Dog Sled Tour: Fall Training Run
Training a Dog Sled Team with Points Unknown Dog Based Adventures
Taking a dog sled tour is one of the most unique and authentically northern things you can do on Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior! Dog sled tours are available from a number of kennels on the North Shore. Today’s adventure took me to Points Unknown Dog Based Adventures in Hovland, Minnesota, 35 minutes from Grand Marais. Linda Newman operates this facility, which is the world’s largest Hedlund Husky kennel. It is home to about 30 of these rare, traditional working Alaskan sled dogs.
This is not a typical dog sled tour since it is late October and there is no snow on the ground. It is pre-season training for these Minnesota sled dogs. Instead of a sled, Linda is mushing the team from an ATV. The dogs are either learning or refreshing their sled-pulling prowess and teamwork skills, building up endurance, and honing their leadership.
Linda is the trainer of both the dogs and the people that come for the outdoor immersion experiences offered at Points Unknown (more on that later).
Welcome to Points Unknown
My Points Unknown dog sledding experience began by driving up the Arrowhead Trail, 25 miles northeast of Grand Marais, Minnesota. Wonder why it’s called Points Unknown? Well for starters, it’s off-grid and pretty close to being in the middle of nowhere. Which is part of it’s charm.
As I pull up I am welcomed by the smell of the outdoor wood burner and the alert of about 30 huskies greeting my arrival. There is a house and an extensive kennel. When I say kennel I mean an enormous fenced-in enclosure which houses individual kennels for each dog, and a large play area where they can run loose inside the enclosure.
Linda invited me inside where I was brought into her home, which doubles as the guest house. When I came inside I immediately noticed the sweet, gentle smell of beeswax. Linda just finished a candle pour earlier this morning and there is a table full of lovely molded candles (check them out here). By the way, the Points Unknown homestead is a model for sustainable off-grid living, more on that later too.
Letting the dogs out
After a quick tour of the lovely guest accommodations, it was time to start the dog sled training. We donned our warm clothes and went outside to the back entrance of the Kennel. The whiteboard tells us that we are training team #2 today which is Ryden, Rayna, Tikan, Siri, Castle, Sayah, Yaabaa, and the Australian Shepherd house dog Sayah (so she can get some fun and exercise too).
One by one, each dog is brought from the kennel and leashed onto the ready line. The ready line is a cable with leashes that acts as a staging area for the sled dogs. This is where they get suited up and transferred to their spot on the gangline (the line that is attached to the sled, or in this case, the ATV).
It is incredible how well trained and well behaved these dogs are, and they are definitely excited about their upcoming activity. They know the routine – first everyone gets lined up on the ready line, then harnesses are put on, then blaze orange vests since it’s hunting season. Next, each dog is individually positioned on the gangline in front of the ATV. Here is where each sled dog is assigned his or her role and they are expected to do their job.
Discipline and direction
First, the leaders are transferred from the ready line to the front of the gangline. They need to pay attention and keep the line tight. Linda and Katie, her intern from Austria, hook everyone up to the gangline one-by-one. You can see Linda’s gentle and caring leadership of the team, and that the dogs listen to and respect her. Each dog is praised with pets after they are hooked up, and discipline and direction are provided immediately when necessary. Encouragement is also provided from the sideline. There is a lot of patience and love here, but also high expectations, and that is what makes a successful dog team.
Barks and howls of jealousy are coming from the other dogs in the kennel. It is a privilege to be among the sled dogs being readied for this adventure. And with minor exception, everyone in Team #2 is on their best behavior.
Now that our sled dog team is in place we are ready to begin. The dogs can hardly wait! When the ATV motor starts up the dogs jump to attention. At the command, we take off!
As I rode behind Linda on the ATV, my first question was: Are the dogs pulling the ATV or are we driving? She explained that it’s a little bit of both. As the musher, it is her job to keep the line tight, so she is breaking the ATV to slow them down and give them some resistance. When going uphill she accelerates the ATV because, “it wouldn’t be fair to have the team pull the entire weight this early in the season.”
Working out the kinks and building leaders
Going along the eight-mile trail it was mesmerizing to watch the dogs running ahead of us. As they bob along, each dog has their own style and personality which comes through while they’re working. The purpose of the training is so that each dog can work out their individual kinks to make a more efficient dog team.
Castle is young and still learning, so he hasn’t perfected his stride. He is also a team leader in training, running next to veteran leader Tikan. Siri is also in leadership training. She is working on waiting patiently with good manners and keeping the line tight while the team gets hooked up to the gangline. Rayna is a lefty so she pulls to the left. As a result, she is placed to the right of her partner to train her out of that habit. Linda explains that the dogs teach each other more than she ever could.
Linda knows each of these dogs and is there to provide individual and team direction and encouragement. She makes sure to praise each dog individually, and also the team as a whole. Laughing she said that sometimes you have to be careful about the timing of individual praise. For example, one of her dogs likes to turn around and celebrate with her friends whenever she is praised for doing a good job. Cute as it is, this is not appropriate behavior when you’re on the gangline, so Linda has to gauge how to treat each individual so they are positioned for success.
Positive reinforcement and tough love for the learning
She uses a lot of positive reinforcement when the dogs do something good, and also some tough love for the learning. When a squirrel darts out in front of the team, it is so tempting for the leaders to divert their attention. Just as they do for a second Linda shouts, “On by!” to remind them to stick to their job, followed by, “Good Siri!” (the name of the leader in question) when they successfully move past the challenge. Listen for it in the video below.
Castle clearly does not like to run through puddles – he does everything he can to avoid them. While this isn’t the worst habit in the world, it is important for him to stick to his stride and learn to be ok with unpleasant experiences. Here is where the tough love kicks in as Linda stops the ATV in a spot where Castle needs to stand in the puddle so he can learn how to deal with this challenge.
The wooded path we’re on is in the multi-use Hovland Scientific and Natural Area on a trail designated for ATV and dogsled use. We make a few stops along the trail so Linda can switch the dogs’ positions on the gangline, enhancing each individual’s particular skills.
Time for a break
We stop for a break and to turn around just before the bridge over Swamp River. The turn around area is not large enough to safely maneuver the dog team around. So we take on the tedious task of setting up a ready line and detaching each dog one-by-one from the gangline and bring them to the ready line.
During the break, the dogs get a drink of water and go potty. In keeping with the immersive experience, Linda invites me to hand out water and do a few other tasks (if I want to), and encourages me to hang out with the dogs and give them as much attention as I want. The short break is relatively chill as everyone waters and rests. It isn’t long before the excitement unravels as the leaders are moved to the head of the gangline.
Jump, dodge, and pace
With the start of the ATV and an abrupt, “Ready!” the dogs eagerly push off and pace down the trail. Now that I recognize each dog’s strengths and weaknesses, it is fun to watch them in action. Reliably, Castle is anxiously avoiding puddles and it is hilarious to watch his last-minute maneuvers to jump and dodge. Rayna is leading way to the left again. The two at the rear of the team – the wheel dogs – are like the anchors with their steady, stable, and trusty pacing and demeanor.
Back at the kennel
Back at the kennel, the dogs are transferred to the ready line. Siri, the leader in training, is the last to be transferred. As part of her training, she needs to pay attention, face forward, and keep the line tight. When Linda stepped away it was my job to stand back and observe Siri, and remind her to keep the line tight if she loses focus. Linda said it is important not to stand next to them as a constant reminder – it’s like a crutch. It is best to stand back, observe, and remind.
When Linda’s attention was diverted, like any adolescent, Siri lost interest in her job and started wondering around while still being attached to the gangline. After ignoring commands to “tighten up” Linda assertively positioned Siri back in her place while telling her to stay. As the trainer, Linda thinks it is important to end the dog’s experience on a high note, so after Siri finally followed through, she praised her and ended her job at the gangline.
As each dog was being put back in the kennel, I had a final chance to spend some time with them. During my visit, a few of us got to know each other a little bit. Rayna, who is normally shy of people at first, warmed up to me immediately. Griffin kept wanting to stand between my legs and cuddle. And Tikkan liked to make funny faces at the camera. It was truly a joy to be immersed in a day in the life of Linda, Katie, and these very special animals.
Points Unknown is the worlds largest Hedlund Husky kennel with 30 dogs. This is a rare breed of traditional working Alaskan village dog and is carefully bred to preserve it’s lineage. Linda’s website for the Hedlund Husky Preservation Project says this about the beloved animals:
“Hedlund Huskies can be active house pet companions, freight style sled dogs, recreational racing sled dogs or any combination. In appearance, the Hedlund Husky is obviously a working dog that reflects its history as a versatile, ingenuously bred working sled dog of the type commonly referred to as a “village dog.”
“The Hedlund Husky is a medium to medium-large working dog with a rangy build, quick and light on its feet and effortless in action. The ideal Hedlund Husky appears to be a well-conditioned athlete with a physical and mental toughness reflecting the climate in which the breed was developed. The Hedlund Husky also offers an appearance of great wisdom and competence that reflects its ancestral development.”
Points Unknown outdoor immersion experiences
Points Unknown Dog Based Adventures offers winter and summer outdoor educational experiences. In the winter you can choose a 1.5 hour, 3 hour, or full day dog sledding experience. In the summer you can join Points Unknown for mindful paddling and hiking, off-grid lifestyle immersion, and customized canicross training. Linda is also a volunteer instructor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Becoming an Outdoors Woman program for women to learn the off-grid lifestyle, camping, canoeing, winter skills, dog mushing and more.
As I mentioned, when you visit Points Unknown you will be in a self-sustaining off-grid homestead. Energy comes from 16 solar panels, a propane generator when necessary, and heat is courtesy of the outdoor wood boilers. There is no phone (except for an AT&T signal from Canada) and no internet. All of the available resources need to be used sparingly (limit the number and length of showers for example).
The upstairs guest room is the most lovely part of this humble and comfortable home. I definitely recommend you check it out on the Points Unknown website and plan a trip to have this authentic, immersive, and truly northern experience!