The Dog Days of Wintersession
Just a few days earlier, Yamen Abbas ’17 had been in Nazareth, Israel, enjoying his break at home in a city where even winter temperatures hovered in the 60s. But on that mid-January morning, Abbas stood bundled up in fleece on the back of a wooden sled, gliding across a frozen lake on the Maine-New Hampshire border, pulled along by a team of huskies. To put it plainly, he says, “It couldn’t be more different.”
It is this contrast to the bustle of ordinary life—be it the crowds of Nazareth or the classes, extracurriculars, and social commitments dominating undergraduates’ waking hours at Harvard—that stands at the center of the dogsledding trip that has become a new tradition for Pforzheimer House. For the past five years (following a calendar change that created a month-long break between semesters), the College has opened dorms and allowed for programming during what is now known as Wintersession, the final week before spring classes begin. On-campus offices and Undergraduate Council-funded student groups lead a variety of “enrichment” events, ranging from art classes to workshops on public speaking, networking, and personal finance, to an open house at Harvard Law School.
But the Pforzheimer dogsledding trip is part of a push for Winteresession programming—as well as events at the College throughout the year—to give students the chance to take a step back, get out of their routines, and reflect. (The first two offerings listed on this year’s Wintersession website, for example, are the First-Year Enrichment Program, a two-day workshop on self-reflection, and “Refresh Retreat,” a three-day trip to Vermont for first-year students, also focused on reflective discussions.)
Pforzheimer House master Anne Harrington, Ford professor of the history of science, first had the idea for a student dogsledding trip before she even took the helm of the House in 2013. Driving in western Maine, where she and her husband had recently bought a small house, she saw a team of huskies beside a remote country road. “I just had this instinct that this was so novel, and would represent an encounter with such a different kind of set of expertise,” she explains, “that it would be a fantastic thing to do with students.” Last winter, with a grant from the Office of Student Life in hand, Harrington looked to the Maine-based Mahoosuc Guide Service to turn this germ of an idea into a reality. It was a perfect new winter tradition for Pforzheimer—once called North House, and now with a polar-bear mascot to match.
This year, the second of what Harrington hopes will be an annual event, she joined 17 undergraduates and the House’s senior resident tutor, Deji Ogunnaike ’10, for a three-day dogsledding and winter-camping expedition. Even as they drove up to the Mahoosuc Guide’s lodge, where they spent the first night of the trip, the contrast to life in Cambridge was clear; cell-phone service faded to nothing, mountains loomed around them, and, as they stepped out of the car, the air even felt clearer, Abbas remembers. That evening, the group checked over their gear and sat down to hear guides Kevin Slater and Polly Mahoney talk about the techniques and traditions of dogsledding, a skill they had acquired through years of experience and training with Inuit and Cree communities in Alaska and northern Canada. Students who sign up for the trip, Harrington says, “think they’re agreeing to learn something really cool—sort of like I’ll learn to ski, and I’ll learn to dogsled. But it turns out to be much more about an encounter with a whole way of living that is so different from the kind of lifestyle they’re used to, and a whole set of understandings and knowledge that are so different from their own. And that’s therefore very humbling.”
The next morning, students received a lesson in handling the dogs and the sled, spent a few minutes playing with the huskies, and headed out over frozen Umbagog Lake. Half were on sleds and half on snowshoes (despite 100 inches of snowfall earlier in the winter, there wasn’t quite enough snow for cross-country skiing). Students on the sleds were instructed to stay quiet, so their unfamiliar voices wouldn’t break the dogs’ concentration. This silence, Ogunnaike explains, offered the chance to just stop and take in the scenery. “To a certain extent,” he adds, “I think we’re starved of a lot of things that humans usually get” by being in nature.
The group spent two nights at the two winter camps that Mahoosuc has set up on the edge of the lake. Their activities there bore little resemblance to the all-in-one-building convenience of life on campus: sleeping in canvas tents, chopping down trees for fuel, and cutting holes in the ice to get drinking water. For Ogunnaike, both experiences offer a certain kind of comfort. Campus life is convenient, but out on the lake students found that “it was a little bit more luxurious with respect to things like time…and [the chance] to think about themselves, which honestly is a luxury that I think most Harvard students don't really get while they’re here.”
Pforzheimer residents on the trip say this was the biggest takeaway as a busy second semester loomed ahead. Ella Duncan ’17 recalls feeling burnt out during a school year spent juggling premed requirements, EMT training, and her work as a Peer Advising Fellow mentoring an entryway of freshmen. She worked the first part of January at Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, but says she’s glad the trip gave her the chance to step off the treadmill. It brought home a piece of advice she’s given the freshmen she works with: “It’s a choice that you have to make: free time and reflection, and things that are actually the most important, are never given to you, because that's not how our world works.”
For Duncan, the trip’s slow pace meant the chance to get to know House residents she might never have met otherwise, as admission to the trip was determined by lottery. Over long dinners and a bonfire, they sat with no electricity and no cell service and got the chance to talk about things that are often pushed to the side: families, hopes for the future, and the kind of long stories that take hours to tell. “When we talked at the end of the trip, the highlight, for a lot of people, was just being out in the quiet and slowing down,” recalls Polly Mahoney, one of the guides. Despite the novelty, “it wasn’t dogsledding. It was just the quieting of connecting with nature. I think they got it.”
The outing was a chance for a totally foreign learning experience—where all those on the trip, including Harrington, were equally inexperienced. Though they were well taken care of by the guides, the students still needed to help with tasks that ensured they’d stay warm and happy through the cold night. And often, the lessons were learned only after the fact. For Duncan and Abbas, friends since freshman year, one of the most memorable moments came on the first night in camp when the stove went out in the small tent they were sharing with two other sophomores. The wood they used to build the fire back up was too wet, and a thick white smoke filled the tent when they opened the stove to investigate. Laughing at their incompetence—both consider themselves relatively carefree people—they stumbled out and tried furiously to push freezing air into the smoky tent.
As they waited for the tent to clear, the group ventured out a little further on the ice to take a break. Though they’d been warned that avoiding snow was the key to staying warm, they lay down and looked up at a dense thicket of stars that would never be visible from light-saturated Cambridge. “This happened a lot of times during the trip, this moment. I would just stop, and look at the scene, and think, ‘This is so distant from society. And I love it, this break,’” Abbas says. “At Harvard, especially, there's a lot of activity. It's very fast-paced….It was nice, it was really nice, just to be distanced from all of that.”
And he’s managed to bring a bit of that Wintersession peace back with him. On the trip, Abbas first tried Celestial Seasonings’ Bengal Spice Tea, a flavor that he now associates with staying warm out on the cold lake. When he got back to school, he ordered a few packs online. Late at night, when he sits working on homework with his mug of Bengal Spice Tea, his roommates, he says, know not to worry.