By Anne Hooper
Capital News Service
Winter ushers in activities such as sledding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and skiing.
Another, lesser-known winter pastime is also enjoyed in the Great Lakes region: dog sledding. It’s something of a “hidden gem” in the region, many enthusiasts say.
“I’d always thought that dog-sledding looked so fun. Around 1993, I finally got to try dog sledding at a race in Land O’ Lakes—I just loved it,” said John Thiel, the former owner of Wolfsong Adventures in Mushing in Bayfield, Wisconsin.
According to Thiel, his love for the sport quickly spread to his wife. Not long after trying it for the first time, the two decided to throw themselves into the world of dog sledding.
He founded Wolfsong Adventures in 1997 and operated it for more than two decades.
Although he handed over the kennel to its former manager two years ago, Thiel said he and his wife remain close by and visit the dogs almost daily.
“When we had owned Wolfsong, we’d spend several hours in the kennel on a daily basis. Pretty quickly, we learned that dog sledding isn’t something you do part-time—it’s a way of life,” he said.
Thiel said that, once a person acquires a few sled dogs, he or she will most certainly end up wanting more.
“While we started out with four dogs, it wasn’t too long until our pack grew to 12. Since we had enough for multiple teams, we’d often take friends dog sledding,” he said
The sport is distinct from most others, Thiel said, because it involves interacting and cooperating with other living beings.
“Dogs are so perceptive that, within minutes, they’ll know more about you than you know about yourself. Seeing all of the dogs’ different personalities, their relationships with each other and their interactions with people is absolutely fascinating,” he said.
According to Thiel, the dogs have such awareness that they “adjust” their behavior for each individual that they’re working with.
“We’d had thousands of people come over the years, including schoolchildren, persons with special needs and youth in diversion programs. When the dogs work their magic on them, so to speak, you’ll see the very best aspects of these individuals shining through,” he said
Most sled dogs are classified as “huskies,” which is an umbrella term referring to multiple breeds of fast, sled-pulling arctic dogs, Thiel said. Most sledding dogs these days are Alaskan huskies.
“Although their coloring and coat features can vary quite a bit, all members of the breed generally share the same build and temperament. You can tell an Alaskan husky when you see one,” Thiel said.
Dog sledding can be leisurely, competitive or some combination of the two, enthusiasts say.
A prime example of the final category is the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race, said director David Eades of the Bayfield Chamber & Visitor Bureau.
“Although it’s conducted like a race, our event is not meant to be a highly competitive one. While the earliest finishers can win prizes, everyone’s main focus is having good, family-friendly fun,” he said.
According to Eades, the event’s relaxed atmosphere is why it has maintained popularity over the years.
“It’s very different from the UP 200 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in northern Minnesota and other regional races—most of which are highly competitive,” he said.
Since Thiel and other local mushers created it in 1996, the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race has grown significantly, Eades said.
“With some 80 participants each year, it’s the largest dog sledding race in the continental United States,” he said.
Eades said the event offers 40-, 60- and 80-mile races to suit participants of all skill levels. And unlike most other venues, Apostle Island also has racing opportunities for youth mushers, he said.
“It helps keep younger generations interested in the sport. It’s a great thing, as some of our former youth mushers have gone on to compete in the Iditarod,” Eades said.
While the race has gotten bigger and better over time, it’s experienced a few changes that aren’t so positive.
“Back in the day, teams used to go out onto Lake Superior and race around Madeline Island, near the 22 Apostle Islands. But now, that’s no longer possible because of the increasing temperatures, because of climate change,” Eades said.
This past year, another obstacle has arisen: the global outbreak of COVID.
Due to the pandemic, the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce cancelled the 2021 race.
Despite such setbacks, Eades remains enthusiastic about the race.
“While I’ve been involved for the last 15 years, I’m still blown away by the race every single time I experience it,” he said.