Alaska may have the thousand-mile Iditarod, but Ely is the capital of contiguous U.S. dog sledding. Four hours north of the Twin Cities and just shy of the Canadian border, the 3,387-resident Boundary Waters town has the highest concentration of dog sled tour operators in the Lower 48.
For our first mushing experience, we hooked up with Ely’s Chilly Dogs Sled Dog Trips, a family-run outfitter whose 90-plus Alaskan huskies are almost all retired racing dogs. Founder Jake Hway began guiding sled dog trips at age 13 and has logged more than 25,000 miles since. He eventually bought a starter pack of race dogs, convinced his partner Jess and his parents Jeff and Donna to get onboard, and grew the business from there.
It was Donna and Jake who checked us in for our afternoon booking. They surveyed us from head to toe to make sure we were properly attired; anything we didn’t think to bring (ski goggles, heavy-duty over mitts, densely insulated Frankenstein boots), we could rent.
After a de-briefing in the lodge, we did a meet-and-greet with the huskies (some of whom are John Beargrease champions) and toured their kennel. This was followed by an intense sledding instructional. The training was a little scary, but this was intentional—the Hway family is deadly serious about safety and wants their guests to be, too.
As the dogs were roped up and readied to run, they started howling their fool heads off; the cacophony was deafening. And then, in an instant, we were off—pulled by Zipper, Weiber, Jedi, Buccaneer, Pickles, and Smokey. Once we got moving, all we heard was the gallop of paws on packed snow, the whir of the sled, and the wind whistling through the snow-capped tree branches. It was magical.
Our 8.5-mile Snowy Owl Run ($135 for adults) took one hour and cut through 300 acres of private land as well as Superior National Forest. Steering the sled was easy because the dogs knew the well-groomed trails inside and out, and the hills weren’t nearly as steep as we originally feared. If we had to jog alongside the sled to keep up the momentum, if was only for a moment. A longer Backcountry Loop ($190 for adults) covers twice the distance and takes double the time. Chilly Dogs also offers hour-long kennel tours ($100 for one to six people) and full-day trips with three hours of trail time spread over 23 miles ($325 for adults).
The outing ended with cookies and hot cocoa back in the Hway family lodge. We warmed our bones by the wood-burning fireplace and asked loads of questions about the huskies, their former racing lives, and their current living conditions. It was an enriching experience—great for adults and kids alike (though we wouldn’t recommend it to children under 8 unless they’re exceedingly well-behaved). We can’t wait to try it again next season.
Chilly Dogs Sled Dog Trips
1557 Esterberg Rd., Ely, MN; 218-365-4726.