The UP200 & Midnight Run Sled Dog Race
Last year I witnessed the celebratory start of the Iditarod in Anchorage, Alaska and while it was pretty cool, it only whetted my curiousity of the sport that is dog sled racing. Having my interest piqued I was delighted to find, a year later, that there was a legit dog sled race in Michigan just eight hours from where I live.
The UP200 is a qualifying race for the "Big One," the legendary 1,150 mile race called the Iditarod. While the UP200 is nowhere close to that long, it's still a bone chilling 250 miles long and if you can't make it through this one, you ain't getting anywhere near the Iditarod. It takes place in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, an area beloved by it's residents and by tourists alike. Affectionately known as Yoopers, the people who live in the U.P. remind me a lot of Alaskans; Tough, friendly, and somehow more pleasant to be around than the average U.S. citizen. I'm a "Troll," meaning I live under the Mackinac Bridge (get it? Trolls live under bridges...), but was drawn north by the excitement and allure of wilderness and the adventure of dog sled racing. My wife and I, along with some friends, piled into a red Subaru hatchback and started the journey north. The temperature was to reach a high of 4 degrees that day and the 15 mph hour winds stirred the snow into a frenzy, limiting visibility to just a hundred feet or so. Still, it beat being on a dog sled!
The biggest thing I enjoy about dog sled races is the atmosphere, and I don't mean the cold weather. Besides the fact that the races are usually held in some of the most beautiful places in earth, the races are a big social party. Everyone bundles up, comes out on the street, and drinks coffee while catching up on the local gossip. Dog sled racing isn't the best spectator sport you will find since the races cover vast expanses of wilderness and budgets are not typically big enough to fund helicopter flyovers but the format does allow a great deal of social interaction. This is how you watch a dog sled race: You pick a spot to watch the teams, generally it's a checkpoint somewhere so you can keep tabs on who's in first, who is coming in next, etc. The friendly officials, usually made up of volunteers, are more than willing to let you in on what is happening. Then, you watch the teams come in, cheering them on. If it's going to be awhile until the next team will arrive, no problem! You hang around the fires while drinking coffee and learning to know the other spectators. Plus, most races will have GPS trackers on the sleds so you can login to an app and keep tabs on the teams' progress yourself.
The UP200 started at Marquette and then winded it's way to Grand Marais where the teams would do a 180 and come back again, completing the 250 mile race. We had decided to post ourselves at the Grand Marais checkpoint since it was the main checkpoint. The teams were required to rest and to get their dogs checked by race vets. This was a great oppurtunity to wander around and get a look at the dogs close up. The community center in Grand Marais was opened up and hot soup and coffee was made available, as well as other dog sled themed merchandise. After commenting on how deep the snow was - like the greenhorns that we were - the locals quickly informed us that this actually was the least amount of snow they had been "blessed" with for the last 90 years or so. Typically by Christmas time the snow will be piled the whole way up to the tops of the first floor windows. The Upper Peninsula is not for the faint of heart or the cold blooded.
If you witness the start of the race you will find that the dogs are infectiously happy and make quite a racket as they churn the snow, barely waiting for the command to "mush!" They can never wait to get started and despite what some animal rights activists may tell you, the dogs thoroughly enjoy themselves and can't start pulling soon enough! Once the teams are in rhtyhm they become more quiet and barely make a sound as they skim along. I've been told that riding a dog sled is unlike anything else you will ever experience. They say it's like you're a ghost speeding through the woods with barely a sound. I'm definitely going to try it some day! If you choose to watch the dogs come in after the race, they are typically much more tired and quiet, worn out after the long race. I recommend you watch the dogs leave and then drive to the checkpoint (since you can easily beat them there) and watch them come in, if possible.
After spending half a day in single digit weather (much colder with the wind chill) and imagining myself to be a musher someday in the future, I was tempted to buy a wolverine skin which the locals claim doesn't freeze up from breath like other skins do. After seeing a nice wolverine pelt for sale at a gas station for $750 (only in the U.P. do they sell wolverine skins in gas stations) I decided I would rather get frostbite.
Here's the standings for the 2016 UP200
Place Bib # Name Finish Time Dogs on the Ground Dogs in Basket 1 13 Ryan Anderson 02/14/2016 11:10:32 10 0 2 5 Martin Massicote 02/14/2016 11:14:3711 0 3 7 Denis Tremblay 02/14/2016 12:06:14 9 0 4 3 Ed Stielstra 02/14/2016 12:08:10 10 1 5 8 Ward Wallin 02/14/2016 13:06:06 11 0 6 2 Bruce Langmaid02/14/2016 13:13:37 8 1 7 12 Shawn McCarty 02/14/2016 13:22:23 11 0 8 14 Sally Manikian 02/14/2016 14:49:15 9 0 9 1 Andre Longchamps 02/14/2016 15:02:38 80 10 4 Normand Casavant 02/14/2016 15:07:44 6 2 11 6 Jen Peeks 02/14/2016 17:13:38 10 1 12 9 Blair Braverman Scratched 13 10 Leanne Bergen Scratched 14 15 Lisa Dietzen Scratched