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Iowa fields to the north woods: Ely dogsledding experience proves transformative for first-time musher

Ramona Bracker of Neola, Iowa, stands on the runners of a dogsled at Chilly Dogs Sled Dog Trips in Ely. Photo courtesy Ramona Bracker

DULUTH, Minn.—She's 58 years old and lives on a corn and soybean farm in Iowa. Vacationing with her husband on the North Shore last summer, she picked up a dogsledding brochure in the lobby of a resort. The brochure was for Chilly Dogs Sled Dog Trips in Ely.

"It looked like so much fun," recalled Ramona Bracker of Neola, Iowa.

She showed her husband the brochure.

"I'm going to do this someday," she told him.

This winter, she pulled out the brochure and called Chilly Dogs to book her trip.

"I went solo because my husband thought I was crazy to go," Bracker said. "He was pretty sure I'd freeze to death."

Of course, it gets cold in the border country near Ely this time of year. But Bracker couldn't put the idea of a dogsledding adventure out of her mind. She shared her story with me through the course of several emails and a phone conversation.

Bracker first contacted me soon after her trip, not seeking any exposure but to comment on something I had written. I responded to her and later asked if she would be willing to share her story. I was struck by a couple of elements in her account — first, the spirit of a woman her age to venture on her own into unfamiliar country to tackle something she had never done before, and, second, the unbridled feeling of joy that nearly always accompanies someone's first dogsledding experience.

A realization

Bracker's motivation for making the trip came to her after she endured four surgeries over the past two years, she said. She requires follow-up medical procedures about every three months.

She was watching television one evening and awaiting her "next medical onslaught" when a thought occurred to her: "Well, gee. I'm 58 years old, and I'm not dead yet."

That's when she remembered the Chilly Dogs brochure, she said. She called and made her reservation.

She drove north alone. Her husband, Monte, still had no interest in traveling to northern Minnesota during the heart of winter. Bracker had thought about asking some women friends, but they generally travel with their families, she said. And her three grown sons?

"Who wants to travel with their mother?" she said.

It was 25 below zero the day she made her two-hour mushing trip with Chilly Dogs, operated by the Hway family of Ely — Jeff and Donna, son Jake and his wife, Jessica. Bracker was the oldest participant in the group by about 15 years, she estimated.

She loved bouncing along in the sled on snow-packed trails through the boreal forest. She took a turn driving the team of retired but still-powerful racing sled dogs.

"We did three hills, and I wiped out three times," she said.

Brian Bittner, the Chilly Dogs musher paired with Bracker, regained control of the dogs. Bracker would pick herself up and hop back on the runners.

Back to camp

Bracker's team and the others traveled about 16 miles over two hours in the woods near Ely, she said. When they returned to the Chilly Dogs warm-up room, Bracker was ecstatic.

"I felt so alive," she said, "like I had just made a touchdown in the Super Bowl. You may think that's an exaggeration, but it's not. I felt so good being out there, like I belonged there. ... And I think it was more of an adventure because I went solo."

Bracker had never been to Ely before and felt welcomed by the town's residents she met.

"I absolutely fell in love with that town and the people there," Bracker said. "They are a tough, positive group of people. ... Every one of them understood my desire to go dogsledding. In fact, they encouraged me to try skiing and canoeing, too."

Making the trip, Bracker said, taught her something about herself.

"That I can still feel that spark in life, you know?" she said. "I can accomplish something totally out of my comfort zone. I can still have an adventure because there are people like Brian and the good people of Chilly Dogs who will help me. I don't have to be young or affluent to have adventures."

Her husband, she said, had to endure her reliving the trip at length upon her return.

"For days, I didn't talk about anything but the trip. I think he honestly got tired of hearing about it," Bracker said. "And he is a tad dismayed. He thought the trip would put an end to my need to 'get away.' But it was just the opposite. The spark is back, and now I can't wait to plan my next adventure."

Before she left Ely, she happened to find another brochure, this one in the lobby of the Grand Ely Lodge.

"A woman named Peta Barrett started 'Women's Wilderness Discovery' at the age of 57," Bracker said. "She guides canoe trips in the BWCA. I've never done anything like that before. I'm thinking it would be a nice birthday present. I'm 59 in July."

She should be home in time in plenty of time for the harvest.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com. Find his Facebook page at facebook.com/SamCookOutdoors or his blog at samcook.areavoices.com.

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