MARQUETTE, MI – Winter in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is not for warm weather sissies. In the town of Marquette, hard on the shore of Lake Superior, nearly 149 inches of snow falls each winter. That works out to nearly 12 and-a-half feet of snow.
Each February, Marquette hosts one of the nation’s premier dog sled races, the UP200, a challenging 240-mile course that winds its way through cedar and hardwood forests, across half frozen streams, ice covered lakes and rugged wilderness to the tiny town of Grand Marais far to the east, before returning by the same route.
Thousands come to watch. And the event has become so popular that it has spawned two shorter races at the same time, the Midnight Run, a 15 mile route to a nearby town, and the Jackpine 30, which covers 30 miles.
This year, the 24th running, drew teams from Maine, Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Alaska. The UP200 is a qualifying race for the famed Iditarod in Alaska, the Ironman equivalent of the dog sled racing world.
But besides the professional mushers, this region of the Upper Peninsula also has plenty of home grown teams. Up here, many year-round folks mush for the sheer love of the sport, and their dogs, which are typically Alaskan or Siberian Huskies or mixes of the two breeds.
Just outside of Marquette in the town of Qwinn is Snowy Plains Kennel, run by veteran mushers Jim and Jackie Winkowski. The couple owns, trains and runs 28 dogs. Jackie has written a series of children’s books on their pack and the sled dog racing culture. They also offer dog sled rides to tourists.
“They're like our kids,” she says of her pack. “There's a bond there that's hard to explain. But it's all built on love. They love us. We love them. And they love to run.”
Just tending to the pack of sled dogs takes about four hours each day, says Jim. Training, which begins in earnest in the early fall, easily takes another three or four hours on the days they hit the trails. “We love them,” he says. “They are made to run. It's in their genes. It's beautiful to see.”
I told him I'd like to get some video of them in action. He hooked up a team… just like that. I sat in the sled as Jim mushed. It was exhilarating and exciting. I was amazed at how fast the dogs moved. Jim guessed we were doing about 15 miles an hour. The ride was jarring at times. I bounced high enough a couple of times that I thought I'd lose the camera. After our run, I wanted to do it all over again.
I now understand why people mush.
Our visit to Snowy Plains Kennel helped us appreciate the UP200 and understand how much the mushers and their dogs are bonded by their love of each other and the trail.
Earlier that day, I got to meet most of the dogs close up during the “vet check,” as a team of local veterinarians checked each dog and certified that they were healthy enough to compete.
Twelve dogs pull each sled during the UP200. The two shorter races have teams of six or eight dogs.
None of the mushers do it for the money. This year’s purse for the UP200 is $28,500, with $7,200 going to the first place team and the rest divided among the field.
That’s not a lot of money when you consider that dog food alone for a competitive team costs about $600 a month. Typically, the teams train four days a week, running 25 to 30 miles each time.
It takes a special person to race dog sleds. Frank Moe, a former state legislator and well known Minnesota politician and outdoor advocate, was one of this year's competitors. So was Zoya DeNure, a former international fashion model who now owns Crazy Dog Kennels in Alaska.
The race is a great one for spectators. There are lots of spots to get close to the dogs. Towns along the route build big bonfires. Local churches bake pies and civic groups and mom and pop restaurants sell hot soup and sandwiches. Downtown Marquette had 8,000 lining the streets for the start of the race. Other towns on the route like Munising, Harvey, Chatham and Grand Marais also draw spectators.
And it all happens outdoors. This year snow fell pretty much all along the route from the start Friday to the Sunday finish. It was also very cold. Temps dropped to minus five a few hours after the Friday night start.
But the folks who come up here to watch and participate in dog sled racing aren’t wusses.
Jennifer and I? Well… let's just say we found the cold and snow to be, ah… very refreshing. We drove our Roadtrek E-Trek and were delighted to be able to retreat to it and its warmth several times during the day as we watched the teams at various locations.
We're off over the weekend to follow the teams on the trail and to get more of a feeling for the UP wintertime lifestyle and how RVers can enjoy it.