My 3-year-old Great Pyrenees doesn't aspire to be a sled dog. He
doesn't aspire to be a guard dog, either. Cadmus is a true
aristocrat: Work has been bred out of him. His lone aspiration
is to be a rug in my bedroom closet, a 140-pound rug.
I thought of Cadmus a lot this winter while mushing through the
waist-deep snows in northern Minnesota. The six huskies hooked
to my toboggan sled loved to pull as much as Cadmus loves to
sleep. Bounding eagerly ahead, nostrils quivering, they towed
500-pound loads up steep slopes and down steeper ones.
I was in the North Woods as one of five students attending the
dogsledding school run by Voyageur Outward Bound of Minneapolis
(800-321-4453). From mid-December until late March, Voyageur
offers mushing expeditions of four to 21 days. Each course is
diabolically designed to foster resourcefulness and group
problem-solving. When you're not being hauled through frozen
timberland, you're cross-country skiing or camping on snow-clad
My journey begins in The Boundary Waters, a wilderness reserve,
about 20 miles south of the Canadian border. I swaddle myself in
polypropylene, load up a sled and push it to the dog yard, where
about 40 chained huskies harmonize in a melodious tangle of
yowls, woofs and wails.
One of the instructors, Ted Snyder, handpicks a team, harnesses
the dogs and snaps their collars to the sled's tug line. To
avoid dogfights the six huskies run side by side in pairs:
male-female, female-male, male-female. The smartest and most
obedient (the lead dogs) are at the front of the line. The
burliest and strongest (the wheel dogs) are in front of the
sled. The ones in the middle (the swing dogs) are there for
Unlike Cadmus--who must think his name is "Off the bed!"--sled
dogs respond to a variety of commands. Not one, as it turns out,
is "Mush!" Snyder explains that mush is a corruption of the
French word marchons, which means "Let's go!" Mushers mush, he
says, but "they just don't tell their dogs to. Even in Nome they
say, 'Ready, let's go!'"
If the lead dogs leave the path to chase an otter into the South
Kawishiwi River, you've got three options: Say "Whoa" in a calm
voice while stepping on the plastic brake at your feet; toss the
snow hook, a kind of dogsled parking brake; or bail.
Fortunately, your humble woodlands chronicler's team spotted no
otters, or he would now be embedded under an ice floe.
Over four days I became as attached to the dogs as they were to
the sled. On the final evening students and teachers mulled over
the loyalty of dogs, their dependency, their abject desire to be
mastered. "Huskies seem to enjoy pulling," says Snyder. "It's a
group activity. They get to travel and smell new things. Maybe
they feel a sense of accomplishment."
Cadmus has accomplished very little in his short life. But he
does interact with people. When I got back home, he even greeted
me at the door. I told him about the huskies, how they towed,
romped, napped in the snow. He listened patiently. Then he
slouched into the closet and fell asleep.
Over the four days I became as attached to the dogs as they
were to the sleds.