Dog Sled Adventure
By Tim Mead     January 17, 2012

Tim Mead Mushing in Michigan Woods
Tim Mead Mushing in Michigan Woods

The following article is copyright by Tim Mead and may not be duplicated or reproduced without his expressed written permission.

For years I have followed the Iditarod Sled Dog race in Alaska.   More than a 1000 miles across the wilderness, from Anchorage to Nome, in the dead of winter.   And I recalled reading somewhere that a chap from McMillan, Michigan had run the Iditarod.   A search of the internet revealed Nature’s Kennel in McMillan, operated by Ed and Tasha Stielstra.   A cross search for finishers in Ititarod revealed that Ed had indeed been the Iditarod finisher.   I made a deposit to take an overnight sled dog trip in late February.  

Nature’s Kennel was right where the directions said it should be, 8-miles north of McMillan off Luce County 451.   I was the first of the “clients” to show.   Tasha was preparing breakfast and offered me a cup of coffee.   I met the matriarch of the kennel, a bitch the Stielstra’s got from the late Susan Bucher.   Bucher was a multiple winner of Ititarod and a heroine of the race.   Gradually, the other guests arrived.  

After breakfast, we practiced putting harnesses on dogs with the matriarch.   She stood very patiently as we tugged her legs into and out of the harness.   Then, outside to try it for real.

Tasha had given us each a small paper with the names of the dogs who would make up “our” team.   My team had Badger and Gretzky as the lead dogs.   Art and Ontario in the middle, and brothers Tucker and Sakic were the “wheel dogs,” that is the dogs closest to the sled.   Iditarod teams start with 18 or 16 dogs.   So we were not going to run with quite the power of a long-distance racing team.   We would run at roughly the same speed, however, 10 miles per hour.  

Harnesses are color-coded for the size of the dogs.   Badger, with a big, powerful chest, got a pink harness.   Badger has run Iditarod four times.   Badger was clearly the boss of my team.   During the runs, the dogs drink by licking up snow from the side of the trail.   When Gretzky wanted to drink, he had to tug to get to the side of the trail.   When Badger wanted to drink, he just moved the team to his side of the trail.   The dogs “do their business” on the run.   All except Badger.   When Badger wanted to “drop,” the team stopped.   Gretzky, Tucker and Sakic had red harnesses and Art and Ontario had blue ones.

When the dogs see people with harnesses, they get excited, barking and tugging on the chains linking them to their site.   “Take me, take me!” PETA to the contrary notwithstanding, these dogs are not abused when they are running!   They are enthusiastic, eager, don’t want to stop.   They hold their heads up, waiting for the harnesses.   When Badger gets his harness, he rolls in the snow -- can hardly wait to hit the trail.   Indeed, the sleds have to be tethered or the first couple of dogs will take off and leave the rest behind.

Running from the sled is a center line, called a gang line.   Each gang line was equipped to handle six dogs.   Loops on the end of the gang line permit extension of an additional six dogs.   Individual dogs are tethered to the gang line by foot long lines which attach to specific spots, preventing dogs from running into one another.

Ready to go, as soon as you say
Ready to go, as soon as you say

We got a brief set of instructions about the sleds and how to ride them.   Stand on the runners in back.   Between the runners, there is a brake, a big hunk of snowmobile tread.   To slow the team, stand on the brake.   There is a rope with a carabiner to serve as a tether.   And each sled comes with a snow hook, a double-hooked piece of steel to be dropped in the snow to keep the team from running off while the tether is hooked around a tree.   And a final brake, two steel pins behind the sled and just ahead of the snowmobile tread, which the musher can jam into the trail.

Then we went on a “puppy run.” Johnnie had a team ready to go.   He led and, one at a time, each of us dudes followed.   We went around a circular trail for ten minutes of so, acclimating ourselves to the sled and its operation.   When we finished, we dismantled the team and put the dogs back in their individual spots.   At the end of each run, the dogs get hugs and pats and “good dogs.” They love it.   Badger is a little too sophisticated to show it, but he stood and look up with a sort of “we did it, didn’t we.” Gretzky leaned up against my knees, hard.  

After all the teams were back at their spots, we went back in the lodge for lunch.   Lots of hospitality, but short on formality.   Tasha supplied the fixins’ and we made our own sandwiches.  

One of the staff gave us each a double piece of aluminum foil, about 2 feet by 20-inches.   We daubed the foil with thick margarine, put sliced potatoes, some pieces of venison sausage, meat balls, vegetables, and spices in the foil.   We wrapped the foil, sealing it all around.   Dinner, to be cooked in the foil.

Then, back out to the kennel to re-rig our teams and start out on the trail.   Each team was set up sequentially.   A guide went first.   Then the dudes.   So, each of the couples had a guide and Tasha served as my guide.   Each set of teams went off at twenty minute, or so, intervals.   We wandered the roads and trails west and north of the kennel.  

Riding behind a team of sled dogs is lots of fun.   But it’s no piece of cake.   At least for me.   I got pitched from the sled 6 times in two days.   The first time, we had gone a couple of miles.   I was feeling pretty confident.   I did not fall during the morning run.   The dogs did not need any coaching from me.   The trail was a little bumpy in spots, but I was not having trouble staying on the runners.

We came to a sharp corner.   Tasha took the corner looking back at me, taking pictures.   How tough could it be?   The wheel dogs cut it a little short -- seems, to me at least, they often do.   The sled ran up on the piled snow and sand at the edge of the trail.   In a trice, I was flying parallel to the ground.   Thump!   I landed at least 20 feet from the spot where the sled tipped.   Now you know why the guide goes first; Tasha stopped the team.   The dogs didn’t give a hoot whether I was there.  

Twice during the day my feet slipped off the runners but I was able to drag myself back to the sled.   Twice more I got pitched.   Once my team ran into Tasha’s and she and her sled got tipped as well and the two teams dragged her along the ground before she could restore order.   Tough lady!  

Gretsky, eventually, turned back to look at me at each corner.   It was not that he cared whether I was still there.   He and the other dogs were going to keep running.   He was curious, that’s all.

What did I learn about staying on the runners?   Well, watching Tasha wasn’t adequate.   At some of the spots where I wrecked, she was standing on the runners of her sled facing me.  

So, here’s what I think I learned.   1) Stay low.   Got so I was squatting on the corners while Tasha was standing.   2) Lean toward the inside of the turn.   Counter the centrifugal force of the sled.   3) Don’t go too fast.   When you get thrown off going fast, you get hurled through the air.   Thump!   4) Don’t go too slow.   When I slowed way down coming into a corner, the dogs pulled the sled into the snow piled up along the trail.   And faster sled speed permitted the sled to skid out into the trail.   But I still got pitched off the second day.

Once we completed our first day 20-miles, we came to a camp set up in the woods.   First chore was to take the dogs from the sled and fasten them to lines established for the purpose.   There were three, 50-yard, cables stretched between posts sunk in the soil.   Tasha and I were the last to arrive at camp, so our dogs were at the end of the cables.

Then we fed the dogs.   The kennel gets meat in 2,500 pound lots.   The meat is then frozen.   When it comes time to use the meat, it is chopped into small pieces and dumped into boiling water.   Then dried kibble is added.   The result is a sort of meat- kibble stew.   Each dog gets a big ladle-full.   This is the same meal the dogs get during the Ititarod race.

Dogs also get a bundle of straw to make a bed in the snow.   Some of the dogs arranged the straw “just so.” Others kicked it away.   Within an hour or two, most of the dogs had burrowed a hole into the packed snow.   They slept in the burrows.

A central feature of the camp was an outfitters tent, about 20-feet X 14-feet.   It had a wood floor, several bunk beds and a wood stove.   With the wood stove fired up it was probably in the upper 30? F range in the tent.   Johnnie slept on the floor adjacent to the stove and kept it stoked throughout the night.

When the dogs were fed, a big wood fire was ignited outside the tent.   Once the fire was a steady clump of coals, a steel grill went over the coals.   We plopped our aluminum foil-wrapped dinners on the grill and waited for them to cook.   As trail meals go, pretty good.

After dinner we talked about sled racing dogs, particularly at Iditarod.   Among the matters we discussed, I raised with Tasha, “Are Iditarod mushers still disqualified if a dog dies on the trail?”

She said, “No.”

One of the other guests asked, with a little alarm, “You mean dogs actually die running?”

Tasha allowed that dogs do die.   She noted as well that dogs die in the kennels.   The dogs really want to run.   It’s what they do.   Tasha also said, “Marathon runners sometimes die.”

As a one time marathon runner, I jumped back in the conversation.   Sure, it’s tough.   But I’d trade the quality of life of a back-of-the-pack marathon runner, like me, for the life of the wealthiest couch potato in Los Angeles!

Getting the dogs hitched to the sled
Getting the dogs hitched to the sled

Jack London wrote, “There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise.   And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.” (The Call of the Wild) Indeed, and the dogs are most alive when they are dragging a sled through the snow, even with a duffer like me behind.

About 9:30, I told folks I was getting cold and going to bed.   For the trip , I purchased a new Coleman sleeping bag rated to 0? F.   Under my coat and sweater, I had my polypropylene underwear.   Over the polypro, I put a top and bottom fleece outfit.   I crawled in my sleeping bag, pulled the fleece hood over my head, zipped up the sleeping bag, and went to sleep.   Toasty all night.

Folks began to rustle around about 6:00 am.   First task was to feed the dogs.   It was a reprise of last night.   Tasha said the dogs ought not run until a couple of hours after they had eaten.  

Breakfast was real oatmeal, hash potatoes, coffee.  

During breakfast, Tasha asked if we wanted to return to the kennel via the 20-mile route we took yesterday or take a longer, 30-mile, route.   None of us had to be anywhere in particular, so we opted for the longer run.

After breakfast, we began to hitch up the dogs.   Since Tasha and I were last into camp yesterday our dogs were the nearest to the trail.   We rigged the dogs and Tasha led the way.   At the edge of camp there was a 20-inch hump on the trail.   When the sled hit the hump, it sailed off the ground.   But the sled and I all came down in the same place and off we went.  

Mushing Through The Michigan Woods
Mushing Through The Michigan Woods

Our route today went farther to the west and through some hillier trails than yesterday.   Three times I got thrown, perhaps not as often as yesterday as the run was one third longer.

When we got back to the kennel, we dismantled the teams and hooked the dogs to their respective spots -- after lots of hugs and pats.   I like dogs, but I was surprised how attached I was to “my” team.   Of course, I know they are fickle -- they would love anybody who came to pat and hug them.   Nonetheless….

After the rest of the teams came in and were re-established in their locations, we went into the lodge.

Lots more talk about Iditarod.   Ed tried to explain the lure of the race.   During conversation at the camp fire, Tasha said it cost about $40,000 to run.   The best teams spend in excess of $100,000.  

On the wall of the lodge is a painting of Ed, leaving Anchorage on his rookie Ititarod.   When asked, he explained that since he and his brother were little, they exchanged gag gifts and said his brother commissioned an artist to render Ed’s first few steps on the Iditarod trail.   I said, “That’s not a gag gift!” Ed agreed

About 1:00, Tasha gave me a CD of photos she had taken, including one of me flying across the trail, and I left.   Neat trip.

  

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           Last updated on April 14, 2012