Bayfield, Wisconsin - Curled up snugly in the snow, Rosy, Kathy, Milly and Bobby blinked dreamily into the winter sun near Lake Superior in the US state of Wisconsin. The biting cold was dry, so it was not too unpleasant. In fact, at about minus 20 degrees centigrade, it was just right for them and 30 other Siberian huskies.
"This weather is ideal for my dogs," remarked John Thiel, who runs a dog-sled tour company near the northern Wisconsin town of Bayfield.
"They feel best and run fastest at these temperatures."
As always, the dogs, many with two-tone eyes, got excited when they realized they were about to take a tour through the countryside. But first they had to be harnessed and hooked to the sleds. Beside themselves with anticipation, they spun circles and let loose an ear- splitting cannonade of barking and howling.
When you are on a sled being pulled by a team of eight or 10 sprinting huskies, all you can hear is their panting and paws pounding the snow. Only now and then do the lead musher's calls reach your thickly muffled ears. Around you, the woods are piled high with snow, and the lakes are frozen over.
At the end of the ride, hot tea and hand warmers are just what the doctor ordered. But first the dogs have to be unhooked, unharnessed and put back into their pens.
It is hard to believe that this winter idyll in the woods is only a few hours' drive from Minneapolis, the most populous city - at 373,000 - in the adjacent state of Minnesota.
Minneapolis has attractions of a different kind such as art and culture. Its places of interest include the Mill City Museum, which chronicles the history of the flour milling industry that flourished in the city, and the Walker Art Centre, hailed by the US magazine Newsweek as "possibly the best contemporary art museum in the country."
Another highlight is the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the largest open-air exhibition of modern sculptures in the US.
People in the states along the five Great Lakes like to live in cities such as Minneapolis and neighbouring St. Paul, together known as the "Twin Cities." Nevertheless, a common trait of Great Lakes states residents is a love of the seemingly boundless expanse of countryside at their doorstep.
"Nature is a very important part of our lives. We prefer to spend our time outdoors," said Minnesota state tourism official Cheryl Offerman. In addition to dog sledding, wintertime activities that bring people out into the fresh air include skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and ice skating.
Minnesota is also home to the largest ice-angler population in the US. Some lakes are dotted in the winter with as many as 4,000 ice- fishing huts, where anglers often wait for hours before catching a fish.
Though to the uninitiated the sport may seem cold and inhospitable, "It certainly doesn't get too cold for the ice anglers, who know how to take care of themselves," laughed Offerman, who told of huts with stoves and cosy beer-fueled evenings.
Another popular sport is snowmobiling. Around 1.6 million snowmobiles are registered in the US, many of them in the Great Lakes region.
As with dog sledding, quite a bit of preparation is required before you can hit the trail. Once you have donned a snowsuit, special boots, face masks, knee pads and motorcycle helmet, it is time to rev up the snowmobile, for example in Munising on Lake Superior in the state of Michigan.
Unlike dog sledding, snowmobiling is anything but quiet. The machines roar at breakneck speeds over groomed trails in snowy woods. Some holidaymakers may be bothered by the smell of petrol in the air, wondering whether this is a sensible way to experience nature.
Snowmobiling enthusiast Bill Manson has no such reservations. "Snowmobiling for me is totally relaxing. It really lets me unwind and recover from the daily grind," he said. Manson regularly zooms through the countryside with his friend Bob.
There are thousands of miles of snowmobile trails in the region, so you have to know your way around to keep from getting lost. And the sport is not without risks.
"Some bad accidents have happened, but usually because the drivers were far too careless and overestimated their skills," noted Ed Klim, president of the Michigan-based International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association.
Despite the reservations and risks, snowmobiling, too, is a highly enjoyable way to spend a winter day outdoors.
Internet: www. great-lakes. net (dpa)