I’ve met a lot of people who love winter (some who don’t) but never have I met anyone more excited about the season than a sled dog. As I drove down the snowy driveway to visit Andrea DeBoer of Amarok Kennel, I wondered what her team of dogs might be able to teach me about this magical season through their daily lifestyle.
As Andrea, second generation musher, introduced me to her dogs, one thing was clear—these Alaskan Huskies had a purpose that was also their passion. The dogs greeted us with gusto as Andrea walked me through their day.
The entire yard of dogs wakes up around 6 a.m. to enjoy a light breakfast before going back to bed for a morning nap, which sounds like the kind of winter morning routine I can get on board with. Andrea implied that the life of a sled dog can look pretty relaxed if you’re there during downtime.
By 9 a.m. it’s a different story. These off-duty pups quickly morph back into excitable sled dogs as Andrea (or her husband and three children) gears up for their routine morning run, which is typically a 30- to 40-mile-long trek through the boreal forests north of Grand Marais.
“It’s about to get a lot louder in the yard,” she warned me as we approached a large building where her sled was waiting. The dogs in the yard knew what was about to happen—their morning run. As Andrea started gearing up inside, I was greeted by two members of the team I had not yet met. It turns out that not all dogs at Amarok Kennel race. These two pups help with gear and office work. It takes a village…
After gathering her red anorak and thick beaver pelt overmits, Andrea walked me over to her sled and showed me her roster board that lists the dogs and their corresponding positions in the lineup. Her process is impressively streamlined.
As she gathered harnesses, I asked Andrea what happened upon return from their routine run. She explained that all of the dogs get a little attention from her and her family. Their paws are inspected, bellies rubbed and houses tidied up. Lunch, accompanied by a few treats, follows and the yard resumes their relaxed status for the rest of the day.
A lazy afternoon awaited the yard but not before the work. Everything was ready. Andrea and I said our goodbyes before leaving the building because it was about to get loud and I would not see her after she left for the morning run, which would last three or four hours.
Just like Andrea said, it was chaos the moment she pulled the sled outside for the dogs to see. I don’t speak sled dog but I would assume they were all howling, “Pick me! Pick me!” Andrea placed her lead dog first and worked her way back until all eight dogs were hooked up, carefully checking every detail.
The excitement grew as the dogs in the line pulled at the anchored sled while the dogs in the yard howled. Even I was giddy with anticipation by the time Andrea signaled to me that she was ready to pull her sled’s snowhook and take off.
In total, I only spent an hour with Andrea and her dogs. Fifty-nine of those minutes were filled with noisy excitement. In that final minute, as she pulled the snowhook and instructed the team to “hike,” it was as if a spell had been cast. Silence fell over the entire kennel. The dogs in the yard paused as the team pulling Andrea into the forest dropped into their zone. Sunlight peeking through the pines lit the snowy trail ahead in that sparkling winter light we romanticize in our minds. All that was left was the sound of paws on snow and Andrea’s sled gliding forward: musher, dogs, and trail.
I imagine moments like those put the rest of the season in balance. The dogs rest and eat, jump and howl, race and train. The reward is found in the work they do but it couldn’t be found without the rest and care taken every day.
As I drove away from Amarok Kennel, I thought about how grounding and energizing it must be for the dogs out there on the trail after the snooze they’d had just before gearing up and are looking forward to upon return. I suppose that all becomes business as usual after a while but I couldn’t ignore how perfectly balanced their winter days seem. If anything, that’s the lifestyle I’m always looking to strike during the winter months when it’s so easy to shrink under the cozy covers.
Next time you or I find ourselves stuck in lazy mode during a cold February day, let us remember the lifestyle of sled dogs—equal parts “well fed, well rested” and “excited to see what’s around the next pine tree.”
By Ashley Bredemus