By Carl Stoddard
Capital News Service
Winter is going to the dogs in Michigan. And that’s not a bad thing.
Mushers around the state that offer dog sledding, for a couple of hours or a couple of days, report increasing business. At many places, guests can ride in the sled or drive it.
Several dog sled operators say visitors come from all over the world to mush through Michigan.
“We’ve expanded again this year,” said Tasha Stielstra, who with her husband, Ed, owns Nature’s Kennel Sled Dog Racing & Adventures in McMillan, about 15 miles west of Newberry in the Upper Peninsula.
The couple started raising dogs for dog sledding 20 years ago. About five years later they began offering sled rides to visitors, she said.
Nature’s Kennel offers half-day, full-day and overnight trips. A half-day ride is $100 per person or $250 for a sled, she said. It costs more if you want to learn to drive your own team.
“Any passengers ride with one of our guides,” Tasha Stielstra said. Visitors who want to drive their own team don’t take passengers along, she said.
Some visitors stay overnight at Nature’s Kennel’s “Musher’s Village,” which has a yurt, cabin, cook shack and sauna, she said.
The business has 140 dogs available for winter tours and another 40 for competitive dog sled racing, she said.
All dogs on the tours have raced or will race in the future, she said.
“We’re growing a lot. We’re booked or nearly booked for the year,” Stielstra said. Visitors come from all over the Midwest, and she recently booked a couple from Australia.
Dog sled rides are available from mid-December until the end of March.
Jackie and Jim Winkowski, owners of Snowy Plains Kennel in Gwinn, a few miles south of Marquette, became involved in dog sled racing more than 20 years ago. Within a year or so, they began offering sled rides to others.
“Really quickly, it became fun to share it with other people,” Jackie Winkowski said.
They turned the rides into a business about seven or eight years ago but opted to keep the operation small, she said. They have about a dozen dogs and typically can accommodate groups of one to four people at a time.
“We’re about as busy as we want to be,” Jackie Winkowski said.
Most rides at Snowy Plains are one to six miles long. A 6-mile ride for one person is $120, while shorter rides for a family of four total $160.
She has had visitors from as far away as South America, she said.
“It keeps everything new to see other people experience it for the first time,” she said. People come from across the nation to do this.
Treetops Resort offers dog sled rides along trails on its Masterpiece golf course on designated weekends, said Kevin McKinley, director of golf and ski operations at the resort, a few miles east of downtown Gaylord.
The resort began offering the dog sled rides six years ago, and the rides have become increasingly popular, McKinley said.
“If people have an inkling they want to do it, they should make reservations in advance,” he said. Reservations are available online or by phone. A 2-mile ride is $50 for one rider or $70 for two..
“It’s really a cool experience,” McKinley said of his own ride on a dog sled. “What surprised me is the power of the dogs. The power is just unbelievable.”
Kim Darst, owner of Husky Haven Kennels, has offered sled dog experiences for the past four years in Shingleton, a few miles east of Munising.
She offers half-day trips, mornings and afternoons, along a 10-mile course. Husky Haven has 43 dogs and five sleds.
“We get a lot of families,” Darst said. “That’s normally what we do.”
For $125 per adult, visitors can ride in a sled or drive one, Darst said.
Shemhadar Kennels, about 10 miles west of Cadillac, has seen a big jump in dog sled rides in the past few years, said Gina Dewey, who owns the business with her husband, Tim.
“We get people from all over the world — China, Germany, Japan,” Gina Dewey said.
Shemhadar takes one adult at a time on a 3- or 4-mile ride. That person can ride or can drive the team with help from someone at the kennel, she said. The cost is $150 for one person, she said. A second rider is $50 additional.
Gina Dewey said they take part in dog sled races all over Michigan, and the snow can be spotty.
“We probably haven’t had a good racing year in three years,” she said.
But she predicted the snowier weather would return this year.
“I think it’ll swing back around,” she said.
At most dog sled operations in Michigan, visitors meet the dogs, learn how sled teams operate and maybe warm up with some hot chocolate.
People interested in dog sledding but prefer to keep their feet on the ground might want to check out the sport of dog sled racing.
Three races will start from the Marquette area in mid-February:
- The 230-mile UP200 dog sled race kicks off Feb. 16 in Marquette.
“It is one of the top 12-dog, mid-distance races in the Midwest, as well as being an Iditarod qualifier,” according to the Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association.
The annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska, which is run in March, is about 1,000 miles long.
- In Marquette, the 90-mile Midnight Run also will start Feb. 16, according to the U.P. association’s website.
- The 26-mile Jack Pine 30 race will begin Feb. 17 in Gwinn.
“We’re seeing a resurgence in interest” in dog sledding, said Anna Dravland, director of community relations and event marketing at Travel Marquette, which is part of the Marquette County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Dravland said 8,000 to 10,000 visitors typically show up to watch the sled dog teams race.
“It’s the most amazing experience watching them go,” she said.