It begins as a sensation of perfect freedom. I'm floating in a bubble of calm, cut free from gravity, snow and branches and blue sky whirling around me. The cold, pine-scented air has gone quiet, the rumble of motion muted into sweet tranquillity. Then I hit the ground and the dogs run over my head.
Well, excitement is what I'm here for. Hoping to explore the impenetrable beauty of the Rockies in a natural, unobtrusive way, I've come to Jackson, Wyoming, to rendezvous with Continental Divide Dogsled Adventures. I've also been looking forward to cozy lodgings, good eating, and lots of canine bonding. And that's exactly what I'm getting.
What I haven't counted on, though, is the Bonus Package.
DAY ONE The first leg of the trip will cover an easy six miles skirting the Bridger-Teton National Forest, ending at Brooks Lake Lodge, a luxurious former stagecoach inn. At the trailhead, a broad snow-covered track leads through a stand of lodgepole pine. The mercury hangs just below freezing, but the sunshine feels hot, especially since I'm wearing full ski gear: thermal underwear, fleece pants. Better heatstroke than hypothermia.
My fellow sledders are a couple in their thirties from San Francisco and a Swiss family of three. We have four sleds and 40 huskies among us. That's a lot of dogs—about 20 times as many as I've ever spent time with. I'm worrying about canine overload as I shake hands with my guide and sledmate, a laconic 23-year-old named Aaron Deschu. A three-year mushing veteran, he's clear on why he likes to spend his winters on a sled. "I'm in it for the dogs," he says while he loads our luggage into a large green canvas bag set on a pair of flexible wooden skids—our ride for the next three days. Aaron and I will both stand on treads at the rear of the runners, holding on to a wooden handlebar.
Aaron shows me how to clip each dog's harness onto a central gang line that pulls the sled. Canine instinct when attached to a piece of rope is to get as tangled upas possible, so the potential for chaos is unlimited—especially when the dogs are whining, barking, and pulling at the prospect of a run. But the sled's tied down with stout rope, so no one's going anywhere until Aaron casts off the line and shouts, "All right!" With that, we jolt down the trail.
The sled's runners crunch over the snow as the dogslope noiselessly along at 12 miles an hour, a pace they can maintain for 100 miles without flagging. The best of Continental Divide's 140 dogs pull the sleds at events like the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod. The goof-offs haul tourists.
Driving is simple, in principle. There's no steering wheel or rudder. To go left, Aaron shouts "haw"; to go right, "gee." When the sled makes a turn, we lean hard to keep it from toppling—assuming that we actually turn. As often as not, the dogs ignore the command. "They can sense if I'm not watching," Aaron explains. As he's talking, one of the two lead dogs starts drifting off the trail. "Kanobe!" he shouts, and Kanobe veers straight again, looking back with eyes that say Whaat?
The team is like a bunch of schoolkids 10 minutes before the bell, and Aaron is the substitute teacher, continually coaxing and disciplining. One lead dog will start glancing off to the side, then the other will drift, and before you know it the whole team is tearing off god knows where. The only thing Aaron can do then is throw down the "snow anchor"—a metal hook on a rope that jams into the snowpack—and run forward to drag the dogs in the right direction. Once they're running well, he praises them lavishly, sometimes stopping the sled to let them lick his face.
We cruise along the groomed snow of a broad, flat access road. The sunshine is warm, and thickets of fir trees open up to reveal vistas of the Rockies. I balance on the runner as the snow slips unhurriedly beneath. "Want to try something a little more interesting?" Aaron asks.
He coaxes the team onto a side trail that curves into dense forest. Suddenly we're flying around trees and burning through narrow gaps in the branches. It's a workout just hanging on, and when the dogs go uphill, we both have to kick along with one foot to help out. Soon I'm peeling off layers.
We stop before a precipitous downhill slope. Aaron tells me to sit on top of the baggage so he can focus on controlling the sled. Bundled under the canvas cover, I'm as helpless as the baby on the Potemkin steps, unable to see over the edge of the slope. The dogs disappear, and for a moment we seem to hang in the air. Then we're whooshing downward, churning up a cloud of snow until a whiteout envelops everything.
When the snow clears, we're crossing a frozen lake beneath the walls of an orange-red butte, heading for Brooks Lake Lodge. We arrive to find the other sledders waiting in the dining room, a hall three stories high with a towering fireplace and log walls painted by 90 years of woodsmoke. Both of the other teams crashed their sleds."The dogs were rounding a corner, and next thing I knew, I was upside down in a snowbank," says John, the San Franciscan. He can't stop laughing as he tells the story.
"You got the Bonus Package," Aaron says. Later he tells me, "Most guests start out nervous about tipping over, but it winds up being their favorite part."
DAY TWO Something about the 9,000-foot altitude of Brooks Lake Lodge, or maybe the pile of blankets and comforters in my woodstove-heated cabin, or possibly the huge helpings of roast lamb and raspberry cheesecake served last night, makes getting out of bed difficult. There are eight cabins set apart from the main lodge; mine, Mountain Man, is decorated with steel traps, snowshoes, and a log-frame bed—somewhere between kitsch and cheerful appreciation of Western tradition.
I finally roll out and head to the yard, where the dogs spent the night leashed outside. It was bitterly cold, but sled dogs are bred to withstand low temperatures. During serious races, like the Iditarod, mushers run mostly at night, when it's 20 or 30 below, so their teams don't overheat.
Yesterday I managed to memorize about half the dogs' names. There's Kanobe, the headstrong leader; Curly, a big white youngster; and whip-smart Libby. My favorite is Rose, a beige female who's always the first to lie down with her head on her paw when the sled comes to a stop. Something about her slacker ethic appeals to me.
We set out after breakfast on a 22-mile southward course that winds around the shoulders of forested hills. In the distance the weathered rock spires of Pinnacle Butte emerge from behind a shroud of clouds. The only flaw is the recurrent roar of snowmobiles, their deafening robo-mosquito rr-rr-rr ripping the air as they lumber past in long lines, belching smoke. "Sled-heads," Aaron calls them.
I've begun to get a feel for riding, the way the back end of the sled slews out on turns, and have learned to help pivot it by dragging a leg in the snow. When the dogs are running fast, their sheer delight in speed infects us. Aaron takes corners harder and faster, and we whoop as we career down increasingly difficult slopes, the other sleds close behind.
"The next hill is pretty steep," Aaron tells me, but he doesn't ask me to get into the basket, so I figure I can handle it. The trail gets narrower, the descent steeper. We crouch low as the snow flies past and the sled starts to swing out toward the trees. We bounce, the sled kicks up onto one rail and twists sideways. Suddenly, I'm tumbling on the hard, icy snow, strangely calm until I realize that the team behind us is about to run me over. I curl into a ball just as a dog steps on my face. I wait for the sled to hit me, but nothing happens. I slide to a stop and open my eyes. Aaron is laughing. "That's the best I've seen all season."
Ah, yes, I think, brushing off snow and waiting for the pain to start: the Bonus Package.
DAY THREE We spend the night in a yurt, a round, wood-framed tent 30 feet across. As the temperature outdoors plummets into the low teens, a pair of woodstoves inside crackles and roars. A guide cooks up a pot of fettuccine Alfredo, and we all sit around and chat by lamplight until bedtime. Tucked into my sleeping bag on one of the yurt's four bunks, I can see the stars shining in icy brilliance through the skylight.
I wake up to a throbbing cheek and the sound of yapping dogs. The stoves have gone out, and my breath fogs the air. Outside, the dark cone of Lava Mountain looms in the southern sky, swathed in stands of fir and snow-covered meadows. The dogs are dusted with flakes, and so is Aaron, who spent the night in his sleeping bag on the "ice sofa" he carved out of a snowbank, even though there were empty bunks inside.
After two days of immersion training, Aaron says, I'm ready to steer solo. He climbs into the basket and puts his feet up as we set out on our final 10-mile leg. My first few turns are sketchy. Now that I'm straddling both runners I have to shift my weight differently, and before I know it we're heading straight for a pine tree. Aaron sticks a foot out to avert disaster, but I've already remembered that I'm supposed to hop onto the left runner and drag a boot to swerve the sled. The tree whizzes past.
As the miles glide by, my confidence builds. I learn to guide the sled with subtle shifts of my weight, to encourage the dogs with cries of "On up!" By now there's no problem getting them to run. They know the end of the road is near. They take off down a wide straightaway, rearing and plunging like dolphins. Even Rose hurls herself against the tug, slacker no more.
This, I think, is what it's all about: the speed, the teamwork, the uncanny bond of purpose between man and dog, two species united in the pure animal thrill of motion, tearing over the snow through the cold, clear Wyoming air.
Five minutes later I flip the sled. But that's another story.
Dogsledding outfitters have migrated well beyond Iditarod country. Here, six of North America's best.
Continental Divide Dogsled Adventures, Wyoming Half-day trips from $140 per person, three-day trips from $1,450. 800/531-6874; www.dogsledadventures.com
Adventure Quest, Nunavut Inuit guides lead custom trips (March-June) across Canada's eastern Arctic territory, both on the edge of the pack ice and inland, to fish for Arctic char. Stay in igloos and native huts. Nine-day trips $3,850 per person. 907/245-1452; www.adventurequestinc.com
Boundary Country Trekking, Minnesota Eighty miles of mushing through the frozen lake-country of the Minnesota Boundary Waters. Two- to four-day trips from $720 per person. 800/322-8327; www.boundarycountry.com
Denali West Lodge, Alaska At night, you'll watch the aurora borealis at the foot of Mount McKinley while the huskies harmonize with native wolves. Six- to nine-day trips from $3,450 per person. 888/607-5566; www.denaliwest.com
Kingmik Expeditions Dogsled Tours, British Columbia Traverse the Blaeberry River valley, near Golden on the western slope of the Canadian Rockies. Lunch is in an old fur-trapper's cabin. Half-day trips $180 per person. 877/919-7779
Mahoosuc Guide Service, Maine Travel through the backcountry near the New Hampshire border courtesy of Mahoosuc's photogenic huskies, who've appeared in such movies as Never Cry Wolf. Two- to five-day trips from $390 per person. 207/824-2073; www.mahoosuc.com