Dog days of winter

Michigan sled-dog races light up small towns.
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Kalkaska Winterfest
Racers ready their dog sleds at Kalkaska’s Winterfest - Photography courtesy Kaitlynn Tidwell/Kalkaska Winterfest

One of the only states in the continental U.S. to hold competitive sled-dog races, Michigan is host to a variety of events from the northern Lower Peninsula to the Upper Peninsula.

From hours to days long, these races demonstrate the rich history of sled-dog racing in Michigan and the community support that continues to bolster the racers and their fans each year.

In Marquette, the Upper Peninsula’s largest city, the Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association hosts three sled-dog races each year over the course of one weekend in February. Founded in 1990, the UP200 involves teams of 12 dogs covering 240 miles from Marquette north to Grand Marais and back. This qualifying race for the Iditarod, a nearly 1,000-mile Alaskan sled-dog race, kicks off at 7 p.m., Feb. 12.

Beginning 30 minutes after the last UP200 racer departs, the Midnight Run is a 90-mile race consisting of teams of eight dogs that also begins in Marquette but travels south to Chatham before returning. The third race, the JackPine30, is the most recent addition to the UPSDA’s schedule. This 26-mile, six-dog race starts and ends in Gwinn on Feb. 13 and offers racers a short and sprint-able track.

All three races offer much excitement for the community of Marquette, and residents join in the spirited festivities. The Marquette Downtown Development Authority hosts a Warm Up Party each year, held on the first evening of the races, with live music, hot chocolate and refreshments. This year’s party is 7-9 p.m., Feb. 12.

“The weather in the Upper Peninsula is known to be brutal that time of the year, and having the Warm Up Party can help race spectators better fair the frigid conditions,” says Tara Laase-McKinney, promotions and events coordinator for the Marquette DDA. 

The races bring more than $1 million to the city each year, a sizable economic impact for the small community, according to Ron Hewson, vice president of the UPSDA. 

The Lower Peninsula also hosts a collection of nationally renowned sled-dog competitions. In January of each year, the small village of Kalkaska hosts the Kalkaska Winterfest, a weekend-long celebration of northern Michigan winter activities. 

This year, Winterfest takes place Jan. 16-17. With more than 100 teams and countless spectators, the Winterfest event showcases the largest sled-dog race in the lower 48 states. Above all, the community rallies around the excitement of the competition, fundraising and hosting weekend events such as musher-specific dinners, says Race Chairman Jim Collins. 

Winterfest is popular because it is accessible for those at a variety of skill levels. There are more than 10 classes, from short, one-dog junior races to 10-dog professional races, and the winning purse attracts racers from throughout Canada and the United States. 

“About a third race for the prize money. Most race for the love of the dogs and sport,” Collins says. 

Other events hosted by Great Lakes Sled Dog Association include the Stearns Siding Sled Dog Race Jan. 2-3 in Baldwin, and the Cherry Dry Dog Race, which takes place in November at Cherry Raceway in Fife Lake.

From 1 mile to more than 200, Michigan sled-dog races offer competition, excitement and community camaraderie. Amateurs and professionals, racers and spectators — Michiganders make the most of winter with a unique sport that continues to captivate each year.

For more information, see up200.org, kalkaskawinterfest.org, and glsda.com.

  — Lauren Fay Carlson, Michigan BLUE Magazine.

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