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Making the most of winter.

Making the most of winter

The northwoods' legendary silence was shattered by the raucous yelping of 16 eager sled dogs. I was already seated in the sled. The musher yelled "Ready!" and took his foot from the brake. In an instant the quiet returned as the dogs pulled against their harness and we were off, gliding across a frozen lake....

The Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area, a region of lakes stradling the Minnesota/Canada border, would be considered off-limits in February by many people in perfect health. With severe rheumatoid arthritis, it wasn't too long ago that I would have waved aside the thought of penetrating the wilderness area in summertime, much less in winter. I love the outdoors but would have to content myself, I thought, with what could be seen on short, easy excursions - preferably in warm, dry climates.

Then I attended a self-help fair sponsored by my local Arthritis Foundation chapter. Stopping at a table covered with literature about sports and travel opportunities, I spotted a brochure for a group called Wilderness Inquiry, a non-profit organization that sponsors outdoor adventures for people with a wide range of physical abilities. The brochure outlined a variety of trips-canoeing, bicycling, rafting - but what caught my eye was the notice of dogsled expeditions. Dogsledding was certainly totally different from anything I had tried before!

Once the idea was in my head, it didn't leave. Even after reading the trip information, though, I wasn't convinced that the group would be willing or able to take me on a trip. The knowledge that even quadriplegics had been included on past trips did little to convince me. There is a difference, after all, between physical handicaps and arthritis, with its pain and unpredictability. I wasn't sure the trip leaders would be able to understand that.

After receiving my application, the director of Wilderness Inquiry called to talk about my abilities and needs. To my surprise, he didn't seem to think my arthritis presented an insurmountable problem. "Just let the trip leaders know your needs," he advised.

A packet soon arrived with detailed specific information about what to expect and what to bring. I was beginning to feel that I would be traveling with good people.

Off to adventure

A van transported the group of us north from St. Paul. Our primary destination was a lodge on an island in the middle of Bearskin Lake. It was nestled among conifers on a hill that afforded a view through the trees and over the lake.

As we enjoyed our first good dinner together and gathered around a wood stove, the nervous excitement I had been carrying for so long faded away. The meaning of wilderness was seeping back into my core. No phones ringing, no job pressures, no hectic schedules. It seemed too good to be true.

When my turn came to tell the group a little about myself, I mentioned my arthritis and asked for patience. "I don't have fears," I said, "but I do have a lot of question marks in my mind." I hadn't embarked on such an adventure since getting arthritis seven years earlier and had no idea how my body would respond to the next few days. Dogsledding? Skiing? Snowshoeing? Time would tell.

The next morning dawned sunny, and I found myself most eager to get acquainted with dogsledding. Soon after breakfast, the faint sound of yelping drifted through the trees outside the lodge. The dogs had arrived!

Doug, the musher for our trip, brought 16 dogs and, in small groups, he introduced us to the sport of dogsledding. "They're friendly, for the most part," he said, "but they're not pets."

The two members of our group who were unable to walk rode in small sleds called "pulks." These were rigged with low seats and pulled by two dogs; for safety's sake, a skier accompanied them.

I took my first ride in one of the larger, more traditional sleds, with room for a passenger or a large load of gear. When Doug learned I had knee problems, he put a crate in the sled so I would have something to sit on. Six dogs were harnessed in front, barking and howling in their eagerness to be off. Doug stepped on the runners, released the foot brake, and I felt the sled surge forward as the dogs gained their freedom.

It was a wonderful feeling. The motion seemed effortless. I felt the wind in my face, and heard the crunch of snow beneath the runners. "This is fun!" I shouted to Doug, and he laughed.

More challenges

After lunch, I was ready to try cross-country skiing. I had done some skiing in college but hadn't been on skis in years - certainly not since arthritis had caused so much damage in my knee joints. I felt clumsy at first, sure I was going to trip over myself.

But a frozen lake is the perfect place to experiment with skis - it's flat and obstacle-free. I stayed in the tracks made by those who had gone earlier, eliminating the arduous chore of breaking snow. Two staff leaders skied among the six or so of us who were learning, shouting encouragement and giving pointers.

I found myself smiling as I pushed farther out on the lake, unzipping my coat as I warmed from my exertions. On a flat surface, I realized, skiing is actually very easy on the joints. The motion involves gliding, so there is little impact on the knees. Ski poles make balance easy. I even found my often stiff and painful shoulders loosening from the easy motion of my arms.

I tired before most of the others did and looped back to the lodge, ready for a nap before dinner. It had been a full day. But I was pleased to note, as I dozed off, that although I was tired, I was not painfully tired.

When the dinner dishes were finished, the group split up in different directions. I almost went snowshoeing - I had snowshoed in my B.A. (Before Arthritis) days, and remembered how much fun it was to shush along, clumping clumsily on top of the snow. Instead, I decided to join a small group heading out to build a snow hut.

We walked down to the lake and then a short distance around the shore. The sky stretched above us endlessly like black velvet, pinpricked with millions of stars. Civilization - the real world - seemed very distant.

Some of the staff members had shoveled snow into a mound in the form of an igloo earlier that afternoon. They told us that after sitting since mid-day it would be "set" and ready to hollow out. Armed with shovels, people took turns scooping until the hut was completed. A light inside glowed through the walls, cozy and inviting.

One by one, we all piled in. I wasn't able to crawl through the low door, so they pushed me in on a sled. There was barely room for the six of us to sit inside, but we squeezed together and cuddled up. Something struck us as funny, and soon we were laughing together. This is crazy, I thought, looking around at my new friends crammed together in our snow shelter, and laughed all the harder.

Only one day had passed, but already I felt like a new person. A door had been opened. I was capable, after all, of fitting into a group; of experiencing new things that many people without arthritis had never tried.

Too many people with arthritis dread the winter, holding the notion that only warmth is good for aching joints. Yet exercise is important year-round. Fortunately, dry cold can actually be easier for some people to tolerate than the humid heat of mid-summer.

Anyone interested in new ventures should proceed in a slow, cautious manner. Take the time to learn about appropriate winter clothes and the importance of eating correctly. Choose a plan or route that doesn't stray too far from a resting spot. And if adventuring with an outfitter or group, do some homework in advance to ensure that the instructors are qualified to work with people who have arthritis.

Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are both very non-stressful activities. And dogsledding, exciting as it is, can transport even severely disabled people into the dazzling beauty of the outdoors in winter.

The winter? It's no time to huddle indoors. Go out and make the most of it!
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Title Annotation:Wilderness Inquiry trip
Author:Ernst, Kathleen
Publication:Arthritis Today
Date:Jan 1, 1989
Words:1408
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