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The North Wind

The North Wind

The North Wind

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Megan Poe
Opinion Editor

My name is Megan Poe and I’m an English (writing concentration) and Philosophy double major at Northern. My concurrent experience with being published in and interning for literary magazines has landed...

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The North Wind is an independent student publication serving the Northern Michigan University community. It is partially funded by the Student Activity Fee. The North Wind digital paper is published daily during the fall and winter semesters except on university holidays and during exam weeks. The North Wind Board of Directors is composed of representatives of the student body, faculty, administration and area media.

Students protest against Israel-Hamas war with campus encampment
Students protest against Israel-Hamas war with campus encampment
Dallas Wiertella April 30, 2024

A history of the U.P. 200

When Jeffrey Mann was in high school during the mid-1970s, a student-exchange program placed him with a family in western Alaska. Living on the edge of the continent, he grew to love the state, its people and one of its prominent pastimes.

“I didn’t have a clue about sled-dog racing,” said Mann, a native of Massachusetts. “I’d never seen it; I didn’t know anything about it. But I had a chance to work with my host family’s dogs and run them on the Kuskokwim River. I was hooked.”

Mann’s enthusiasm for the sport matured as he did, leading him many years later to establish the U.P. 200 Sled Dog Championship, which will be run this weekend for the 20th time.

Mann’s dream of a sled-dog race in the Upper Peninsula began in 1988. His wife, a physician fresh out of medical school in the Pacific Northwest, was entering a residency program at Marquette General Hospital. That summer, they and their three children arrived in Marquette County, accompanied by more than 30 sled dogs.

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One day, not long after moving to Marquette, Mann received a phone call from John Patten, a musher friend in Minnesota. “Patten says, ‘A buddy of mine is stranded in Marquette. Can he and his kids stay with you for a night or two?’ ” Mann said.

Patten’s buddy, Tom Lindstrom, was in Marquette when, as Mann put it, his Saab died. Lindstrom was a former president of the organization that sponsored the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, a 375-mile race in northeast Minnesota that began in 1981.

“Tom and I hit it off,” Mann said recently from his home in Fairbanks, Alaska. “We would talk about dog mushing, and he would roll his eyes whenever I talked about starting a race [in the U.P.]. He’d say, ‘You don’t know how much work is involved.’ Against his better inclinations, he went along with it and we started drumming up ideas.”

As he and Lindstrom developed more concrete goals, Mann started spreading the word of his dream of launching the premier mid-distance race in the lower 48 states.

“Everybody thought Jeffrey was crazy to try to introduce this sport to the U.P.,” said Pam Forsberg, who helped Mann put together musher packets for the first race and has been on the U.P. Sled Dog Association board ever since.

In the audience at one of Mann’s presentations was Lou Ann Balding of Marquette. “Lou Ann came up after and said, ‘I don’t really get it, but this sounds great,'” Mann said. “It was perfect timing. Here I was with enthusiasm for developing a community event, Tom had experience running a race and Lou Ann had the organizational abilities and knew the community.”

News of a potential race in the central U.P. traveled throughout the region in 1989, drawing together a wide variety of dog-lovers. “It blossomed into something incredibly organic,” Mann said. “It was an amazing, diverse group of people.”

In addition to an army of 300 volunteers, organizers also needed cash. Willie Peterson, the advertising manager at The Mining Journal, Marquette’s daily newspaper, listened to Mann’s pitch at a Chamber of Commerce meeting. He then went to the paper’s publisher, William Bright, who agreed to fund the $10,000 purse. First of America Bank soon signed on as another major sponsor.

On Thursday, Feb. 15, 1990, teams began arriving for the U.P. 200 and the 70-mile Midnight Run.

“I was so excited to see the dog trucks coming in,” Forsberg said. “It was amazing to see all the teams showing up at race headquarters.”

The next night, as race time drew near, the air was filled with falling snow, the yelps of 120 dogs – and curiosity. Several thousand spectators lined West Washington Street in Marquette to take part in this midwinter celebration.

An evening start to a sled-dog race is rare, Mann said, but his decision was intentional. “Most of the mushers never experienced anything like that,” he said. “It was a great circus show, all lit up. That was what everyone talked about. It was amazing.”

A dozen 10-dog teams left downtown Marquette that night at two-minute intervals, charging into the darkness and quiet of a challenging 240-mile course. They traveled southeast to Chatham, then south and southwest to Rapid River along the Ackerman Trail, southwest across Little Bay de Noc to Escanaba, then north on the Ford River toward Gwinn and back to Marquette.

Just after noon on Sunday, about 40 hours after the first team departed, John Patten’s dogs – Hector, Winder and Largent among them – trotted into Marquette 47 minutes ahead of Bob Bright and the second-place team.

“The river made it unique,” Patten said recently from Anchorage, Alaska. “And the race was run well, especially for a first-time event. . One thing I remember is the sense of ownership that permeated the general public. There was real pride in the race.”

That community pride has endured. “What amazes me all these years later is how that coming together of community spirit wasn’t a transitory thing,” said Mann, whose family moved from the area after the second running of the race. “It’s an expression of community and people and the spirit there, and it has perpetuated itself without the original players.”

Two days after Patten crossed the finish line to claim his first-place check of $2,400, a Mining Journal editorial declared the race “a unique event worthy of becoming a Superiorland tradition.”

One of Mann’s enduring memories of the first U.P. 200 is running with his dogs Montana, Aspen, Denali and the others up the Ford River. That stretch of trail echoed back to his introduction to the sport as a teenager in Alaska.

“It was a true wilderness experience,” he said. “The river was unmarked by bridges and houses. We were really out there. I saw flocks of wild turkey and groups of deer. It was a romantic sense out there alone with my dogs. For me, that river became the Kuskokwim.”

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