Mushing in Michigan

Enjoying winter’s charm by dog sled.
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Dogsled Race at Sunrise
Team Evergreen – Courtesy Nature’s Kennel

By Howard Meyerson

In the quiet winter woods of the Manistee National Forest, where sounds are muffled by blankets of deep snow, Roger Starke’s voice commands cut through the silence as his sled dogs pull him briskly along the trail.  

“Gee!” he yells, in the jargon of mushers, instructing his lead dogs and team to turn right. “Haw!” he calls, if he wants them to go left. 

Team Evergreen Kennels
Team Evergreen_Courtesy Nature’s Kennel

Standing on the sled’s runners, the 57-year-old Cadillac musher grips the handlebar and leans as they round the corner. He follows with a sharp “Hike!” — the command to pick it up on the straightaway. His dogs know it well and accelerate, enjoying the freedom to run. It’s what they were born to do.

During the week, Starke regularly ventures out for 12-mile to 20-mile runs, mushing for the fun of it and to keep his dogs in shape. He and wife Lori own 15 Alaskan huskies, a mongrel blend of breeds favored by long-distance mushers. They are fast and friendly, eager to run. 

dogsled racing at starting line
Courtesy Nature’s Kennel

The couple operates S&L Arctic K9’s Sled Dog Adventures near Cadillac, a tour business that provides non-mushers with an opportunity to ride in, or drive, a dog sled. It’s a weekend hobby business that keeps them busy.

“I get out a couple days a week to work the dogs. They just love to run,” explains Starke, a Consumers Energy employee who discovered mushing in 1992 after watching an event hosted by Mid-Union Sled Haulers, or MUSH, one of four Michigan organizations that cater to varied mushing pursuits.

dogsled mid-race
Courtesy Roger Starke

“I’ll go out for an hour or an hour and a half. It’s a neat combination of solitude and challenge, being able to handle a sled and a team,” Starke notes. “You run quietly through the woods and can approach a deer before they know you’re there. I see eagles while I am out. I love the beauty of being there or being out in a snowstorm.”

Not uncommon among mushers, the Starkes began with skijoring, the sport of having a dog pull them on skis. They owned a Siberian husky and hoped it could be a watch dog, but they found it was better suited for running trails.  

Dogs Gearing up for Dogsled Race
Courtesy Nature’s Kennel

“They have a desire to run and are quite friendly,” offers Starke, who joined MUSH and eventually served on its board of directors. “We started going to races and enjoyed being out in winter. Not long after that, we got a third Siberian. They have an enthusiasm that is contagious.” 

Michigan’s mushing community is made up of enthusiasts from all walks of life. There are white-collar professionals, factory workers and those who live off the grid. 

Downhill 12 dog Roger Starke
courtesy Roger Starke

Some tour snowy woods and fields for fun. Others race as amateurs or professionals, some with an eye toward big money events like Alaska’s Iditarod. Some also are in the business of offering tours. Many simply enjoy teaching others who are new to mushing. 

All share a common love of winter — and their dogs. 

“It’s a team sport. You and the dogs have to work as a team,” notes 60-year-old Linda Lange, a Baldwin musher and co-owner of Last Chance Sled Dog Kennel. 

Team Evergreen Courtesy Nature's Kennel
Team Evergreen – Courtesy Nature’s Kennel

She and her husband, Rick, have 10 Alaskan huskies. The couple founded Michigan Dog Drivers Association in 2004, a nonprofit that promotes mid-distance mushing, the 20-mile or longer runs that prepare sled dog owners for more demanding events like the U.P. 200, held Feb. 11-15 in Marquette. It is one of the annual qualifying races mushers can run to be eligible to enter the 938-mile Iditarod. 

“It’s exciting being out there — an adrenaline rush, for sure,” Lange says about the charge she gets traveling 12 to 14 miles per hour behind a team of dogs. “You never know what will happen when you pull the (snow) hook (used to keep the dogs and sled in place). I love being outside in winter, and once you get going, the dogs don’t make much sound.” 

Mushing Aaron Peterson
Photography by Aaron Peterson

Michigan Dog Drivers’ Baldwin-based events draw skilled mushers from around the Midwest. They run the Sweetwater Trail in the Manistee National Forest, a non-motorized area formally dedicated by the U.S. Forest Service earlier this year. Lange and her husband pushed for its creation, saying mushers needed a safe place to run where snowmobiles or trucks were not allowed. 

MUSH events, by contrast, are tailored to families and kids. The group hosts 100-yard-dash kiddie races, skijoring events, weight pulls and shorter races up to 7 miles. In the fall it offers seminars for beginners on the best way to rig and train a team. Its winter calendar is filled with weekend races the public can watch.

Hard-core racers are attracted to other organizations like the Great Lakes Sled Dog Association, which runs timed sprints. Its races are sanctioned by the International Sled Dog Racing Association. Competitors accrue points for season standing and awards. 

The Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association is yet another. It hosts the U.P. 200, which is billed as “America’s premier, 12-dog, mid-distance sled-dog race.” 

Natures Kennel starting race
Courtesy Nature’s Kennel

The 240-mile run begins on the colorful streets of Marquette, amid throngs of cheering onlookers. Mushers set off after dark, headed for the tiny community of Wetmore 64 miles on, where they rest before tackling the 53-mile trail to Grand Marais, a quaint harbor town on Lake Superior, where they rest again and then return along the same trail. The region averages 150 inches of snow each year. In inclement weather, the trip can be brutal. 

Tasha Stielstra has made a life of mushing. She and husband Ed, a seven-time Iditarod veteran, now own 150 sled dogs. They operate Nature’s Kennel, in McMillan, one of Michigan’s premier touring companies. A former teacher, Stielstra said she married into the sport, which has since become a full-time business.

“I met Ed at a bike store and fell in love with him,” Stielstra says. “I didn’t know anything about mushing. It was like marrying a farmer; you get a farm. I’ve grown into it from there. The idea was to have a full-time racing kennel, but that alone couldn’t support us, so we did tours for additional income and those two worked together to make a viable business. … I did some racing early on and then our touring business took off and I took over more of that end.”

Mushing tourism continues to grow, according to Stielstra, whose kennel provides mushing tours to 800 people annually. For many, it is a “bucket list” wish. 

They come for a half-day, full-day or overnight adventure, even the opportunity to race a sled-dog team. The overnight adventure involves traveling 20 miles by dog sled to a heated tent on the trail. Intrepid adventurers help bed the dogs down before enjoying a happy hour, dinner and bonfire. The morning routine includes breakfast, hooking up the dogs and preparing for the trip back. 

“We border state land that is pretty scenic,” Stielstra notes. “There is nothing but deep snow here, and the terrain is gently winding. There is nothing technical. It’s exciting for guests, but safe for beginners.”

Award-winning writer Howard Meyerson lives in Grand Rapids.

Photography courtesy Nature’s Kennel & Team Evergreen

What do you say?

There are a lot of ways to talk to a sled dog, but experienced mushers have perfected the art, needing to quickly communicate with them on the trail, sometimes in difficult weather conditions. Here are some common commands: 

Mush! Hike! All right! Let’s go! To start
the team moving; the term “mush” is
rarely used today.

Gee! Turn right.

Haw! Turn left.

Come gee! Turn right 180-degrees. 

Come haw! Turn left 180-degrees. 

Easy! Slow down.

Line out! Tells the lead dog to pull the team
out straight from the sled while hooking up
or unhooking dogs.

On by! Go by another team, trail intersection
or other distraction.

Straight ahead! Go straight.

Whoa! To halt a team while putting pressure
on the brake.

For more mushing terms, see iditarod.com/about/mushing-terminology.

Where to go mushing

Looking for an opportunity to ride in a dog sled or better yet, drive one?  Here are some great choices. Each offers a variety of experiences. 

Upper Peninsula

Nature’s Kennel, McMillan: Ed and Tasha Stielstra offer half-day and whole-day sled-dog tours, and an overnight adventure in a heated tent on the mushing trail with meals provided. They also have more traditional packages with overnight accommodations and meals at Chamberlin’s Ole Forest Inn, in Curtis. Ed is competing in the Iditarod March 5, 2016. See natureskennel.com or call (906) 748-0513.

Team Evergreen Kennel, Skandia: Largely a mid-distance racing kennel, proprietor Liza Dietzen offers 1-mile rides, extended rides and Drive Your Own Team experiences. See teamevergreenkennel.com or call (906) 943-7744.

Snowy Plains Kennel, Gwinn: Children’s sled- dog author Jackie Winkowski and her husband, Jim, offer 1-mile and 2.5-mile rides on private and scenic wooded trails, extended rides, and Drive Your Own Team experiences along with “To Dinner or Lunch for Two” packages. See snowyplains.com or call (906) 249-1011 or (906) 251-8713.

Lower Peninsula

S&L Arctic K9’s Sled Dog Adventures, Cadillac: Roger and Lori Starke offer mushing tours for children on a youth-sized sled, a 3-mile and 8-mile tour, and will arrange custom tours. All take place on a double sled that allows inexperienced mushers to drive with a guide coaching from behind. See dogsledmichigan.com or call (231) 775-0997.

Shemhadar Dog Sled Adventures, Cadillac: Kennel owners Kim and Gina Dewey offer one-, two- and four-hour rides, both stand-and-drive and sit-and-enjoy experiences. “Musher Experience” trips include learning to harness and hook up the dogs and driving with the help of a coach. Customized adventures can be arranged. See vbs20.com/ShemhadarKennels/?page_id=15 or call (231) 779-9976.

Treetops Resort, Gaylord: Team Evergreen Kennel owner Liza Dietzen offers 2-mile rides on the resort’s golf course and trails Dec. 29-31; Jan. 23-24; Feb. 20-21; and March 5-6.
Reservations are preferred for scheduled times throughout the day. See treetops.com
or call (866) 348-5249.

Michigan mushing organizations:

Mid-Union Sled Haulers:
midunionsledhaulers.com/index.html

Michigan Dog Drivers Association:
facebook.com/Michigan-Dog-Drivers-Association-MiDD-120999776615/timeline

Great Lakes Sled Dog Association:
glsda.com

Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association:
up200.org

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