Dog Sledding in Rare Company

Kevin Kling goes dog sledding with a group from Australia that have never before seen snow. The beauty of the surroundings, the stars and the starkness are incredible, but even more incredible is that each of these first-time dog sledders have their own physical challenges.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Here's another story about a journey into the unknown, albeit an unknown that's much closer to home. It's from commentator and storyteller Kevin Kling.

Mr. KEVIN KLING (Storyteller and Commentator): I believe each of us is drawn to a geography whether it is a mountain or a desert or an ocean. There lives in a particular nature that which provides a solace, but also awakens our muse. And for me it's the forests and lakes of northern Minnesota. I was recently up north in the boundary waters of Canada and the U.S. on a dog sledding trip. Now this was my first time dog sledding. We have two wiener dogs, and the thought of a dog doing what I told it to do thrills me to no end.

I'm touring with an outfitter called Wilderness Inquiry, and as we drive north past Lake Superior then inland toward the border, we see a bald eagle, a white-tailed deer, and a very rare sighting, a timber wolf following the tracks of the deer. One of our group sings an Ojibwa song that translates to here comes the spirit of the wolf, here comes the spirit of the wolf, here comes the spirit of the wolf. Here is the spirit of the wolf. It's an ominous and beautiful song, and I know from years of winters this land is unforgiving. One mistake can cost a limb or a life.

Now about half our group is from Australia, and most of them have never seen snow. They're laughing completely oblivious to the world that awaits them. I feel like Hunter S. Thompson in the opening of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, when he notices his Samoan lawyer hasn't seen the savage winged lizards dive-bombing their car. Thompson says, poor bastard will see them soon enough. We arrive at the end of the road and begin our trek across the frozen lake in the dark to the lodge. And the Australians are doing pretty well. At first they aren't too keen about walking across a lake. They say that they save walking on water for the deities. I tell them the secret to walking on ice is to have somebody else go first, and that's how I was chosen to lead the expedition.

We walk to the lodge and the stars are so low I feel like I'm actually hunting with Orion and cartwheeling with Cassiopeia. The next day I prepare for the outdoors. No cotton, use wool because it breathes. Many layers. And the last one to block the wind. Then I realize I can't find my boots. For some reason boots are up for grabs with this group, and every day I will have a different pair of boots.

That morning we meet the dogs, and some of them are veterans from the Iditarod, the 1,200-mile race in Alaska. One dog has finished in second place twice and I feel like I'm meeting Michael Jordan. The Oglala people say that centuries ago a chasm formed between humans and animals, and as it widened, at the last moment, the dog left his cousin the wolf and jumped across to be with the humans. The mournful cry of the wolf is the longing for the chasm to someday be closed. We hooked up the dogs and get ready to go.

Wilderness Inquiry specializes in wilderness trips for people with disabilities, and nearly everyone in our group sports a unique challenge. I've been secretly wanting to drive a sled, but I wasn't going to complain if I rode in the basket. See, I have a paralyzed right arm and a congenital condition with my left arm, so hanging on could be an issue. But it's not an issue. I'm not only allowed, but expected to drive a sled.

Now it's been years since I've been this nervous. People, including myself, keep protecting me, but now it is me and the elements. And as we ride through the woods, not since my days on a motorbike have I experienced such freedom. That flow of body and nature where my inside self and outside self are all one. The master and student, as the Samurai say. In control and at the mercy of the next moment. And it is silent, silent. Only the slight swoosh as the runners slide over the snow.

That night in the lodge we have a talent show. Amy from Australia, and Sam from here, sing a duet a la West Side Story, and Joel plays the didgeridoo. Steve, who is indigenous Australian, tells how his people saved the world using what he calls indigenuity. As the stories unfold I'm reminded of King Leer's fool or the Heyoka, the fools and clowns of the Oglala, or the contraries for the Ojibwa. Usually people with disabilities, they were thought of as healers and visionaries. People with a foot in two worlds at the same time. As I watch the performers work through and beyond their physical limitations, I'm struck by the truth and joy, the living in the moment that is the heart of every great performance. I am among fellow clowns and fools, and these days when the news has become entertainment, we get the truth through a person, a story, or a place of solace.

There is a folktale that comes from back in the days when pots and pans could talk, which indeed they still do. There lived a man, and in order to have water, every day he had to walk down the hill and fill two pots and walk them home. One day, one of the pots turned to the man and said, you know, every day you take me down this hill, and I'm old and I have a crack in my side. By the time you get home, half of the water has leaked out. Please, replace me with a better pot. The man said, you don't understand. As we walk, you spill water on the path and you water the wildflowers. And sure enough, the side of the path the cracked pot was carried had wildflowers growing, while the other side was barren. The man said, you make this task bearable and even pleasant. I would never trade that.

The next day we prepare to leave, and I look and lo and behold there are my boots waiting for me. As we ride past Lake Superior in silence, I keep singing to myself, here comes the spirit of the wolf, here comes the spirit of the wolf.

NORRIS: Storyteller Kevin Kling lives in Minnesota. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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