If winter doldrums are creeping in, you might find yourself looking for ways to keep your mood from going to the dogs completely. One way to do that is to go right to the dogs, especially those that are competing in the Northern Pines Sled Dog Race in Iron River. At this annual event, you can take in the enthusiasm and sheer joy exuded by the highly trained, excited dogs as they speed through the snow—a sure way to blast away winter blues.
Held at the Northern Pines Golf Course and Event Center on Bayfield Electric Cooperative’s lines, this year’s Northern Pines Sled Dog Race is set for February 19, and it will feature some of the best sled-dog teams and mushers in the Midwest. The day’s races include a 32-mile mid-distance run for eight-dog teams, a 17-mile open race for teams of up to 14 dogs, a 4.4-mile run for four-dog teams, and an 8.2-mile race for six-dog teams.
The races begin with a downhill sprint through the golf course, entering the Bayfield County Trail system and the Tri-County Corridor, a 63-mile trail system connecting Ashland to Superior.
Although the competition level is high, you don’t need a high level of sled-dog knowledge to appreciate and enjoy this family-friendly event.
“The course allows for several vantage points so the spectators are able to watch more of the race than the start and finish,” said Geri Dresen, director of the Iron River Chamber of Commerce. “This makes it very easy for people to see the big picture of what it takes to run the race, handle the dogs, and of course win.”
People will also see that it’s not just the Northern Pines event that’s family-friendly—the activity itself is a positive, healthy experience for those families that catch the sledding spark. Frank Stone, who serves as treasurer and chute judge for the event, has a son who took to mushing as an 8-year-old and stayed with it for 10 years. Stone said the sport not only provides significant growth and development opportunities for the children who get involved, but it also bonds the whole family over a shared commitment. In that way, he said, dog sledding is much more than just a sport.
“A sport, at the end of the season, you take your golf clubs and you put them away. You put your fishing pole away, your tennis racket,” he pointed out. “This is a lifestyle. When a dog musher decides to take something like this on, they’re developing a lifestyle. These dogs need to be cared for, fed, vet-checked, trained. It is a total involvement that brings the entire family together.”
The Northern Pines Sled Dog Race has grown steadily since it was first introduced four years ago. Dresen explained that plans began in 2018 to develop a family-friendly dog-sledding event in the Iron River area, already a popular spot for all manner of outdoor recreation.
The Northern Pines Golf Course was quickly identified as an excellent venue for the new event as it had already hosted a family sledding activity and is ideally located near the Bayfield County Trails. Race trails were developed through the cooperation of the townships, forestry personnel, and private landowners.
A special Dog Sled Race Committee that includes mushers and former mushers was formed to handle planning and logistics. Many community businesses, organizations, and individuals stepped up to help.
The inaugural Northern Pines Sled Dog Race showcased 29 mushers and attracted about 600 spectators. Since then, those numbers have continued to rise, even during the pandemic. Dresen said the 2021 event saw more mushers and about twice as many spectators as the first race just a few years earlier, although due to COVID concerns many visitors last year chose to remain in their vehicles as they took in the races at various vantage points. This year, Dresen said musher spots had filled within two weeks, with 47 mushers set to compete and a waiting list for any unexpected openings.
Mushers come from throughout the Midwest and beyond. Past events even attracted mushers and sled teams from Canada, before COVID forced border closures.
A couple of new events have been added this year, including a weight-pulling demonstration showcasing the strength of various dogs in different classes, and a 75-foot Mutt Run, open to children and their own dogs provided the canines are of reasonable size and in good health. Sleds, harnesses, and a pool of dogs will be available to children who want to give the Mutt Run a try but don’t have dogs of their own.
In between races, spectators have an opportunity to learn more about the sport by talking to the mushers and wandering through vendor displays inside the Northern Pines clubhouse while warming up with food and drink. At past events, visitors have also been able to pet dogs from a local shelter that were brought on-site for the day.
Tips for Getting the Most out of your Northern Pines Sled Dog Race Experience
- Leave your own dogs at home. For the safety of all involved, pets are not allowed within the staging and race course areas where they can distract the competitors.
- Stay off the race course at all times. The dog sled teams move fast, leaving the chute at two-minute intervals during a race. Stick to the viewing vantage points that are safely off the trail. For the best viewing spot, come early to the main starting area.
- Ask permission before touching any sled dogs before, during, or after the race. There are plenty of opportunities to interact with mushers and ask about their dogs or equipment throughout the day, but be respectful of their time and space as they prepare their teams to race. Never attempt to feed a sled dog.
- The best vantage point for photos is just outside the orange starting chute; be sure to allow for a safe distance when mushers bring their dogs to the chute. Venture into the woods for some great “wilderness” shots during the race; just be sure to stay off the trail and take care to not spook the dogs as they run past.
Although the Northern Pines Sled Dog Race draws national and even international participation, support is mostly local. “Most of our volunteers come from the Iron River area,” Dresen said.
Among them is Jennifer Koivisto, Bayfield Electric Cooperative’s billing clerk. For the past two years, Koivisto has been the volunteer coordinator for the Northern Pines Sled Dog Race, overseeing about 50 volunteers who do everything from set up needed materials prior to the race, guard intersections, direct visitor parking, and monitor the starting line.
Koivisto is a self-described animal lover with four dogs of her own. With past experience working in the veterinary field and helping out at a sled dog race in Duluth, Minnesota, she is well suited and skilled for her volunteer position with the Northern Pines race.
“I love the dogs. The handlers are absolutely amazing,” Koivisto said. “They have such amazing personalities. You can feel the love for their dogs, their handlers, and this amazing winter sport.”
Visitors can get close enough to feel the love themselves. Dresen said most first-time spectators are amazed at how close they are able to get to the start and finish lines. She encourages spectators to stay for the day and take in every race because each is different, with different breeds of dogs, different sized teams, and mushers of many different backgrounds and styles.
“The excitement of the day is truly an experience of a lifetime,” she added.—Mary Erickson
The Northern Pines Sled Dog is Saturday, February 19, at the Northern Pines Golf Course and Event Center, 69420 Airport Road, Iron River, WI 54847. The day begins with an opening ceremony and anthem at 8:30 a.m. and concludes with an awards ceremony at 4 p.m. For a full schedule and more information, visit northernpinessdr.com or call 715-372-8558.