HOVLAND, MINN. – Not everyone greets winter like a long-lost friend.
Yet that is Linda Newman.
She welcomes slick snow and near-zero temperatures. They are ideal for sledding through Minnesota’s northern forest.
A dog lover extraordinaire, Newman pulled the plug on Twin Cities’ life in early 2013 to connect with her dream of preserving and running a rare line of Alaskan huskies. Since then, she has lived off the grid in a solar-powered and wood-heated cabin. She has no regrets about jettisoning her job as a real estate appraiser.
“When I decided to do more of what I wanted to do vs. what I thought I should do, I landed here,” Newman said. “I named this place Points Unknown.”
Points Unknown, of course, is known. It is north of Grand Marais, up the Arrowhead Trail and then down a twisting gravel road. Her 40 acres rest within an immense forest. No phone lines. No power lines. No cell coverage without a booster. Just a whole lot of nature. And that’s perfect.
“My father worked for the U.S. Forest Service,” she said. “Like him, I love the outdoors … and with dogs I can go deeper into it.”
Articulate and endowed with an easy grace, Newman and husband Neil Slaughter care for 27 huskies that drive their life and livelihood. Their dog-based business ranges from simple kennel tours to multiday women’s wilderness treks in which women learn to mush their own teams. Midrange options include outings that last from 90 minutes to three hours on sleds that swoosh and whoosh through a picture postcard landscape of popple, pine, cedar and spruce.
“Guests stay warm because they are tucked into a down sleeping bag with a hot water bottle for added comfort,” she said. “Beneath them is a foam pad that helps absorb some of the bumps.” Her youngest rider was five; the oldest 92. Riders have come from as far away as Eastern Europe.
What draws many visitors to Newman’s door is her handsome line of Hedlund huskies. These deep-furred dogs from the Iliamna region of Alaska are known for their strength, smarts and friendly temperament. They hauled freight across the Arctic for subsistence-living villagers before the snowmobile’s arrival. They were a favorite of trappers and mail carriers, occupations that valued a dog’s strength and patience more than speed.
“They are beautiful dogs,” Newman said. “It’s a pleasure to preserve them.”
Ironically, nontraditional strains dominate modern dog-sled racing. Winning teams often include huskies crossbred with German shorthair pointers or racing hounds. This mixture revs up a dog’s speed but reduces its ability to withstand the rigors of winter. As a result, racing dogs often wear boots to protect their paws and caps to keep their ears from freezing. Also, such crossbreeds tend to be kenneled at night in warm conditions, or at least warmer than a snowdrift under the stars. That’s different from Newman’s dogs, many of which prefer to slumber outside their straw-filled houses even when it is freezing.
What is it like to be pulled by a dog team?
It’s quite the combination of commotion and locomotion. You nestle into a sturdy white-ash sled, watch as rambunctious dogs run as one, and feel the sled’s weight shift as Newman swings her hips this way and that to guide a craft that has no reins, rudder or steering wheel. One minute you are barreling along at 20 miles per hour. The next you are crawling up a hill. Always you hear Newman’s lilting voice.
“I sort of sing to the dogs,” she said. “It’s how I encourage them and praise them by name. I don’t use a command voice because I don’t have to. They are so eager to please they often act before I even ask.”
Indeed, Newman’s dogs respond to the traditional directional commands of “gee” and “haw” so well that once, while toting an inquisitive passenger, the team ran right off the trail and into the woods when she accidentally uttered the word “gee” too loud as part of an answer. “I’ve been a lot more careful ever since,” she said, laughing.
Though Newman is living her dream, the 47-year-old concedes the dream isn’t so simple. Wood stoves are constantly hungry. Solar batteries die. Dogs need to be mended and medicated, most of which she does herself. Even grocery shopping is no cake walk. The nearest big city is Thunder Bay, Ontario, meaning she must remember her passport for a trip to the store. Moreover, the dogs always come first. “As you can see,” she said while surveying her home, “we still need to hang Sheetrock and raise a wall or two, but those can wait. First, we take care of the dogs.”
Helping take care of the dogs this winter are apprentices Lian Law of Seneca Falls, N.Y., and Hannah Hughes of Wyoming, Minn. Law, a former naturalist at Joshua Tree National Park, is hopeful that this training will lead to a job as a dog-sledding ranger at Denali National Park in Alaska. Hughes said this is the perfect job for this stage of her life. Like Law and Hughes, Newman learned her dog-training skills from mentors. “Back in the early ’90s I owned Australian shepherds, and I gained a lot of my initial dog-handling knowledge from enrolling them in obedience and agility classes,” she said.
Newman had been looking forward to using her dogs for a freight-hauling job into the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area, but that bit of business had to be canceled because of unfavorable ice conditions. Those hours will be easily filled by focusing on her other business — making and marketing pure beeswax candles — and more mushing across the 20-plus miles of trail that lace through forest on and around her property.
“We want the folks who visit us to learn something, not only about our sled dogs and our off-grid lifestyle but, more importantly, something about themselves,” she said. “That’s the double meaning behind Points Unknown.”
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer from Baxter, Minn.