Walking into the Voyageur Outward Bound School dog yard is an experience like none other. The dogs sense your intentions and howl at your approach. As you turn the corner into the yard, the most eager dogs jump on top of their rectangular houses and beg for attention. Jasper bucks and whines, Horatio barks from the back corner, and Brujo gazes longingly in your direction as you enter the musher’s cabin. Once the dogs realize you’re there for routine work—daily chores, hammering axles into the ground, changing straw in the dog boxes—they settle back into the scratching, panting, drinking, and sunning you interrupted with your arrival. Some neighbors play with each other; others will ignore every living thing until you pass with the five-gallon bucket of kibble.
Even when quiet, the yard is full of small noises. The individual movements of seventy playful, intelligent animals blend together into the rhythm of the pack. Pirate jumps onto his house—thunk, thunk—while Cash turns over his food dish with a metallic clank. Blender runs around his axle, his chain clinking behind him. A few dogs in the back corner suddenly stand, walk in a circle, and point their ears toward the same point in the woods; perhaps a deer has wandered near. Dewey gnaws on a marrow bone. Though the names in the yard may change, dogs biding their time until it snows sound the same from year to year.
Confronted with seven rows of Inuit huskies, Alaskan huskies, and Malamutes, it can be easy to forget the humble beginnings of our dog yard. The winter program spent its first eleven years without dogs, instead focusing on cross country skiing expeditions where team members pulled their gear on individual sleds called “pulks.” In 1981, Dave Oleson, now a veteran Iditarod musher and Arctic homesteader, brought his own team of dogs to VOBS and changed the winter program forever.
The yard grew slowly as VOBS developed our expeditionary mushing style, which uses powerful freight dogs to pull heavy sleds. In 1992, VOBS took in seventeen such dogs from the Mawson Station, an Australian research outpost on Antarctica. Members of the so-called “Mawson breed” of huskies, the dogs were large and bred to withstand the harsh realities of the Antarctic climate. An international treaty banned nonnative species from residing on the Antarctic continent, however, and the sled dogs needed a new home. They thrived in the Ely winters and pulled heartily for our students. Their offspring carried the Mawson traits into successively younger generations of the yard. The last dog of the Mawson blood line, Lindstrom, retired in 2013 and left our yard for the milder climes of Massachusetts.
Over the years, VOBS has sheltered many other dogs, especially from racing or recreational kennels who require higher performance animals. Our new recruits mix in well with the dogs born in our yard, and we train them all to do what they love: make sleds fly across the frozen Boundary Waters.