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.