January–February 2024

Paw Power

Hauling materials in and out of the BWCA is a job sometimes best left to the dogs.

Samantha Sparks

It was another subzero January day on the hardwater surface of Duncan Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Just off the ice, under snow-draped balsam firs, sat a pile of treated wooden beams from the infamous Staircase Portage between Duncan and Rose lakes, which had been disassembled and replaced with stone. 

For the past three days, a group of U.S. Forest Service employees had been working together to stage the debris at this spot. Now it was the job of a few strong hands and more than 100 paws to haul the material out of the wilderness and to the recycling bin.

Because motors are not allowed in most of the BWCA, the Forest Service relies on a winter mushing program, using dogsleds to freight materials in and out of the wilderness. This mushing crew was led by Tom Roach and Joe Friedmeyer, two Forest Service workers who are wildland firefighters in the summer and wilderness mushers in the winter. 

As a fellow Forest Service employee, I was on the trip as a handler—a helper who breaks trail through the fresh snow in front of the team and assists with camp chores and dog care. My fellow handler was Cam Halverson, a Forest Service wilderness ranger. Photographer Mike Dvorak joined us to document the trip for Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.

A typical wilderness mushing trip lasts anywhere from two to four days, with overnights spent camping in the wilderness. The teams will travel 10 to 25 miles a day through snow, slush, and ice.

On this particular trip, the manager of a local YMCA camp offered the crew the luxury of sleeping in the camp’s heated shop—an offer that was hard to refuse for a mushing team that had already experienced 30 nights of winter camping in the Boundary Waters that season.

Our mission to the Duncan-Rose portage was shaping up to be one of the least challenging trips of the season, and we expected it to take less than two days. But in that time there was still plenty of good work to be done, and you can hardly have a bad day when you get to work with sled dogs.