By Lydia Farmer – [email protected]
Snow. Puppies. The great outdoors. It sounds like a Minnesota fantasy—one SJU alumnus Paul Schurke made a reality when he started Wintergreen Dogsledding Lodge 38 years ago.
Schurke’s love of the outdoors was sparked by summers spent at his family’s cabin on the Apple River, this love grew when he came to St. John’s and got involved in Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG), a national organization on college campuses that allows students to get involved with environmental and consumerist issues.
In his time involved with this program he lobbied for federal legislation to protect the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota alongside his close friend and “beer drinking buddy,” Greg Lais. This was an issue close to Schurke’s heart because of the several canoe trips he had gone on in the Boundary Waters while he was growing up.
“As soon as I saw the Boundary Waters I knew right then and there I wanted to stay there,” Schurke said.
After graduating from St. John’s in 1977, Schurke and Lais turned their passion for the outdoors into a nonprofit organization called Wilderness Inquiry.
Wilderness Inquiry is an organization that provides the opportunity for people from all walks of life to experience the outdoors. The first group Schurke and Lais took on a Boundary Water canoe trip included two people in wheelchairs and two who were deaf.
The organization’s canoe trips were so successful that they began to wonder how they could provide these opportunities year-round. A recommendation from a friend brought them to the dogsledding capital of the world, Ely, Minnesota, where Schurke brought his first group on a dogsledding trip in January of 1979.
“I became enchanted with the whole scene of winter and dogsledding so it has been winter and dogs for me ever since,” Schurke said.
Schurke and Lais worked together in the first five years of the organization before Schurke went out on his own to begin Wintergreen Dogsledding Lodge. Lais still runs Wilderness Inquiry and it has continued to grow, Schurke and his family help leading excursions with the nonprofit whenever they can.
Flash-forward 38 years, Schurke is still leading groups from all over the world on dogsledding trips at Wintergreen in Ely, Minnesota and making expeditions to the arctic every spring.
Schurke has traveled all over the world beginning with a historic international polar expedition that was featured on the cover of National Geographic as well as in a television special.
Since then, Schurke has been the recipient of numerous awards recognizing his explorations including the Merit Award from the World Center for Exploration and the Adventurers of the Year award from Outside Magazine.
Greenland, Siberia and Antarctica are a handful of Schurke’s destinations but he says his favorite was a trip he took to the River of Doubt, a tributary of the Amazon River. His exploration was a replication of Theodore Roosevelt’s exploration 100 years prior.
When Schurke isn’t exploring the world, he calls Wintergreen his home. Each year from December to March Schurke and the rest of the staff at Wintergreen lead groups of people from all over the world to explore the winter wilderness of Northern Minnesota.
“The world comes to our door every winter all winter long with these hundreds of people that literally do come from all over the planet to go dog-sledding, I enjoy that immensely,” Schurke said.
All of the sledding expeditions at Wintergreen are made possible by the 65 Canadian Inuit dogs. Each dog is born and raised at Wintergreen and has a strong instinct to pull a sled. They begin pulling at eight months of age and many continue to pull past 12 years of age.
“They are a very rough-and-tumble breed they don’t get sick they don’t have injuries, they don’t require a whole lot of care but of course we love them to death nonetheless,” Schurke said. “They’re easy keepers and when the snow flies they want nothing more than to be slipped into a harness and clipped to sled and off they go.”
Schurke said he is proud of his connection to CSB/SJU and still likes to stay involved with the campus. Each year he leads a group of alumni on an Eco-spirituality retreat at his lodge.
CSB/SJU has been one of the many places he goes to speak about his explorations and environmental issues. Schurke said he is grateful to the school for the things he was involved in and the experiences he got.
“Classical music, skiing and writing were all central to my college experience and have also kind of crafted the person I am today,” Schurke said. “It’s fun to see what a huge influence my years at St. John’s/St. Ben’s have had on everything I’ve done since.”
FEATURE PHOTO COURTESY OF WINTERGREEN DOGSLEDDING