It’s not common for someone to volunteer to spend a week in subzero temperatures without a cabin, heat or cot just to learn dogsledding. Geoffrey Dominessy, a contracting officer with the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support Construction and Equipment supply chain, did just that in February in Northern Minnesota.
The former Army Logistics officer learned about the opportunity after over hearing some of his fellow Pathways to Career Excellence employees discussing programs that helped veterans transition to civilian life during his onboarding process at DLA Troop Support.
“Unfamiliar with the program, I found out the Outward Bound organization promotes a lot of outdoor activities for veterans for about a week or two weeks long, where [veterans] can do things like sailing, hiking, canoeing and dogsledding,” Dominessy said. “I chose dogsledding; I thought it would be something interesting to try and something completely different from anything that I had ever done.”
When he informed his leadership about his decision to attend the program, they fully supported it.
“Work-life balance is critical for so many reasons and elements of life,” Navy Capt. Gerald Raia, C&E supply chain director said. “Without the right balance, physical and mental health deteriorates, job performance fails, personal relationships fail and those failures not only affect the person out of balance but all those surrounding him. There are programs out there that help keep employees even keeled so stress doesn’t build to unmanageable levels and gives personnel the awareness tools to recognize the stressors that affect their personal and professional growth.”
With an approved leave form in hand, the adventure began when Dominessy flew from Philadelphia to Duluth, Minnesota where he met with 16 other participants from all across the country. From the airport, he and his new teammates were driven three hours to their base camp at Boundary Waters, Minnesota.
“A place with a bunch of lakes frozen about three feet deep covered with ice and snow at waist level,” Dominessy said. “It was like being out in the field for a week in -34 degree weather, just like in the Army. They issue you a sleeping bag, rucksack, cold weather gear, boots and eating utensils…and make sure that you have everything you need according to the packing list and a checklist.”
The frigid temperatures posed many challenges for Dominessy and his team mates.
“The coldest night was our first night, we were forced to sleep in a cabin with no heat in temperatures that reached -30,” he said. “It was a big shock to all of us and nobody got sleep due to it being so cold. They want you get trained up on how to sleep in the cold weather.”
After the first challenge but before the adventure got started, they lost two members.
“We had one guy drop out because it was too cold, then on the second day another guy dropped out because he said it was not for him.”
Overcoming challenges was something Dominessy and his counterparts were quite familiar with as veterans.
“Just like in the military you will go through something or struggle together and it kind of builds your character and resiliency so you just keep on going,” he said.
Despite the departures of his teammates, Dominessy remained strong and continued to prepare for his upcoming adventure.
“The next day, we had breakfast, packed all our bags and the sleds,” Dominessy said. “We also had to pack shovels, tarps, mats, cooking gear and food for the dogs as well because you are going to be in the field the whole time.”
After packing all the gear and sleds onto a truck, the veterans were ready to receive their dogs.
“There were about 70 dogs there, howling so it kinds of give you a rush,” he said. “So we had to go get our dogs and bring them to the truck.”
From there, the group took a half-hour drive to the Boundary Water Park, where the teammates setup their sleds and assigned guides who served as subject matter experts on cold weather and the dogs.
Team work was a critical component of the dogsledding adventure. According to Dominessy, the 14 participants were broken down into two teams.
“The way it works is that half the team is on the sled, kind of pushing the sled, kind of helping it move forward,” he said. “With sledding, you are not on it all the time because you are carrying cargo. A lot of your time is [spent] running ahead of it and pulling it, pushing it from behind and helping the dogs move.”
“The other half of the team is cross country skiing to go ahead of you to pat down the trail or clear obstacles,” he said. “So you have to switch, so that everyone has a fair chance of sledding.”
After a long day of traveling and sledding, each day Dominessy and his teammates arrived back to the base camp at about 6 or 7 p.m. not to relax but to setup the camp.
“We had to clear a spot on the lake and then go into to the woods to look for wood, which could take about three hours,” Dominessy said. “We had to set up tarps because there was no shelter. We did not transport water, so we had to dig into 3 to 4 feet of ice to get it, which takes about an hour and chop wood to build a fire to stay warm and cook our food.”
The participants were provided prepared food for the week, and each night someone was tasked to be the cook for the team.
The day concluded around 9 p.m., however participants must exercise before going to bed.
“Before you go to sleep you have to do exercises to warm-up your body and immediately jump into your sleeping bag because your body drops in temperature,” Dominessy said. “A lot of us did not get sleep at night because you are constantly struggling to stay warm.”
Reflecting on his experience, Dominessy said he and his teammates underestimated the opportunity.
“We thought it was going to be glamourous and we were going to be dogsledding and living in cabins with fire places instead it was constant work,” Dominessy said. “We had to chop wood, feed the dogs, inspect the dogs for injury, and give them a treat.”
Throughout the experience, Dominessy explained that every day was basically the same except for the third day where he enjoyed a “solo day” to get away from the team and self-reflect on the experience.
“You had to spend a whole day by yourself,” he said. “They assigned you a specific spot. That day you had to find your own wood, cook your own food and dig for your own water.”
This was the midway point of the adventure and Dominessy considers his best night.
“I was able to set up shelter and sleep through the whole night fine,” he said.
The weeklong adventure culminated as participants were provided an opportunity to spend some time in the sauna before their big polar bear plunge into the frozen river.
“The first time you jump in they tell you to totally submerge your body in the water,” Dominessy said. “During my first jump, my body got shocked. On the second jump, I stayed in for 30 seconds but it actually felt good as you see the frozen river rushing pass you. My body felt perfectly fine, but my feet started feeling like needles going into my feet.”
Dominessy stated that the lessons learned from participating in the program can be applied when faced with adversity in the workplace.
“Being resilient in the sub-zero temperatures of the Boundary Waters gave me a fresh perspective on how to deal with adversity in both my personal and professional life,” he said. “Often we are challenged with mission related difficulties here at Troop Support that are out of our direct control. For example, natural disasters such as the hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. These are just a few of the many examples of situations where Troop Support teams have displayed resilience and an unwavering drive to achieve mission success in the las t few years and will continue to do so in the future.”