Dogsledding: Living on the edge (of the subarctic)

Perhaps, all you have known of dogsledding is that it involves a sled being pulled by one or more dogs. I didn’t know much more until I had the opportunity to participate as a volunteer at the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race in Bayfield, Wisconsin last winter. I saw firsthand how dogsledding continues to enrich society. After a wonderful introduction to the activity I wanted to find out more, and I’ve discovered dogsledding is quite a dynamic activity.   


Experts believe dogsledding began around 1000 A.D. to transport items and people long distances, over arctic landscapes. Dogsledding today promotes understanding and respect for the Inuit and appreciation for history of other cultures. Some people are drawn to the history, the exhilaration of a race or being immersed in nature; however, it’s most often the community that keeps viewers, volunteers, participants and competitors coming back for more. 

Christine Harrison Schmit, of Byron, says of the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race, “Guests and racers (alike) are treated like family. There’s a heated tent that sells soup and hot cocoa at the main camp and more food at the halfway point, as a fundraiser.” 

We enjoyed meeting spectators around a huge bonfire at the start and finish line of the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race. At the halfway point, there is a potluck style table setup with food and beverages. We met spectators from around the region and cheered the mushers along this portion of the trail.


Lifestyles that embody closeness with nature, such as dogsledding, intrigue me. I was thrilled when my mom and I were invited to volunteer at the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race. We arrived the morning of the race ready to help, without knowing what role we would have. We were put right to work checking sleds for necessary safety equipment, which gave us the opportunity to meet most of the dogs and mushers. 

The Apostle Islands route isn’t as long or difficult as some, so the mushers ranged from 10-dog teams to first-time youth mushers, who only had a few dogs. Each category of team is released with its competitors during a pre-determined time-frame. We soon learned how dogsledding involves the whole family. Owning dogs usually means that each member of the family has a role in caring for and assuring the dogs are exercised regularly. 

The annual Apostle Islands Sled Dog  Race is being held February 2 and 3, 2019. For details and to “voluntour,” visit the website at


As an animal lover, I was curious to learn how the racing dogs were cared for and what their quality of life seemed to be. I was blown away by the respect shown toward each animal. We even met a rescue dog team that gave dogs previously living in shelters a purpose. 

 A veterinarian’s role can be overlooked by spectators; however, veterinary expertise is extremely important to successful races. They help dog owners ensure each and every dog is both physically and mentally fit and safe to run. Veterinarians become especially important for smaller races that include mushers with less experience treating their own pets and understanding animal limits. They may not be there at every moment, as experienced owners will triage their own dogs to a certain degree, but veterinarians are truly lifesavers for the dogs. 


Like many parents start their children skiing or skating once they’ve just learned to walk, the same is true for dogsledding. Dogsledding also teaches children “responsibility, leadership and cooperation,” as mentioned in the article written by Lissie Harter in Eagle Bluff’s 2017 Skills School Catalog, “North Star Sled Dog Club: The resurgence of a long-lived sport with a rich history.”

Schmit took her sons to the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race a few years ago. “We had an incredible day…watched the start, talked with mushers and their families. We found teen mushers, like most teens, to be amazing, involved, inquisitive and wicked smart.” Christine mentioned the importance of dressing for the weather and agrees you can never bring too many layers.

At the Apostle Island Sled Dog Race last year, we met a 12-year-old girl who was racing her first race. Her goal is to race in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska someday.


Rochester dogsled enthusiast Kidron Flynn quotes Gary Paulson, “Running with dogs is like dancing with winter.” Flynn says the quote perfectly describes dogsledding to her because “it is an opportunity to be present in the moment, in nature, and with animals who possess an amazing drive and intuition. That calls for the utmost respect.”

Having always loved winter and dogs, Flynn thought a trip to Wintermoon Dog Sled Adventures in Colorado—which a friend invited her to several years ago—seemed like it would be an “excellent adventure!” She has since traveled to Wintermoon to dogsled for many years and highly recommends it. 

Flynn has some important advice for anyone who wants to go beyond viewing and volunteering and try dogsledding themselves. First off, be mindful of where you choose to go for your first experience. Though the thought of mushing a sled may be exciting and seem simple, know that responsible kennel owners will not set up a novice on a sled with dogs attached and say, “have fun.” The basics of dogsledding, including commands and what to do if you’re thrown off the sled are key to an enjoyable and authentic experience. The most important part is to remain calm and respect the animals, as athletes, who are doing an amazing amount of work. 


Wintergreen (not to be confused with Wintermoon in Colorado) Dogsled Lodge in Ely is Minnesota’s most experienced dogsled outfitter and only exclusive dogsledding operation. Sixty-five purebred Canadian Eskimo dogs are the centerpiece of Wintergreen. The dogs love to pull, but are friendly with people of all ages. Guests have the opportunity to drive, harness, feed and care for them. Day trips, three-or four-night lodge-based trips and dogsled camping vacations are available by reservation from December through March. For an extensive list of dogsledding tours in Minnesota, visit


John Beargrease and his brothers delivered mail between Two Harbors and Grand Marais until 1899. His fastest trip was 28 hours, which mushers today can barely beat. The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon mission is to conduct the best long-distance sled dog race in North America in a culturally sensitive manner and to promote the sport of dog mushing. 

John Beargrease is North America’s premiere sled dog race, covering nearly 400 miles of difficult terrain and entertaining more than 4,000 spectators in Duluth. This season’s events begin January 25. The race begins January 27, and events continue until the race ends January 30. The race start is on Highway 2 north of Duluth, and there are various checkpoints north to Grand Portage in a loop back down to the race’s end at Billy’s Bar in Duluth. 

Volunteers for the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon have been meeting since November. You can register to volunteer online at 


Volunteering for dogsled races gets you more involved with the mushers and the dogs. During the off-season, you can volunteer to help prepare for the next season by helping with promotion, paperwork, supply gathering and mailings. 

My mom and I enjoyed volunteering for the Apostle Island Sled Dog Race last year and we’re planning on going back again this year. We’ll see you there!

Tiffany L. Hansen graduated from University of Minnesota CLA (2018) and enjoys volunteering.