Bitter Cold, but Sweet: Sled Dog Racing on the Gunflint Trail


Ice and snow covered the Gunflint Trail. Our car’s thermometer read an outdoor temperature of -25 degrees Fahrenheit. The snow screeched, crunched and moaned all at the same time under our car tires.

After having moved to New Jersey for graduate school, I was back in Minnesota for a visit over my winter break to see my husband. As we drove, I wondered why I still considered Minnesota home. How can any human endure this bitter cold year after year? Friends in New Jersey had asked me what the bitter cold felt like, and I told them that cold is just cold — the temperature below a certain point doesn’t make a difference. But I was wrong. So wrong. Twenty-five degrees below zero hurts.

My husband and I had not reached our destination on Gunflint Lake and the sun was rapidly departing. Worries engulfed my imagination: terrible scenarios of us in the ditch — alone in the dark — as the temperature drops, degree, by degree, eventually reaching the forecasted low of -40. Just as the winter sun shared the last of the day’s rays with northern Minnesota, we arrived safely at our rental cabin. The Canadian hills on the other side of the lake turned a rusty red, then blue, as the sun disappeared to bless to southern hemisphere with summer.

We came to the Gunflint Trail to watch the Gichigami Express Sled Dog race, a 180-mile, three-day race that winds through thick woods and over frozen lakes. The mushers and sled team stop only at night to eat and rest.

We walked from our cabin to the Gunflint Lodge, where there was a dinner banquet for the mushers and race spectators. On the walk, each toe and finger became numb in seconds. The air hurt my lungs. The pain was the same as ice-cold water traveling too fast down my throat.

Inside the Gunflint Lodge, my toes regained circulation. I was able to bend my fingers again. The interior of the lodge was typical of the Northwoods –gemütlich, agreeably comfortable, complete with a glowing fire, pine interior and long wooden tables meant for merry-making during long, cold winters. The mushers still wore their mushing gear, which gave them slightly bear-like appearances. Their faces were red and chapped from the first day’s run– 60 miles in -25 degrees.

During the banquet, Bruce Kerfoot, owner of Gunflint Lodge, spoke of his childhood on the Trail. The sled dogs he knew in his childhood were thick and furry Siberian Huskies and Malamutes, unlike today’s lean Alaskan Huskies that are bred for speed. Sled dogs of the past hauled supplies and people to the most remote places of northern Minnesota. During long journeys, they slept outside, using the fluff of their tails for warmth. Their barks warded off bears and wolves at night, protecting the musher.

We walked back to our cabin after the banquet. There are few sounds in such extreme cold, day or night — even the birds don’t chirp. The most common sound is the occasional branch that crashes to the ground, so frozen, it snapped under the slightest weight of extra snow. It is as if the Northwoods were dipped in liquid nitrogen.

Shortly before sunrise, hundreds of howls woke me up. Sled dogs howl with excitement about the prospect of a sled run. Mushers and trainers wake their dogs up early, because it takes time to harness a sled dog team and the race vet needs to make sure each dog is healthy and able to run.

The race started at nine. It was deceptively sunny and our car thermometer read -30 degrees. The sled dogs didn’t care. They jumped and wiggled in their harnesses, itching to run through the woods, enjoying the cold Minnesota winter for what it is — cold and beautiful. The dogs are so excited to run, at least one other person must hold the sled until the musher is ready, because the dogs would otherwise start running.

As the last musher and sled team departed, I realized how even the harshest of winters bring joy and beauty that no other season can. Minnesota, cold as it is, will forever be my home.

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