The Midwest region is home to some of the most reliable snow and pristine hardwood trails in the United States.With a rich history of dogsledding and a thriving sled dog community, this is where many well-known and respected mushers train for major distance races such as the Iditarod. Distance qualifiers like the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, the U.P. 200 and the Seney 300 are located in this region. But the region is also home to sprint races such as the Mackinaw Mush. The Great Lakes Sled Dog Association also puts on a series of excellent and widely attended sprint races. So it appears the region is a perfect home for mushing in the lower 48.In this article, Mushing magazine takes an inside look at what is so appealing about the Midwest for mushers. We break down the region by state, focusing on Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin for the first in a six part series all about the best places to mush. MichiganAlong Route 2 just over the bridge in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Lake Michigan is a breathtaking, white expanse. Giant rocks, once pushed up on the shoreline, are frozen in place by waves and locked in ice. The frigid nearly January air has punched holes in the ice, leading the eye through the crystalline white aperture to the still water beyond. Large pieces of ice bob up, waving “go back.” Eventually, Route 2 rises up from the lake and into the heart of the U.P. Old tourist shops touting “pasties” – a Finnish pocket food – have long since seen life, and real estate “for sale” signs are everywhere. Cold is a way of life here, and those who can’t hack it get out. Winters are long and hard, and only the stoic survive. The howling awakens you at sunrise at Nature’s Kennel, home of Tasha and Ed Stielstra and over 100 of their Alaskan Huskies. The Stielstras not only run a sled dog touring company throughout the winter months in McMillan, Mich. in the heart of the Upper Peninsula, they have also completed some of the toughest distance races in the Midwest, including the Beargrease and the U.P. 200. Originally from Michigan, the Stielstras moved back to the state from Duluth in 2002 and, aside from having four Iditarod finishes under their belt, have competed and trained in the Midwest for most of their mushing career. Inside the Stielstra’s cozy home are pictures and trophies galore from races throughout the Midwest region. The 1st place U.P. 200 trophies are strategically placed in the corner between two sofas, and statues from the Beargrease sit in window sills. Smiling pictures of Ed’s Iditarod team hang on a wall collage, a clear evidence that Iditarod teams do start out in the lower 48. Michigan has clear advantages for mushers. “Considering we are in the lower 48 and only 800 feet above sea level, we have great snow conditions,” says Ed Stielstra. “The soil is sandy, which we find very easy on the dogs’ feet and joints. And we are fortunate to have one of the greatest races in the sport, the U.P. 200, right in our backyard.”Michigan has an active and rich history of dog sledding, with the first sledding competition appearing in lower Michigan in the late 1950s with Cecil Houghton, according to historian and Mid Union Sled Hauler (M.U.S.H.) member Linda Lange. Early and reliable snow lasting from about mid-November through the first week of March is a reason why many mushers call Michigan home. Indeed, the Upper Peninsula area of Marquette county boasts 250 to 300 inches of snowfall annually. Bob and Jan Shaw of Newberry say reliable snow is the biggest draw to the area, adding, “it’s the best you can get in the states in this area.” And temperatures are usually mild: winter temps can range from a mild 0 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, to high negative numbers at night. Lloyd Gilbertson of Caribou Creek Kennels, maker of Caribou Creek high performance dog food, agrees: “Generally, the average temperature doesn’t get real cold in the U.P., barely below 0 at night, and up to 15 during the day. And we have snow November through March.” Michigan winters typically don’t see the numbingly cold temps below -20 degrees Fahrenheit such as in Alaska. As an added benefit, even in late September, temperatures are usually cool enough to run teams with a four wheeler, providing optimal time for training and endurance-building leading up to the winter racing season. Kennel licensing rules vary from county and township throughout Michigan. Dr. Tim Hunt, mid-distance musher and maker of Momentum and Pursuit high performance dog foods, says obtaining a kennel license has gotten more difficult as the years have gone by. “Initially, rules for getting a kennel license were pretty lax, but as more mushers came, it became more stringent. Kennels got bigger and people became soured.” This seems to be a common theme of the kennels in the Midwest. Sgt. Kenneth Kent of the Marquette County Sheriff’s Department, who was actually preparing to leave for a kennel inspection when interviewed, said all dog owners wishing to obtain kennel licenses in Marquette County need to register for a state kennel license through the County Treasurer’s office. All new kennels must be inspected prior to receiving licensing. Kennel fees for 10 or fewer dogs are $30 and double after June 1; fees for kennels with more than 10 dogs start at $50 and double after June 1. One potential hazard for dog teams that seems particularly Michigan-related is that of sharing trails with snowmobiles. There are more than 6,000 miles of designated snowmobiling trails in Michigan, according to the Department of Natural Resources, and 30,000 more miles of undeveloped trails where snowmobiling is permitted. There are over 365,000 registered snowmobiles in Michigan, making it the No. 1 snowmobiling state in the nation. Most mushers and snowmobilers accommodate one another with little issue. Hunt says, “We encounter snowmobiles occasionally, but we usually don’t go out on Friday or Saturday night because that seems to be when there is the most snowmobile traffic.” Still, teams must often share the trails with snowmobilers, so use caution to ensure peaceful and safe encounters. The geography of Michigan, with its rolling hills, miles of national forests (over half of Michigan is forested) and plentiful lakes and rivers lends itself well to mid-distance mushing and picturesque winter scenery. Michigan also has what local mushers refer to as the International Trail – “Musher cabins linked by hundreds of miles of interconnecting trails,” says Jim Warren of Newberry and purveyor of the mushing hub, the Sled Dog Lodge. This unique feature is used by many distance mushers for overnight training trips. Races are generally pretty close in proximity. The Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Classic is only about a three hour drive east from Marquette and the U.P. 200. And the Beargrease is only about a five hour drive from Marquette. “Living in Michigan, you can generally find a race to go to without having to travel more than eight hours,” confirms longtime Michigan sled dog racers Ken and Lori Chezik.Cost of living is relatively cheap compared to other parts of the country. Gas is expensive, as it is everywhere, at $4.18 a gallon at press time. Gilbertson of Chatham says land is cheap: “Homes are probably cheaper here than in Marquette or Munising.” “Dry kibble dog food is generally available at similar prices around the lower 48, and some in the Midwest have access to meat at very discounted prices that some of us would kill for,” says Hunt. High performance dry kibble runs between $30 to $42 per bag. Frozen meat products are available in Escanaba, about an hour and a half drive from Marquette. In the words of Jim Warren, there is much to love about Michigan for mushers. “Early and reliable snow, available trails, dog food at a decent price, and races to run nearby. It doesn’t get any better than this!” MinnesotaJust over boundary waters from Canada is the little town of Ely, Minnesota. Home to stunning sunsets over Lake Superior, gently rolling hills, the International Wolf Museum, and North American Bear Center, Ely is one of the hubs of mushing for the state. Another, Duluth, lies on the western extremity of Lake Superior, 150 miles north of the Twin Cities. The land of 10,000 lakes, Minnesota is actually a Sioux Indian name meaning “cloudy waters.” Minnesota is also home to the Chippewa, or Ojibway, Indians, made famous in 1855 by Henry Wordsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha.”With blue skies and fluffy white snow, Minnesota has an extensive history of dogsledding and racing, starting with the St. Paul Winter Carnival in 1876 and later, the well-known and documented Winnipeg-St. Paul Dogsled Race of 1917 upon which the Disney movie “Iron Will” was loosely based. It’s also home of the White Oak Classic, Grand Portage Passage, Wolf Track Classic and some big names in mushing, including Tim White. White has been mushing for decades. Previously living 50 miles north of St. Paul, White moved to Grand Marais on the North Shore of Minnesota precisely because of the excellent training conditions the area offered. Forested hills, excellent lake-effect snow conditions from Lake Superior, and a network of trails spanning all the way to Canada are what makes the North Shore of Minnesota a dream to run dogs on, says White. The terrain on the North Shore provides unique opportunities for distance mushers, White observes. A 1,800 foot rise in elevation from Lake Superior, these hills provide an optimal occasion for the dogs to work in unison. “The front half of the team might be going down a hill, and you can’t even see them from the sled while the back half is still going up. But the dogs learn to work together this way,” says White. In 1989, White recalls training on difficult land with a four-wheeler. “I was training in very rough terrain, crossing bridges made of pallet and plywood, and I found that going at 10 or 8 miles an hour in those conditions carried over into going much faster on good terrain.” The North Shore provides such advantageous training grounds. Elizabeth Chapman, who runs the 50 dog Sweet Wind Kennel with her sister, Rebekah, in Agora, says, while the terrain around the North Shore is hilly, “It’s fairly flat where we are, but you don’t have to travel too far to hit some nice hills.” Northeast Minnesota has another perk: “Probably one of the best assets we have is the extensive logging industry, which helps because there are a lot of roads we can run on,” says Chapman. “It’s also not so rocky, so we can get by with 6 to 8 inches of snow, whereas in Grand Marais, they need a lot more snow to make it safe.”Northern Minnesota is generally cool all year round, including the summer. With a July high of only around 70 degrees, White says, “There’s usually at least 15 days you can train in the morning, and in June and August, sometimes we’ll have frost.” Mid-distance races are plentiful in northern Minnesota, with four to five significant ones within a five hour radius. The White Oak Classic, Wolf Track Classic, the Grand Portage Passage Sled Dog Race, Red River Dog Derby and, most notably, the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, all call northern Minnesota home. Those interviewed agree: drawbacks to the area are in the economic sector. “Employment is tough,” White admits, and the remote location means a two-hour drive to Duluth for the nearest department store. According to a 2007 census, the median household income in the North Shore is $37,698 annually, but the cost of living is 3.54 percent higher than the rest of the U.S. Chapman concurs, “If you’re used to a higher standard of living, it’s difficult because of the lack of higher paying jobs.” She says there are a lot of service-based or seasonal jobs in the area, which don’t pay a lot in Northern Minnesota, so “salary and income-generating activities” are limited. Closer to Duluth, there’s probably more availability of higher paying jobs,” she adds. “Further north, there are not a lot of options. You have to be pretty frugal and very versatile.” At the time of this interview, gasoline was $3.56 per gallon. According to Chapman, land runs about $1,000 an acre, with the average three-to four-bedroom house on 10 acres in a rural area costing around $150,000. As for kennel licenses, of the Midwest region, Minnesota seems the most strict. There are certain rules for kennels, and those vary according to each township and county. Unless land is zoned for agricultural use, permits must be obtained from the town board of the respective township for keeping more than three dogs. Chapman explains, “There are agricultural limits dictating how much livestock can be kept on a plot of land dependent on acreage. For example, 1 to 5 acres permits a person to keep two and a half cows, and five dogs roughly equal one cow.” So 1 to 5 acres would permit a kennel owner to keep 10 to 14 dogs. WisconsinKnown for beer, cheese, OshKosh, and Dells, Wisconsin is the next state in our coverage of the Midwest. On the eastern tip of Wisconsin, near Big Bay State Park along Lake Superior, about four hours west of Marquette, Mich., is the little town of Bayfield. Named “The Best Little Town in the Midwest” by Alan Solomon of the Chicago Tribune, Bayfield is also the locale with the largest sled dog race in Wisconsin: The Apostle Island Dog Sled Race. Originally from Duluth, Minn., Matt Rossi moved to Bayfield, because it is ideal for mushing. He runs a sled dog touring company, Bark River Racing & Rides, with his family and 55 dogs and has been racing for 10 years. He and his wife bought their house because there are designated sled dog trails 15 miles away, but he admits they’ve never used them. With Chequamegon National Forest just outside their house, he says, “We can run straight out of the house and go at least 100 miles.” As president of the Northern Wisconsin Dog Mushers’ Association, John Thiel can attest to the kind of mushing country found here. “We moved to Bayfield, Wis., in 1995 because it is the best place in the Midwest for mushing,” says Thiel. Obtaining a kennel license in the area is pretty easy, says Rossi. Like most states, each township is different, but “they’re very lax,” Rossi reassures. “We told them we had sled dogs and they said fine.” The terrain in Northern Wisconsin lends itself well to mushing. says Rossi. “We have enough hills that the dogs are always pretty much hill conditioned.” And, he says, the winters “don’t get as cold as the north shore, maybe between 30 above and 30 below. But the average is probably in the 20s.” With an average of between 120 and 130 inches of snow annually, Rossi says the area is prime country for “world class training” – a clear advantage for his son, Andrew, who was an Iditarod finisher in ’05. Rossi is quick to point out that the snow is “light, fluffy lake-effect snow, not wet heavy snow.” Because no one likes wet heavy snow – not even mushers!An added bonus to the area is low snowmobile traffic, says Thiel, mentioning only seeing one snowmobile on the trail the entire season last year. Moreover, he says, “Bayfield County has been very cooperative in helping us develop our own dogsledding trails, with a total designated trail mileage of about 100 miles.” While Bayfield might be a dream come true for mushers, Ann Jandernoa of Northwind Sled Dog Adventures in Park Falls warns there are dangers for mushers just south of Bayfield. “There’s so much logging going on where I am [in Park Falls],” says Jandernoa, “it doesn’t take much to be face to face with a logging truck. It’s an accident waiting to happen. Snowmobiles are easy compared to meeting a logging truck.” She says the best places for mushing are in the Bayfield area. Races are just a stone’s throw away from Bayfield, with the U.P. 200 just six hours east, the White Oak two hours away, Wolf Track Classic three hours away and Apostle Island only 15 minutes from Bayfield. Northern Wisconsin is a hub for mid-distance racers.And if those things aren’t good enough, Rossi says, “In Wisconsin, taxes are high, but land is cheap and abundant, and the cost of living is cheap.” He says kibble and frozen meat are both readily available at around $30 per bag. With a whole network of national forest roads for training, lake-effect snow December through March, low snowmobile traffic and a community that supports mushing, Northern Wisconsin is definitely one of the best places to mush in the U.S.The Midwest is home to an active and thriving population of mushers and some of the best tundra in the lower 48. Dave Steele, executive director of the International Sled Dog Racing Association (ISDRA) confirms, “The Midwest is a very active mushing area with a large concentration of mushers and ISDRA sanctioned events throughout the northern portions of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan.” The snow of the Midwest allows us to appreciate the quiet connection to nature we have through this sport and celebrate the historical partnership between man and animal. Next time you’re passing through the area, follow a clean white ribbon of trail through the birch and spruce trees of the Midwest. Shannon holds a master of arts degree in English and creative writing, and previously taught writing at the University of Akron in Ohio. Shannon has worked with animals all of her life as a camel-handler and zoo keeper. She was introduced to dog mushing in 1997 in Wyoming and has been hooked ever since. She trains with many great people and dogs in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and will be racing in several distance races this winter. When it’s not snowing, she enjoys kayaking and backpacking.


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