I had the opportunity of a lifetime to experience dogsledding with family-owned and operated Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge in Ely, Minnesota. Ely is a picturesque town near the boundary with Canada and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. A vast network of interconnected lakes, rivers, and forests, the Boundary Waters are popular for canoeing, camping, and fishing. Not many tend to connect the thought of these outdoor activities with winter dogsledding, but it is a thing!
Canadian Inuit Dogs
Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge owns and breeds Canadian Inuit dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), a large thick-furred breed of dog that is native to the Canadian Arctic. It is believed to be the oldest domesticated breed in North America, and is highly valued by the Inuit people for its strength, endurance, loyalty, and affectionate nature.
The breed is well adapted to the extreme cold of the Arctic with a thick double coat of fur that helps keep it warm in temperatures as low as -58°F. It is an incredibly strong and hardy breed, capable of pulling heavy loads for long distances. They are also known for their intelligence and trainability, making them popular as working dogs.
After an incredible four-day dogsled trip, which included camping with the dogs in the bitter cold after day trips over frozen lakes and through forested hills, I had a chance to correspond with one of our Wintergreen dogsled guides in March 2022. Peter Schurke, who is the son of the founder of Wintergreen, Paul Schurke, described the process of caring for and training their large number of impressive, beautiful, and intelligent working dogs. Peter guides the dogsled groups during the winter when he is not sailing boats in Norway during Wintergreen’s off-season.
Christie: Wintergreen recommends that guests use strongly vocal positive reinforcement with the dogs. Has your training methodology evolved over the years and how?
Peter: Our training is certainly more focused on the use of positive reinforcement. The dogs are really good at setting the mood, especially if you are also in good spirits around them. The idea is to make sledding an enjoyable experience for them. A happy dog runs better and eats better. And if the dogs are happy, people are happy and that's the goal, isn't it?
What are the steps to train a puppy to pull? You mentioned that one of the staff will first start training a yearling by cross country skiing with the dog attached to a rope. Next, the dog will pull an empty sled with another seasoned and nurturing companion dog to teach the puppy the ropes before they graduate to pulling a loaded sled with a full team.
The main idea is to make each training event an enjoyable experience - something to which they look forward. That's why starting out small by skiing with them one-on-one helps a lot. If you put them straight on a team of experienced dogs and run, they may get overwhelmed and become afraid of running. Once they have the skiing part figured out and are used to their harness, we pair them with an older, more experienced dog that won't give them a hard time and even make it fun for them. Our three young boys Linus, Schroeder, and Charlie Brown have all gone through this process. In a short amount of time, they are all already good pullers and you can tell that they are excited to run. It's also not just for pulling, but it is nice mentally to know that the dogs look forward to running and that they are also having fun with us. That's why we do it: to have fun with the dogs and share that enjoyable experience with them!
How do you come up with the wonderful names for each of your dogs?
There is a little bit of a strategy to this. We like to name litters of puppies based on themes in order to know that they are siblings. For example, the three brothers Linus, Schroeder and Charlie Brown are our latest three young ones that are named based on the Charlie Brown characters. Chive, Okra, Kale, and Ginger are another good example. It helps the participants and new guides know right away who the siblings are, and it helps them get to know the dogs better during their experience at Wintergreen.
How do you, your family and staff members manage favoritism with the dogs?
Yeah, we love them all but just like teachers have their favorite students, we have our favorite dogs. It is most noticeable amongst guides when we draft our teams for the week. Sometimes, the guides have the same favorite dogs, which makes the disputes about the doggy draft for dog teams fun and interesting. Favoritism doesn't even come from the best puller; most of the time it is based on their personality. The management for getting your favorite dogs on your trip as a guide is discussed amongst guides over the doggy draft we make before trips.
What is the typical diet for the Canadian Inuits during the working season and the off season?
Inuits are really good eaters. They also can gain weight really quickly. This is a good ability to have in the winter season when it gets very cold, but, in the summer, it can have the opposite effect. So they eat differently in the summer than in the winter. In winter, they are fed meat, beaver fat, lard and kibble mix both morning and evening. They get less food in the morning before their run so that it is easier on their digestion while running and more food after their run in the evening to digest overnight. During the summer, however, when they are not as active, they eat kibble only once per day. If we feed them more than this in the summer, the Inuits will put on a lot of weight really fast and not be able to run in the fall.
How do you keep the dogs comfortable and active during the summer season?
Since they are dogs of the Arctic, they thrive in temperatures that are anywhere from below 0°F to -40°F. With that in mind, overheating in the summer in Ely is a risk for these dogs. During the summer months, we do not run the dogs because of this risk. We rearrange their kennel houses and set up lots of shade for them, as well as extra, extra large water buckets in their pens. To top that off, we even have a water sprinkler system that sprays the entire kennel down to keep them cool.
What is the retirement process for your dogs?
We keep an eye on them as they get older. There is no specific age at which a dog must be retired. Some dogs can pull up until age 12, whereas others may only pull until age 10. It really depends on the dog's physical ability. They do love to pull, which is why we let them pull until they start to show signs that it's time to hang up their harness. Once a dog is retired, they have an open retirement pen to lounge around in. Most of the time, the retirees are so well mannered, even with other dogs, that they become Wintergreen guest and guide "greeters" and freely roam the grounds of Wintergreen.
What is your favorite dog story?
I once guided a family on a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness a few years ago. I took my boy, Fraser, with me. [Note: Fraser is Peter’s “favorite” Canadian Inuit in the pack.] The family said it would be fine to take him, but they were afraid of dogs due to a poor previous experience. Fraser did really well both in the canoe and at camp. We had a really good trip. After our first day out, the mother told me that she has always been afraid of dogs, but my big Canadian Inuit sled dog, Fraser, changed that for her. Fraser changed her perspective so much on dogs that she mentioned at the end of the trip that she would like to have a dog of her own some day. It was really nice to watch unfold during our multi-day trip. Our Inuits are particularly good at that. And that's why we love them here at Wintergreen.
(Schurke, Peter, personal communication, March 8, 2022.)
Sources: Sources: The Canadian Encyclopedia: Inuit Dog; Canadian Kennel Club: Canadian Inuit Dog; and American Kennel Club: Canadian Inuit Dog
Additional Reading on Canadian Inuit Dogs: Sled Dogs Exemplify Leadership
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