Lisa Meyers McClintick, travel writer & photographer

Monday, January 25, 2010

Travel to Minnesota's dogsledding destinations


Riding behind a dogsled team with brisk winter air rushing into your face should be on every Minnesotan's bucket list. You don't even have to spend much. For $10 a person, you can get a 10- or 15-minute dogsled ride around Gull Lake or across a golf course most snowy Saturdays at Cragun's Resort in Brainerd, Minnesota. All you need to do is bundle up and hang on for a winter vacation experience like few others.


Chaos, cacophony, quiet
Earplugs might help, too, especially if you're the first dogsled rider of the day. Be prepared for cacophony. A team of huskies jacked up for a run ranks at the same excitement and noise level of a classroom of ADHD boys with baseball bats, trampolines and pinatas. They are charged! The handlers have a major job trying to hook up dogs bouncing up and down, scrapping with each other and yelping and howling with joy.

Then you're bundled up in the dogsled, the leader yells "Gee!" and barking turns off like a switch. The dogs, in all shades of brown, black and cream, strain forward and quickly gain momentum. There's a beautiful shooooosh of movement and a magical silence barely touched by a few creaks from the wooden sled and whispered rhythm of running dogs.

Contagious exuberance
Sitting behind the Minnesota dogsled team, I wondered if their feet even touched the ground as they flew across snow, tongues flapping to the side of their mouths, mismatched eyes focused forward. It was a rush to recline into the sled and watch bare trees and thick pines spool past. On one ride, we hit a sharp corner and tipped into the shrubs. We laughed and got back on. The dogs' exuberance was contagious to the point of epidemic. After the ride was over, it was just as much fun to watch the canine team--barely winded--take off with more first-time riders in tow.
Where to have a dogsledding vacation
Cragun's Resort, Brainerd has the best deal I've found if you're short on time and money. Guests can sign up for a slot when they check in. It does sometimes book up, or need to be canceled depending on weather. Brainerd, Ely, Duluth, Lutsen-Tofte and Grand Marais are all good places to find dogsledding outfitters who will arrange a private half-day or full-day. Prices typically start at $90-$100 per person and go up from there depending on the length of the dogsled ride and whether meals are included.

Other good bets for a shorter sample: Plan ahead for Cook County's annual Volks Ski Fest. It hosted dogsledding in Tofte and at Bearskin Lodge on the Gunflint Trail last Saturday. The festival runs all this week, celebrating winter fun with sleigh rides, snowshoeing and the chance to try some of the area's 400 kilometers of groomed trails.

Further down the Gunflint Trail, historic Gunflint Lodge has three dogsledding weekends each winter with two left: Feb. 3-7 and March 3-7. Prices range from $345 per child for a three-night option (lodging/meals/activities) to $596/per adult for a four-night package.

Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge in Ely ranks as Minnesota's nationally known dogsled experience, with options ranging from $1200 all-inclusive, multi-day trips to affordable half-day trips starting at $100/person. They have one weekend a year devoted to a parent-daughter experience, with an emphasis on writing in addition to learning about dogsledding. The International Wolf Center in Ely has four spots left for its annual Mush with Dogs, Howl with Wolves program Feb. 19-21 ($470/night).

Finally, if you want to soak up the energy and excitement of the sport, travel to Duluth for next weekend's annual John Beargrease Dogsled Marathon, a prequalifier for Alaska's legendary Iditarod. There's a cutest puppy contest noon to 2 p.m. at the Fitger's complex Saturday, Jan. 30. The race begins Sunday, Jan. 31, and runs through Wednesday, Feb. 3.

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