March 9, 2006 issue

Thirty Below? Time to Mush.

By Guest Columnist Mark Pruett

Many High Country residents and visitors will tell you that their favorite sounds of winter are the raspy hiss of skis and snowboards, boots crunching on snowy trails or a crackling fireplace. And those who find the winter here a bit too chilly often enjoy the sound of waves caressing a warm tropical beach.

For me, the best winter sound is the din of a team of sled dogs straining in their harnesses, ready to launch across a frozen lake in sub-zero temperatures. I teach in the Walker College of Business and spend part of my winter vacations dogsledding in the Boundary Waters wilderness area of northern Minnesota on the Canadian border.

In summer, the tiny town of Ely, Minn., bustles with visiting canoeists and fishermen. Winter brings people who come specifically for dogsledding (or “mushing“) because Ely has the world’s largest concentration of sled dogs and mushing guides.

Getting to Ely is an adventure in itself, starting with flights to Minneapolis and onward to the small airport in Duluth, Minn. Heading north in a rental car, you’re near Canada several hours later, traveling on winding byways to reach remote Ely. The very last leg may be a dirt road to your first night’s lodging.

This northeastern corner of Minnesota often experiences weather fronts traveling down from the Canadian Arctic, and it is routinely the coldest place in the lower 48 United States. In early January, the sun rises around 8:00 a.m. and sets at about 4:30 p.m. Temperatures vary widely, but when cold comes, it arrives in style. When an especially frosty Arctic front arrives, the nighttime temperatures may occasionally fall to -40 or -50 degrees Fahrenheit, with daytime highs of -20 to -30. 

I think thirty degrees below zero is just fine. Like the old saying goes, there’s no bad weather, only the wrong clothing. You do have to be careful about how you dress, though. If you keep your torso and head well protected, it’s much easier to keep your feet, hands and face cozy. Cold weather gear isn’t sexy, but it sure is warm.

The dogs don’t seem to mind, either. Back at the kennel, each dog sleeps in a small kennel raised off the ground to avoid the cold. However, on overnight trips into the woods, the dogs simply curl up in the snow.

Food, and lots of it, provides critical warmth. Sled dogs have ravenous appetites and eat specialized high-energy dry food mixed with hot water, often supplemented with additional protein like mink meat. Food also provides energy to pull—a sled dog can burn thousands of calories a day.

Sled dogs are compact, muscular variants of Alaskan and Siberian huskies and they share one distinct trait—the urge to pull. They wake up with one thing on their minds. They’re quiet until you start harnessing them, and then they bark like crazy while everyone‘s being hooked up. The instant you untie your sled from its tree, the team falls silent and takes off like a rocket. If you’re on hard-packed snow or lake ice with fresh dogs, they‘re almost unstoppable. Standing hard on the tread brake only slows them down.

Dog teams thrive on gobbling up distance—a musher can easily cover 20 to 30 miles a day standing on the runners of a sled being pulled by 5 to 7 dogs. The paths cross frozen lakes, wind through meadows and snake through hilly forests. Trails range from easy to difficult. On easy straightaways you even can close your eyes. Beaver dams and logs can send the sled airborne. Hills may require you to work as hard as the dogs. The most exciting sections are twisty downhill trails with forest and boulders—you don’t want to run over the dogs or crash.

I can trace my fascination with cold and adventure back to my childhood. My dad’s ancestors are from Ireland, so my attention was drawn to the story of the Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton. On his third expedition to Antarctica, the ship was crushed and the group camped on sea-ice for months. To get help for the group, Shackleton and several comrades sailed 800 miles in horrible weather in a 22-foot wooden lifeboat.  It’s one of the best survival tales of all time.

On my mother’s side, my ancestor Moritz Benyovsky was imprisoned in the 18th century on the frozen eastern coast of Siberia. After seducing the warden’s daughter, he escaped by stealing a ship, colonized the African island of Madagascar and fought in the American Revolution against the British. He was definitely a character. And, the very first time our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was ever performed in public was during the intermission of a theater play about Moritz’s life. His story and Shackleton’s gave me great admiration for explorers and adventurers.

The walls of my office at ASU reflect diverse interests, including my artistic side as a sculptor, sledding photos and a map of Napoleon’s disastrous winter retreat from Russia. In addition to books on business strategy and entrepreneurship, the walls also hold almost two hundred books on polar exploration, survival in Siberia, and the old-time whaling industry, with titles like The Ice Master, The Worst Journey in the World, and The Land of White Death.

I look for ways to share my passion with students, meshing stories and movies from frozen lands with examples from modern business to help students think in new ways about business, leadership and life. Teaching means the world to me and I want to encourage each student’s sense of adventure and love of life. Life offers limitless horizons and is wonderful and precious, even when your clothing smells like dogs and it’s so cold that your breath has frozen into icicles on your face.”  

I joke that the most important lesson for students is about Boone itself:  You can describe winter in Boone as chilly, but you’re not allowed to call it cold