Dogsled Adventure: Some History
When the Inuit (which is what “Eskimos” call themselves) people crossed the frozen Bering Sea from Siberia to Alaska, they brought with them an utterly amazing technology which allowed them to successfully colonize the northern coastal fringes of North America and western Greenland. Where other people had barely clung to life, the Inuits thrived. The technology that gave them the edge they needed to survive and thrive was the dog sled and the dogs that pulled them. Using dogs, Inuit hunters and their families could travel many miles over ice and snow with all that they needed to live well in a harsh environment, find food, and even protect themselves from marauding polar bears.
If you are looking for an easy, safe, fun, winter Active Outdoors adventure, and a way to escape from all the pressures created by today’s technology, dogsledding may be just the way to go. Traveling by dogsled, I’ve found, is like taking a trip back in time.
In late January 2011, my sweetheart Marilyn and I were cross-country skiing from Little Lyford Pond Camps to Gorman Chairback Camp in the AMC’s Maine Lodge program. A visit to these Maine wilderness lodges is pretty much an annual event for us, something we look forward to every winter.
Sharing the camps with us on this trek were three guides, four clients and six dog teams from Mahoosuc Guide Service. Master Guides Polly Mahoney and Kevin Slater were leading four clients, who each got to drive their own teams. They were visiting all four of the lodges in the AMC winter program: Medawisla, West Branch Pond Camps, Little Lyford Lodge and Cabins and Gorman Chairback Lodge and Cabins in five days and four nights. They also had an assistant guide, Joey Shaw, following on a snowmobile towing all their gear and supplies.
Don’t confuse a Mahoosuc adventure with a typical tourist “dogsled ride” where a musher will bundle you into a sled and haul you around like human cargo for an hour or less. Mahoosuc does offer some tourist rides from their base in Newry, Maine, but their real niche is an authentic, active, hands-on experience with the clients learning how to care for the dogs, hitch up the sleds and drive them for many miles each day. Driving a dogsled is actually a pretty darned good workout; the dogs are a handful to hitch up, the sleds require both muscle and finesse to steer and you don’t get to just ride up the hills (though the dogs will help pull you along . . .).
For anyone who loves dogs, and who wants to get actively involved with them, this would be a wonderful way to visit the remote AMC Maine Lodges. The dog teams move a lot faster than most folks on cross-country skis, which meant the guests traveling by dogsled had time to explore around the camp each day on snowshoes.
While I was talking with Polly and Kevin one evening at the dinner table (good conversation with interesting people is one of the highlights of any AMC stay), they mentioned that they did ski/dogsled trips to traditional tent camps they maintain on Umbagog Lake (pronounced umBAYgog) near Errol, New Hampshire. I immediately signed up for a long weekend adventure in late February when Marilyn was stuck in a work seminar.
The trip begins at Polly and Kevin’s Mahoosuc Lodge in Newry, Maine (near Sunday River), where 9 of us (3 guides, 6 client/adventurers) gathered to meet each other, hear Kevin’s stories of the history of dog teams in North America and Mahoosuc’s line of dogs in particular. We spent the night in a comfortable bunkhouse, ate a hearty breakfast, then went out to meet all the dogs (wonderfully eager, enthusiastic, friendly beasts!) and get them loaded into the truck.
We had 3 dog teams and sleds. Kevin always drove the lead team. The clients took turns mushing and skiing. Several had never been on cross-country skis before–this really is an ideal entry-level adventure. Mahoosuc provides excellent ski equipment with wide waxless wooden touring skis mounted with Berwin backcountry ski bindings (which can be used with super-warm Pac or “Mouse” boots). No cold feet on these trips! The trek to the camp was between 4 and 5 miles, flat, packed by snowmobiles and dog teams, and perfect for learning the basics of kick-and-glide skiing.
The 4 skiers left immediately while the others hitched up dog teams and packed sleds with food and supplies. We skiers carried light packs (one pulled a small sled) and skied through a heavy snowstorm. Still, the trip took under three hours with a stop for lunch on the trail. Even though the dog teams started much later than we did (it takes time to hook up a dog team), they beat us to camp. Dogs move fast once they are moving.
With the snowstorm, we didn’t really get to see any views until the next morning. Then, the sun came out in skies as blue as only winter skies can be and the view over the empty lake was breathtaking.
Even with no sun and no view, the ski into camp was fun and a snug camp and good food were most welcome.
We got to see more of the view on our “off” day when we skied or mushed out to a predetermined meeting point and ate lunch together before swapping conveyanaces for the trip back to camp.
Dogsled Adventure: Cozy Canvas Camp
The camp on Umbagog was very comfortable for 9 humans and 18 dogs. There’s a big “kitchen tent” where Brian (ski guide and camp cook) prepared tasty, filling meals on a two-burner propane stove and a big wood stove. This was where we all gathered in the warmth of the wood stove around a low table for meals. There was always hot water available for tea or coffee and snacks handy if you were hungry. It was a perfect place to talk and tell stories.
The 3 canvas sleeping tents could each hold 3 sleepers in comfort. These roomy tents had a woodstove near the door, a drying pole along the peak, and a thick floor of springy, soft, fragrant balsam fir boughs. It all made a very, very cozy refuge in the winter cold.
Mahoosuc provided double sleeping bags that would have kept us toasty warm to way below zero (had that been necessary it never got colder than the low 20s), and several layers of foam pads on top of the bough floors. I slept warm and very comfortably–not hard to do after an active day. We had extra space in camp because our youngest guide, Joey, and his “client” father slept out in a “Quinzee,” a snow-mound shelter someone had built on the lake.
Snow is a marvelous insulator and their body heat actually kept their shelter warmer overnight than the canvas tents after the stove had gone out. Of course, we had a woodstove, they didn’t, which gave us an advantage in the morning once the fire warmed the tents up.
The necessary “facilities” was an “out” (an outhouse minus the house), set away from camp behind a privacy screen of small balsams. It had a comfortable, padded toilet seat and a tarp overhead to keep off the snow. Entirely adequate if not exactly cozy enough to make you want to linger and read the newspaper.
Dogsled Adventure: Hands-On Adventure
Mahoosuc encourages its clients to become part of the hands-on adventure in its winter camps. Though the guides will do the bulk of the work, everyone willingly helped keep the tents supplied with firewood and fresh boughs for the floor. And everyone pitched in make sure the dogs were comfortably bedded in mounds of hay with food and water available. These dogs are clearly cherished and clearly love what they do. They were a pleasure to share a camp with.
If you aren’t an experienced winter traveler, this is an ideal introduction to winter camping. Mahoosuc provides all the outer clothing and gear you need, including super-warm footgear and multi-layer sleeping bags. The guides will start the stove for you (if you don’t want to do it yourself) so you go to bed and get up warm and dry. They provide hearty food, and do the cooking. You get a chance to enjoy good company (human and canine), enough exercise to let you really enjoy your food and a good night’s sleep, and the profound quiet and spectacular scenery of a winter wilderness without having to provide your own gear or plan your own itinerary. Great experience!
On the last day, we reluctantly packed up camp and skied or mushed out. I think everyone would gladly have stayed an extra day or three if we could have. It’s amazing how comfortable you can be in the winter wilds, how soon a lonely spot beside an empty lake can feel like “home” after a day outdoors.
Dogsled Adventure: The Call of The Wild
Though there are a few permanent camps (used mainly in the summer) along Umbagog’s shore, much of the land is a National Wildlife Refuge and a New Hampshire State Park. While there’s a snowmobile trail in the middle of the lake, we hardly saw any machines, even on a holiday weekend. We might as well have been in the wilds of northern Canada. With the only visible electric lights miles away in Upton, Maine, the stars shine incredibly brightly here, and the silence of a windless winter evening is profound.It’s something that absolutely everyone should experience.
One night as we ate dinner, something (moose? coyotes? a restless Native spirit?) set the dogs howling. For a moment, we were living in the world that Jack London wrote about in The Call of the Wild, far from cell phones, computers and TVs and, I believe, much closer to reality.