Many suburbanites dream of escaping the bitter cold and snow of our seemingly endless winter. The 31 women on the Trailbound Trips' "Women's Getaway" escaped to someplace even colder and snowier.
Eating breakfast before dawn on Friday, the women readied themselves for the day's dog sled adventure in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
"It's minus-30 degrees without the wind chill," says Carol Ruhter, the 58-year-old Trailbound Trips founder from Barrington. "By the time we get off the bus, it's a balmy minus 17."
The dogs didn't mind, and neither did the women.
"Yeah, it warmed up," says Jen Gaidjunas, a 43-year-old mom who grew up in Florida and credits Trailbound Trips with "saving my sanity" during her seven winters of living in Tower Lakes. "At first, I'd think, 'It's cold and snowy and I need to hide inside and hibernate.'"
Not only has Gaidjunas acclimated to winter weather, but she also persuaded her 61-year-old sister, Cathy Barulic, to leave 80-degree West Palm Beach, Fla., to join her in the Great White North, where it was more than 100 degrees colder.
"They say there's no bad weather, only bad clothing," says Janet Hillier, 57, of Wauconda, who had so much fun on the trip last winter, she wasn't going to let subzero temperatures stop her this year. "It's exhilarating. It's challenging. I'm doing outside exercise in this decade so I can get to my next decade."
While Trailbound Trips organizes local day hikes and bicycle journeys, weekend and longer nature trips and summer pilgrimages, the Northwoods Dog Sled Adventure is in its third year and fills up fast, Ruhter says.
A mother of two, Ruhter says she once struggled to find women in the suburbs "who would rather go hiking than shopping." In her 18 years of organizing nature trips, she's built a loyal following of hike-minded women.
"They are your neighbors, the moms in your carpool, your co-workers," Ruhter says. "I go to some amazing places, but the most amazing aspect of my job is the amazing women."
Living in Mount Prospect and owning a health-care company in Oak Brook, Liz Kerr says a dog sled trip changes the perception of winter.
"I have to drive to work, I have to get groceries, and that I don't enjoy," Kerr says. "When we went up north, we are there to enjoy it. The whole trip is a celebration of the cold. If I get stuck in traffic now, I can think about snowshoeing to Tahquamenon Falls."
Leaving by bus from Palatine on Wednesday and returning on Sunday, the women could hike in snowshoes, cross-country ski and spend a day at Nature's Kennel, where they learned how to harness and control 170 enthusiastic sled dogs eager to be taken for a 10-mile trek.
Driving her sled team, Hillier says she earned a "trail name," and was delighted when her daughter Amy used it in a text message reading, "How are you doing, Musher?"
The women say they are told what to bring and that the trip is so well-organized, there are no surprises even in this year's conditions. No one dropped out of the dog sled day, and the oldest woman, 74, not only drove her own sled, but she also helped push younger women to keep up.
"That healthy feeling of empowerment is contagious," says Ruhter.
"I never thought I'd be able to do it, but I did it all," says Kerr, who made lots of friends. "It was great. It gives you a lot of confidence."
Gaidjunas brought grips to help her walk on ice, "but there was so much snow, the ice wasn't a problem," she says. And it wasn't the snow that many suburbanites have grown to resent.
"We're not seeing the Jewel parking lot snow that's gray and dirty. We're seeing white snow with animal tracks," Ruhter says.
Returning to our winter after a vacation on a sunny beach can be difficult, but even these women need some time to readjust.
"I think I like to play in snow more than shoveling it," Hillier says.
After the bus dropped them off late Sunday afternoon in Palatine, Gaidjunas joined the other women in scraping the snow and ice off their windshields.
"That," she says, "was the only time I was cold the entire trip."