The dogs and I headed out yesterday for what I intended to be a routine 35 mile run/camp out. I had planned to run 17 1/2 miles over to a neighboring sled dog cabin owned by Jim Warren, let the dogs rest for an hour or two, and then head back. It had been six years since I had run the trails that lead to Jim's cabin, however, and last summer, a huge fire, known as the Duck Lake Fire, wiped out much of the wildlife on the trails between the cabin I stay at on M-407 and Jim's, transforming the landscape into something almost totally unrecognizable to me.
A good musher is a prepared musher, and I have learned to always pack in case of an emergency. Before any long run, my sled bag always has the following in it: sleeping bag, camp pillow, fire starter, waterproof matches, emergency blanket, axe, bolt cutters, compass, map of the area, water, one meal/snack, one cup per dog of dry kibble plus chopped meat blocks and dog bowls for the dogs. I also never leave without my cell phone (even though I very rarely get reception anywhere up here), and GPS. I also always travel with a multi-tool, two snow hooks (anchors that stop the sled), a snub line (a rope to secure the sled to a tree or other stationary object), extra booties and necklines/tuglines for the dogs and my sled, just in case.
As I headed out yesterday, I was packed for an emergency, but have never actually considered I would ever be in an emergency. I had a hand-drawn map a friend had given me the day before to help guide me to Jim's cabin, and the first ten miles of the route is a system of trails the dogs and I are quite familiar with and have traveled all fall and winter. It all seemed very simple. Right?
I turned left onto M-414 and headed toward M-435. All was going as planned. But somehow, I missed a very subtle turn off about 12 miles into our run. I ended up on M-423 toward the Rainbow Lodge, a main site of decimation from the Duck Lake Fire last summer.
This is not where I needed or intended to be.
It is exceedingly easy to become disoriented in the labyrinth of trails along the Lake Superior shores. This particular day, it was even more so. The wind was blowing fiercely from the northwest off of Lake Superior in 25-35 mile per hour gusts. The temperature was about 10 degrees, and with the wind, it was below 0. And it was snowing heavily - so heavily, that my tracks were all but covered by drifting snow shortly after passing through an area of trail, and at times I couldn't see for the snow.
I found myself in the middle of the area that had been burned in the Duck Lake fire, on M-423, a dirt-based, seasonal road that was a solid sheet of ice. The juxtaposition of the ice next to the barren landscape that had been charred only six months prior was eerie; I felt like I had entered an entirely different country.
I had turned off on several trails and roads, and realized I had completely disorientated my sense of direction. The wind was blowing across the barren and desolate landscape in a way I had never experienced. It was already 3:30 p.m. I had to consider my options. If I continued on, I would undoubtedly become more lost. I decided the best thing would be to turn around. Most lead dogs are excellent and following a scent trail, especially when it leads back the way they came, and my leaders are no exception.
The only problem was, I was on a solid sheet of ice, in a barren land. There was nothing to either hook a snow hook into or tie a snub line to in order to turn the team around.
I came to an area beside a large pile of stacked lumber. This provided a little break from the wind and I stopped the team and searched for something to hook to briefly. I took my big over mitts off, threw my snow hook in between two giant logs in the wood pile, said a quick prayer, and headed up to the front of my team toward my leaders.
Just then, Big Brown and Yeti, my two lead dogs, saw me and, on their own, turned the team around and headed toward me! Quickly, I ran back toward my sled so the force of their turn wouldn't snap my hook, but before I could get back on the runners, the hook popped and the team started back down the road of ice. I hooked my left arm into the handlebar of the sled, catching it just in time, and rode on my knees down the ice for a few seconds before righting myself on the runners.
So we were headed back, but without my favorite Outdoor Research over mitten - the left one. I had dropped it on the quick about face my leaders managed. My cheeks burned in the blowing snow and wind, and my left hand, which was now exposed, burned as well.
As we headed back, my trail already covered by blowing snow, I thought to myself about why it is I live for this.
This is fun to me. This is what gets my blood pumping: to be outside in the elements, far, far away from "civilization" and "society," in solitude where anything can happen and to be self-reliant. I am thankful for what my dogs have taught me, for even in the blowing snow and bone-chilling wind, they never faltered; they simply leaned into their harnesses, put their heads down and trudged on. They do not wonder why, even as their faces are covered with an icy mask of snow.
I celebrate the ability to deal with adversity and patience necessary to think fast here. I have a healthy respect for this landscape. It is harsh and
indifferent, and so remote, there is a real threat of becoming lost
Perhaps I am a thrill seeker.
Here is one of my main leaders, Big Brown, who is neither big nor brown, enjoying some much deserved rest in the cabin after a hard day's run!
Here is a video clip of the wind and my team trudging along M-423.