Dog mushing: It's not just a winter pastime

"Hike!" With a sharp command, Mary Vowell streaks by with dogs panting. At a bend in the trail she and the dogs are gone deep into woods. Depending upon the season, a spray of snow or pebbles kicks up behind them.

By day, Vowell tweaks web pages, designs newsletters, takes orders by phone, and consults with gardeners as she maintains a network of mail-order customer service at Oikos Tree Crops, just outside of Kalamazoo.

Oikos is the Greek word for "home." Ken Asmus  founded the arboretum bearing that name in 1985 to preserve wild selections of plants from all over the world. Vowell's boss develops and grows strains of plants, edible food crops and trees that enhance wildlife habitat and are resilient to environmental changes.

"It is rather like home to me," Vowell says of her day job. "I enjoy the type of people drawn to natural and organic ways of life. I enjoy anything that gives me the chance to bond with nature."

Vowell is nowhere more at home, however, than when she is behind her dogs on a sled or a wheeled rig. By night and by weekend, at every spare moment, she leaves the office to transform into a dog musher.

Mary caught mush fever in 2007, when visiting her son in Marquette, where he was attending Northern Michigan University.

Whenever she traveled to the Upper Peninsula, she took her dogs along.

"My son urged me to come up to Marquette for the dog sledding races," she says. "He thought I would enjoy being a volunteer, since I love being around dogs."

At her first race, Vowell was stationed at a point on the trail and told to wait for the mushers with supplies.

She waited. And waited. And waited some more.

Her own dogs were getting restless in the car, so she allowed them out near the trail to wait with her, not realizing that pet dogs were not allowed to mix with sled dogs.

At last, a sled appeared on the trail -- and Vowell's dogs were crazed with excitement.

"I saw at that moment how a dog longs to have a purpose, just like people do. Their bodies quivered with tension and excitement, and when they saw the sled dogs race, they wanted to race, too."

A sled dog team was born.

Vowell returned home to learn whatever she could about dog sledding. Was there anyone else in the Kalamazoo area doing this? What kind of equipment would she need? How much time and money would she have to invest? Were her dogs the right kind of dogs? Where could she find trails?

Before she could sled, Vowell surfed the web. She connected with other mushers as far away as Alaska, the home of the most famous dog sled race, the 1,150-mile Iditarod run annually. She found a couple who raced in the Iditarod and raised dogs for a living. Part of the year, they lived in the Upper Peninsula where they ran Nature's Kennels for sled dogs. Vowell would eventually drive north to meet them and adopt a retired Iditarod dog to join her team.

"I learned that these dogs are not the Malamutes and huskies most people imagine when they think of sled dogs," Vowell says. "In reality, most any mid-size dog can pull a sled. I was amazed when I saw how slim and small the dogs really are."

Since then, Vowell has had different dogs pulling her sled. Willow and Nabu, another retired Iditarod dog, are the two pulling her rig now.  She is considering a third, although it's not necessary. "You can pull a sled with just one dog, actually. It all depends on how much weight you want to pull."

After her first volunteer experience, Vowell was so eager to connect with others in Southwest Michigan of like mind that she waved down a car ahead of her on Westnedge Avenue bearing the bumper sticker M.U.S.H. The driver and passenger pulled over, and Vowell had found her mentors.

M.U.S.H. stands for Mid-Union Sled Haulers, and the two in the car were Brad and Sharon Love, the president of the organization and her husband. The organization offers training sessions, and Vowell became an eager student.

"They taught me all I needed to know to get started with dog sledding," Vowell says. "The group M.U.S.H. meets regularly on trails created for sledding at Fort Custer State Park near Battle Creek."

Most weekends, whatever the season, that's where Vowell and her dogs can be found. As many as 30, or as few as three other mushers may show up. Many are women. Age, size, athletic ability, Vowell says, have little or no effect on one's enjoyment of the sport.

"I thought my interest would fade, like so many things, with time," says Vowell, "but it didn't. It only got more intense. Now, I want to share this wonderful sport with others in the area."

She's created a Facebook page, Backyard Mushing, for those interested in finding out more about dog mushing in Southwest Michigan. She also invites the curious to send her an email.

Vowell says mushers can get started with as little as $200. Used equipment is available and she makes repairs on her equipment and for others.

"It can be a competitive sport for those who enjoy racing, but there are also those of us who simply enjoy running the trail. As with any new sport, you start slow, with short distances, and work up from there."

Fort Custer, near Battle Creek, has trails that are three miles, five miles and seven miles long.

To prove her point that anyone can enjoy dog sledding, recently Vowell brought her 98-year-old mother, Viola Edwards, out to Fort Custer State Park to show mom what she was up to all those many weekends. She sat her mother into the wheeled rig and tied her safely in, harnessed the dogs to the rig, and ran the trail.

Her mother's grin was wide and bright at end of the trail. "Thanks for the buggy ride, Mary," she said.  

Zinta Aistars is a freelance writer from Portage and editor of the literary ezine The Smoking Poet.

Check out the video by Jordan Hochstetler of Joho Productions and musical background by the local band Northside Jazz Quartet

Photos by Erik Holladay

Nabu, left, and Willow, pull Mary Vowell down a path at the Fort Custer Recreation Area. 

Willow leaps in excitement as Mary Vowell prepares both her and Nabu for a mushing run at Fort Custer Recreation Area.

Mary Vowell prepares her sled as the two dogs wait to begin their mushing run at Fort Custer Recreation Area.

Mary Vowell and her two mushing dogs Nabu, left, and Willow.

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