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Jiqiao Shi (left), Rachel Wadleigh, Peregrine Ke-Lind and Outward Bound Instructor Liz Pileckas break for lunch during a dog sledding adventure.

Dog sledding trip boosts morale, confidence

January 23, 2014

A group of eight individuals, seven students and one faculty, returned to campus this semester with increased self-confidence and feeling a bit warmer than the rest of us.

“I don’t think I am alone in that I feel like I can do anything,” says Alexia Springer, Earlham’s Outdoor Education Coordinator, who took a group of seven students to the beautiful lakes and snowbound pines of the Minnesota Boundary Waters for an eight-day dog sledding trip January 4-12. Voyageur Outward Bound facilitated the trip.

“I am much more confident in myself,” agrees Liyuan Gao ’17. “When I face difficulties again or whenever I feel that something is impossible, I now know that I will find a way to accomplish whatever task is at hand.”

The group experienced temperatures of 34 degrees below zero, slept in sleeping bags under tarps on frozen lakes, worked extremely hard, ate a lot of food, and learned dog handling, mushing, ice reading and cross country skiing, among other things.

Each day the group traveled two to six miles and took two to three hours each evening to build camp, which included a small warm wall tent with a stove and chimney for cooking. At each stop, the group was charged with sawing, cutting, chopping and transporting firewood to the campsite. Water, which was purified by boiling, was secured by making an ice hole in the lake with a spear-like tool.

Dog -sledding -large -group1“Water bubbles up, so you always had a supply,” Springer says. “Lake water is cleaner and tastes better than boiled snow, which has a different consistency and takes longer to boil.”

Camping on ice, with dogs

Sleeping arrangements consisted of two groups of four. Each group swept fresh snow off frozen lakes, put down a tarp and sleeping pads. Each individual slept in two sleeping bags with another tarp over top. 

“Winter camping is a lot of hard work,” Springer explains. “One of the ways you stay warm is by working.”

“I didn’t want to stop,” says Gao, who had never camped or slept in a sleeping bag. “I felt like once I stopped I might freeze, so we worked, worked, worked.”

First-year Lily Fishleder says the trick was to catch yourself when you were just a little cold.

“Sometimes we were cold, but at the same time we had on eight billion layers and there were big fires,” Fishleder says. “I wasn’t so much worried about the cold as I was excited about the dogs.”

Springer says that not many outdoor trips involve animals. The group had two sleds, and six dogs pulled each sled. The dogs quickly became morale boosters.

“After mushing all day, the dogs are your good friends,” Gao says. “You just want to hug them for all they have done for you, and they want to be hugged.”

To control the dogs and sled, two people stand on the back section of the sled’s runners. Turns and even the smallest hills are tough for the dogs and sled. The mushers help the dogs navigate turns, and they help push the sled up hills.

“You have to help the dogs by skateboard kicking while you are going, and sometimes you have to get off and run alongside the sled,” Fishleder explains.

Different breeds and ages were represented in the 12 mushing dogs. The trip was Mikkl’s first, and Eagle’s last.

“Eagle was retiring,” Springer explains. “He spent a lot of time in the wall tent and always slept in someone’s sleeping bag.

“There was a lot of dog handling throughout the trip. Once we stopped for the night, our first task for the night was to unharness the dogs and get them on their overnight line.”

Springer says prior to the trip she gained seven pounds and lost five of those during the trip.

“The cold and work required so much of our energy,” Springer explains. “We were constantly eating lots of food to replenish our bodies.”

Meals and snacks were pre-determined and pre-portioned before the group departed Voyageur Outward Bound’s home base. Menus included bacon, fish, sausage, bean dishes, soups, stews, nuts, cheese, crackers, chocolate and lots of butter.

“The food was really good, and there was a lot of it,” Fishleder says. “We ate really well on trail.”

The trip culminated with solos, where students put all they had learned to use and camped individually for 20 hours. On the final day the group reunited and shed the multiple layers of clothing in favor of swimsuits for a stay in a 120-degree sauna at home base.

“We all got out of the sauna and jumped into an ice hole,” Gao remembers. “We stayed there for 10 seconds or so before going back into the sauna.”

Enhancing teamwork

One of the aims of outdoor education is to enhance teamwork.

“Our group got along really well,” Springer says. “Everyone was willing to help, and we all had positive attitudes.

“You go in with fear, but you come out with self-confidence. I went into the trip wanting to challenge myself.  I gained leadership experience and technical knowledge. I am much more confident in myself and in my abilities with others. The amount of trust you put into people is amazing.”

Alums Ed Joice ’09, Robin Zinthefer ’01, Anneke Johnson ’10, Amy Boxell ’10, Dave Hibbard-Rhodes ’08 and Ryan Stewart ’11 currently work at Outward Bound.

“Earlham has a relationship with Outward Bound, and they are always looking to recruit Earlham grads for their programs,” Springer says. The Earlham dog sledding group was fortunate to have Polar Explorer John Huston as one of two guides. In 2009, Huston and expedition partner Tyler Fish were the first Americans to travel unsupported to the North Pole. Only 12 teams have completed the task.

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