Our decision to live in the woods with a few dozen sled dogs didn’t happen overnight. While some are born into the mushing tradition, the rest of us fall into it, dog by dog, until one day we are telling people who ask, “How many?” that there are 27.
Matt and I had a taste of mushing at YMCA Camp Menogyn in the winter of 2003-04, running loops around the lakes with guests, taking care of the dogs that Menogyn leased for the winter and learning how to manage a team. A few years later, then living in Wisconsin, we acquired a small wooden dog sled that a family friend was selling because her small team was too old to pull it. The sled sat in our barn a few years until in 2009, when we saw an ad in the paper for a free team of dogs. Matt drove off with our Chevy S-10, returning several hours later with six dogs piled into the back, restrained only by a tailgate and a topper. We have been known to jump into new endeavors.
They were a motley crew—two looked like greyhound mixes, two were fluffed out Siberians, one looked like a Golden Retriever and the last one resembled no breed I’ve ever seen. But they pulled. We let them take us around the fields on our Wisconsin farm and suffer the mistakes of our inexperience.
One particularly memorable time, I was out alone with the team. At the bottom of a sharp and steep hill where the trail turned 90 degrees to the right, I was suddenly holding onto the sled while the team loped off and away. The gangline that holds the team to the sled had severed. Not knowing what else to do, I pushed the sled down the field until I found the team in a tangled pile. I tied the broken gangline together and sorted out dogs and rope until we were lined out again in the direction of home.
The next year, Matt and I helped our friends, the Jorgensons, at a 130-mile race and the race bug took hold. That spring, we bought four Alaskan huskies, a breed that is really a mutt, but carefully bred for certain traits that lend to racing. It wasn’t long before we had over 20 dogs and moved north to find more snow and better trails.
The first question folks ask when they hear about our 27 dogs, is “Can you tell them all apart?”
Many people have never seen 27 of any animal in one place at one time and the image, I think, is almost incomprehensible. But the answer, is yes, they each have a name and a distinct personality. We spend time with each of them every day and often at night. We can pick out a certain bark or howl as belonging to Dennis or Ringo or Fudge. It’s a large family and racing is our favorite activity.
We are a month away from the first race of the season, the Gunflint Mail Run, which has two classes this year: the 8-dog and 12-dog races. We plan to run a team in each class. The race begins and ends at Trail Center on the Gunflint Trail on Jan. 9. While the first race of the year seems to always fall on absolutely frigid cold stretches of weather, maybe this year will be different, as cold doesn’t seem to be part of the vernacular.
Mushers are not the only ones aghast at the lack of winter so far, but we find ourselves running through creeks that have yet to freeze over and wearing rain slickers more often than parkas. We don’t know what this means for the racing season ahead—will there be snow for safe race trails? We are hopeful the answer is yes, and so, training continues. If the races happen, we will be ready.
By Erin Altemus