It is a winter pastime that, like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, requires good snow, demands long underwear -- or, for some, thick fur -- and favors participants with a strenuous but exhilarating workout.
But unlike those activities, dog sledding could never, ever be thought of as silent sport. Yelping sport, more like it. When I went to Wolfsong Adventures in Mushing a few winters back to let my inner Sgt. Preston run free, the three-dozen Siberian huskies in John and Mary Thiel's kennel were in full throat long before it was time to raise the anchors that held sleds in place and head down the snowy trail.
They barked while they were harnessed, barked while they were hitched in line, barked while last-minute instructions were given ("Remember, hang on.") and only when they heard a single word did they fall silent.
It was "mush," not "hush," but it quieted the cacophony as off we sped through the black and white woods, the huskies all business behind lead dogs Uriah and Elvis. Sgt. Preston had Yukon King. I had the Memphis King. Good enough.
Dog sledding, whether racing or merely recreational riding, is an increasingly popular pursuit in the snow country of northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. At least it is when winter keeps its end of the bargain, unlike last year when a prolonged lack of snow even in the far north left mushers and dogs baying in dismay. Some outfitters were forced to take the winter off, and one of the sport's biggest events, Duluth's John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, was forced to first postpone, then later cancel, its 25th running; not for nothing did the group's December meeting this year focus on global warming.
"Climate change," said longtime Ely, Minn., outfitter Pal Schurke, "is the talk of the town."
But timely snowfalls early in December got this season off on the right paw, and Thiel, whose company offers 2 1/2- and 4-hour expeditions, said advance bookings for the winter were good.
Even better, because it borders on Lake Superior, Bayfield County benefits from lake-effect snow and is less susceptible to winter's whims, Thiel said, which is one reason -- along with an extensive trail system -- it is a popular place for racers from other states to train their teams.
If a snow sport can have a hot spot, it would be in Ely, self-proclaimed sled dog capital of the lower 48 states. Outfitters there offer everything from half-day sled rides to three- or four-day excursions that include dog sledding by day and winter camping at night. That's not as rigorous as it sounds; some of the outfitters offer heated tents and even heated yurts, the Mongolian-style shelter.
"When you mention a heated tent with a wood stove," said Stu McEntyre of Ely's White Wolf Dog Trips, "people think that sounds pretty good." One package McEntyre offers includes fishing for lake trout or northern pike.
Ice fishing, of course.
Most outfitters offer customers the full experience, from handling and harnessing dogs before the run to feeding and watering them at the end. And most outfitters allow every participant a chance to drive his or her own sled if they wish. Driving a team involves giving a few voice commands, occasionally stepping off to push the sled on uphill trails and staying balanced on the runners, but outfitters say it is easy enough for almost anyone to do.
"If you can walk and stand up," said McEntyre, "you can drive a dog team. I've taken people and let them drive their own team -- and they were in their 80s."
Girl Scout troops are regular customers at the Paw-Tuck-A-Way kennel in Danbury, Wis., said Cliff Maxfield, whose wife, Kathy, operates the business. "We had a group of Red Hat ladies [a club for older women] come out too."
The number of dogs per team depends on the driver. At Ely's White Wilderness Sled Dog Adventures, Theo Theobald said, "We give you as many dogs as we think you can stop. [But] it is something that anybody can do. Last year we had a 92-year-old woman on an Elderhostel trip."
Thiel, who is president of the Northern Wisconsin Dog Mushers Association, said the number of kennels continues to grow, especially small kennels owned by people who want just enough dogs to be able to hitch up and run when they want to go.
"The big kennels come and go," he said, in part because of the expense of food, veterinary care and equipment, and in part because of the time demand and a host of other owner issues.
At one Internet site for mushers, a discussion board included threads on bootie fit, keeping wolves at bay and, inevitably, the "pooper-scooper question."
Some kennel owners favor Siberian huskies or, in the case of Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge in Ely, pure-bred Canadian Inuit dogs; others prefer mixed breeds like Alaskan huskies. In fact, Thiel said, almost any dog can pull a sled, though some breeds are better than others. One Wisconsin musher runs a team of Irish setters.
Races vary in length from sprints to marathons, including multi-day events like Alaska's famous Iditarod and Duluth's Beargrease. And racing is a good way for even non-mushers to become involved as volunteers. Most races depend heavily on volunteers to help handle and harness dogs, guide teams to starting lines, assist at checkpoints and perform other tasks.
For the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race in Bayfield, where more than 100 teams and 700 dogs are expected to take part, visitors are being courted with "voluntourism" packages that include lodging, meals, a "Musher Mixer" on Saturday night and the chance to work the races each day.
"There are a lot of people who come up to the race solely to volunteer," Thiel said. "Catching the energy of 700 sled dogs at the start ... is really fun. It rubs off on you. You can feel it in the air and pretty soon you get as excited as they are."
Be forewarned, though. More than one kennel owner said the excitement of just watching races was so contagious it led to the purchase of a dog, then more dogs because one is not a team and, of course, a sled on which to hitch them. Bob Marschke, who with his wife, Kay, offers dog sled rides at Spirit Lake Trails in Rib Lake, Wis., said he saw his first race one winter and was hooked.
"Boy, let me tell you, I came home ... and went out and bought four dogs and a sled," Marschke said. "My wife said, 'You're crazy'."
They now have a dozen dogs, but owned 30 before last winter's lack of snow prompted a cutback.
But where winter is dependable, interest is strong and growing. Schurke, who began giving sled trips 25 years ago in Ely, said bookings at his Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge were "largely maxed out for the winter" and still he was getting nearly a dozen calls a day in December from interested parties -- and not all were from cold weather places.
"We get a lot of people from the South who maybe read Jack London as a kid," he said, "and this is how they get their fix."
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IF YOU GO
Many winter festivals in northern Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota feature sled dog rides or the chance to drive dog teams. A good place to learn about all aspects of the sport, including event schedules, listings of outfitters and more, is www.sleddogcentral.com.
A few popular races include:
- John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, Duluth, Minn. (www.beargrease.com; 218-722-7631): Jan. 25-31; 400 miles.
- Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race, Bayfield, Wis. (www.bayfield.org; 800-447-4094): Feb. 1-3; a variety of race distances and dog team sizes.
- 19th annual Mackinaw Mush, Mackinaw City, Mich. (www.mackinawmush.com; 231-625-2573): Feb. 2-3; four-, six- and eight-dog races over varying distances.
- U.P. 200, Marquette, Mich. (www.up200.org), Feb. 15-18; 240 miles.
- Jackpine 30, Gwinn, Mich. (www.up200.org): Feb. 16; 30 miles.
- Wolfsong Adventures in Mushing, Bayfield, Wis. (www.wolfsongadventures.com; 800-262-4176).
- Spirit Lake Trails, Rib Lake, Wis. (www.spiritlaketrails.com; 715-427-5813).
- Paw-Tuck-A-Way, Danbury, Wis. (715-656-4419).
- Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, Ely, Minn. (www.dogsledding.com; 877-753-3386).
- White Wilderness Sled Dog Adventures, Ely, Minn. (www.whitewilderness.com; 800-701-6238).
- White Wolf Dog Trips, Ely, Minn. (www.whitewolfdogtrips.com; 888-804-0677).Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun