On Trail in Minnesota

Interview with Paul Schurke - Part II
  |  Gorp.com
Battling through the pack ice of the polar sea, at -70 below zero.
No picnic.
GORP: How did you get your big break as a musher?

P.S.: I had other full-time careers. I was a journalist and led canoe trips on the side for a non-profit group called Wilderness Inquiry that a college buddy of mine, Greg Lais, and I started back in 1977. The purpose of these canoe trips was to use wilderness as a common denominator for people with different abilities—to overcome stereotypical attitudes in a wilderness setting. Canoes lent themselves so well to the program that soon we had far more applicants than we could accommodate. It made me wonder what the winter counterpart would be. Neither Greg or I knew anything about dogsledding. Then I was put in touch with this character named Will Steger. I made my way out to his little homestead and he was totally taken with the idea. He made this magnificent fleet of “zip ships,” sleds with a bucket seat, a handle, and a hot brick to put between the rider's legs, with the dogs in front. We had a caravan of people in these zip ships and chugged our way through the Boundary Waters for a week. It was a peak life experience for me and I knew then and there that this was my gig. It was mostly an aesthetic experience for me. The BWCA seems so much more wild and remote in the winter. The presence of the circle of life is so much more conspicuous. Add the magic of the dogs, and it all just fit.

GORP: What is the most harrowing winter experience you've had?

P.S.: The first time I plunged through the ice. It was one of life's lessons, learning through stupidity. Will [Steger] was on one of his Arctic walkabouts and I was taking care of things at his homestead in Ely. He would call once a month or so and I had to race to this lodge that allowed us to use their phone. We had prearranged times so I'd know when to be standing by the phone that was fastened to a tree.

One time early in the season, I was running late and only one bay separated me from the phone. I thought I could save myself ten minutes, went skittering across the thin, black ice and, kaboom, I went down, and I was in the drink. I was floundering around, battling panic, trying to gain purchase, and, after an adrenaline rush, I frantically tried to flop myself up like a seal on the ice. It wasn't working and the ice kept breaking all around me. I searched my pockets and found a couple of screws. I yanked those out, used them like a claw to gain some purchase, but found even that wasn't enough. The only thing I could think of was to take an odd chance that the bottom might be close enough to push off. So, I pushed myself down, bent my knees, rocketed out of the water, and dug the screws into the ice. I laid completely prone, slithered away from the hole, hoofed it to the cabin, and got there just as the phone was ringing. I was pretty close to buying the farm there. There was a real slim thread that held it together that day.

GORP: What's the best moment you've ever had on trail?

P.S.: I have a kaleidoscope of memories, but I'd say my favorite is an experience Susie and I had early on. The program season was over and we were alone together in the middle of the woods. It was cooler weather and the snow was crusted over which makes for very fast trails. We grabbed up an overnight kit and some dogs and traveled night and day, covering about 100 miles. We had a glorious time. We were comfortable enough to be spontaneous. That really put the cap on our wonderful first season in the woods, seeing the whole beautiful place, standing on the runner of our dogsled together.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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