Wide eyed and full of anticipation, our guests will arrive at Nature’s Kennel following the long snowy drive down backroads of Luce County, Michigan. Pulling into our parking lot, they are typically greeted by a guide finishing up their morning chores and sent inside the main house for a cup of coffee or hot chocolate. Small talk and boot fitting fill the living room before spilling out into the yard for a dog sledding orientation, and the adventure starts to gear up.
There are a lot of first timers that come from here or there with the dream to experience the power and devotion of a team of sled dogs. Many return from a past journey that kindled a passion for the trail, but each and every one shares a curiosity for the ancient mode of transportation that has inspired countless narratives, a full blown sport, and a culture that is rooted deep in the Northern expanses of ice and snow.
There is an interesting dichotomy present in many outdoor pursuits, between a simplicity in the action of walking through the woods, or in this instance, getting pulled behind a group of excited dogs on a sled, and a complexity in the minutia of managing the logistics behind the experience itself. The guiding profession builds a bridge to soften the cost of entry for individuals seeking to feed an adventurous spirit, and participate in a world unknown.
While we discuss the sled, and give a peek into the activity in which they will soon embark, our new friends have many questions that are often answered with the vague “it’s easier to experience, that to explain,” and we reassure that they will find that they can answer those questions themselves once they are neck deep in the action itself. The most pressing information is in describing the tools that our equipment provides, how to use them, and the basic commands or signals for communication with each other and the dogs. Beyond this information, the simplicity and clarity of mind after getting out there, is where the purpose and reason for embarking on an adventure truly resides.
Soon enough, we pull the quick release that has secured the team while harnessing up, and we are off as the noise and excitement of the kennel is quickly muffled by the snow and trees gathering behind us. Our particular operation maintains a series of trails that provide a handful of options upon departure. We have a 10 mile loop that brings us back to the kennel in 1-2 hours, a 20 mile loop that requires 2-3, and an overnight journey that brings us out onto the 20 mile loop, where the teams will come upon our camp to hole up for the night, and enjoy a more in depth dog sledding adventure before returning the following day.
95% of the trails we run are on State owned land, particularly used for the logging industry. It has been years since the plots we ride on have been cleared, and most would never know unless made aware of the fact. Passing through Pine stands, Aspen groves, and open meadows, the only indication of time or direction is the sun’s movement across the sky, and to the rider, they could be anywhere, faithfully following myself and the dogs into a vast wilderness only briefly interrupted by seasonal roads and snowmobile trails.
Those who have chosen to embark on an overnight will eventually find themselves cruising passed our encampment into the adjacent row of pickets that secure the dogs while we spend a night out. Evening is quickly upon us as the teams are unhooked, sleds are packed up, and the dogs are given a soft nest of straw to bed in.
Our shelter is a big canvas wall tent with a wood stove installed. The tent opens to a covered porch and kitchen to stage our dinner and breakfast for the next morning . Dinner is a backcountry classic with vegetables, potatoes, and meat wrapped in two layers of foil, and prepared back at home base before we left. They are cooked on an iron rack laid over our campfire, and enjoyed around the same fire sitting on a bale of straw. While dinner is cooking, the dog’s evening meal is prepared with frozen blocks of raw beef, kibble, and boiling water, poured together and mixed into a warm beef stew. Each dog is ladled three cups of the mix while the smell of our foil packets begins to drift our way.
After dinner is through, and maybe a s’more or two has been prepared, the tired begins to creep in as we talk gently around the campfire about our lives and what brought us here. The tent goes dark and begins to quiet, and the guides stoke the wood stove one last time before turning in.
The stove requires two or three stoking’s throughout the night, and we typically split this chore between us, taking turns to keep the tent warm. Sleep is usually heavy and full of strange dreams between trips to the outhouse and throwing wood on the fire, with the following day beginning at 6AM to prepare the dogs morning meal, a thermos of coffee, and rekindle the campfire from the night before. The occasional howl will inspire a trip to visit the dogs for a greeting of wagging tails and morning stretches. The howls get more excited once we turn the corner with their sled full of stew close behind, and they are all soon satisfied. Well, some of them would probably eat the bowl too if it wasn’t so darned hard to chew!
Our human breakfast was a new experience for me, and it’s one that come’s highly recommended. A ziplock bag, again prepared before our departure the previous day, that has been filled with a variety of vegetables, mushrooms, bacon bits, cheese, and a couple of raw eggs, then thrown into a pot of boiling water to cook one of the best omelettes you will ever have! Or at least it feels that way in the moment.
Eventually dishes are washed, camp is put away, and the dogs are being hooked up to run the second and last leg of the journey. The sleds pull out, and we are back on the trail for 20 miles as we swing around the loop back to the main kennel.
We park the sleds upon returning home, and everyone is tired, but full hearted from the journey. Some might go straight inside to warm icy fingers and toes, while some will stay in the yard to help unhook and bring the dogs back to their home to savor their last moments with them.
As everything comes to a close, belongings are gathered, information is exchanged, and there is an outpouring of gratitude and wonder for all that they’ve seen. The hesitation to leave is eventually trumped by obligation, and our trail companions roll away to process and attempt to describe for friends and family, the moments that have come, but will never be gone from their minds.