Years ago one January, I traveled with a friend to Ely, Minn., near the Boundary Waters Wilderness, to learn how to dogsled. We drove out into the forest on snow-covered roads to meet the guides and dogs, got out of our van, and were overrun by a whirling mass of 25 half-wild Alaskan huskies jumping, howling, yipping, barking, fighting (and drawing blood), and peeing and pooping everywhere.
The guide dragged various dogs over to us, threw us halters, yelling directions over the din. “Watch out for the poop.” Keep those two apart.” “That one’s a biter.” “Keep the males away from this one.”
Somehow we got the dogs tethered to their sleds, but the barking and howling never stopped. The guide then gave us a full three minutes of instruction, during which we learned five commands for the dogs: Mush (Go); Whoa (Stop); Gee (Right turn); Haw (Left turn); and On By (keep going even if you see an animal you want to chase). The most important instruction to us was “don’t let go of the sled.”
And then, finally, “Mush!” Suddenly, silence. The dogs were pulling and running now, with fierce concentration, quiet. All we heard was panting and sled runners stroking and swishing through the snow. This was what the dogs had wanted, why they had been yipping and screeching: They wanted to run.
It was 9 degrees that morning the first trip out, with the lows around -25 degrees. (The previous week it had gone down to -56 degrees, similar to what Minnesota just experienced.) We humans had been forewarned and sent a list of necessary gear. I was curious about the animals, though. What did they do? How do plants and animals adapt to very cold conditions?
The sled dogs were surprising small, (30-50 pounds), were short-haired, and didn’t look like huskies at all. Alaskan huskies are a blend of various breeds — any type that has stamina and the desire to run. In addition, their smaller size is key to efficient heat dissipation: too big, and they overheat and lose stamina. To maintain stamina and handle the cold, they eat — a lot. The dogs that run the Iditarod eat 10,000 calories a day.
The trip was sponsored by the International Wolf Center, and we also visited the captive wolves. I asked how they dealt with the cold, and was told they buried themselves in the snow and curled into themselves, tucking their noses. Most of us know how animals adapt to extreme cold. Some hibernate, some grow thick winter coats, and some migrate. Lynx and snowshoe hares have furry feet; mountain cottontails have small, furred ears; birds in northern climes have a net-like pattern of arteries that keeps the blood flow in their legs and feet just above the freezing point.
How do plants keep from freezing to death? Deciduous trees go dormant to ensure survival, and snowpack of six inches or more actually provides insulation for shrubs and overwintering perennials. But many plants actually adjust the composition of the fluids within their cells, adding sucrose to lower the temperature at which they may freeze, and creating an anti-freeze type solution that prevents ice crystals from forming outside the cells.
Not all plants will survive the extreme temperatures we’ve been seeing, but native plants will have a better chance. Another reason to plant natives!