Jerry Trudell didn’t know they raced sled dogs anywhere outside of Alaska. As it turns out, he would fall in love with the sport right here in Michigan.
Trudell was born into an Air Force family and was a fighter pilot in the Navy before settling in Calumet, located in Upper Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. In 2007, he was thinking about getting a golden retriever before he met a local sled dog racer and dove head first into the sport. His first race was the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race in Bayfield, Wisconsin. “I was hooked,” he says.
Trudell took fourth in both the CopperDog 30 and CopperDog 15 over the first weekend of March, two of four races that begin in Trudell’s hometown of Calumet and end in Eagle Harbor, farther north on the Keweenaw Peninsula.
The number of the race corresponds to the number of miles in each race, with the longest of the weekend being the CopperDog 150. The CopperDog is one of several sled dog events held around Michigan each year. Among Upper Peninsula Competitions, there’s also the UP200 Powered by NMU in Marquette, although that was canceled this year for the first time in the event’s 33 years due to snow conditions at the time of the race in mid-February. There’s also the Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Race in January, held in the eastern U.P., which was also canceled due to snow conditions.
“We had no idea that they raced sled dogs anywhere other than Alaska,” Trudell says. “When I was a little kid, I remember seeing the Iditarod on the Wide World of Sports on Saturday… I thought, ‘Well,’ that’s cool.’ I had no idea they did that up here.”
The CopperDog claims on its website to attract over 5,000 fans to the Keweenaw Peninsula for a weekend of racing every March. UP200 organizers say that event draws in $2 million in economic activity for Marquette. That demonstrates interest in the sport from a spectator perspective, but by many accounts, it’s declining in terms of musher participation.
The USA Today reported that this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, also held last weekend, had just 33 participants, down from a high of 96 in 2008 and even less than the 34 that competed in the inaugural race back in 1973.
Talia Martens is among the younger sled dog racing participants at 22 years old. From Brule, Wisconsin, she was on dog sleds before she could walk, she says. She has done the Junior Iditarod and says she sees more people joining the sport.
Martens’ Mom had been mushing since before she was born, giving her a natural mentor. Trudell met someone who gave him a couple of dogs and taught him the ropes.
Mentors like them are extremely important for the future of sled dog racing, as it’s not an activity you can just pick up off the couch and participate in whenever you feel like it.
“It’s pretty much like a full-time job and more,” Martens, who has 35 sled dogs, says. “It’s a lot of time feeding, taking care of each dog, cleaning up after them, and buying food.”
There isn’t a ton of money to be made in mushing. Races do have purses, but it’s not enough for most mushers to make anything from the sport, Trudell says.This year’s CopperDog 150 had a purse of $18,400, with the top 10 finishers in the money.
Trudell estimates that it typically costs about $1,000 per dog per year between food, veterinary bills, equipment, and more.
Martin Buser, a four-time Iditarod winner, told Fortune it can now cost $250,000 to win $40,000 in prize money from that race. “You’ve got to have a hobby. This is what I do. I don’t golf, I don’t do a lot of those other things. This is where we chose to spend our money. We love doing it,” Trudell says. “You’re not going to find a lot of rich folks in mushing. Nobody out here is making a living out here doing this.”
In addition to rising costs to feed and care for their dogs and prizes that don’t meet those costs, animal activist group PETA has been pushing sponsors away from the sport, mainly the Iditarod, Trudell says.
Keeping sled dog racing alive in the Upper Midwest is a group of dedicated racers, event organizers, and volunteers who are all-in on the sport. The CopperDog had 840 volunteers, CopperDog Board Chair Doug Harrer said. For reference, the village of Calumet’s population was 621 at the last census. Those volunteers come from all across the country just to be around the action.
“We’ve got people from Pennsylvania, from California. We pull people from all over,” Harrer says. The UP200 lines up over 100 volunteers per year at the Grand Marais checkpoint alone, the race website states. Grand Marais had a population of 234 at the last census.
Despite the disappointing winter that saw the cancellation of the UP200 as well as the Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Race, the Upper Midwest remains one of the top places for sled dog racing in the Lower 48.
“I think the vast majority of Michiganders or Midwesterners might not even realize that there’s a rich mushing legacy and culture community in this area,” Mari Vaydik, Vice President of the Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association, says.
For the communities that these events are in, they realize the impact. Sled dog races can be big draws for spectators. Harrer says that this year’s participation in the CopperDog races is the highest they’ve ever had due to the cancellation of other area races, but he generally sees participation decreasing.
So, besides the question of raising purse amounts, how can these events remain alive for the communities and participants alike? One thing Trudell suggests is shortening the legs to the races. If a leg for each race is 70 miles, for example, mushers have to consistently train dogs to run 70 miles at a time, which can be a massive time commitment.
Ultimately, it comes down to getting younger generations interested in it, whether that’s by shortening race legs, upping purse totals, or something else entirely.
“It’s just trying to get the younger mushers involved and have a passion for it, because that’s what it takes,” he says.