During the colder months, forested lands surrounding the quaint eastern Upper Peninsula village of McMillan abound with serene winter scenery. Just north of town is the beginning of a lengthy network of trails groomed exclusively for dog-sledding — which might be the ideal way to experience this unspoiled setting, where frozen lakes and ponds dominate the landscape.
Nature’s Kennel maintains the peaceful paths and, for more than two decades, it’s been offering a variety of options for experiencing the exhilaration of driving or riding along with a team of energetic, well-trained Alaskan huskies through the wintry wilderness.
“For anyone yet to experience dog-sledding, it will definitely be unlike anything they’ve ever done before, and there’s no way to completely explain it,” says Tasha Stielstra, who co-owns Nature’s Kennel with her husband, Ed. “You can see dog-sledding on television or watch videos, but it’s totally different to actually do it. I hardly ever hear people say the experience was exactly what they thought it would be.”
Jeff Bomber, a doctor in nearby Naubinway, couldn’t stop raving about his first mushing experience last winter.
“Oh, my … there’s nothing like it — the quiet of winter with just the sound of the runners on fresh snow, paw prints, dogs breathing, (and) taking in every joyous breath as they do what they were born to do,” he wrote on the Nature’s Kennel Facebook page. “This experience broadens your depth in life physically and spiritually. For those of us who love dogs and the wilderness, it will love you back.”
Such positive feedback is hardly surprising, given the Stielstras’ pedigree. They have earned humanitarian awards for dog care and are both accomplished sled dog racers. Each has won the U.P. 200, and Ed completed the world’s most prestigious sled dog competition, the Iditarod, eight times between 2004 and 2016. That’s four more finishes than any other Michigan resident.
Other mushers have used Nature’s Kennel-trained dogs to run the Iditarod since Ed’s last finish, and the staff continues to train some dogs for racing.
Each of the Kennel’s guides are responsible for 20-24 of its roughly 160 dogs, and groups as large as 16 can be accommodated. Guides spend plenty of time becoming familiar with all of their dogs’ personalities, quirks, and strengths.
They also take the time to present a thorough tutorial on dog-sledding basics and dog care for all guests, whether they’re driving a team themselves or they’re a passenger in a guide’s sled.
Options include 10-mile, 20-mile, and overnight trips. Dressing in several warm layers is crucial due to a constant breeze generated by dogs pulling the sleds at eight to 10 miles per hour, and the kennel provides toasty, polar-style boots.
Overnight outings, suitable for ages 7 and up, entail a 20-mile trip to the Kennel’s Musher’s Village. It all begins with the nearly two-hour process of meeting the dog team, receiving instructions, outfitting each guest in boots, and packing the sleds. Those taking part are welcome to help harness the dogs.
By the time they’re hooked to the sled, the dogs are bound to be barking and fidgeting with anticipation as drivers and passengers settle in. Sleds might rock and wobble a bit after the guide yells “Ready, go” to begin the journey, but the teams soon settle into a steady rhythm. Guests can alternate between driving and riding with regularly scheduled stops.
“The ride out to Musher’s Village is through some very scenic terrain with no major hills and gradual curves,” Tasha says. “We have a great relationship with the Michigan DNR, which allows us to groom trails and operate on a beautiful area of state forest land.”
Musher’s Village, which opened in December of 2017, features lodging in a rustic yurt or a small cabin, both heated by a wood stove. There’s also a sauna and campfire area, with straw bales for seating.
After arriving, guides and guests unhook the dogs and spread straw for their bedding before partaking in the perfect winter lunch: chili. The dogs are fed a stew of rendered beef and kibble mixed with hot water.
Afternoon options include snowshoeing or relaxing by the fire or in a sauna. Guests then help the guides prepare a fireside dinner. Morning brings dog-feeding, sled-packing, breakfast, and dog-harnessing.
“Our overnight trips are the real deal for people who want a full, immersive sledding experience that can also be a great family outing,” Tasha explains. “Overnighters aren’t offered by many Midwest kennels, and our accommodations have certainly been upgraded from the canvas-wall tents we used to have.”
The 10-mile trip, suitable for children aged 3 and older, is offered twice daily, while the 20-mile outing, best for those age 12 and up, is offered once per day and includes a pasty lunch.
Nature’s Kennel also offers two multi-day, multi-activity adventures later in the sledding season. Both involve dog-sledding and lodging at Chamberlin’s Old Forest Inn in Curtis. One includes ice-climbing in Munising, and the other is a winter photography tour with Marquette photographer Shawn Malone. That itinerary includes excursions to Tahquamenon Falls State Park and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
The season, which usually runs from early December through the end of March, is now drawing more than 2,000 people per year to Nature’s Kennel. That’s double the total of just a decade ago.
Advance reservations are required; call 906-748-0513.