Ely—Ely has a long recreational mushing history from the early 1970s that even pre-dates the Iditarod. During that time, Ely was proclaimed the “sled dog capital of America,” a catch-phrase that was more than a promotional gimmick. It was real. Ely sported a slew of sled dog competitions and attracted hundreds of dog teams and mushing celebrities from around the world. That racing tradition continues with the Steger WolfTrack Classic Sled Dog Race on Feb. 27-28.
Ely’s sled dog races took a hiatus in the early 1990s until WolfTrack Classic organizers rekindled the passion in 2008. Since then, they’ve explored a variety of distances and fine-tuned the course to incorporate unrelenting hills and the breathtaking scenery of Bear Head State Park. Last winter, Steger Mukluks and Moccasins of Ely came on as the premier sponsor.
Experienced mushers who have competed in big-name events, like the Iditarod, continue to participate in the WolfTrack Classic. But the race is also perfectly suited for mushers-in-the-making who are looking to test their competition skills for the first time.
This year’s 8th annual running of the WolfTrack Classic features three races. The six-dog, 30-mile route runs from Ely and finishes in Tower. The eight-dog, 50-mile race turns around beyond Bear Head Lake then heads back to Ely. The 10-dog, 65-mile competition sends teams out of Ely, loops just outside of Tower and returns to the finish line in Ely. A total of $7,000 will be awarded to the winning teams.
However, the races themselves are only part of the activities on WolfTrack weekend, an event that features north woods entertainment worth attending.
Start by getting to know the athletes. They’re easy to recognize; the majority have four legs and favor scratches behind the ears. All sled dogs are required to have a veterinary exam prior to the race to qualify as fit for competition. The general public is encouraged to meet these dogs during the vet check at Vermilion Community College on Saturday, Feb. 27 from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Their two-legged teammates, a.k.a. “mushers,” are another friendly bunch and enjoy teaching others about their sport. Don’t hesitate to ask questions and take photos. Choose a time when mushers are not busy and ask for their permission to pet the dogs. Also, like most athletes, sled dogs have a special diet. Please don’t feed the dogs unless the musher gives a go-ahead. Leave your own dogs at home.
All three races start at the Ely Softball Complex off Hwy. 1. The first teams will leave from under the start banner at 9 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 28. The parking area that morning is another place to meet the teams as they prepare for the race. Just watch where you walk. Don’t trip over sled gear stretched across the ground or step in any little “land mines.”
Teams take off in two-minute intervals and their enthusiasm is flat out loud when they approach the start chute. Sometimes, they’re so effervescent, that they hop on their hind legs or spring over each other while still in harness. But once the start command is given, the howling becomes instant silence and the dogs are all business.
The lasagna dinner is open to the public and is another way to support the WolfTrack Classic. It includes a social hour and dinner on Saturday, Feb. 27 from 4-7 p.m. at the Ely Senior Center. Afterwards, everyone is welcome to watch the mushers’ bib presentation.
The final hoorah is the awards ceremony for all three races. The festivities packed the Boathouse Brew Pub in Ely to capacity last winter. It will take place again on late Sunday afternoon when the final teams have crossed the finish line.
Volunteers are the backbone of the race. From road crossing posts to dog crews, there are many ways to get involved and still catch all the race action. Volunteering makes the race much more exciting because you actively participate in the event’s success.
Spectators can watch the race at various points along the trail. For detailed locations, to volunteer, register a team, or learn more about the Steger WolfTrack Classic Sled Dog Race, visit www.wolftrackclassic.com.—Scott Stowell