Paul L. Hayden
By Bob Berg
No racers put more enthusiasm into their sport than the four-legged athletes that hit our region’s snowy trails each winter. It’s worth braving a bit of cold to join in these exhilarating celebrations of the run.
“The dogs are like kids going to Disney World. ... They are so excited. They are jumping; they are barking; they are howling; they are jumping over each other,” says Claudia Nowak of Traverse City, Michigan.
She and her husband, Lee, have become such big fans of dog sled racing that they volunteer to help at the events. They don’t own a dog, but have joined a mushing club called Mid Union Sled Haulers, or MUSH, a nonprofit organization that promotes sled dog racing as a fun family activity.
As friends of Tasha and Ed Stielstra, mushers and owners of Nature’s Kennel Sled Dog Racing and Adventures in McMillan, Michigan, the couple have volunteered at 30 races, including the U.P. 200 & Midnight Run in Marquette and the Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Race in Newberry, Michigan, their first.
You certainly don’t have to be as involved as Claudia and Lee to enjoy the events, which can be found almost everywhere in the lake region during the winter. Individual races have different personalities. Knowing a little about where things will happen can help. Before heading to any race, check its website for a trail map, a list of checkpoints and other details.
For race novices, Claudia offers a good suggestions on watching the races and tips on the etiquette of being near the teams:
• Dress warmly in layers. Wear long underwear, a warm hat, boots made for snow and cold and gloves. Consider hand and toe warmers. A couple of years ago, temperatures at the U.P. 200 dipped to minus 25° Fahrenheit. (Remember to bring an insulated jug of hot chocolate.)
• Arrive before the race, when it’s possible to chat with the mushers and meet the teams.
• Leave your dog at home. “The sled dogs go crazy” when a strange dog shows up, Claudia says.
• Always ask permission before approaching the dogs. The owners will tell you if it’s OK to pet them.
• Don’t give treats to the dogs. Like well-trained athletes, they don’t eat junk food like dog biscuits.
• Speak quietly and calmly when talking to the dogs. When near the dogs, be careful to not step on any paws.
She says www.sleddogcentral.com has good general advice, too.
Different races might have different spots where it’s best to watch the action.
Linda Breight, of Manchester, Michigan, has been to three U.P. 200 races with her husband, Reed.
“It’s a festival for the whole town. It’s amazing,” says Linda.
The U.P. 200, February 20-22, is a 12-dog, mid-distance race that runs about 240 miles. It draws thousands of spectators and is a qualifying race for the Iditarod. The trail runs between Marquette and Grand Marais. At the race website, look for a map of the three checkpoints, and also learn about the eight-dog race, the Midnight Run, which covers 91 miles.
Linda and Reed like to watch the start of the race in downtown Marquette and then hop in the car and head east on M-28 to a checkpoint at Wetmore, where the teams will stop east of Munising. The couple will spend the night in Munising, then get up the next morning and head off to Grand Marais to follow the race.
“I am not a dog person at all,” says Linda, who believes that “an untrained dog is just no fun.”
Her attitude is completely different around the highly trained and disciplined sled dogs. She and Reed have discovered the joys of dogsledding, driving your own sled and caring for your own dog team on overnight adventures five years in a row through Nature’s Kennel.
“I love these dogs; they are so friendly, and you can see how they absolutely love to run.”
One of the longest races in the lower 48 states is here in the Lake Superior region. The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, which starts January 25 this year at Duluth’s Ordean Middle School, will cover 375 miles of challenging terrain near Lake Superior. Thirty teams race in the marathon; another 50 teams compete in the mid-distance race.
Beargrease organizers estimate the race draws more than 4,000 spectators, says Linda Nervick, Beargrease representative. Events start January 23, a couple of days before the race gets under way.
Her advice? Leave your dog at home, and bring cowbells (not horns) to cheer on the athletes. The start and finish lines are good spots for watching and encouraging teams.
“Cheering when you’re at the checkpoints is not so great,” Linda says, because those are considered quieter places for the teams.
Bottom line: “If you really want a feel for the race ... go to the checkpoints,” she suggests. On the Beargrease trail, there’s a good one in Two Harbors.
The Wolftrack Classic Sled Dog Race in Ely, Minnesota, in its second year, runs February 27-March 1. It has a six-dog, 30-mile run to downtown Tower and an eight-dog run covering twice that distance. Both races, on March 1, start at Hidden Valley Ski Chalet in Ely. Each has 35 teams.
Joe Russell, board president, recommends that spectators “really watch the weather to make sure you bring plenty of warm clothing.” He also suggests that you arrive early.