Winter play: Dogsledding in Southern Minnesota

A person pilots a dogsled
Catharine Richert pilots a dogsled on the trails at Lake Byllesby Park near Cannon Falls, Minn. on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

This winter has given us our fair share of headaches, including snow, sleet, rain and lots of ice to get through. But winter hangs around for a while in Minnesota — so we are determined to explore how to have fun and play in this frigid season.

MPR reporters are trying all manner of winter activities so they can tell you all about the experience in case you want to try it too.

Check out our full multimedia reporting project here.

MPR Reporter Cat Richert joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to tell her about dog sledding for the first time.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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We attempt to make transcripts for Minnesota Now available the next business day after a broadcast. When ready they will appear here.

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: Well, I tell you, it is the end of January. Winter has given us our fair share of headaches. Snow, sleet, rain, a lot of ice to get through. But as you know, winter hangs around for a while in these parts, so we are determined to explore how to have fun and play in this frigid season.

NPR reporters are trying all manner of winter activities, so they can tell you all about the experience, in case you want to try it too. Yesterday, Kirstie Marone talked about the fat tire biking trend on snowy trails in the woods. A lot of people getting into that. Today, Kat Richard tells us about dog sledding for the first time. I'm so excited about this. Hey, Kat. How are you?

KAT RICHARDS: Hi, Cathy. I'm happy to be here.

INTERVIEWER: Well, I've gotta say, I know you're not a regular dog musher, so what prompted you to get on that sled?

KAT RICHARDS: So I really have to give some credit to my wonderful colleague Kirstie Marone, who was on yesterday. She kind of came up with this great idea, and we were just sort of all sitting around, all the Greater Minnesota reporters, this fall, daydreaming about what fun assignments we could do, and she said, you know what would be really fun and kind of hilarious, is if each of us tried a winter sport we've never tried before, and then we wrote about it, and I said, sign me up. I am sold. I would absolutely do this.

And so all of us are heading out into the extremely frigid great outdoors to do some things we've never tried before, and we're sharing everything we can about these experiences with our audience. So that is how I ended up on the back of a dog sled.

INTERVIEWER: Now, you could have chosen anything, but you went with dog sledding, so why did you pick that activity?

KAT RICHARDS: So, some people may not know this about me, but I grew up in North Carolina, and I grew up dreaming and praying for white Christmases. I loved to downhill ski as a kid. I still do as an adult. But winter always felt, like, really far away and sort of alien, you know, so when I moved to Minnesota in adulthood, I was like, wow, like, people actually dog sled up here. I thought that was just something you'd see in movies. Like, this is a real activity.

And so when I found out this opportunity existed to go and report on it I, thought, well, that is exactly what I want to do, and now I sort of feel like I'm this fully-formed Minnesotan.

INTERVIEWER: OK, so where did you go for this?

KAT RICHARDS: So I was so surprised to find out that I could actually do dog sledding in Southeast Minnesota, where I'm based, in Cannon Falls.


KAT RICHARDS: I know! I thought you'd have to go way up north for this. So I just drove about 45 minutes north on 52 to Lake Byllesby Regional Park, where they actually have a dedicated dog sledding track, and that is where I got to go dog sledding.

INTERVIEWER: And who taught you?

KAT RICHARDS: So I reached out to an outfitter called "HHH Ranch," and they specialize in dog sledding and horses. Here's a clip of my guide, Dawn, sort of introducing herself.

DAWN LANNING: Dawn Lanning, with HHH Ranch. I have been dog sledding almost 30 years. So just the dogs and the people. You know, it's a fun way to spend the winter. Otherwise, it'd be a really long winter, but our winters go really fast, so--

INTERVIEWER: It is a lot of fun.

KAT RICHARDS: It is a lot of fun. And you know, what was cool about Dawn is that she actually told me that the very course we were on in Dakota County, near Cannon Falls, is the same one that she learned on decades ago. And so now she gets to take this passion of hers and bring it to the same place where she started dog sledding, so it feels kind of like home to her.

INTERVIEWER: So she took you out on a ride, right? It's a ride?

KAT RICHARDS: Yeah, it's a ride. And I learned very quickly that there are some really important rules, what you can and cannot do. So the first thing you need to know, and this is really counterintuitive, and it kind of freaked me out when she told me this, is that you can never let go of the sled. Even if you fall over, you hang on, because those dogs will leave you in the dust. They are out to have fun. They love to run, and they do not care if you are in the back of the sled or not.

So I'm thinking, gosh, if I tip over, they're just gonna drag me through the snow! That's terrifying! Luckily, that didn't happen. The second thing, of course, is there's this break. It's kind of like a clamp that you have to step down onto keep the dogs from running away from you, and you need to have a foot on that brake at all times if you're stopped, right? So at least one foot, ideally two, which is tricky if you're sort of switching drivers, which we had to do at a couple of times.

And the third thing that I learned is that the directions that they give these dogs aren't actually the ones we think they are. They don't say "mush." They say "on by." They say all these things you never heard before. So that was sort of a wild revelation for me as well.

INTERVIEWER: Of course, I'm dying to hear any sound you might have of this ride. Do you have anything you want to play?

KAT RICHARDS: Yeah, please. This is me probably screaming wildly, as soon as we took off, and that happened super fast, right? You take that foot off the brake, the dogs can feel it, and they just go. So here's a clip of that.


KAT RICHARDS: Oh my God, that was so fast! Whoa! Whoa, It's a little bumpy!

INTERVIEWER: They do go fast. It's amazing.

KAT RICHARDS: Yeah. And I was the passenger there, so, right, like, I'm sitting kind of on the ground, and it feels like you're, like, one of the dogs, and you can kind of see their feet running, and I think it feels faster when you're sitting down, although we did clock about 18 miles an hour at one point, because we were checking with our GPS, so that was a very cool sensation.

INTERVIEWER: The dogs do love to run. I mean, they just seem like they're so happy to do it.

KAT RICHARDS: Yeah, exactly. And that was sort of surprising for me too, because, when I got there, the dogs were kind of freaking out, and they were making a lot of noise, and I thought, oh, are they upset, and Dawn explained, no, they're just really excited. They're so attuned to doing this, they know what comes next, and they simply cannot wait. So I think the dogs were, like, maybe as excited as I was to go out on a dog sled.

INTERVIEWER: So did you actually drive the sled?

KAT RICHARDS: I did get to. I did get to. And I was, again, sort of nervous at first, but once I got on there and Dawn gave them all the direction too, so I didn't have to learn all these special terms that she uses to direct them, and she was in the passenger seat, but one thing I found really helpful was all these decades of downhill skiing I've been doing, because you really have to lean into the turns, because, if you don't, you will kind of tip over, so you have to kind of squat down, and lean in, and make sure that you're kind of moving with the sled as you go around corners and that sort of thing.

INTERVIEWER: I would have paid money to have watched you on video. I hope someone shot video of this. Really, I do.

KAT RICHARDS: There is. There is, all online. You can check it out. It's great. It's wonderful.

INTERVIEWER: OK, so do you have any tape of you actually driving this thing?

KAT RICHARDS: Yeah, we do. I think this is kind of about 15 minutes in. Dawn said, hey, do you want the reins, and I said, yeah, let's go for it, so here it is.

DAWN LANNING: OK, you wanna try driving?

KAT RICHARDS: I think so?

DAWN LANNING: OK, do it with me, girl.

KAT RICHARDS: OK. OK, so I'm putting one foot on here, and then one foot on the other, and then, as soon as I do that, we're going?

DAWN LANNING: Yep. Ready? Let's go! On by! On by!

KAT RICHARDS: Woo-hoo! I'm doing it! I'm doing it! Woo-hoo!

Yeah, so you can hear us kind of very carefully switching over too. I wanted to talk through with her to make sure that I wasn't going to kill us both, so--

INTERVIEWER: Well, you don't want to be dragged behind a dog sled. Not a good way to go out. So, on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being unbelievably amazing, I need to do this with my life, how would you rate dog sledding for you?

KAT RICHARDS: 10, 10, no notes, would do again in a heartbeat. In fact, I would love to do it again, and I'd really like to go for, like, a whole day, or an overnight trip, which is something that is possible to do in Minnesota. So it feels like it could be in my future.

INTERVIEWER: All right. Good work. See you later, Kat.

KAT RICHARDS: Thank you. Thanks, Cathy.

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