My 3-year-old Great Pyrenees doesn't aspire to be a sled dog. He doesn't aspire to be a guard dog, either. Cadmus is a true aristocrat: Work has been bred out of him. His lone aspiration is to be a rug in my bedroom closet, a 140-pound rug.
I thought of Cadmus a lot this winter while mushing through the waist-deep snows in northern Minnesota. The six huskies hooked to my toboggan sled loved to pull as much as Cadmus loves to sleep. Bounding eagerly ahead, nostrils quivering, they towed 500-pound loads up steep slopes and down steeper ones.
I was in the North Woods as one of five students attending the dogsledding school run by Voyageur Outward Bound of Minneapolis (800-321-4453). From mid-December until late March, Voyageur offers mushing expeditions of four to 21 days. Each course is diabolically designed to foster resourcefulness and group problem-solving. When you're not being hauled through frozen timberland, you're cross-country skiing or camping on snow-clad lakes.
My journey begins in The Boundary Waters, a wilderness reserve, about 20 miles south of the Canadian border. I swaddle myself in polypropylene, load up a sled and push it to the dog yard, where about 40 chained huskies harmonize in a melodious tangle of yowls, woofs and wails.
One of the instructors, Ted Snyder, handpicks a team, harnesses the dogs and snaps their collars to the sled's tug line. To avoid dogfights the six huskies run side by side in pairs: male-female, female-male, male-female. The smartest and most obedient (the lead dogs) are at the front of the line. The burliest and strongest (the wheel dogs) are in front of the sled. The ones in the middle (the swing dogs) are there for added support.
Unlike Cadmus—who must think his name is "Off the bed!"—sled dogs respond to a variety of commands. Not one, as it turns out, is "Mush!" Snyder explains that mush is a corruption of the French word marchons, which means "Let's go!" Mushers mush, he says, but "they just don't tell their dogs to. Even in Nome they say, 'Ready, let's go!' "
If the lead dogs leave the path to chase an otter into the South Kawishiwi River, you've got three options: Say "Whoa" in a calm voice while stepping on the plastic brake at your feet; toss the snow hook, a kind of dogsled parking brake; or bail. Fortunately, your humble woodlands chronicler's team spotted no otters, or he would now be embedded under an ice floe.
Over four days I became as attached to the dogs as they were to the sled. On the final evening students and teachers mulled over the loyalty of dogs, their dependency, their abject desire to be mastered. "Huskies seem to enjoy pulling," says Snyder. "It's a group activity. They get to travel and smell new things. Maybe they feel a sense of accomplishment."
Cadmus has accomplished very little in his short life. But he does interact with people. When I got back home, he even greeted me at the door. I told him about the huskies, how they towed, romped, napped in the snow. He listened patiently. Then he slouched into the closet and fell asleep.