Dog Sledding the Boundary Waters

By James Riemermann

Dog sledding on the Gunflint Trail
Dog sledding on the Gunflint Trail near Grand Marais / Photo by Layne Kennedy

Minnesota’s million-plus-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, obviously, is best known for wilderness canoeing—many would say the best in the world—but winter transforms this magnificent landscape into a forested cathedral of ice, snow and silence, offering a wilderness adventure like no other.

Dog sled trips come in a wide variety, from simple rides of a few hours or less, to fully outfitted multiday trips with overnights either camping (including top-notch equipment and experienced guides to keep you comfortable and well-fed) or in lodges on the edge of the wilderness with hearty, first-class dining. Many offer options for both mushing the dogs yourself as well as riding in the sled.

These Dogs Love Their Work

A team of sled dogs taking a break from their work
Two teams of sled dogs take a break near Ely

The Canadian Inuit dogs mentioned earlier are popular for such trips, but many other breeds known for strength, endurance and love of cold weather do just fine as sled dogs, and are used by many outfitters. From the moment you meet the dogs, it’s clear how much they love their work. If there weren’t brakes on the sled all would be lost, and when any sled dogs are left behind, they howl with envy.

Much of a musher’s work is holding the dogs back, although if the sled is heavily loaded with camping gear, you may have to occasionally help out on hills. (This is unlikely on lodge-based trips, however, where the sled is empty.)

While a large majority of Minnesota’s dog sled outfitters serve the Boundary Waters, out of Ely and on the Gunflint Trail to the east, there are also outfitters along the North Shore of Lake Superior and other locations 

A special case is Wilderness Inquiry out of Minneapolis, which offers challenging wilderness trips accessible to people with a wide variety of disabilities, along with anyone else who wants to participate. Nowadays they offer trips to wilderness areas around the world, but they started in the Boundary Waters and still offer trips there, including winter trips by ski, snowshoe and dog sled.

How the Story Started

Dog sledding in the Ely area
Dog sledding in the Ely area

It’s no surprise that renowned polar explorers Will Steger and Paul Schurke live and work close to the Boundary Waters. In fact, Paul and his wife Susan own and operate Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, perhaps the best known of Minnesota’s many dog sled trip outfitters.

Paul Schurke’s love of dog sledding grew from the co-founding of Wilderness Inquiry with his college classmate, Greg Lais, who continues as executive director.

“Our first program, a Boundary Waters canoe trip, went so well, we thought, ‘Could we do this year-round?’ Given the sign at the entry to Ely, ’Dog Sled Capital of the World,’ we thought, ‘That’s it.’ I connected with Will Steger in his Pickets Lake homestead with a sod roof out in the woods, we became fast friends, and in the winter of ’79 we did our first Wilderness Inquiry dog sled program. It’s been dogs and winter for me ever since.”

That meeting also led to Schurke and Steger’s co-leadership of their historic 1986 North Pole expedition on ski and dog sled, the first such trek to be made without resupply.

Schurke is a great storyteller with many tales to share, which is part of the appeal of Wintergreen’s treks. He personally guides the advanced dog sled and ski camping trips, and makes a point of at least one lunchtime storytelling session with nearly every group coming through.

Are there advantages of exploring the Boundary Waters in the winter, compared with a canoe trip? No question, says Schurke: “There’s no battling bugs, no heavy rain, no slogging down muddy portages. The Boundary Waters is the most beloved and popular wilderness area in the world. A quarter million people visit every year. But in the winter, it’s just a few thousand.

“And in the winter, the wildlife is much more apparent. The foliage is down, there are long vistas into the woods to catch a glimpse of wolves, fox or moose. You can often see tracks in the snow, fresh and new every day. Dog sledding is also easier for people who are more fitness-challenged, because the dogs are doing most of the work.”

This year, Wintergreen is adding a weeklong “Hat Trick” vacation package, integrating several nights of cross-country and downhill skiing at an area lodge, or snowmobiling and ice fishing for non-skiers.

More to Do in Ely

Ely Winter Festival Snow Carvings
Ely Winter Festival Snow Carvings

The town of Ely absolutely hops with activity through canoe season, but there are plenty of fun activities in and around town in the winter as well. Given the excellent cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and dog sledding, many resorts and other places to stay are open year-round. A few resorts rent fish houses—comfy, heated shacks with holes pre-drilled to jig for big lake trout and more.

Wolves are particularly active in the winter, making December through March a great time to visit the International Wolf Center. The center is open Friday-Sunday, offering daytime activities and exhibits, as well as extended all-day and multiday programs requiring registration and an additional fee.

Most programs take place in the center, allowing visitors to see the four resident wolves. A few involve field trips, such as the “North Country by Dogsled” trek, which includes a night in a Mongolian-style cabin tent called a yurt, heated and with all meals and amenities provided.

The North American Bear Center is open Fridays and Saturdays in February and March, with many educational videos, photos and murals, and mounted black, brown and polar bears. The focus is on black bears, native to Minnesota, three of which are residents in the center. They generally hibernate in winter, so come back for another visit to see these gentle beasts up close feeding and interacting with one another.

The Ely Winter Festival runs Feb. 7–17, with a snow-carving contest, voyageur encampment,  snowshoe outing, art fair, plus plenty of food and music.

Whether you're dog sledding, ice fishing or fat biking, plan your next vacation around one of Minnesota's unique winter adventures.