How Laurel Girls Learned Resilience and Purpose through Dog Sledding

Our incredible Minnesotan dog sledding adventure started off as a tiny seed planted during Middle School Ski Club. We were advisors that year, along with Mrs. Havre, Laurel Director of Primary. As we shared our thoughts with her on planning a dog sledding curriculum for some of our Pre-Primary students, the older girls overheard us and became interested in the concept of dogsledding. The Middle School students’ desire to learn more, combined with Mrs. Havre’s personal experience with Wintergreen Dog Sledding Adventures, ultimately pushed us to write our Passport Travel Program proposal…and the rest is history. One of the unique opportunities that Laurel School provides its young women is to travel locally or abroad in the Passport Travel Program. Travel exposes students authentically to new perspectives, other geographic locations and where appropriate, emphasizes the role of service in the global environment. The girls learn to interpret worlds different from their own and to become global citizens for the 21st Century. 

In the early hours of January 2, 2020, our Laurel family of ten young ladies and two Pre-Primary teachers eagerly began our trek to Ely, Minnesota to embark on a four-day journey of dog sledding in the nation’s sled dog capitol where we would cultivate resilience, perseverance, confidence, and teamwork for a common goal: living Laurel’s motto of Dream. Dare. Do.

Dog Sledding 101 and Musher’s (those who drive dog sleds) training began upon arrival at our lodge. We met one of our guides as well as one of Wintergreen’s most beloved Canadian Inuit sled “doggers” named Alice. Within the first few minutes, we learned how to properly fit dog harnesses and layer our outdoor gear for optimal comfort. We were taught the role of each dog, the mushing commands, and how our group of twelve strong women, six sleds, twenty-six dogs, and three professional guides on cross country skis would work together as one team to dog sled through the wilds of Northern Minnesota. 

Our guides Amy Freeman, Kai Ashland and Berit Schurke were nothing short of extraordinary. They exemplified leadership qualities that inspired our students far beyond the evergreens that towered above. They brought dynamic skill sets that exceeded our expectations and showed our team of Laurel girls how grit, grace, and hard work can make dreams come true. These fearless leaders spent hours teaching us how to be Wintergreen mushers and proper outdoors-women. To have Amy, a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, Kai, a teacher and Outward Bound guide, and Berit, a Wintergreen family member and current Harvard graduate student in environmental landscaping, as our guides, was quite literally the definition of a “dream team.” Nothing can replace the invaluable lessons taught by these advocates and mentors. 

Laurel School Dog Sledding

Over the next few days, we learned that the art of dog sledding is multifaceted. One might imagine that after stepping on the sled and saying “mush” you would be whisked away into the densely snow-covered forest or be gliding over a frozen Minnesotan lake. This is a misconception that we quickly learned and accepted with open arms. The first aspect that we mastered was the tone of our voices when we said commands such as, “Ready, hike!”, which meant let’s go, and “Woah” when needing to stop. It was important to have a strong and confident tone, as these dogs thrive on the task at hand. The next two commands, “Gee” and “Haw” were critical when arriving at a trailhead. When the trails split to the left and the right, we needed to make a quick judgement call and communicate efficiently in order to stay on track with the lead sled.

Each team of two Laurel mushers was equipped with a sled attached to four smart, hardworking dogs. Each dog was strategically placed on the team for a specific skill set: direction following, strength, or partnership. Likewise, we had to decide which mushing role we were going to fill. One musher needed to be responsible for the speed of the sled using the foot break on the back of the sled, and the other musher was responsible for jumping off the sled to tend to the dogs while on the trail. They were called the “dog handler.”

As we apprehensively stepped onto the sleds for the first time, we reviewed the mushers commands and the technical sledding skills our exceptional guides had taught us. Some of the dogs sporadically lurched forward rattling the chain “tug line” and “neck line” that attached the harnesses to the sled. The dog’s howls amplified into the open air adding a sense of urgency and additional commotion. We waited patiently with both feet squarely on our brake and our hands on a slip knot tethered to an anchor pole for the sign from our guides to release the knot and start off down the trail following the team in front of us. Within minutes our nerves faded and our excitement grew to exhiliation. Months of careful coordination had led each of us to this moment and we were ready for the epic adventure ahead. 

With roughly nine miles of mushing under our belt that day, we arrived back at the temporary dog yard near our lodge just as the sun was setting. Nightfall took hold quickly. With only two headlamps as our source of light, the girls skillfully got to work moving the dogs from the sleds and attaching them to the dog run, taking their harnesses off and placing them in a designated spot as well as feeding the dogs, tipping the sleds over and chipping off ice from the runners. We enjoyed a family style dinner, games, and abundant storytelling that evening. We went to bed eager for the sun to rise, in anticipation for the adventure that awaited us on day two of dog sledding. 

The dogs anticipated our arrival that next morning and howled their greetings. We completed our kennel chores (feeding, cleaning and harnessing) with more confidence and finesse than the first day. As we hooked the teams up to the sleds and headed out after breakfast, we knew our day was going to be filled with even more learning, adventure and entertainment.

Our self assurance grew with each passing mile. We cruised through the forest, ducking under fallen trees and zipping around sharp corners. We rode the brake on the down hills and pushed our sleds up hills while praising the team in front of us. About halfway through our day’s adventure, the guides picked a perfect spot to have our trailside lunch. Nestled among gorgeous evergreen trees, we tied our sleds to tree trunks just off the trail. The dogs immediately curled up to rest while the lunch supplies were unpacked and the guides set up a makeshift kitchen in the waist deep snow. One of the guides took us on a hike and taught us about different Minnesotan flora and fauna. Keeping with the “Leave No Trace” philosophy, we were taught how to gather small pieces of firewood while mindfully protecting the forest from human destruction. We enjoyed a hearty lunch that left us refueled and ready to hit the trail for the second half of our day.

The sledding conditions were more than ideal for the rest of the afternoon into early evening as we guided the dogs through Kiwishawe Pines, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources protected Scientific and Natural Area. We hoped to catch a glimpse of native Minnostan wildlife. Ely is a haven for moose, deer, wolves and bald eagles, but we were forewarned that the sounds of the dog sleds send wildlife scurrying in the opposite direction. We were thrilled to see evidence of wolf tracks crossing over our trail, disappearing into the cover of the dense evergreen forest surrounding us. We rode by immense boulders left behind by the last glacial period. The guides gave a mini lesson about how the boulders ended up in the Kiwishawe Pines Forest. We climbed some steep hills and dipped back down to lake level where more evidence of wildlife emerged, this time a massive beaver dam. The guides explained how the area had been dramatically changed into a bog since the beavers moved in. 

We continued on for a while and then popped out of the forest onto White Iron Lake. We adjusted our sled speed on the thick ice covered trail, while observing the residences dotting the shores. Each structure a reminder that our amazing adventure was nearing the end, but not before our new skills were tested one last time. As we glided off the frozen lake, onto a narrow trail snaking through a vast pine forest, there were many tight turns, some steep slopes, and a road to cross. These conditions required superior communication between mushers as well as communication to their team of dogs. Many of us needed to hop off and physically pick up sleds so they could make it around the trees. The final stretch was challenging, but we persevered.

As the group moved through the final ascent into Wintergreen’s dog yard, we took in the sight of 75 dogs nestled in their places, howling at our successful arrival “home.” We competently maneuvered around one another with ease as we unhooked our dogs from the sleds and delivered each one to their doghouse. We skillfully removed the harnesses and hung them up in the designated stations. Finally, we cleaned out our sleds and sadly wished our doggers well on their future adventures. The final task of the evening was “dog appreciation.” The girls were challenged to pull a sled from the dog yard to a shed next to the main house. One last time, these strong girls worked as a team to get the job done. Each girl, without hesitation grabbed hold and successfully transported the sled. All of our hard work was then rewarded by relaxing in a wood fired sauna followed by a “challenge by choice” Wintergreen Dogsled Adventure polar plunge in White Iron Lake. After a hearty dinner back in our lodge, the mushers were asked to write a letter of reflection on their experience. The letters were sealed in self-addressed envelopes and will be sent to each girl in the future for continued reflection, a celebration of their accomplishments, and hopefully an appreciation for the uniqueness of this Laurel Passport opportunity. 

The final day was bittersweet. We were tired and eager to head home, but it was hard to leave nonetheless. Our guides presented us with Wintergreen Dog Sled diplomas during a short graduation ceremony. We moved out of our cozy lodge just as quickly as we had settled in. It was truly astonishing how the lodge had become our home away from home, a space that fostered reflection, self-care and togetherness. It was where we became a dog sledding family and where we created dog sledding memories that will last a lifetime. Our team of mushers arrived back in Cleveland, brimming with confidence that had been cultivated when a dream turns into a reality. As we said to each other before leaving Minnesota, our new musher’s motto is DREAM. DARE. DO…DONE!