Our quiet morning in McMillan, Michigan immediately erupted into a chorus of frantic barks and howls as we stepped onto a yard lined with sled dogs. The energy in the air was palpable, causing my own already considerable excitement to mount. I was about to fulfill a lifelong dream, and my heart raced in anticipation as we made the rounds, meeting the dogs that were about to take us on a ten mile journey filled with adrenaline.
My fascination with the idea of dog sledding goes back to my childhood when my brothers, David and Caleb, and I would tirelessly watch the animated film Balto. Caleb and I used to pretend to run the Iditarod by lining up our substantial collection of sled dog plush toys in front of our dad’s reclining chair, which served as our sled. We devoured countless books about dog sledding and the obsession also extended to wolves. In January of 2017, the three of us and our partners, Vince and Courtney headed north to pay a visit to Courtney’s cousin, and owner of Nature’s Kennel Sled Dog Racing and Adventures, Tasha. We had a great time playing in the puppy pen and meeting many of the dogs, and my obsession with dog sledding was rekindled and stronger than ever. I knew that I wanted to return to Nature’s Kennel and go dog sledding one day, and in early March, we were finally able to make that happen.
We arrived at Nature’s Kennel in the late morning and were ushered into a cabin to sign waivers and borrow boots. Then our guides, Matti and Justin, lead us out to the yards. After a meet and greet with the dogs, Matti gave us a rundown on how to control our sleds. David, Caleb, and Courtney went with Justin, and Matti began to show me and Vince how to harness our dogs. I watched as Matti and Vince harnessed his team. The dogs were easy to get in line and soon it was my turn to get ready.
Matti introduced me to Basio, Joe Cool, Tram, Packer, and Linus and showed me how to help them into their harnesses. Where Vince’s team had been calm and collected, my dogs were frantic and ready to run. It took a little more time for me to get them lined up and I had to stay with my lead dogs to keep them from bolting around and tangling their lines. I glanced back at Vince’s team to see them calmly waiting in front of their sled. It was about that moment that I realized I was in for a wild ride. My dogs were chomping at the bit, barking and jumping in excitement. My adrenaline spiked and for a moment I began to wonder what I was getting myself into. Fortunately there wasn’t much time to dwell on it before Matti instructed us to get on our sleds. The moment we were all standing on our sleds and ready to go, the tension in the air boiled over and all of the dogs worked themselves into a frenzy. They railed against their harnesses ready to run, and all of the dogs left in the yard made their jealousy known with mournful howls.
Before I had time to think about what was about to happen, Matti pulled her brake line and her team tore off onto the trail. Tasha approached me and asked if I was ready. I nodded, and she pulled my brake line. I was on my own now, and I did not quite have my balance. The feeling of the sled moving over the snow surprised me and when we hit our first turn, I immediately fell off of the sled. I kept a tight grip on the handle, remembering our lesson in which Matti told us the dogs will keep running if you lose the sled. Sliding on my knees down the trail, and seeing no other options, I quickly pulled myself back onto the foot boards and planted a foot squarely on the drag to slow down my team. I glanced back at Vince, who had apparently encountered a similar problem, and we shared an embarrassed smile. Despite the rocky start, I now had a feel for the sled and I loved the feeling of racing over the snow. My team was eager to run as fast as they could and I spent a considerable amount of time slowing them down with the drag so they wouldn’t run straight onto Matti’s heels.
For the next ten miles, I felt the fresh air on my face as we rode around curves and down hills. The speed was exhilarating, and I could have stayed out all day.
All too soon, we were back at Nature’s kennel where I pet each of my dogs to thank them before hitching them back to their kennels. We went back to the cabin for tea and coffee, and we all shared excited stories of the morning. Everyone had an amazing time, and we all wore gleeful grins which remained plastered to our faces as we visited the puppy pen before departing for Tahquamenon Falls.
By the time we drove into Tahquamenon Falls State Park, we had all developed a big appetite so our first stop was to grab lunch at Tahquamenon Falls Brewery. Then we hit the trail. The upper falls are close enough to the trailhead that the walk there can hardly be described as a hike. David and Caleb tossed a football around as we tromped through the snow, and soon the falls were in sight. There was more ice build-up than there had been last January, and we could see ice plating the cliff behind the moving curtain of water.
The upper falls are stunning any time of year, and visiting them was a great way to round out our exciting day before retreating to our hotel to relax in the hot tub and sauna.
The next morning we slept late before loading up our cars and heading even further north. All weekend long, people had been telling to make sure we stopped under the Mackinac Bridge to see the blue ice on way home, but we had one more stop to make first. We planned to hike along the shoreline at Whitefish Point before turning south. The main attraction at Whitefish Point is a shipwreck museum that is closed durning the winter, but our main interest was in seeing Lake Superior which is, in my opinion, the greatest of the Great Lakes (although it’s a close race). Superior was in the mood to impress that morning, and we all looked over her icy shore in awe at the natural sculpture that sprawled before us.
Blue ice piled up, crunching against gentle snowy hills at the shoreline, and Canada was visible across the lake. When my brothers and I are together, it doesn’t take much for us to revert to a childlike spirit of adventure, and this fantastic setting pushed us into our own little world. Out on the ice we weren’t a group of siblings in Michigan, we were Antarctic explorers conquering new ground and putting up first ascents. We began scrambling up snowy volcanoes and shouting “FIRST TO SUMMIT!” at the top of our lungs. Off in the distance to the east, we could see a massive pile of blue ice looming on the horizon. We immediately knew that we had to get to it and climb to the top.
We began trekking toward the mountain of ice, but we still couldn’t resist climbing every sizable snow mound along the way.
Eventually we came to a smaller, yet still impressive pile of blue ice (which Vince playfully dubbed “blice”) where Vince spotted a cave. He hopped down a short ice cliff to check it out, and the rest of us followed. Only one person at a time could fit into the cave and Vince went first, and when it was my turn I scooted along my belly into the depths of the cave. It was uncomfortable, wet, cold, and most of all beautiful. The world inside the cave was a deep turquoise blue, and the tunnel jutted off to another icicle-clad opening further away.
After everyone had taken a turn crawling into the cave, we continued our journey toward the bliceberg with no further distractions to slow us down. We reached the base of the huge pile, and began our ascent, carefully picking our way up the slippery slope. When we reached the top, we celebrated by posing next to the pine limb that some previous explorers had planted in the ice, then we gazed out at the glassy expanse of Lake Superior. One of the guys threw a chunk of ice at the lake and when it made contact with the black surface, it rolled and a strange noise reverberated around us for the better part of a minute. Then we noticed that the lake was producing a high pitched humming noise that we theorized must be the echoes of ice moving in the distance. The sounds were strange and beautiful, but in an eerie way that gave me goosebumps.
After listening in awe for awhile, we picked our way back over the bliceberg, stopping to admire some gorgeously detailed ice, until we were once again on snow pack.
Once we were back on solid ground, we headed to the car and drove to St. Ignace for lunch. Our weekend was coming to a close, but we had had a great time full of adventures that will be treasured memories for me.