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Dog Sledding the Boundary Waters

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Dog sledding on the Gunflint Trail / Layne Kennedy

Dog Sledding the Boundary Waters

By James Riemermann

Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is best known as a bucket list destination for summer canoe trips. But winter transforms this magnificent landscape into a forested cathedral of ice, snow and silence, offering another adventure like no other—dog sledding.

There are many ways to experience dog sledding in the Boundary Waters, with options for both mushing the dogs yourself as well as riding in the sled. From simple rides of a few hours or less, to multi-day trips complete with camping or staying in lodges at the edge of the wilderness, there's no need to go to Alaska to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Close up of a sled dog's face

Happy sled dog in Ely

Happy Dogs

Canadian Inuit dogs are popular for dog sledding, 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. 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.

Two teams of dog sledders near Ely, Minnesota

Ely is Minnesota's dog sledding hub

Minnesota's Dog Sledding Pedigree

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.

"It’s been dogs and winter for me ever since.” - Paul Schurke, polar explorer & dog sledding guide

“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.

Bald eagle in tree in the Boundary Waters

A bald eagle in the Boundary Waters / Steve Piragis

Winter Beauty in the Boundary Waters

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.”

Look for special trips from Wintergreen, including a parent (or grandparent) and child trip, and a five-night photo adventure with accomplished local photographer Layne Kennedy.

Team of sled dogs in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon

John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon / Thomas Spence

John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon

If you'd prefer to watch the pros do the sledding, plan a trip around the annual John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. The longest dog sled race this side of Canada, the marathon starts in Duluth and travels 293 miles up the North Shore of Lake Superior to Grand Portage. There are also shorter 40- and 120-mile races, a juniors race, plus other festivities leading up to the main event.

More than 60 world-class mushers are set to compete, with cash prizes and a chance to qualify for the famous Iditarod on the line.

James Riemermann

James Riemermann is a retired writer and editor. Raised in St. Paul, he's a city boy who feels more at home in the woods. Sitting by a campfire on the shore of a quiet north woods lake is his idea of paradise.