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Mushing to Trout

Ely, Minn.--The dogsled creaks and hisses over the snow. Buzz and Juanita, our lead dogs, have the nine-dog team stretched out and pulling hard over the ice of Ensign Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Sled dogs

Ely, Minn.--The dogsled creaks and hisses over the snow. Buzz and Juanita, our lead dogs, have the nine-dog team stretched out and pulling hard over the ice of Ensign Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

It's brisk out here - 3 degrees above zero - on this January morning. A peppy wind blows out of the northwest. Slithering wisps of snow crystals snake across the lake. Sometimes they spiral into mini snow tornadoes.

"No fresh wolf tracks this morning," says Kelly Murphy, 51, who's riding the runners of this dogsled. "They must be sleeping in today."

Behind us, David Kure of Wuori Township near Virginia is driving a seven-dog team of Murphy's Alaskan huskies. Kure, 52, often works with Murphy, who guides dogsledding trips out of his base at Ely. The three of us are bound for Knife Lake on the Canadian border to see if we can find some lake trout.

This is just a day trip - a trip that wouldn't be possible without the dogs. It was the lure of lake trout that spurred Murphy, an Ely native, to begin building a dog team in 1986, shortly after snowmobiles were banned in the wilderness.


Now he keeps 21 dogs. Many of them are former racers, veterans of the Yukon Quest or the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. Too slow for those teams, they still can get us 12 miles up the border to Knife Lake in an hour and a half.

"My record is an hour and 15 minutes," Murphy says.

While the lake trout are the focus of our trip, getting there - and back - is a great part of the appeal. Traveling behind a team of good dogs, moving through the winter woods at 6 mph, is a privilege. Part of it is simply being in the woods, looking around.

"See that dark spot along the shore up there?" Murphy asks, looking a half-mile ahead. "Is that a wolf or a rock?"

We travel on in silence, studying the spot.

"Must be a rock," Murphy says finally. "It hasn't moved."

But it might have been a wolf. Or an otter gliding across the open lake. Or a moose feeding in young aspen along a portage. Or two bald eagles dive-bombing a red squirrel as it makes a death-defying crossing on the ice. Murphy and Kure have seen such events out here.

But even without wildlife, this is good country to be passing through. Just watching the low light play across the lakes and ridges, or seeing the bands of hematite in a rock along shore, or feeling the deep silence when we take a break along the trail - it is all part of what we will bring home from this day.


I cannot help thinking how many days Murphy has followed this return as a part of his guiding and freighting.

"I've got 30,000 miles on this sled," he says.

When I express incredulity at the figure, he does the math out loud.

"Well, let's see," he says. "A thousand to two thousand miles a year. I've been doing this for 19 years."

That's a lot of miles. And a lot of good days in the woods.

At Knife Lake, we happen onto something unusual - two human beings. Two young men, one from Wisconsin and the other from Michigan, have backpacked here on snowshoes. They've been out for three days and are headed home. We wish them well and move down the lake.

Murphy and Kure swing the dog teams into the lee of the island where Dorothy Molter, the famous "Root Beer Lady" of the Boundary Waters, once spent her winters. We hand-crank six holes in the ice above water that is 50 feet deep. We drop ciscoes on tip-ups, suspending them about 25 feet down.

Murphy will tell you this is the most reliable way to catch canoe-country lakers in winter. Not that bucktail jigs and airplane jigs don't work, but lake trout seem to prefer a dead cisco, improbably dangling halfway up the water column.


Within half an hour, the orange flag of one tip-up is flapping in the breeze. Murphy is off at the other end of the island looking for an ax and a saw he lost on a previous trip, so Kure races to the hole. He removes the tip-up and begins hauling up black Dacron line.

But the line is not tight. There is no resistance at the end of it.

"He's gone," Kure announces.

Kure continues pulling up line to check the cisco, and suddenly the line goes taut. Kure is windmilling now, in the tradition of all tip-up fishers, hauling up line and lake trout as fast as he can. Within seconds, a 4-pound lake trout is sugarcoating itself with snow.

Kure explains what happened when he at first felt no resistance from the trout.

"He was coming at me," Kure says.

In half an hour, Kure is at it again, hand-over-handing another plump laker to daylight. All of our action comes on the tip-up lines. Murphy and I each get a hit while jigging a bucktail and an airplane jig, but we can't keep the fish hooked.

The fishing is at the limit of the comfort zone. We wear parkas or anoraks over several layers. We pull wind pants over fleece or wool. We can fish for a while, and then it's time for a little walk to reacquaint blood supplies with toes. Oh, we have a fishing shelter and a heater along. But it just seems - well, too much fuss.


Besides, it's time for lunch.

Kure and Murphy fire up their propane stoves, and soon we have chunks of breaded lake trout fillets bubbling in hot oil. Murphy throws a few Polish sausages in his pan of boiling water. Call it poor-man's surf and turf.

We stab chunks of fish with our knives and devour the bite-size pieces as they cool in the 9-degree air. Murphy is moaning over one of the delectable bits when he looks out on the lake.

"Flag," he shouts.

He galumphs out to the waving tip-up in his mukluks and anorak. He looks like a Siberian peasant late for his bus. Still chewing one bite of fried fillet, he hauls up three pounds of fresh lake trout. Same story - the fish has taken a whole cisco on a single hook, dangling 25 feet down in 50 feet of water.

We bury that one in our snow refrigerator and get back to lunch.

At about 2:30, with four fish for the day, Murphy and Kure begin loading the sleds. We'll want to get back to the Moose Lake public landing by sunset.

The dogs understand the rhythm of the day, having made countless trips with Murphy. They stand and stretch. Time to go home. By the time they're hitched in tandem along the ganglines, they are howling, yelping, moaning, yipping and otherwise telling Murphy and Kure it's time to roll.


As soon as Murphy and Kure pull their snowhooks - the musher's emergency brake - the teams leap into action. Immediately, all barking ceases. Tug lines tighten. The teams string out across the lake. They soon look dark and small against the white expanse. At the sled's uprights, Murphy and Kure also become dark forms against the vast whiteness.

The entire scene seems to be something out of the long ago past.

Sam Cook is the outdoors writer for the Duluth (Minn.) News-Tribune, a Forum Communications newspaper

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