How to cross ‘Dogsled the Boundary Waters’ off your winter bucket list

Sled dog rides on East Bearskin Lake.

Dogsledding on East Bearskin Lake // Photo courtesy of Explore Minnesota

Minnesota’s million-plus-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), obviously, is best known for wilderness canoeing—many would say the best in the world. But winter transforms this magnificent landscape into a forested cathedral of ice, snow and silence, offering a wilderness experience like no other. Bring a beautiful, hard-working team of Canadian Inuit dogs into the mix, and you have the adventure of a lifetime.

Dog sled trips come in a wide variety, from simple rides of a few hours or less, to fully outfitted multi-day trips with overnights either camping (including top-notch equipment and experienced guides to keep you comfortable and well-fed) or in lodges on the edge of the wilderness with hearty, first-class dining. Many offer options for both mushing the dogs yourself as well as riding in the sled.

These Dogs Love Their Work

Sled dog adventures in the Ely area.

Photo courtesy of Explore Minnesota

The Canadian Inuit dogs mentioned earlier are popular for such trips, but many other breeds known for strength, endurance and love of cold weather do just fine as sled dogs, and are used by many outfitters. From the moment you meet the dogs, it’s clear how much they love their work. If there weren’t brakes on the sled all would be lost, and when any sled dogs are left behind, they howl with envy.

Much of a musher’s work is holding the dogs back, although if the sled is heavily loaded with camping gear, you may have to occasionally help out on hills. (This is unlikely on lodge-based trips, however, where the sled is empty.)

While a large majority of Minnesota’s dog sled outfitters serve the BWCAW, out of Ely and on the Gunflint Trail to the east, there are also outfitters along the North Shore of Lake Superior and other locations

A special case is Wilderness Inquiry out of Minneapolis, which offers challenging wilderness trips accessible to people with a wide variety of disabilities, along with anyone else who wants to participate. Nowadays they offer trips to wilderness areas around the world, but they started in the Boundary Waters and still offer trips there, including winter trips by ski, snowshoe and dog sled.

How the Story Started

Dog Sled2

Dogsled ride // Photo courtesy of Explore Minnesota

It’s no surprise that renowned polar explorers Will Steger and Paul Schurke live and work close to the Boundary Waters. In fact, Paul and his wife Susan own and operate Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, perhaps the best known of Minnesota’s many dog sled trip outfitters.

Paul Schurke’s love of dog sledding grew from the co-founding of Wilderness Inquiry with his college classmate, Greg Lais, who continues as executive director.

“Our first program, a Boundary Waters canoe trip, went so well, we thought, ‘Could we do this year-round?’ Given the sign at the entry to Ely, ‘Dog Sled Capital of the World,’ we thought, ‘That’s it.’ I connected with Will Steger in his Pickets Lake homestead with a sod roof out in the woods, we became fast friends, and in the winter of ’79 we did our first Wilderness Inquiry dog sled program. It’s been dogs and winter for me ever since.”

That meeting also led to Schurke and Steger’s co-leadership of their historic 1986 North Pole expedition on ski and dog sled, the first such trek to be made without resupply.

Schurke is a great storyteller with many tales to share, which is part of the appeal of Wintergreen’s treks. He personally guides the advanced dog sled and ski camping trips, and makes a point of at least one lunchtime storytelling session with nearly every group coming through.

Are there advantages of exploring the Boundary Waters in the winter, compared with a canoe trip? No question, says Schurke: “There’s no battling bugs, no heavy rain, no slogging down muddy portages. The Boundary Waters is the most beloved and popular wilderness area in the world. A quarter million people visit every year. But in the winter, it’s just a few thousand.

“And in the winter, the wildlife is much more apparent. The foliage is down, there are long vistas into the woods to catch a glimpse of wolves, fox or moose. You can often see tracks in the snow, fresh and new every day. Dog sledding is also easier for people who are more fitness-challenged, because the dogs are doing most of the work.”

This year, Wintergreen is adding a weeklong “Hat Trick” vacation package, integrating several nights of cross-country and downhill skiing at an area lodge, or snowmobiling and ice fishing for non-skiers.

For more information about dog sledding or other winter travel opportunities visit www.exploreminnesota.com.


Editor’s note: This article is part of a content-sharing agreement between The Growler Magazine and Explore Minnesota Tourism, whose mission is to promote travel to and within the state of Minnesota. Find this article and more great content at exploreminnesota.com.

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