By Tehila Werner
This article first appeared in issue #10 Winter 2006-07/5767.
Last February I went on an amazing trip, the kind of trip I never expected to take. It all started when my friend told me about a dog sledding trip she was taking in Maine. I thought it sounded exciting, so I told my mother about it. The trip had been especially arranged so that only women and girls were going and all the food would be kosher, and it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Besides me there were three other girls and one adult going. We rushed around to buy all the items on the supplies list, especially woolen clothes because wool absorbs moisture and keeps it away from your body.
The drive to Maine takes two days from our home in Baltimore. The first night we spent in the Catskills at a vacation home of a friend. We enjoyed a nighttime walk in the snow covered woods, and woke up early the next morning to go sledding. It was Tu B’Shvat, and we had a special meal of dried fruits that we brought along for that purpose.
We finally got to the Maine farmhouse, part of the dog sledding guide facilities, at 7:30 pm. Our guides introduced themselves as Kevin and Sue. We reviewed the route on the map. Then they distributed parkas, boots, sleeping bags, and other camping supplies. We packed our bags that night and tried to get some sleep. It was hard to sleep because I was so excited.
In the morning we went to meet our guide dogs, twelve in all. One sled would have four people in it, so it needed seven dogs to pull it, and the other sled needed five dogs, since the second sled only had two people and luggage in it. They were Yukon Huskies, a kind of Eskimo breed. They are big, long- legged, very intelligent, and extremely devoted. The dogs were very friendly and well behaved; since I like dogs, I was looking forward to spending more time with them. The sleds were made of ash wood by our guides, which is light enough for two people to pick it up. Our guides learned how to travel in the north-woods and tundra from the Cree and Inuit people. We would be learning to travel in the same way.
Two guides loaded the dogs into the trailer. We drove twelve miles into New Hampshire, where we would be sledding. We drove onto a frozen lake, loaded the supplies onto the sleds, and had a high energy snack. We hitched the dogs to the sleds, and Kevin showed us how to stop and start. To stop, you tell the dogs Whoa, tighten up before starting, gee to go right, haw to go left, and mush to tell them to go. Kevin and I stood on the back of the sled, and two other girls sat in the basket in the front where the supplies went. Another girl and her mother were on the second sled, and Sue followed behind us all on a bobsled with more supplies, including our specially ordered kosher food and the kosher pots we brought with us from home!
When the sledding began, I almost fell off! With seven dogs suddenly pulling at once, there was a sudden jolt. I wasn’t expecting them to pull that hard! We went over some big bumps, and bounced two feet in the air. Every so often, we stopped to let the dogs rest and eat snow which they lapped up like water. We switched places so everyone would have a chance to stand on the back of the sled.
Our lead dog’s name was Ossian. Kevin was training a dog named Aidan to be a new lead dog, so he hitched Aidan to the sled in front of Ossian. When Kevin said gee or haw and Aidan went the wrong way, Ossian would turn the sled the right way, and that’s how the new leader was trained! Each new leader is trained by the old leader, so Kevin only had to train the very first dog by himself.
After an hour and a half, we mushed into base camp, unhitched the dogs, and had lunch on the ice. At base camp were two white canvas tents. Both had fir boughs on the floor to make it softer and warmer to sleep. Both tents had lamps and fire places. The bathroom was a two minute walk into the woods.
We spent the afternoon setting up camp and playing with the dogs, and then put down straw for the dogs to sleep on. Each of us had two sleeping bags both with hoods. We set them up on top of mats with the thin one inside the thick one. To get water, we chiseled out a hole in the ice about a foot and a half deep. We filled our pots up with water from the lake, carried it back to camp, and Sue boiled it to kill all the germs. All that before we could use it for drinking!
At dinner time, Kevin read poems and stories about traveling with the Inuit and Cree, the Native American people who lived in the area for thousands of years. Our chaperone zipped each of us into our sleeping bags and turned out the kerosene lamp. It was toasty warm because of the fire. But later in the night it was very cold, even inside the sleeping bags, and I had to put a scarf over my mouth and nose so I would be warm enough to sleep.
When I woke up early in the morning, I heard the sled dogs howling to the other dogs across the lake. It was beautiful, and sounded like singing. Kevin came in first thing in the morning to build a fire to warm up the tent. I helped Sue prepare breakfast for our group, blueberry pancakes and fake bacon, cooked on a small cook stove that was heated by a fire we built inside it.
After each meal, we all washed the dishes together inside the tent. There were two tubs of water. One person scrubbed the dishes with soap, then handed the dish to the another person who swished it in a tub of water, and then it was handed it to a third person then swished it in another tub of water, and passed it to one last person, who dried it. It was fun to do together, but not so fun dumping out the water outside since our hands and sleeves were wet.
After breakfast we prepared the tents for the next group of people who would come. We collected twigs and birch bark and tied it together with the birch bark on the bottom to make bundles to start the fire with. Birch bark burns very easily, so the fire is started first with the birch bark, then the twigs are added, and finally log. We took the twig and bark bundles back to camp and put them in the tents next to the fireplace. While we were collecting the birch bark, Sue pointed out some fresh wolf tracks and rabbit tracks. We also collected fresh fir boughs to put down on the floor when we left. This took the entire morning.
After lunch we helped Sue pack up knapsacks for our afternoon skiing trip. Because we carry our supplies with us, the knapsacks were three times the size of a normal backpack. Sue gave us an introduction to cross country skiing. When everyone got the hang of it, we finally started. The sun was shining and the ice was melting, so we had to be careful where we stepped. Later we came to a big hole in the ice that looked like a cave.
We arrived back at base camp close to dinner time. We changed from our clunky boots into soft slippers with waterproof covers to warm our feet. This would be our last night. The next morning after breakfast, we packed and hitched the dogs up.
I’m really glad I had the opportunity to go on such a unique and challenging adventure. I learned a lot and had a great time!