March 25, 2012

Students Find ‘Peace’ on Dog Sledding Trip

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Where paved roads heading north end, flat expanses of frozen rivers, creeks and lakes meet evergreen forests in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota.

In this wide open space — where, according to Nicole Tedesco ’04, the flatness creates the illusion of not going anywhere despite these winding paths — six Cornell Outdoor Education instructors went on a week-long dog sledding trip over winter break.

“Nature doesn’t work in straight lines, so our paths along the rivers and lakes were always curved,” Tedesco said.

Henry Mills ’14 said the trip was “a lot less romantic” than one would expect.

“You imagine a bright, sunny day on a trail and a guy skipping along on a sled. It’s a lot of really hard work and a huge exercise in teamwork, more than I really ever expected it to be,” Mills said.

The team of six was joined by 11 dogs and three instructors from Outward Bound — a nonprofit organization promoting outdoor education — on their expedition.

According to Mills, Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound, once said, “There is more in us than we know. If we can be made to see it, we will be unwilling to settle for less.”

This, Mills said, proved true during the team’s five rigorous days on the trail.

Mills and his teammates faced extreme cold, with temperatures dropping to about negative 20 degrees at night, as well as the knowledge that they could only rely on each other. Mills said that there was always something to do, from chipping through 18 inches of ice for water to keeping warm at night.

Tedesco described the team’s routine before bedtime as “carefully choreographed.” Among other things, the team had to sleep with hot water bottles, jog circles to build up heat and insert their bodies inch by inch into their sleeping bags to maintain enough heat at night — a process that took half an hour.

“When you’re spending an extended period of time in the wilderness, life reduces — or expands — to the basics: food, water, shelter, warmth, safety,” Tedesco said.

According to Tara Ostock ’13, the actual dog sledding was also a lot more difficult than she had expected. Dog sledding over frozen bodies of water was relatively easy, but going through “crashes” — small trails that connected bodies of water — often required getting out and helping to push the sleds up slopes or maneuver sharp turns. The dog sleds were “constantly ping-ponging between trees,” said Dave Dayan, a Cornell Outdoor Education instructor.

“The most unique thing about the dog sledding experience for me were the dogs,” Dayan said. “I am very much a dog person, but I’ve never looked at them as a work animal before. They love to pull. They also really like human affection, but given the choice, they would much rather be running and pulling.”

After days on the trail constantly together, the team went on “mini-solos,” “branching off like tentacles” to different places along the lake where they set up camp for the night, according to Ostock. They were allowed tarp, three meters of twine, ski poles and what they could forage in the wilderness to build a shelter — in which they each spent a night alone.

“I was confident,” Kate Orlofsky ’12 said. “There was no doubt in my mind I could do this — this solo, this night — and that felt incredible.”

Along with tapping into raw survival abilities, Andrew Zukosky ’13 said he especially appreciated the silence and solitude of the experience.

“My mind felt so clear and at peace that I think this was one of the first true meditation experiences of my life,” Zukosky said.

Similarly, Dayan said he enjoyed being able to hear only “the odd creaking and groaning of the ice freezing.”

Hahn said he believed it was important to give young people these kinds of experiences because they are integral to developing strong character. But in a place so still and untouched, with nothing but the stars and the vastness of eternity, the team said they found education beyond practical skills.

“For the first time in so long, I was in the present,” Orlofsky said. “That’s what the expedition was giving me — resetting me in the here and now.”

Original Author: Nikki Lee