Archive for Monday, February 12, 2007

A dogged pursuit

Debi Taylor answers call of wild to mush

February 12, 2007


Debi Taylor didn't have mushing in her veins, and she never really longed to jump on the back of a dog sled.

In fact, she characterizes her dabbling with dog-sledding as a fluke.

"I don't even," she says with a laugh, "like the cold."

Regardless, Taylor is hooked. She made her first dog-sledding venture north in 2002 and has been back twice since. Since her trip this season was all but ruined by a broken leg, she's even considering another trip next month.

For each of her three trips, the destination was Wintermoon Summersun, a 300-acre retreat lodge 50 miles north of Duluth, Minn., close to the Canadian border.

Run by avid outdoorswoman Kathleen Anderson, Wintermoon Summersun is a remote, rustic lodge that features dog-sledding in the winter and kayaking in the summer.

And, to hear Taylor tell it, it's just about the nicest place on earth.

"As soon as I get on her place, it just feels so relaxing," said Taylor, a 49-year-old Lawrence resident. "There's something about it that's just so whole and so real."

First time out

A soap maker who sells her wares at the Lawrence Farmers Market, Taylor first considered a dog-sledding vacation when the subject was broached by some of her customers.

"It was kind of a fluke," Taylor said.

That fluke turned into a tradition.

Twice since, Taylor has returned, always for a long weekend over the New Year's holiday.

While the Wintermoon Summersun accommodations might seem Spartan, they're plenty for Taylor and her crew.

The getaway has limited solar power and is heated by wood.

"You don't have any lights, or anything like that," Taylor said. "There's a primitive cabin we stay in. There are a couple of other cabins she built the dog-handlers stay in, and there's a very nice sauna. There's no running water, so that's the only form of bathing. : She runs about 38 dogs, which is a huge handful."

For each of her three trips, Taylor has gone with seven different women.

But New Year's Eve has been a constant.

"The reason I like to go for that is, (Anderson) pulls a big trunk out filled with prom dresses, and everybody dresses in prom dresses for New Year's Eve," Taylor said. "We set fireworks off or go ice bowling, which is a hoot."


Debi Taylor talks about her experiences dog-sledding in Minnesota in this audio slideshow. Enlarge video

'It's exhilarating'

The main attraction - the dog sledding - makes the New Year's festivities pale in comparison.

First, visitors are given lessons in dog handling, from how to feed the dogs to how to harness them. Mushers learn the lingo - "Gee" for turn right, "Haw" for turn left and "Hike hike" for go - and they're off.

Usually the two-person sleds have four or six dogs and head out for a couple of hours.

"One person rides on the way out, and one's on the back of the sled," Taylor said. "Once you head out, it's a really crazy silence. It's so quiet, just the snow and the sound of the dogs' feet on the snow and the blades of the sled. Other than telling the dogs to make slight turns on the pathway, there's no sound. You encourage the dogs along, but it's just you with the snow and the sky and the trees."

Perhaps you noticed the three-word vernacular didn't include a command for "stop." That caught Lyn Walther, a member of this year's trip, by surprise.

"I guess I didn't really pay attention before, but there are no reins," said Walther, co-owner of Lawrence's Strawberry Hill Christmas Tree Farm. "So there's no physical way of stopping the dogs except for two brakes. They go by voice command, but they don't know 'whoa' or 'stop.' That's when you learn to use the brakes."

Like Taylor, Walther headed north with few preconceived notions about what to expect.

She returned a fan.

"It's exhilarating," Walther said. "It's almost a high."

Easy to do

Mushing, Taylor said, doesn't require uberfitness.

"You don't have to be a super, super athlete," she said. "You do have to be able to hike a little bit. There are some times you're running behind the sled as the dogs are pulling it. They are very strong, but as you go uphill, you have to go off the back of the sled and run so it's not so much strain on the dogs."

Walther offers herself as an example of the sport's accessibility.

"I'll be 75 in a couple of weeks," she said, "and I didn't have any problems."

She did, however, get a little sore.

Mushers are instructed never to let go of the sled, lest the eager dogs run off with a pilot-less sled, and Walther heeded the advice.

"You come back and you're exhilarated, but your muscles are tired because you're so intense," she said. "One thing they keep saying is, 'Do not let go, no matter what happens.' So you've got that in your mind. I just held on. I held on a lot tighter than I normally would have."

Bad break

Taylor talks about seeing northern lights and hearing wolves howling nearby.

She does not, however, dwell on the temperature, which can flirt with the negative range.

"Everybody says, 'I don't like the cold,' but it's so much not about the cold," she said. "You just dress appropriately. You're prepared for it. You're not running from the house to the car. You really dress for it."

Nothing, however, could prepare Taylor for the lone mishap she had in all her trips north.

On the first dog-sled run of her visit last month, Taylor was trying to turn her dogs around for the return to the lodge.

"The dogs were excited, and they didn't want to come back," she said. "A couple of us were out front. They got excited and decided to knock me down and snapped my leg. : But that was a freak accident."

The bad break hasn't dampened her enthusiasm, however, and Taylor is even considering a makeup trip next month.

"The fact I broke my leg : I have such a great story," she said. "I did it dog-sledding, instead of on Mass Street slipping on the ice. Generally when you say you've been dog sledding, people say, 'That's so cool.'"


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