It's -40 and the sun is reflecting off of the snow in a blinding sort of way as we stand on the frozen waters of Vermilion Bay with 100 barking dogs pulling at their harnesses, raring to go. Thirteen mushers and their teams are preparing to run twenty miles along Burton Penner's trapline. Penner owns a dog sled touring company here, but he's also an artist, with murals of the surrounding forest, lakes and wildlife at various businesses around town. He wears old timey welding goggles when he races.
I weave through the crowd, hardly noticing the people with all of the doggy cuteness around me. The dogs are mostly huskies or husky mutts, except for Dr. Clayton Schneider's team. The vet breeds a hound-pointer cross for his team because of their pulling prowess and docile temperament. Clayton has been dog sledding since he was a kid, and now he travels all over Canada competing in races. His dogs are especially sweet, nuzzling my hands as I walk by taking pictures.
Icicles have formed in the beards of the men, and most everyone has their faces covered up completely. What skin is exposed quickly turns red and loses all feeling. I'm wearing pants with long underwear, two thick layers underneath a down coat, three pairs of socks, a hat and a breathable mask that I pull up over my mouth and nose. I wiggle my toes every so often, just to make sure they're still functioning down there.
"Aren't your feet freezing?" a man says to me, pointing at my stylish, but apparently impractical Sorel boots. "Don't you know where you are? This isn't Vancouver," he jokes.
Every fifteen minutes or so you can feel the ice crack from the weight of the trucks. There are visible fissures, but luckily we are close enough to shore that the water is frozen solid.
I observe the process of prepping the teams. The dogs are taken out of their crates, specially designed setups in the bed of a pickup or in a trailer pulled behind one, and attached to a truck or a long chain laid out on the ice. The sled and line is put in place. Some dogs are fitted with booties and a jacket, others not. After the dogs are harnessed up, they are led to their spot in the team. Now they're really howling. The anticipation of the run is too much for them; they have to let out their excitement in some way.
A handler holds the lead dogs in place so the team doesn't interfere with the dogs beside them. As the start time nears, the mushers check their teams, check their sleds, and lay out their sleeping bags for the "trapper's start."
A man gives the countdown from five minutes, and finally waves a green flag in the air, signaling the start. The mushers rush out of their sleeping bags, fold them up and add them to their packs on the sleds.
"Hike! Mush! All right!"
Clayton's team flies in front and he takes the lead, with Penner not far behind him. The team on the far right ignores the plowed trail, pulling the sled and musher over two giant berms of shoveled snow and into deep powder. Five minutes later they are back on the trail, running to catch up with the others. The crowd watches as the line of teams gets smaller and smaller into the distance until they disappeared entirely.
After two hours, Clayton crosses the finish line, followed by Penner 25 minutes later. The dogs have snow beards, but hardly seem out of breath. They are unhooked from their harnesses and praised by everyone around them.
"Good dogs, good dogs."
It was incredible. The entire day was sort of surreal. For me, having these unforgettable experiences is what life is all about. We drove home mostly in silence, watching the roadside for wildlife. Charlie made steaks and caprese salad for dinner. It was a Valentine's Day for the books.