Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mush-loved pastime

Driving a dogsled team not for the faint of heart

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DAMN! I never saw the stump coming.

When I did, it was too late. The runner on my dogsled sliced off the edge of the wood poking through the fresh snow.

And it was enough. My sled flipped over, dumping me out.

My last glimpse of my Alaskan husky team was Tuk, the leader doing something I didn't think dogs did.

More on that later.

 

I spent a weekend at the Agamic River Outfitters, near Ignace, Ont., a five-hour drive east of Winnipeg on Highway 17.

The resort has been a hunting and fishing destination for decades, but last year, Agamic changed hands and the new owners are the Obergs, a family from Ely, Minn., who've spent their lives guiding hunters, hosting fishing trips and offering dogsled excursions.

Daughter Joanna is a dog-sled racer; her idea of fun is a 160-kilometre race over ice and snow. She's a pro.

John and Daryl, Joanna's dad and mom, have been married 35 years.

John drove a truck when he wasn't guiding for his dad's resort, but his dream was to own his own one day.

Enter Agamic. The family moved to Canada in May when they bought the resort. This is their first winter in Canada and the first time Agamic has offered dogsled excursions. You have your choice of a day-long trip or a half day.

I was one of their first winter guests. The couple offers housekeeping cabins -- in total some 59 beds, including one dorm-style cabin with eight bedrooms. The minimum is a couple to a cabin.

This place is a real getaway, and rates for accommodations are reasonable enough to call Agamic recession-proof.

Agamic moves to a different rhythm. There is no TV, no cellular service. The Obergs, though, are online and there is a land line.

Getting there is better if you have 4x4 vehicle, but I don't and still made it, no problem, in the dark, driving 25 kilometres into the bush on an old logging road, Route 325, off Highway 599.

The resort is the only sign of human habitation for miles. Big lights at night. In the daylight, the resort is laid out like a welcome-home mat. Cross the little bridge, and hear the rapids in the Agamic River to your right. The resort is on your left.

By day, the scenery is white snow, black water where the rapids keep the river open and wide open skies.

By night, the stars are so bright the Big Dipper looks like it will spill over you. It's a great place to trace out constellations.

I was enchanted by the scenery -- hundreds of kilometres, all remote bush. The resort is at the heart of Sunset Country. No roads, other than the logging road, and trails for sledding are still being carved out of the wilderness. John loves maps, and guests will feel like they're explorers on the final frontier with him. The land in Agamic's reach stretches north to English River, once a fur trade route. And south to Hwy. 17 east and west are bordered by lakes, so many of them that some have no names. The biggest is called Indian Lake, and it stretches a good 20 kilometres or more in length.

You're in moose and muskeg country here.

If the lakes weren't frozen, you could drink from them. The water is that clean.

Aside from the Obergs, you might see a game warden. Maybe a snowmobile or two.

The first day I spent at Agamic, I learned how to snowshoe. I kept telling myself, 'Walk like sasquatch.' It worked. We trekked to a frozen waterfall. Breathtaking.

John, Daryl and Joanna took me on a 13-km dog-sled trek later that day. The trails were lined with spruce and jack pine. It had snowed and the branches bowed under mantles of the white stuff. I thought I was in a pagan cathedral.

Distance takes on new meaning when there's nobody around.

And the sound. There was none.

Sled dogs are loud and noisy when they're still. Once the sled hits the trail, the dogs run silent. You feel like you're floating in a winter wonderland.

The silence is the one thing everyone notices. It's the reason John calls the family's website, runsilent.com.

I noticed the motion, like horses cantering. I'd never sledded before that weekend, but if you ski, it's kind of like that.

Guests don't go out cold. John or Joanna have a sled inside to show you basic moves -- and how the brakes work. They kept telling me: "Never, never let go of the sled."

Why? Because the dogs keep running and they'll leave you behind.

Which is what happened to me.

Joanna had offered me my own sled, with five of her trusted huskies that first day. That costs extra but if you're game, ask about it. The family has 45 dogs. On a cold day, these animals eat 36 kilograms of meat. Definitely not your Kibbles and Bits doggies. The guest rates are low because the Obergs charge just enough to cover their expenses. Most of that goes for the dogs' meat.

We ran three teams that first day.

Joanna took the lead with a team of eight, I had my five and John and Daryl brought up the rear with a team of nine.

It was late afternoon when we started and dusk fell at the end.

We started out together. Asking to take your own team alone is frowned on. You don't know the trails or the dogs, and as tough as Alaskan huskies are, the Obergs don't take chances with them. Or you.

Joanna's team is a racing team. She was out of sight when I took my spill, and the rear team was too far behind me to see me flip.

That's when Tuk, my lead dog, did that thing I didn't think dogs did.

He noticed the shift when the sled tipped over. And he acted like he knew I was in trouble.

"Tuk," I yelled. His head turned instantly, If a dog can look startled, he did. He hesitated, too.

Tuk wanted to stop. Sled dogs don't do that.

But with four dogs pounding behind him, Tuk couldn't risk a pileup. The next instant, the dog team was gone. I had to hope Tuk would take over and do a better job than I had.

I brushed myself off and resigned myself to my own two legs.

"Some musher," I muttered.

I'd broken the cardinal rule: Never let go of the sled. I figured our next excursion, a day-long trip the next day, would see me relegated to the basket on the sled. I'd be cocooned in sleeping bags, watching the action pass me by.

John and Daryl soon pounded up behind me, saw my fix and took off to find the runaway team.

I walked behind them. Not far. Daryl waited for me around the bend in the trail, John had my team and the dogs were OK.

They actually let me take the team home. Amazing.

The next day, we packed a lunch. And hitched up two teams. I was paired with Joanna, who was training her race team for a 209-km run at the annual Beargrease dog-sled race near the family's stomping grounds in Ely, Minn.

The day was mild, the dogs fast and Joanna's team outstripped her parents' sled in minutes. We kept stopping so they could catch up.

We covered 29 kilometres in three and a half hours with a 40-minute stop for lunch.

We built a fire on the edge of a lake that had no name. Ever had hot soup and sausage at -10 C cooked over an open fire?

I dug into the snow to forage for some medicinal leaves and made hot tea right off the land.

The dogs barked. The trail stretched out forever. I felt free.

I got a second chance to drive the dog sled, one last time. I shifted through one tricky turn, no problem.

But, on the final turn into home, with the sun banked behind me, I leaned left, the dogs leaned right and the sled tipped over. I went sailing. Landed a good two metres away in a snowbank.

Joanna was in the basket. Laughing.

"We saw the impression you left," John teased me when he and Daryl made the same turn into home 10 minutes later.

I know one thing. I want to go back and do it again.

And if you do, tip your tuc to Tuk for me.

 

If You Go:

To get there, drive through Ignace. Its main-street strip on Hwy. 17 is a short line of gas stations. At the east side of town, look for the Ministry of Natural Resource buildings to the left. That's Hwy. 599. Take a left and drive about three kilometres, over the rail tracks and past the municipal dump. Look for Hwy. 329 on the left, and after the turn take an immediate right. Go straight from there.

It feels like the road goes on forever and be ready to climb a few hills. Because the road is less travelled, it's not icy and snow cover gives you traction. John plows the entire thing himself.

 

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 31, 2009 E1

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