Winter Play: Dog sledding in southern Minnesota

Dogs' tongues comically wave mid-run
Catharine Richert pilots a dogsled on the trails at Lake Byllesby Park near Cannon Falls, Minn. on Jan. 17.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

As winter cold bites deep, MPR News is celebrating the best of the season through a new series called Winter Play. Our staff across the state set out to try a new-to-them winter pastime. Rochester reporter Catharine Richert spent the afternoon dog sledding near Cannon Falls.

Here's the first thing you need to know about dog sledding: Don’t let go of the sled.

As I stand in the snowy woods, awaiting my first sledding expedition, a howling and barking team of 10 dogs underscore the point.  

“I'd like to tell you if you lose the sled, the dogs will think 'Oh, no, we lost them.' And they'll sit down and wait for you,” says Dawn Lanning, my sledding guide for the day and owner of HHH Ranch. “Does it sound like they're gonna sit and wait for you? So hang on to the sled.”

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Today, I’m at Lake Byllesby Regional Park near Cannon Falls, which has a dedicated dog sledding course. Dawn has been sledding for 30 years, and manages 40 pups on her farm nearby. 

She says all that ruckus is a sign that the dogs are ready to go.

“They love what they do. We should all have jobs that we love as much as these guys do.”

I’m loving my job right now, too. I've lived in Minnesota since 2009, and I've always wanted to try dog sledding. 

Thanks to the MPR News Winter Play series, that little dream is finally coming true. 

‘Easy to chase a tail’

Before we hit the trail, Lanning wants to introduce me to the crew working today, including Rivet — a friendly, blonde dog that’s part Huskie, part Greyhound giving him the long legs he needs to take big strides. 

Rivet's bloodline is special, too, with breeding lines going back to dogs used by four-time Iditarod champion, Lance Mackey. 

Dogs run ahead of a sled
A five-dog team pulls a sled on the trails at Lake Byllesby Park near Cannon Falls, Minn. on Jan. 17.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Rivet is the leader of one of today's teams. Lanning says being a leader is not a quality enjoyed by every dog.  

“It's always good to have that confident dog for a lead dog that will listen to you and isn't afraid to run up front. You know, it's pretty easy to chase a tail,” she says. 

Lanning says forming teams from the 40 dogs she cares for is one of the best parts of the job.  

“I just love it when they all come together as a team.”

Don’t say ‘mush’

It's finally time to race. At this point, I've learned how to get on and off the sled properly. I've learned how and when to brake. I've learned my years of downhill skiing will pay off in understanding the physics of dog sled turns.

And I've learned that you don't say “mush.” That's just something Hollywood made up. 

For this first run, I'm going to be the passenger while Lanning guides the dogs.

She barely tells the dogs to go, and we take off like a shot. 

Being in the passenger's seat, so low to the ground, this ride feels really fast; we clocked about 18 mph at one point.

And the dogs have quieted down significantly. Now, they’re laser focused on their task — a well honed animal team with members that love what they're doing. And now you’re part of the pack. 

A person pilots a dogsled
Catharine Richert pilots a dog sled on the trails at Lake Byllesby Park near Cannon Falls, Minn. on Jan. 17. Her passenger Dawn Lanning, owner of HHH Ranch, captures the moment on her phone.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

After about 10 minutes, Lanning gives me a chance to drive. We carefully swap spots driving the sled, making sure one of us always has a foot on the brake. 

As soon as I take my feet off the brake, we’re off again. 

I immediately feel in control. Decades of downhill skiing definitely help me instinctively lean into the turns. 

And it's the same type of thrill — like skiing, it feels risky but you’re actually in complete control. 

Just don't let go of the sled.

A person pilots a dogsled
MPR News reporter Catharine Richert waves as she drives a dog sled on the trails at Lake Byllesby Park near Cannon Falls, Minn. on Jan. 17.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

If you want to go

Where: HHH Ranch near Cannon Falls, Minn. Dog sledding outfitters abound in Northern Minnesota, too, particularly in the Ely area

When: All winter, so long as there’s snow on the ground. Icy conditions are not ideal. 

Length: HHH Ranch offers daytime and nighttime rides, and advises people to set aside 2 hours for the fun. Other outfitters offer half, full and multi-day trips. 

How much: HHH Ranch charges $350 for the first sled, and $100 for each additional sled. A less expensive — but similar — option is skijoring

What to bring: Dress for cold weather: snow pants, boots, hat, gloves and a coat. You’ll probably be sprayed in the face with snow by the dogs, so bringing sunglasses or ski goggles is a good idea. HHH Ranch provides gear for the sleds and dogs.