Thirteen years ago, when Erin Altemus and her husband Matt Schmidt acquired their first sled dogs and established a sled dog racing team, the prospect of participating in the renowned Iditarod race appeared as a distant and ambitious aspiration.
As Altemus and Schmidt, who own Sawtooth Racing near Grand Marais, flourished as a sled dog racing team, competing in events like the Gunflint Mail Run, John Beargrease, UP200, and the Can-Am, the notion of racing in the historic 1,000-mile Alaskan race became a more achievable goal. After Altemus wrapped up the 2023 racing season with a strong finish and a first-place win in the Gunflint Mail Run eight-dog race, she decided it was time to tackle the Iditarod.
“I like to keep things challenging in my life,” Altemus said. “It keeps things interesting.”
While completing the nearly 300-mile John Beargrease race that begins in Duluth and finishes in Grand Portage comes with logistical challenges despite its proximity to home, Altemus said, planning for the Iditarod, nearly 3,300 miles away, has proven an entirely different undertaking.
“This has been one of the most stressful and biggest things I have undertaken, trying to pull all of this together for the Iditarod,” Altemus said. “It’s been a huge undertaking.”
In addition to increased long-distance training for the 16-dog team, Altemus must sew countless dog booties and coats, buy straw and supplies, plan out drop bags for each checkpoint, fix the trailer, and fundraise. She must also prepare physically and mentally for the long journey, which begins with a ceremonial start on March 2 in downtown Anchorage. “I have been trying to do a little bit of weight training,” she said. “But it’s hard to find the time to fit it all in.”
With years of racing experience, Altemus and Schmidt know what it takes to prepare the dogs. Despite the lack of snow in October and November, they have been rigorous with adding mileage and checkpoint conditioning in recent months. Altemus said one of the training goals is to condition the dogs to grow more accustomed to stopping at checkpoints to rest. “The goal is to do more of these what we call back-to-backs. Where we run, camp on the straw, and then run again,” she said.
While Altemus said the veteran dogs understand the concept, the younger dogs still require a bit more training. One dog in particular, Georgia, isn’t the biggest fan of the relaxation time and would instead prefer to continue running. As the rest of the dogs settle in for some rest, Altemus said, Georgia just “stands there and barks.”
More than four years ago, Altemus and Schmidt added Georgia and her litter-mate Frida to their growing team of sled dogs. Immediately, Altemus could tell the two puppies’ personalities were completely different. She describes Georgia as outgoing, friendly, loud, and a leader, while her sister, Frida, is shy and quiet.
“They’re both great dogs,” Altemus said. With her outgoing and leadership personality, Georgia has been the lead dog in many races, including the John Beargrease. Despite her reluctance to rest at checkpoints while racing, Altemus said, “She’s just an all-around great sled dog.”
Shortly after Altemus announced to friends, family, and the Grand Marais community that she had signed up to race in the Iditarod, individuals and small businesses rallied behind her to sponsor each of the 16 dogs competing in the race, including Georgia. “We’ve gotten every dog sponsored in the kennel,” she said. “It’s been really incredible.”
Altemus and her team have a busy few months ahead. As she prepares for the upcoming Iditarod and keeps Northern Wilds readers informed of her progress through her monthly column, the magazine is proud to sponsor the spirited and outgoing Georgia.
If planning for a massive 1000-mile race in Alaska wasn’t enough of a challenge for Altemus, she shared that Sawtooth Racing intends to run two teams in the John Beargrease this year, which takes place on Jan. 28-30. “We’ve never done that before.” The goal is to provide additional long-distance training for the 16-dog team.
Following the John Beargrease, the Sawtooth Racing team will load up the dogs and supplies and make the journey to Alaska to acclimate and prepare for the Iditarod. Schmidt will drive the truck and dogs, while Altemus will fly to Anchorage in mid-February. While the next few months will be accompanied by stress, Altemus said she is beyond excited about the experience.
“It’ll be pretty satisfying just to get to the start line,” she said. “There is so much relief when you get to pull that hook.”