When I arrived at Outward Bound during the winter in chilly Minnesota, our Instructors greeted us in Hawaiian shirts. The temperature had risen to the high 20s Fahrenheit—which was, for them, a heat wave. I was there for a dog sledding expedition, and as I got out of the van into the crunchy snow, I had no idea just how much magic awaited us.
We packed all of our belongings into backpacks and sleds and set off on our journey across vast frozen lakes along the Canadian border. Our crew quickly grew bonds with one another, and it’s an experience that changed my life.
After we woke up on the first morning, we made our breakfast over the fire and I marveled at the sunrise. A new warmth shot through the sparkling, frosted air, the crackles of fire popping up towards rays of light. We had camped in a cove on a boundary lake, sleeping atop feet of snow, then ice, then water. Next, we skied out to the water hole we had cut into the deep ice and filled our pots to boil for the day’s hydration. Shelter, fire and water. Our comfort and existence was stripped down there in the winter vastness, the essence of things becoming plain and clear.
When we left camp, I navigated in front with the skiers, breaking trail for the dogs and testing ice with an axe before the team crossed. We were one unit traveling together, and everyone had their part. The mushing team followed, pushing and yanking on the sled while yelling forward commands to the dogs. Each dog had their own role; some led, some provided the power.
More warmth set in from the relentless movement; the fire in my muscles was from staying ahead of the dogs, making progress across the short winter day. The fire of physical work was in all of us, the dogs and the humans. In order to stay warm, we constantly stoked this fire. We were always moving. As we worked together as one unit, compassion became not an abstract concept, but a feeling in our muscles.
It’s clear that anything can be exquisite when you’ve worked hard for it. And it becomes clear that there is so much on this Earth that is exquisite, that can only be reached through collective effort.
When we arrived at our next camp, we got to work on starting our next fire. We used the fire in our muscles to manipulate the fire in the sun and through the tree to turn it into flame. We boiled four ashy pots—one for the dogs, next for hot drinks, the third for dinner and the fourth for the night. The winter trail taught us to always be four steps ahead.
We warmed our toes around the evening fire by the flame under the stars. We built the place that sustained us. The feeling of belonging is acute, an interdependence with this small community of growing friends and dogs.
During the night, the frost set over us and ice hardened around the opening of my sleeping bag. And yet, cradled in the snow’s insulation and the hardy good humor of an excellent crew, I thought ‘this is it.’ The stars turned above the treetops, and there’s no greater magic.
Winter travel is demanding and transformational—it requires exceptional commitment, perseverance and compassion. I realized that the simple means we practiced throughout the expedition is how humans have made it to vast and formidable tracts of this planet. Not because they were crucially different from me, but because they were willing to attend with such focus to the essential needs of life, and to do so with repeated tenacity.
Every crew member is crucial to the progress of the entire team. The sled won’t run without all of the dogs, and the crew won’t travel without each of its members. Winter travel is about generating and conserving energy, and our means of showing care is dedicating that warmth and energy towards each other—pushing the sled filled with our gear, chopping the wood for our fire and cooking the pot of our common meal. We spent the days dedicated to our full mental, emotional and physical energy to a common project and to serving others. We returned home with a new sense of what it means to embody compassion, and of how very much of ourselves we can dedicate to service.
The dogs teach you that work can be the same thing as joy. Find work that makes you feel this way, they teach us. Long, hard days, huge compassion for ourselves and for each other, and contact with the purest essentials of life.
A dog sledding course is a simple life in a harsh climate, and a chance to get back to what matters most. Excelling on the winter trail requires skills, attention and forethought. And it’s an unforgettable experience of learning about community and interdependence, of creating and sustaining warmth even in the most formidable of places.
About the Author
Nora Spicer has instructed backpacking and canoeing courses at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School for five years. She has an MA in Environmental History from Harvard University and aims to bridge wilderness living and academic study through outdoor education. She is currently developing curriculum for an expedition-based semester program traversing US-Mexico borders by human-powered travel, and is traveling for research on Borderlands education.
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