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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Thrill to the quiet excitement of mushing. © Joe Butsick
Thrill to the quiet excitement of mushing.

© Joe Butsick

December 2001

Mad about mushing

Step on a dog sled and be carried away by the exuberance of a team in harness and the soft swish of sled runners on snow.

Rich Trotto

Getting back on the runners | Take part in races
Help train dogs | Mushing as a serious hobby
Track mushing on the web | Mushing on public trails
A day at the races

Leaving Alaska after 20 years in the bush was one of the most difficult decisions our family had to face. There were certainly plenty of reasons for the move: the need for a better school system, the desire to be closer to family, never having to face another April with 50-below wind chill temperatures.

Still, departing our outpost on the tundra for Wisconsin meant saying goodbye to good friends, a lifestyle we loved, the wilderness just down the end of the street and dog mushing.

Mushing dogs was a significant part of my life in Alaska. As a journalist, I covered sled dog racing from local village competitions to the Iditarod, the famed 1,000-mile-plus race from Anchorage to Nome. The mushing bug bit me when I helped some friends train their dogs for a local mid-distance race, the Kuskokwim 300. I eventually started collecting my own dogs, and for more than a dozen years roamed the snow-covered tundra trails under the cobalt and silver skies of southwest Alaska.

My young daughter also took quickly to the dogs. She knew all their names, and would question me extensively when I moved a dog from one area of the dog yard to another. Although she was only seven when we left, her vivid memories of the dogs and our sometimes-wild rides across the tundra still linger.

After four years as city dwellers, we realized we still missed the sport and the people involved in it. There are many ways to enjoy winter's pleasures, but for me, none is as serene as moving swiftly and quietly through the woods on the back of a dog sled, the only sound the soft swish of sled runners sliding along the trail. You look down to see your dogs, backs arched, leaning into their harnesses, their quick gait pulling you quickly along the snow-packed trail.

We decided to look for opportunities in Wisconsin to get a small taste of dog sledding again. No matter where you live in Wisconsin, and whether or not you're able to keep a dog team yourself, there are numerous events, businesses and active mushers here that allow you to get involved with the sport and all it offers.

Getting back on the runners

One way to experience the excitement of mushing is to take a dog sled ride. We began our quest on the Internet. A search for "mushing Wisconsin" quickly yielded a host of websites on all aspects of the sport, including one titled, "Dog Sled Rides in Wisconsin." This site lists a half dozen kennels around the state that offer dog sled rides of various lengths for a fee. You can arrange outings from a half-hour ride to excursions of two, three, or more days.

We settled on a trip up to Danbury in northwest Wisconsin, to the Paw-Tuck-A-Way Kennel owned by Cliff and Kathy Maxfield. We arrived the day after Christmas and found a kennel of happy, eager dogs waiting to be harnessed. My daughter went straight for the nearest dog, and began to pet and hug him like a long-lost friend. He happily returned the affection.

Sled dogs are some of the most loving and trusting animals anywhere. One reason is that most mushers care deeply about their dogs, and treat them all like pets. A love of dogs is practically a requirement to be a successful musher, considering the amount of time one takes tending to and training the animals. Many veterinarians will attest that dog mushers are among the most responsible animal owners.

It didn't take long to see that was the case with the Maxfields, who have good rapport with their dogs. Because my wife and I are both experienced at harnessing a dog team, it wasn't long before we were ready to go. Although he usually drives the sled himself, Cliff agreed to let me drive my own team. Cliff took off first with my daughter in the basket. My team barked and leapt off their feet trying to take off after them. Then I pulled the hook and again experienced the rush of excitement from standing on runners as an enthusiastic team of dogs took off down the trail at top speed.

It was a beautiful, cold, crisp northern Wisconsin morning. With the sun shining and the temperature in the low single digits it was perfect weather for the dogs, although a little nippy if you happened to be riding in the sled. For 90 minutes we enjoyed the beauty and quiet of the woods. It was far too short for me. I could have stayed out all day.

Take part in races

My interest piqued, I decided to take Cliff up on his suggestion to drive up to Solon Springs a couple of weeks later to see the Empire 130 Sled Dog Race. The Empire 130

has been run for over a dozen years and, as the first race of the season, it draws teams from all over Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Last year over 100 teams competed in three classes, including a two-dog class for children. Hundreds of people came to watch or assist in race preparations.

Getting ready for the Empire 130 Race. Local volunteers keep the race moving. © Rich Trotto
Getting ready for the Empire 130 Race. Local volunteers keep the race moving.

© Rich Trotto

"We have over 200 volunteer tasks this year," commented Jeanne Brown of the race committee. "The town really turns out to help with the race. People love seeing and working with the dogs."

One of the most popular volunteer jobs is helping bring the teams to the starting line, a task that draws dozens of local high school students. There was only a one-minute interval between starting teams, but with six to eight people helping to run each team up to the starting line, the start went surprisingly well.

Another group involved with the race is NorWesCo, a team of amateur radio operators who belong to the area chapter of the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES). Members armed with hand-held, battery operated transmitters station themselves along the race route. Their main job is to radio to headquarters the times when teams pass certain checkpoints along the race route. They also deal with problems such as lost teams and injured mushers.

A day at the races
For an updated listing of dog sledding races and events in the Midwest, send a self-addressed stamped business envelope (#10) with a note requesting the annual directory to Mushing Magazine, Stallar Communications, Inc., P.O. Box 149, Ester, Alaska 99725-0149. The annual directory is also available at Mushing. Click on the icon for the 2001-2002 Sled Dog Events Calendar and then select the Midwestern USA listings.

"We find that this is excellent training," said Wes Jones, president of the chapter. "Our operators have to stay flexible because there's a lot going on out there. It's one of the best training experiences we have.

"I think dog mushing is a great hobby," Jones continued. "With many of these teams, the whole family is involved. It helps keep kids out of trouble."

The Empire 130 is an excellent spectator race. One of the most popular spectator activities, especially for children, is to walk around the staging area and watch the mushers preparing for their runs, as curious dogs peer out of carrier boxes mounted on the back of pickup trucks.

The major attraction is watching the dogs take off from the starting line. Here, one can easily see that every dog has his or her own personality. Some conserve their energy and wait patiently for the call of "Hike" from the musher, signaling the team to take off. Others yip and bark, leaping a foot or more into the air in excitement. Still others hold their place, while happily enjoying a pet or scratch from the nearest handler. Some take the opportunity to sniff and lick their partner.

When the count reaches zero and the musher pulls the hook, the barking stops and the individual dogs become one team racing off down the trail. The Empire 130 crosses several roads, giving spectators a number of places along the trail to view the action.

Often at many races, spectators can take short dog sled rides after all the teams take off. Race organizer Jeanne Brown took advantage of that chance. "I'm going to take my first ride today," said Brown, who has watched the race every year from its beginning, but has never ridden in a dog sled.

Help train dogs

Going to a sled dog race is what gets many people interested in mushing, but making the leap from watching a race to having your own team may be difficult. One way to take a partial step is to find a musher in your area who needs help training dogs.

Sled dogs, like other long-distance runners, get in shape by working out mile after mile on a regular schedule. Most mushers will run their dogs hundreds of miles in a season. For distance racing, a rule of thumb is that every dog in the team should train for three times as many miles as it will run in the race. For a team running the 400-mile John Beargrease Race along Lake Superior's North Shore from Duluth, Minn., that means putting some 1,200 miles on the dogs before the middle of January.

Mushing on public trails
To give sled dogs a good workout, mushers need access to long trails, with gradual curves over varied terrain. Sled dog teams are not allowed on the groomed ski trails or nature trails in state parks, but many other public trails including some hiking, bicycling, ski and ski trails are available. Mushers can contact DNR property offices ahead of time to find out which trails are open to dog sleds, when the trails are open and whether the local snow conditions are good.

For information about state trails, visit a DNR Service Center, Enjoy Wisconsin's Trails! or call the DNR Bureau of Parks and Recreation at (608) 266-2181 to discuss which properties may accommodate sled dog training. Also consider contacting county, state and national forest offices in Wisconsin to find out which of their winter trails are available for dog sled training.

Many mushers train more dogs than they need, and pick the fastest ones for the race. Puppies must also be trained. All this takes time, and most mushers appreciate having someone to help them put those miles on the dogs. Pat Olson of Duluth, Minn., who has her own team now after helping another musher train for several years, sees the advantage: "You get to train dogs and have no food bills or vet bills."

Empire 130 race organizer Jeanne Brown takes a ride with a musher. Spectators are often offered free sled rides before or after races.© Rich Trotto
Empire 130 race organizer Jeanne Brown takes a ride with a musher. Spectators are often offered free sled rides before or after races.

© Rich Trotto

Josh Hall, a 16-year-old high school student, got interested in mushing because "it looked like fun, and I like dogs." Josh puts in some 200 miles weekly for Colleen and Ward Wallin, owners of Silver Creek Sled Dogs in Two Harbors, Minn. Josh's big reward came in the Empire 130, when he ran his first race using their dogs.

Another way to become involved in dog mushing is to work as a handler for a musher. Handlers cook dog food, feed dogs and do a variety of tasks to help mushers prepare for racing. During longer races, handlers will go to different checkpoints to help the musher, if race rules allow. They also provide moral, and logistical, support by advising the musher of the status of other teams in the race.

"In order to be a handler, you basically have to fail an IQ test," says Doug Welsh, the starter for the Empire 130. "You have to be able to put up with no food, abuse and no sleep. You couldn't pay me enough to do it, but I do it because I love the people and I love the dogs."

Mushing as a serious hobby

Most people get into mushing through osmosis. They know someone who has dogs, take a ride on a sled and realize it's something they want to do. That was the case for Candy Bradley. She became interested in mushing through Dawn Breedlove, a neighbor near Stoughton. Breedlove is one of the top mushers in the state. In 2001, she bested 58 other teams to take first place in the Empire 130, eight-dog class.

Bradley started with some dogs she got from a pound: "I had a Giant Schnauzer and a pointer." As her interest grew and Breedlove was improving her team, Bradley started picking some of Breedlove's dogs and they were no slouches. "Dawn got a lot of her dogs from Jeff King (an Iditarod winner) and Eddie Streeper (a world-class sprint racer)," said Bradley, who now has a pretty swift team herself.

Bradley's love of mushing was contagious. Her first convert was her husband Mike, who was hooked on his first ride. "I knew it would be much easier for me to do if Mike loved it," said Bradley. Mike not only loved it, he also put his building skills to work creating a first- class mushing operation on their property.

Track mushing resources
Dog Sled Ride Pricing

John Thiel, Pres., Northern Wisconsin Dog Musher's Association

Mike and some neighbors got together to put in almost 10 miles of trails connecting their properties. They have created a small but vibrant mushing community not 15 minutes outside of Madison. "We have about five or six neighbors along the trail who have dogs," Mike commented. "There are also others who live close by who use the trail."

One of those neighbors is Susan Simonson, a travel agent from Oregon, who runs a small team of dogs on the Bradley's trail. Simonson specializes in setting up travel adventures, including dog sledding vacations to northern Minnesota and Scandinavia. In addition to using the Bradley's trail, Simonson often uses other trails in the area. "It's so beautiful here," she says. "Sometimes you scare up some geese and they fly up in front of the dogs."

Madison resident Hal Leedy also uses the trail, though he has only one dog, a black Labrador retriever named Bud. Leedy ran into Dawn Breedlove at a kennel club show in Madison. "She was the one who let me on to the fact that you can train dogs other than Alaskan breeds to pull," he said. "I never realized the power a single dog has to pull." Bud can pull the sled all by himself, but Leedy occasionally enlists the services of Dash, a yellow lab. The two together are all Hal needs to enjoy many happy hours on the trail.

The Bradley's enjoy sharing their trail and their love of mushing with others, but for Candy, dog mushing has been much more than just a sport. In 1994, she was diagnosed with cancer. "They gave me two months to live and three months later I was running dogs in the Grand Tetons," she says. Taking care of her dogs and running her team keeps Candy's mind off her painful treatments and gives her more than enough reason to continue fighting. Although she has broken ribs from radiation therapy, she still takes her team out regularly and participates in racing. "The way I see it is that, you're gonna feel like your gonna feel, so you might as well have fun."

In his other life, Rich Trotto is a technical writer with the State of Wisconsin's new Department of Electronic Government.