the dogs while maintaining their safety, as well as our own. The verbal commands included GEE! (turn left) and HAW! (turn right); none of them were “mush.”
It all seemed pretty complicated to me, so I batted my icicle-crusted eyelashes at my hubby, who agreed to take the driver’s seat for our team. I opted to burrow under the blankets in the sled and photograph our adventure. We would head to the other side of the lake and then come back, a 10-mile (16 km) trip.
Polly’s team took off first, then, before I could replace the lens cap on my camera, Curt and I shot forward into an icy lake wind … and the most amazing experience of my American life so far. As we shot across Umbagog I tried valiantly to capture the images for posterity (and for my friends and family in Australia).
Halfway across, I exchanged positions with Curt, and it was even more amazing. I felt like I was on assignment for National Geographic. The wind was nothing short of brutal, yet the exhilarating feeling of being pulled along a frozen lake by six beautiful sled dogs definitely cancelled out the lack of blood running to my hands and feet.
Upon arriving at the other side of the lake we found a camp complete with a heated tent with pine-needle floor — and a hot lunch. After reaching the makeshift camp, we unhitched the dogs from the sleds and tethered them near the hay beds that were laid out for them. I stepped from dog to dog, stroking each dog’s fur and quietly talking to it.
Most of them were very friendly and enjoyed the attention, while several shied away initially until they warmed up to me. I glanced behind me at the path we had taken across the lake and marveled at how the huskies had skimmed effortlessly across the ice while pulling two people and their equipment.
Each dog received the treat of a hard-boiled egg while we enjoyed homemade vegetable soup, toasted bagels and hot chocolate.
Kevin, the designer and builder of the dogsleds, impressed us with his knowledge of nature and of the cultures of indigenous people of North America with whom he had traveled during his 25 years as a guide. He had lots of adventure tales to tell about his travels by canoe and dog team, as well as hiking. Among his tales were canoeing through Maine and Quebec, and hiking in the Grand Canyon.
Outside, one of the dogs let out a howl and the others joined in the chorus. Somehow the dogs could sense when a meal was over and it was time to start pulling again, Kevin and Polly said. Outside, the sun had disappeared, and what was once a clear view across the lake had diminished into a mass of dense fog.
The return trip was vastly different from our maiden voyage. My earlier feeling of isolation was replaced by one of peacefulness. Snowflakes drifted down as I absorbed the scene around me. The fast-falling snow blurred the view in front of our sled, and I could barely make out the shapes of the other dog teams.
Once we reached the shore there were dogs to be loaded, sleds to be unpacked and lifted back onto the truck and equipment to be stowed. I didn’t mean to ignore any of these duties, but I wanted to pat each dog and hold onto what I had just experienced before I had to head back to reality.
Here I was, an Australian who really only knows summer, standing on a frozen lake in the northern United States, dressed in five layers of thermal clothing, surrounded by Yukon huskies in well-below-freezing conditions. It dawned on me that this is really what travel is all about. Being out of your comfort zone, learning new things, meeting new people and finding that no matter where you are the world is amazing, surprising and beautiful.
If You Go
Mahoosuc Guide Service