The UP hosts epic dog sled race this weekend

Michigan’s version of the famous Iditarod returns this weekend in Marquette after a hiatus because of the pandemic. A qualifier for the Iditarod, the UP200 draws about 20 mushers from the United States and Canada who race a challenging 230 miles of snowy, sometimes rugged Upper Peninsula terrain. 

What is it? The UP200 is one of the country’s top-notch sled dog races and a qualifier for the Iditarod, the legendary dog race that snakes through a 1,000-mile swath of Alaska wilderness each year. Held every February, the UP200 is a 12-dog mid-distance race that begins and ends in Marquette. Two other, shorter races are held the same weekend: the Midnight Run and the Jack Pine 30. The Midnight Run is an eight-dog, 90-mile race. The Jack Pine 30 is a six-dog, 26-mile race. The UP200 and Midnight Run kick off Friday evening. The Jack Pine 30 is held Saturday morning. The top-finisher in the UP200 wins $7,800.

How the race got started: Sled dog racing was once common in the Upper Peninsula; the first recorded race occurred in the late 1880s, but the sport all but disappeared by the approach of the 21st century. In the late 1980s, a transplanted Alaskan who was an avid sled dog racer relocated to Marquette. He soon met others with a passion for sled dog racing and they saw the potential for a great sled dog race in the Upper. Support for the inaugural race in 1990 came from local businesses, residents, and the Marquette Chamber of Commerce. The race has been held every year except 2021 — canceled because of the pandemic.

What is the course? The UP200 runs along the southern shore of Lake Superior as it veers eastward. The course traverses some of the most rugged terrain in the Upper — a near-wilderness of thick forests, hills and creek crossings. The first checkpoint is Wetmore, about 65 miles to the east. There, the mushers have a mandatory layover of at least five hours to rest, feed their teams and consult with vets, and strategize. From there, the trail heads along Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to Grand Marais, before turning around to head back to Marquette. Interesting note: The course passes through The Nature Conservancy's Laughing Whitefish Lake Preserve — usually off-limits to dogs — a 1,728-acre preserve of upland forest and wetlands. The Preserve was the site where the first night-time photographs of wildlife were taken and originally published in National Geographic in 1906.

Who are the mushers? They come from all over the United States and Canada. For many, mushing is a way of life. They eat, breathe and sleep with their dogs. Many have competed in the Iditarod, the Yukon Quest and other races. “Mushers are an interesting crew,” says Darlene Walch, a former musher and president of the Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association.  “They’re quite the characters. They’re used to being out in the cold weather, running along with their dogs. Sled dog races are solo sports but they’re also team sports. Your team is your dog. There is a real bond there.”

What are the challenges? Organizers call the race “a true test of skill and stamina” for both musher and dog. Competitors sometimes face deep snow, inclement weather, sub-zero temperatures and isolation. Snow may be the most formidable obstacle. Too much snow can make the race difficult for mushers and their dogs, slowing their efforts. Two legs of the race were called off in 1996 for safety reasons because of white-out conditions. Melting snow forced organizers to shorten the race a few years ago. “The weather is totally different every year,” says Laura Neese, who races with a team of Alaskan huskies. “You’re either in the middle of a blizzard, with tons of snow, and moving at 5 mph, or, in the case of (2020), the trail was phenomenal. It hadn’t snowed too much and the trail crew got it packed down perfectly.”

What has been the impact of the UP200: Considered one of the biggest events in the Upper Peninsula, the race draws several thousand people from all over the country and Canada to the region every year. They line the streets of downtown and other spots to watch the race. Marquette tourism officials say hotel rooms are always booked for the weekend. Restaurants and other businesses report an uptick in business as well. The races also draw politicians from all over the state to schmooze. The race has spurred another event, Dryland Dash, a non-snow competition held during the fall. UP200 winners Ed and Tasha Stielstra established Nature’s Kennel Sled Dog Racing and Adventures in McMillan in 2002. One of their employees, Laura Neese, also a musher, plans to open her own business this summer. 

Resources used to run the race: The UP200 and other races are organized by the Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association. Funding comes from sponsorships from many community and statewide businesses and organizations. Some 900 volunteers help with the multi-race weekend, selling merchandise, helping with crowd control, staffing road crossings and grooming trails. About half the volunteers are Northern Michigan University students. “One of the really big components that makes the UP200 so absolutely special is the amount of community support. That start in Marquette is just wonderful. All along the way, it’s the same thing. It’s a fun race,” says Blake Freking, a civil engineer for the U.S. Forest Service in Minnesota who frequently competes in the UP200. 

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